Friends, this weekend we are asked to contemplate the ministry of hospitality in the context of service to others. We begin with Abraham and Sarah and their life together as nomads in the desert. For them and people like them, hospitality was key in their lives because travelers depended on the hospitality extended by those one met along a journey. This rule of hospitality was an expectation whether the traveler was friend or foe and was extended religiously to one and all.
It might strike us as strange that Abraham and Sarah would go to such an extreme as to kill the fattened calf, but for a guest, nothing was too much. We see the same sense of hospitality in the Gospel passage concerning Martha and Mary; only here, Jesus asks Martha to see the bigger picture. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians is asking them to also see the bigger picture—to see beyond the suffering that life sometimes brings in following in Jesus’ footsteps to the joy also present in such a life.
All the tension and strife of the last several weeks in our country, with the killing of black men by police and the killing of police by someone looking for revenge, calls each of us to see the bigger picture too.
President Obama, in his message of condolence this week, called each of us beyond the grief we are feeling over the killing of five police officers and the wounding of nine others to see the whole picture of race relations in our country. As he said so well and I paraphrase; it is about the disparity in equality in our country, as we spoke about last weekend—the higher rates of pull-overs, higher rates of killings by police, higher rates of sentencing of black individuals and so on. It is about all of us as a nation forgetting about inner cities that have no jobs, no chances for education and moving ahead. It is about failing to take responsibility for all of this as individual Americans and giving all that responsibility to our police officers and then wondering why it all reaches the boiling point from time to time. The freedoms we enjoy in this country come with a price and that is responsibility—each of us is responsible to see that all enjoy these freedoms. Sigmund Freud wrote: “Most people do not really want freedom because freedom involves responsibility. And most people are frightened of responsibility.”
The readings for this weekend call us to be creative in our belief—in our lives, as we try to do the right thing for the right reason—to see what is most important in any situation and then choose the better part, as Jesus instructed Martha. It is one of those head versus heart situations again—law over love choices that we are so often called to make as Jesus’ followers. Freud calls it “responsibility”—I would call it our “mission” as Christians.
Friends, our God is trying to help us to see that we have to go deeper, beyond our fears to see what is really being asked of us. In the situation of race relations in our country, which we have seen recently is only exasperated by the proliferation of guns, it is time that we must move beyond the fear, see the whole picture and do the right thing—demand of our Congress safety measures as a start. Then, as a safer nation, we can begin to tackle the racism that has raised its ugly head so many times throughout the presidency of Barack Obama.
Abraham and Sarah, our parents in the faith had a strong belief—they were people of principle and did the right thing that their culture asked of them—to extend hospitality to travelers whose lives would be in danger if they didn’t tend to their needs. They are our models in the way we need to go—we may have to be inconvenienced to care for each other as were Abraham and Sarah in giving hospitality.
We know that these particular travelers of our Gospel story today were no ordinary travelers as they carried a special message for this elderly couple to wrap their hearts and minds around. The travelers seem anxious to share the news that Abraham and Sarah have waited their whole married life to hear, that at last, they too will be parents. Instead, the travelers have to wait until the couple has done the tasks that hospitality demands.
Today’s readings are all about seeing what is most important in a series of good things that we might do—while it is good and necessary to be hospitable, caring for others, there are different kinds of hospitality as Jesus indicates in his response to Martha. Listening, really listening to another is a priceless gift of hospitality. Abraham and Sarah could have done less by way of caring for their travelers’ physical needs and spent more time listening to their guests, finding out much sooner the gift that these particular travelers had to share. Our black brothers and sisters need the gift of listening too, from their white sisters and brothers—whites need to hear the black stories so that there can be more acceptance and appreciation of what their daily lives look like. Last week, we spoke about, “who is my neighbor?”
Our community, through written media has been discussing the slogan, “Black Lives Matter” juxtaposed with that of “All Lives Matter.” Some whites are not able to get the point of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. Ray Dretske of Winona, this week, in a letter had this to say:
“The problem with the saying, “All Lives Matter” is that it erases the need to do anything about racism. It allows us to say the words, and then just go back to our regularly scheduled lives. White America needs to take responsibility for the problem and finally begin addressing solutions; it’s not something blacks can fix.”
On face value, Jesus’ words may be hard for us to grasp as they were for Martha. After all, she was simply doing what her culture told her to do in this situation—take care of the traveler who came her way. As always though, Jesus asks her and us, to go further.
It is important for us to know that Jesus was not “picking on” Martha or criticizing her—he only says something to her when she objects that her sister, Mary, is not doing her part. He is calling her to more in her life—to realize that Mary is caring for him too and in this context, perhaps a greater way, by listening to his words.
Jesus is asking Martha and each of us to grow out of our comfort zones, to stretch, to be creative, to be responsible as Freud and Ray Dretske put it—to find new ways to serve all “travelers” who come our way. Listening, as in my commentary about our black sisters and brothers from the context of white people of privilege in this country is so very important. When we are busy about many things—all of which probably have purpose and are needful; we may miss the most important thing happening.
The Mary/Martha story is more about doing the right thing for the right reason, a good point for us to consider. Martha and Mary were both faithful disciples of Jesus—Martha is caring for Jesus’ physical needs, Mary is listening to his words, giving him spiritual comfort. If truth be told, part of Martha’s need is to be recognized for the gifts she is supplying to make Jesus’ visit comfortable and pleasant, and her human hope, no doubt, is that Jesus will recognize her in a special way for the gifts she is providing. The same might be said of Abraham and Sarah—perhaps the killing of the fattened-calf wasn’t necessary and perhaps Abraham had his eye on being known in the area as the one who cared best for travelers, so his motives may not have been totally pure. In Jesus’ time, he is gently calling Martha and us from our selfishness and asking us to grow.
My friends, I believe Jesus is asking us to be well-developed people, good listeners, caring for people in physical, spiritual and emotional ways—as whole people, in other words. This total care and awareness of what people need will allow each of us to become our best selves so that all the “travelers” who come our way, might see in us, our brother Jesus.