Hospitality: A Glimpse at Heaven

A sermon preached on The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections:Amos 8:1-12Psalm 52Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.

Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. Last week, a lawyer stopped the small band and invited Jesus to clarify in this border territory between Samaria and Judea, with Romans and Greeks and traders of all sort passing through: now, just who is my neighbor?

If you were here last week, you got to hear how Jesus turned the lawyer’s question inside out – answering with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The point of the parable, we learned, is not who deserves to be cared for, but rather the Kingdom invitation to become a person who treats everyone encountered – however frightening, alien, naked, or defenseless – with compassion. Like the Good Samaritan, we were invited to take risks with our lives and possessions

  • for the sake of being a neighbor to others,
  • for the sake of becoming a people marked by and open to God’s own hesed, loving-kindness, compassion

Now, Jesus has just finished the encounter with the lawyer and the group has continued on. Perhaps they walked another several hours. As dusk was approaching, they came by a house. A woman was outside. I imagine her as the extraverted sister. She had to have been doing something – bringing in clothes that had been hanging on a line and were now dry? gathering some vegetables or herbs from the garden for the night’s supper? out chatting with a neighbor?

Anyway, she sees Jesus and his followers and sees their fatigue. Had she heard of the encounter with the lawyer? Had they ever met before? We don’t know, but, filled with compassion and enacting the very neighborliness Jesus had just talked about, she invites Jesus to stay with her and her sister, probably settling his followers in their tents and sleeping bags on the lawn out front & back. And so, today, we get an account from Luke not about neighborliness but about hospitality.

In the same way that Jesus turned the lawyer’s question inside out, Jesus does the same thing with hospitality. Jesus’ focus with both of the two sisters is on the “one thing necessary” for hospitality: attention to the guest.

  • We can pay attention by listening,
  • by fixing dinner,
  • by making up the bed and putting out fresh towels
  • we can refrigerate the formula or heat up the bottle
  • we can find a safe place for visiting Fido so that Professor Snow does not make our ears bleed with his frenetic, loud, poodle barking
  • there are lots of things — but the key, says Jesus, is keeping attention on the guest.

And why is that key? Jesus suggests that when the balance tips from focus on chores done for a guest to “oh, these overwhelming chores”, we miss the grace that the guest, the neighbor, the stranger brings. We are as closed off to Kingdom living.

So, Martha really did get kind of frazzled, didn’t she? So much so that she forgot the generous impulse that compelled her to invite Jesus to stay with them in the first place. She got so focused on the jobs, that her resentment over her sister built. Why didn’t she just go to Mary and call out, “hey, Mary, would you and Jesus please set the table?” They might well have done it.

Then, the story could have moved on… there, they’d be at table, the teacher finally out of the sun, refreshed, with food before him picks up a loaf, blesses it…. etc. You know how it goes and how Mary, Martha, you would feel in the presence of one so connected to God, so connected to the earth and the grain that was grown, so connected to the stars just beginning to appear, and so connected to you sitting around the table, that along with the bread you, too, felt deeply blessed.

  • A joy so deep you can barely catch your breath comes upon you
  • And you cannot believe your good luck you invited him to stay,
    • surprised by his teaching,
    • blessed by his presence
    • wrapped up in such bliss that you begin to appreciate even your otherwise dizzy sister Mary, who, on more generous reflection, was so helpful in “keeping Jesus entertained” while you warmed over the lamb stew. Hey, I’m making it up – I can set the menu, too.

The point is this. If in the Good Samaritan Jesus invites us to risk sharing ourselves with others so that we may know God’s Kingdom here and now, in this story of Martha and Mary Jesus is showing us that hospitality is less about providing a service than it is about putting yourself in the position to receive a gift – that the one who comes into your space is a messenger of grace. How does the letter to the Hebrews put it? Who knows how many will have entertained angels unawares?

When Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He means now. That Kingdom may come from strangers, it may come with the precious gift of friendship, it may come around loving tables, it may come on dangerous roads.

This church has a history of gathering itself and risking something big for something good (to use William Sloane Coffin’s phrase). Risking something big for something good:

  • in the 1890s this small congregation recognized that the growing town of Rockland needed a hospital, that people needed care for body as well as soul, and established the Knox County General Hospital, remnants of which are the Knox Center and Knox Health Clinic right next door.
  • In the mid-20c, under Father Kenyon’s leadership, this parish reached out to an influx of immigrants from Albania, most of whom were Eastern Orthodox. Fr. Kenyon, who loved liturgy and was something of a liturgics scholar, recognized the connection between Anglicans and Orthodox traditions and reached out to that population. Their descendants are among the most faithful members of this parish to this day.
  • In the 1990s Dot Nystrom worried about what would happen to the folks who had been able to find a meal at Pratt Memorial now that the Methodists were moving out to Aldersgate. She found herself haunted by dreams from John’s Gospel of Jesus’ command to Peter to feed my sheep. And so she and Joy DeMotte, Marcia Birnbaum, Vicki Haskell, and Judy Willey took over the feeding, introducing Loaves & Fishes to St. Peter’s.

Such opportunities come along all the time, but congregations haven’t always been good at seeing or responding to them. They are particularly immune when things are going well. In a few minutes the Vestry are going to lay out for us some significant challenges we face as a parish. They are serious, but I want to tell you from my perspective this feels like a time of opportunity. And, while I don’t know what we all will decide, I know that this Vestry is the best I’ve ever known. Seriously. They are clear-eyed, open, and always seeking the spiritual center of practical, dynamic leadership.

They want to invite you into their conversations.   They need and want your input. My prayer is that you will remember yourselves as people who follow Jesus,

  • who look for and expect God’s in-breaking kingdom.
  • who continue to extend hospitality, even to one another, because you have seen for yourselves that guests can be messengers of grace.
  • and that together you are open to risking something big for something good because you are drawn to live as though God’s Kingdom is at hand.


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One Response to Hospitality: A Glimpse at Heaven

  1. Heather says:

    Thank you for this. I needed to read it this week! A wonderful reminder that we keep giving, take risks, leaving nothing on the table as withdrawn – so that the love of Christ be known. This is despite what comes afterwards or in return.

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