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How Can God Be Present During Times of Hospitality?

Homily for the

16th Sunday in Ordinary Times, Cycle C

Given at St. Jude July 18-19, 2022

By Deacon Ken Steponaitis

Starting 3 weeks ago, you will find that our Gospel readings tell of a story of Jesus journeying from Samaria towards Jerusalem. As he travels with his disciples, there are times that they are accepted in the towns and communities they enter, and there are times they are rejected. If you pay close attention to the stories, you will find a description of a virtue that if practiced well, brings about a gift that is more precious than anything that we can obtain by our own power and will. And, in fact, if we don’t practice this virtue properly, there is a kind of unnecessary anxiousness and worry in our lives. The virtue I am referring to is something called hospitality. And hospitality is not only something we give, but also something we receive, and if given and received well can bring about a kind of peace in our lives that makes us feel whole and complete.

On a personal level, I have to work hard at hospitality. I am not a very outgoing person; in fact, I would call myself introverted. I tend to have an aversion to hospitality, especially hospitality to strangers and people I don’t know well. Part of that aversion may be because of what our society teaches. It does not promote hospitality very well. In fact, in many ways our society discourages hospitality in the name of safety, security and autonomy.

I am reminded of an incident that occurred years ago when I lived in Tucson. Ruby, my wife and I were working to clean out our garage one summer evening. We lived on the east side of Tucson in the foothills of the mountains that surrounded the city. As you know Tucson is a desert town. In the evening and especially at night it was rather comfortable outside because of how dry the air is. But of course, during the day, the heat is oppressive. As we were working that evening, I noticed a man walking toward the house, kind of shuffling his feet as he walked. As he approached, I began to get anxious and worried. I began to think the worst of this person. Maybe he was coming to bum some money from us so he could sustain his drug or alcohol habit. Or worse, maybe he was coming to give us a hard time. As he got closer, it was clear we were his target, but also as he got closer, I could see that his face was red from the sun, his cloths, while they didn’t look worn, were covered in dirt as if he had fallen. On his hand was a gash in his skin with blood oozing. The man looked to be over 70 years old. When he got to our driveway, he asked in a kind of muffled and somewhat slurred voice, if he could have something to drink. I told Ruby, go and get him ice water, so that I could keep him in the garage. I got a folding chair and had him sit just as Ruby came back out with a glass. We asked him his name and where he was going, he told us that he was lost. He had gone out for a walk and had been walking all day trying to find his way back to his house. As we got more comfortable with him, we asked him to come inside the cool house offering him some food. We asked him if he had someone we could call. He said he didn’t know his phone number, nor did he know his address. So, we decided to call the police. As we were waiting for the police, the man told us that he was a physicist and had written many well-known publications. He lived with his daughter and her husband. When the police arrived, they told us there had been a missing person report, a kind of silver alert that had been put out on this man and so they were able to get him home.

While I didn’t see it at the time, I recognize now that this man, clearly suffering from Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia, was, in a way, God speaking to us. It was God telling us that the virtue of hospitality is more than just a kind thing we do. In this case it well could have been a matter of life and death. We could have easily waived off this man and told him to leave our property. Rather something within us, something within the man was speaking to us, was teaching us how to love our neighbor and not prejudge the situation. And more importantly to trust that if we properly practice this virtue, God has things under control.

Just like me, Abraham in our first reading misread the situation he found himself in when the three visitors showed up at the entrance of his tent. And just like me Abraham did not necessarily see God in this encounter with hospitality.

Even though we as readers are told that “the LORD appeared to Abraham,” As the story unfolds it seems that Abraham did not recognize God in the three men. And I am sure Abraham did not recognize the possibility that his visitors were possibly God as trinity.

As you know, in the story of Abraham and Sarah, God made a covenant, a promise, that Abraham would be the heir to a great nation. But at 100 years old, Abraham could not conceive of bearing a child with Sarah. In fact, by this time Abraham had a son named Ishmael, but Ishmael was born out of a relationship Abraham had with Sarah’s servant. Abraham and Sarah had mutually decided despite God’s promise of a son, for them that seemed like an impossibility, unless they took matters into their own hands. Only if Abraham had relations with Sarah’s servant could Abraham and Sarah have a son. Like many of us, despite God’s promises and God’s will for our lives, we often justify our actions because of our lack of faith. We want to control our own lives. We want to justify our actions under the guise of doing God’s will when in fact it is not God’s will but our own.

