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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52:1-9 OR Genesis 18:1-10a and Psalm 15:1-5, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Hospitality is a rich theme in the history and teaching of many religions, including our own Judeo-Christian tradition. Biblically it means “welcoming the stranger.”

Abraham practiced hospitality one day as he sat in the door of his tent and saw three strangers approaching. He ran out to meet them, washed their feet, and fed them. (Actually it was Sarah and a servant who got stuck preparing the food, Sarah playing a role women have often been expected to play.) (Genesis 18:1-8)

What prompted Abraham to invite the strangers in? Maybe he was just a friendly outgoing person. I’m a quieter type and might have just watched them pass by, wondering who they were and where they were going. Perhaps Abraham was simply a vigorous follower of the customs of his faith. In the first verse of this week’s reading from Genesis we find that the Lord appeared to Abraham that day, which may have prompted his hospitality.

This story about Abraham may have been in the mind of the one who recorded these words in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Abraham entertained angels without knowing it that day. As people who live in the tradition of such hospitality, perhaps this story calls us to keep our eyes open for passing strangers who need our love and hospitality.

What would have happened if Abraham had not shown hospitality that day? These strangers, it turns out, have a message—that Sarah in her old age will have a son. They announce a birth that seems unbelievable, even laughable. (Genesis 18:9-15) Why is this earth-shaking, history-changing announcement connected with the story of hospitality to strangers? Is the son intended to be a reward for Abraham’s hospitality? Probably not, but it’s worth thinking about. Are we supposed to see the coming child as a stranger to whom Abraham and Sarah are to extend hospitality? There’s a thought: parenting as welcoming and offering hospitality to a stranger.

Hospitality can take many forms. Although the word is not actually used in the reading from the screaming prophet Amos, what he sees around him could be described as a lack of hospitality. He is one of the great Hebrew voices crying out for justice, accusing his people of practicing “deceit with false balances,” trampling the poor, bringing “to ruin the poor of the land,” “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” etc. (Amos 8:4-6) Sometimes whole societies lose their way when it comes to practicing hospitality. Our lives can be so impersonal. Perhaps the first step toward justice is getting to know those who are caught in situations of injustice.

The voice of the prophets can often seem grating, a lot like the screaming voices in the public debate of our day. Their message is that the things we’re doing to one another are going to result in destruction. Amos foresees such destruction and declares that it is coming. (vss. 7-12) It’s a message we don’t like to hear. Screaming voices offend us. Are there quieter ways to get the message out? I don’t know. Injustice in any age is destructive. It needs to be pointed out and corrected. I have loved Amos ever since I was first introduced to him, but I don’t find him to be a role model I necessarily feel like I can or want to live up to. There are still prophetic voices out there, but perhaps we can be prophetic in a variety of ways. What is our way, my way, your way?

We need also to remember that, if we take the prophetic message in its entirety, it is not one which says the future is set in stone, that destruction is inevitable. It is a call to change, saying, “This is what’s going to happen if things don’t change—SO CHANGE!—and God will be with you in that change.”

Psalm 52 is a prophetic Psalm accusing the people of mischief, plotting destruction, having a sharp tongue, working treachery, loving evil, and lying. (vss. 1-3) “You love all words that devour . . .” (vs. 4) Again the consequence is destruction. (vs. 5) There are similar themes in the alternate Psalm (Psalm 15). It extols those who “do what is right, and speak truth from the heart,” who avoid doing "evil to their friends, who don't "take up a reproach against their neighbors,” “who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.” (vss. 2-5) Hospitality is perhaps much bigger than we thought.

For many of us the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel lesson has always been a bit difficult to interpret. Martha gets scolded for being a good host, welcoming Jesus as he is passing through and offering him generous hospitality. (Luke 10:38-39) Isn’t that something to be praised? Meanwhile, Martha’s sister Mary is sitting listening to Rabbi Jesus teach. Who does she think she is? Has she forgotten her place? Luke often lifts up how the unexpected person is included, in this case a woman who seems able to grasp the fine points of theology.

Martha confronts Jesus asking him to send Mary out to help her with the food. (vs. 40) Surprisingly Jesus rebukes her, offering the most obvious lesson of the story. “Don’t get distracted from what is important? Don’t get yourself into a tizzy? Focus on what is really important.” (vss. 41-42) Isn’t fixing the food important? Is it possible that Martha’s heart wasn’t in it in the first place? Could she have found peace and spiritual strength even in the kitchen if her inner being were focused? Saints in all ages have connected with deep spiritual reality while working at a myriad of tasks. Martha comes across as scattered and unfocused, while Mary is intent, knowing exactly what she needs to be doing—and doing it. Is that perhaps the contrast we need to see in this story?

The story also reminds us that hospitality is more than just feeding the body and taking care of creature comforts; it is taking the guest seriously enough to sit and listen. At the heart of hospitality is the need to make real connections with the stranger so that he or she experiences love and justice---and so that we benefit from what he or she has to offer.

If our theme is hospitality and hospitality is bigger than we usually imagine, the epistle lesson from Colossians reminds us that our hospitality is rooted in a Christ who is as big as all that is. These verses depict a “Cosmic Christ,” a Christ who is everywhere in all things, in all times. He is “before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17) As Paul puts it elsewhere (quoting from a poet of his day), “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) The truth we find in Christ is really, really huge, Paul says. To achieve maturity we are to live fully in him and his teaching. (Colossians 1:28—See also Ephesians 4:13) Is hospitality—ranging from the kitchen to justice to listening to and relating to the stranger—one sign of maturity?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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