Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Today is the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. We continue to read from Genesis, today hearing the story of how Abraham entertained God unawares in the heat of the day. I didn't mention it below, but the most famous icon of the Trinity, the Rublev Trinity, is first a depiction of the three strangers being served by Abraham. We also continue our summer-long exploration of the letter to the Romans, and as well as the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus sends out the Twelve and gives them some very peculiar instructions. As on all Sundays, we gather to praise, pray for ourselves and others, ask and receive forgiveness, and to thank God for the ultimate gift of hospitality, Jesus Christ. Here's my sermon for today:

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 6A RCL 2008
Gen 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116 1,10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35 – 10:23
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May these words be in the name of the One who invites us to the great Feast. Amen.
Several years ago, when I was flying on business, I remember getting stuck in Houston because of weather. It was a late afternoon flight back to Indianapolis and there were summer thunderstorms over the Midwest. I was tired and cranky and hot and I seem to recall we waited for a while in the boarding area before we were told our flight was cancelled. If you’ve ever had to deal with that, you know the drill. You have to make an immediate decision: do you try to reschedule for another flight, and if so, do you let the airline do that or your travel agent? Or do you run to the nearest hotel kiosk - you know, those lighted signs in the airport lobbies where you dial 21 for Embassy Suites and 22 for the Hyatt - and start calling to get a room for the night? You have to decide quickly, because dozens of others are making the exact same calculations you are, and if you pick wrong you could be stuck in a long line or worse, have to sleep in a chair all night.

Well, fortunately, as I recall, I got right on the phone with my travel agent and got myself booked in a hotel for the night. By this time I had been in the airport several hours and was really tired. But the hotel shuttle was on time, check in went very quickly, and if I remember correctly, the complimentary bar was still open and I was able to get a drink before it closed for the night. It was really nice to be able to sleep in a nice air-conditioned room instead of an airport chair. I’ve had to do that, too, and believe me when I tell you it’s no fun at all. You really can’t sleep well, and don’t dare do more than doze off because someone might take your laptop, even if you’re holding it in your hand as you snooze. Having a safe place to spend the night really rescued me that evening. I have no idea now when I finally got home, but just knowing that pretty much whenever I needed it, I could get some lodging and food and a shower, always made my business trips a little easier. There’s lots of hospitality available when I needed it.

And there’s lots of hospitality in today’s first reading as well. This is the story of how Abraham entertained three passers by in the heat of the day. He doesn’t just offer them some respite in the shade. He personally serves them a full meal. Abraham really went out of his way to make things comfortable for some people he didn’t even know. This would have been no surprise to anyone. Hospitality to strangers was a very important concept in the times of the patriarchs, and indeed throughout the Mediterranean. It’s odd to us, perhaps, because we’re not so used to it. We wouldn’t dream of inviting unknown people into our homes just because they’re passing through. They might rob us or worse!

Actually, though, we here at St. Thomas’s are used to it. We have a ministry of hospitality that is in full swing right now. We’re two miles from the Appalachian Trail and we operate a hostel – a place where hikers can come in out of the elements, get a shower, cook some hot food, and rest a bit. Our hostel was begun several years ago and has been ably organized by Dave Mertons and this year by Emily Dupont. Our Hiker Hostel is well known in trail circles. Every time I speak to a hiker, I invariably get a heartfelt thank-you for what we provide. We have the space and so we do what we can do. In fact, much of our ministry, our service in the community around us as a parish is a ministry of hospitality. Interfaith Hospitality Network, our rental to the Footprints school, the AA groups and others who use our spaces – almost all the ways we reach out to others is by way of making them welcome. It’s a wonderful thing we do here, this ministry of hospitality, and it’s deeply rooted in Christian tradition.

Why is that? Why is it that hospitality is so important that the Benedictine orders have an entire chapter in their rule of life about making sure they can welcome the guests who come to them?
There are two answers for this. The first and perhaps obvious answer is that Jesus told us to. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” “When did we do that, Lord?” “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:31-46) Jesus is telling us, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, that how we act out our faith is just as important as having faith itself. St. James in his letter says it very well: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

This does not mean, as I’ve said a lot, that you can earn salvation by doing good things like showing hospitality to strangers. You can’t. None of us can make God love us any more than God already does. But hospitality is a concrete way to show our love of God back into the world. Each of us does that in different ways. Hospitality is a spiritual gift. The ability, the sense, the desire, to be welcoming and to show honor to one’s guests is a gift that not everyone has, and that’s OK. It is a gift that this parish community has, and it’s my sense we should continue to focus on and improve it, so that we don’t take it for granted.

But there’s more important reason, it seems to me, why hospitality as a basic Christian virtue is so important. Remember the Gospel from last week? (Matt 9:9-13; 18-26) Jesus went off to dinner at Matthew’s house, and the Pharisees were shocked. How could Jesus eat with such a notorious sinner? And not only that, but all sorts of riff-raff were coming to dinner and Jesus ate with them. In fact, throughout his work on earth Jesus seems to be particularly open to the concerns of the downtrodden, the rejected of society. Women, slaves, non-Jews, tax collectors, children – Jesus is most interested in including into God’s economy exactly those people who needed it most but who, by the standards of the day, were least deserving.

And Jesus does that today too. None of us deserves to come to the great Feast that Jesus prepared for us. As one of our Eucharistic Prayers puts it, “You have made us worthy to stand before you.” That means of course, that before God makes us worthy, there was a time when we weren’t worthy. If Jesus, in the supreme act of hospitality, can and does invite each and every one of us, despite our unworthiness, to eat and drink with him in the Banquet of the Kingdom, then surely it’s the least we can do to do the same for whomever crosses our path.

Hospitality is an act of grace on our part. Practicing hospitality helps keeps our hearts and minds open and focused outside of ourselves. Just like Jesus reconnects each of us to God, we too, by our own acts of hospitality, practice reconnecting with those around us. Hospitality is part of the very mission of the Church here on earth, to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Abraham shows us the what and the how. Jesus shows us the who and the whom and the why. How sublime that God is the one who invites us first, and then simply asks us to invite everyone else too! I hope we here in this parish continue to do this wonderful ministry that we have been given. This week I ask each of you to pray and consider how you can, in your own ways, support the ministry of the open doors and minds and hearts that we offer here. However you feel called to help is a reflection, a mirror, of the call Jesus first extends to you. Come to the Table, as we all will in just a few moments, and then make sure others have a table, and a dry place to sleep, and a shower, and some food, to come to, also.

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



the Reverend boy said...

Very nice.

Reading this reminded me of the big neon cross outside a church on West 51st street which I pass almost every day ... on one side it says "Sin will find you out" and the other says "Get right with God."

The other day it particularly annoyed me and i fantasized about going up and knocking on the door and saying "Excuse me, did you know there is no way you or me or anyone else can get right with God? Did you know that it's only Jesus that makes us right and no one else?"

don't know why it got under my skin that day when it hasn't before ...

RFSJ said...

RB -

I think you should do that! After all, Pelegianism is considered a heresy, after all - the idea that salvation depends on grace, not by anything we can do. Yes, since we have free will, we have the power to reject God's love, but that doesn't mean we can be saved on our initiative alone. We can't. To be charitable, perhaps "Get right with God" is meant along the same lines as "accept the love that God has for you."