Welcome You All

God's welcome mat is big enough for Jew and Gentile both to wipe their feet before coming into God's house...

SJF • Advent 2a 2013 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

We come now to the second Sunday in Advent, one step closer to Christmas. Last week we heard a splendid sermon from Deacon Cusano about being alert to the signs of God’s presence, and responding with the love of God. This week I’d like to reflect with you about putting that love into action, in terms of the virtue of hospitality. Since we are in the midst of preparing to welcome the Christ child on Christmas, and Christ the King when he comes in glory, it would be well for us to look at how well we welcome our brothers and sisters (as well as his brothers and sisters) in the meantime. For he has told us that it is in how we treat the least of those who are members of his family, that we will be judged.

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul was addressing a Jewish congregation in Rome — that is a Jewish Christian congregation. One of the biggest issues facing the church in its early days was the tension between those Jews who had come to accept Christ and the Gentiles who had done the same. It seems so simple and obvious to us two thousand years later, but believe me, at the time it was as hot a topic as the debates on human sexuality that we are going through the churches today. So let’s put ourselves back in time and look at what Saint Paul said from the perspective of his original hearers.

The first thing to remember is that most Jews in the time of Christ and Saint Paul regarded Gentiles as lower than dirt. One of the prevailing Jewish sects at the time was concerned primarily with purity, almost to the point of an obsession. This obsession with purity played a large part in their opposition to Jesus — you may remember all the fuss they raised about the disciples not washing their hands before eating. Concerned as they were with such matters of ritual purity, those Jews regarded Gentiles as more or less permanently unclean — since they were outside of the Law of Purity, they couldn’t be trusted to be pure: their food, their manner of life, everything about them was considered unclean. Even today you may notice on the subway an ultra-orthodox Jew, following the rules laid down in the fifteenth chapter of Leviticus, by avoiding sitting down on the subway seats, because according to the biblical law anyone who sits on a seat upon which an unclean person has sat becomes unclean himself. And while some may call the Jews who follow such rules today “ultra-orthodox,” in the days of Jesus and Paul, this was the belief and practice of the vast majority of Jewish believers: keep as far away from Gentiles as you possibly can; don’t let one touch you, don’t touch anything that they’ve handled; certainly don’t sit down to eat with them — because both their food and their seats are likely unclean!

So imagine the consternation when Peter and Paul both come along saying that God means to welcome the Gentiles into his kingdom — and not just in the way that the prophets had promised. This is no longer a promise, this is a reality. And we all know that sometimes it is easier to deal with an idea than the real thing. Peter and Paul both were saying, “Folks, this is real now. It’s happening. Now. God is welcoming the Gentiles into his household.” God’s plan is bigger than just a Messiah to rescue Israel from its troubles; God’s welcome mat is broader than imagined. It is not just for the descendants of Abraham, but for all the peoples of the earth.

You know how hard it is to change habits — especially religious habits! Well, this obsessive concern with purity was hard for many of them to let go of, even after they came to accept Jesus as Messiah. So Paul, writing to these Roman Jewish Christians, tries to prove that God welcomed the Gentiles as well as the Jews by citing those other passages of Scripture, pointing to the words of the prophets. He claims that Jesus came as a servant to the circumcised — that is, to the Jews — in order to confirm God’s promises to their ancestor Abraham, and in order to show mercy to the Gentiles, so that they also might give glory to God, who is not just the Lord of a small Middle Eastern tribe of nomads, but of the whole earth and all who dwell therein. So Saint Paul quotes the Psalms and Isaiah to prove that God’s welcome mat is big enough for Gentiles as well as Jews to wipe their feet on as they come into the kingdom.

Now the sad news is that Saint Paul didn’t convince everybody. There were still some who insisted that only they were welcome in God’s kingdom. In fact, the ongoing controversy runs through many of Paul’s letters, and right up to the end of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul finally gets to Rome and the Jews there tell him that all they have heard about the Christians is bad news! So too, many of the Jewish believers in Christ still ignored the preaching of John the Baptist, who told them that relying on their Jewish ancestry as children of Abraham meant nothing to God — God could raise up children of Abraham up from the very stones of the riverbank if need be. And so too some ignored the preaching of Paul, and insisted that only Jews were welcome into God’s kingdom, or at most Gentiles who had gone through the whole nine yards of conversion to Judaism. That included circumcision and the promise to follow the whole of the Jewish law. That law included all the rules that would separate them from their Gentile sisters and brothers, shunning even the benches they sat on and the food they ate.

