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Readings: 8th Sunday after Trinity

12 July 2013


Proper 11: Genesis 18.1-10a; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-end

Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech you to direct, sanctify and govern both our hearts and bodies in the ways of your laws and the works of your commandments; that through your most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in body and soul; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

TWO vivid stories focus us on hospitality, which was a sine qua non in biblical times. Without it, people would die, especially in locations such as Abraham's, seeking shade from the heat of the day. Like the father of the prodigal son, he ran to greet his guests, then provided water for refreshment. From the quantities mentioned, his "little bread" was, in fact, a large meal that took time to prepare from scratch. This was warm hospitality, offered readily to strangers.

Martha and Mary similarly welcomed Jesus into their home. As he had taught his disciples to do (Luke 9.4, 10.5-7), Jesus accepted the hospitality gladly, and their home became a place of shelter for him; he grew to love them, and eventually chose their home as refuge during the terrible last week of his life.

Theologically, Colossians tells us, we are recipients of the ultimate hospitality from God who "was pleased to reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace through the blood of the cross". Thus reconciled to God and one another, we pray to be kept in the ways of God's law and the works of God's commandments; essentially to live and act appropriately as Christians who have ourselves been made welcome by God.

Benedict, in his Rule (chapters 53 and 66), offers timeless wisdom, which sheds light on these stories. He assumed the presence of guests in monasteries, which, like Abraham, sheltered unexpected travellers. Knowing the importance of the way guests are welcomed, he specified the qualities of the person who opened the door.

"Porter", still used at Durham Cathedral for the gatekeeper, derives from the French "porte", "door". An older person with the wisdom not to wander off was always there, like Abraham at his tent entrance, to welcome anyone who knocked with "the gentleness that comes from the reverence of God", and "the warmth of love". The first words were to be "Thanks be to God" for this opportunity to greet Christ present in the tired stranger. Guests were then announced (how important it is to be known by name), and greeted by the abbot and community "with all the courtesy of love".

A kindly and appropriate welcome at our church doors is too important to be left to chance. Benedict knew that it requires skill to make a visitor feel welcome, neither ignoring nor overwhelming them.

Both Bible stories allude to the time-consuming cooking involved in welcoming a guest. Benedict prescribed a separate guest kitchen, so that food could be prepared at all hours without disrupting monastery life. It was more important to feed a guest than for the abbot to fast: hospitality can be part of keeping a holy Lent.

Two monks were on kitchen duty but, at busy times, additional helpers were provided, "so the monks can prepare the food without grumbling". Grumbling about lack of kitchen help was Martha's problem.

The guest might not hear the grumbling, although Martha made sure Jesus did. While the finished meal would taste the same, grumbling corroded the heart of the grumbler, and diminished his or her capacity to welcome. Esther de Waal sums it up: "It is only because I carry a heart of silence that I can welcome the guest" (A Life-Giving Way, Continuum 2006). Jesus, like Benedict, wanted the practical side of hospitality to be life-giving for all, including Martha as host.

These biblical stories focus on the welcome and the meal. They tell us that "The question is not whether what we have is sufficient for the situation or not. The question is simply whether or not we have anything to give. That's what hospitality is about. Not abundance and not totality. Just sharing, real sharing" (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, Crossroad, 1992).

Hospitality opens up our hearts. How we welcome people is how we welcome God.

O God who walked Emmaus Road
And joined in Cana's feast,
At times you slip into our lives
when we expect you least; surprising God, your acts reveal
what your appearance may conceal.
O God of hospitality, still welcoming us all,
you also come through those in need, the inconvenient call;
O God, let all our acts reveal
the welcome that from you we feel.

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