So, while the three men, sometimes referred to as angels came to announce the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Abraham was not at all open to such a message. He busied himself doing just as his culture had taught him. He knew very well the virtue of hospitality but what he may not have known was how God was present in that hospitality. He may have missed the clues.

How was it that these three strangers from the desert knew that Abraham’s wife was named Sarah? How was it they knew what God had promised? It was the visitors who told Abraham and Sarah that, “this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”

And if you were to continue to read this story you would find Sarah laughing to herself at the notion that a woman of 90 years, post-menopausal, could even have a child.

So, what does Jesus have to say about hospitality. What are the essentials of this virtue?

The popularity of the story of Martha and Mary welcoming Jesus into their home seems to evoke the question, who are you? Are you a Martha or are you a Mary? Martha being the sister that did all the work of hospitality. The one who was anxious and worried that their hospitality was good and sufficient and well done. She wanted to control the situation.

Mary, on the other hand, is seen as maybe the lazy one. The one who simply sat at the feet of Jesus and swooned over Jesus. It kind of reminds me of the movie, Elvis, I recently saw. One of the things that was so entertaining was how the women in the audiences of Elvis would stand at the foot of the stage and look up at Elvis has he gyrated and sang, swooning over his every move and every word. I could imagine Mary kind of being like that, totally mesmerized by Jesus and taking in his every word.

Martha in a way was like the stagehands who could care less about how well Elvis entertained, she just wanted everything to work well.

In the Gospel story, there is no indication that Mary and Martha really understood Jesus’ status as God. It’s hard to imagine that, especially Martha, really understood who she was serving. After all, she complained to Jesus that Mary wasn’t doing her fair share of the work. What does seem apparent, however was there was something more than a casual friendship. But if Martha really thought Jesus was God, I am not so sure she would have asked Jesus if He “cared that her sister had left her to do all the serving.” I would think she too would be at Jesus’ feet.

The response that Jesus had to Martha is unexpected. Jesus didn’t ask Mary why she didn’t help her sister as you might expect. Instead, he says something unexpected. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Now before we jump to conclusions, we should not assume that Jesus is saying the only one thing that is necessary is what Mary was doing, namely sitting at His feet and listening His teachings. Some legitimate translations say that it is more appropriate to translate the phrase to, “there is need of few things.” Meaning … few things are required of us if we are attentive to the presence of God. Certainly, our anxiety and worry are not necessary. Should our hospitality include providing for the needs and comforts of our guests? Absolutely. Jesus is not telling Martha that she should not be hospitable. But clearly Martha was more concerned to have control over the situation, to making sure all the work was done. To make sure she was a good host.

Further, in that culture, it would have been unheard of that a woman would be sitting at the feet of a guest or teacher carrying on a conversation. Only men would do that as the women tended to the guests. So, the statement Jesus made to Martha was radical and certainly supportive of women discipleship.

Imagine having a party at your house and you never once sat down and took the time to talk and interact with your guests. Imagine, further, that your guests either had some great news to share with you, or maybe something they needed help with but never got the chance to tell you. All the preparations, food and drink mean nothing if we aren’t attentive to our guests.

So, when Jesus talks about the better part, He is talking about being attentive. Being concerned and open to any messages that could be God speaking. Remember the phrase “where two or more are gathered, in my name, there I am with them.” In these gatherings of hospitality, God is present with and within us.

As we gather today as Church, it is easy to imagine God present in this gathering. After all, in a bit Father will prepare a meal from heaven, where Jesus himself becomes our food and ministers serve the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. What might be more difficult to imagine is that every opportunity for hospitality is an opportunity to encounter God. And, in fact, every situation where two or more are gathered is an opportunity for hospitality.

Be both a Martha and a Mary. Yes, prepare and welcome the guests; serve others and don’t hesitate to do what is necessary to make them feel welcome and comfortable. And the better part … is to be attentive. Sit at the feet of those you serve. Remember God is present in all of us. It is that attentiveness to His presence and in His words and promises that is the better part which will not be taken away.

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