Fortunately for us, the church eventually came around to Saint Paul’s way of thinking, accepting his preaching, in large part because of the experience that Saint Peter had when he was preaching to the Gentile Cornelius, and even before Peter could finish his sermon, the Holy Spirit came down out of heaven revealing that God shows no partiality, and welcomes all who turn to him in faith. God’s welcome mat is there for all, all of the children of Abraham and all of the Gentiles, all God’s children by birth or adoption.

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Let me close with a story about another Abraham, the 16th president of these United States. I don’t know how many of you have seen the Steven Spielberg film that came out last year. A point it makes is that even many of those who agreed that slaves should be free still couldn’t imagine that they were equal them, or should be treated as full citizens. Many even of those who opposed slavery would still, by any standard, then or now, be considered racists — because for them, race made a real difference; for those people, race made them superior. Into this atmosphere, Lincoln won a second term in 1864, as the War raged on, and as this very church building was being constructed — some things don’t stop for war.

And neither did the inaugural ball, which was a grand affair. Guests arrived by coach and on foot, and were ushered in to the festivities. Among them was a tall, sturdily built African-American man, with an impressive mane of white hair and a beard that Moses would have envied. He came up the steps and approached the front door of the White House. Out of nowhere, two policemen rushed up and blocked his way.

Well as I said, the gentleman was a large, powerful man, and he just brushed the two officers aside and stepped into the foyer. Once inside, two more officers grabbed him, all the while yelling insults at him that I will leave to your imagination. As they dragged him from the hall, he remained surprisingly calm and called out to a nearby guest, “Please tell Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is here!” At that name the officers let go , still standing on their guard. Soon enough, orders arrived to usher Douglass into the East Room. And as he came into that room, a hush fell as Lincoln, seeing him enter, took three big strides across that room, and stretched out his hand as the crowds parted like the Red Sea, and he walked towards his guest, with hand outstretched in greeting, and speaking in a voice loud enough so that none could mistake his intent, and said, “Well here’s my friend Douglass.”

And I can’t let pass another great man, who died this past week, known to his people as Madiba, but to us as Nelson Mandela. After 27 years in prison on Robin’s Island, he was elected president. And at the inauguration, people noticed among the guests seated on the platform the warden of the jail where he had spent those 27 years. And many people shook their heads to see this sight. But Madiba said, “We are all South Africans now.” That was what he fought for, that was what he lived for, that was what he spent 27 years in prison for — that all, all, would be there, on the platform. Just as Paul and Peter and Jesus preached, that all would be there in his heavenly kingdom. And it is our challenge to be like God, to say, “We are all God’s children now.”

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My sisters and brothers, Christ has called us to be his friends, as Lincoln welcomed Douglass. He has invited all, and his welcome is still open to all. We dare turn no one from the door of this church for any reason, any more than God turns them away from his welcome mat: for the color of their skins, or the nature of their ancestry; because they eat foods we might find distasteful, or have habits we might disdain; because of the languages they speak, or the relationships they form; for what they have done or left undone. God’s welcome mat is there for all who are prepared to enter his kingdom. Let us, as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child at Christmas, and Christ the King when he comes to judge and rule the world, also be prepared to welcome all of our yet-to-be-known brothers and sisters in him, that we may all together as Saint Paul said, “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”+

The Perfect Host

In Christ we are welcomed, as we welcome him; as his Body, joined with all creation and the Father and the Spirit in the One Needful Thing!

Proper 11c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

All of our Scripture readings today point towards the subject of hospitality, and what it means to be a perfect host. Of course, it’s best to start with what it means to be any kind of host, before moving on towards perfection. Anyone who has brought up children knows that you have to crawl before you walk.

So let’s start with the beginning, with the host. At its most basic and original, a host is someone who welcomes others into his or her home — even if it is just a tent, as we see this morning in the reading from Genesis. Abraham welcomes the Lord — who appears in the form of three men — to tarry and rest with him in his tent, out of the heat of the day, to wash their feet and take a bit of food before they continue their journey.

This is hospitality at its simplest and most direct. It is also hospitality at most ancient, and universal: it is common in many cultures as a sign of welcome and invitation — “please, won’t you come in and rest a spell.” There is a lovely old Eastern European Jewish custom that every guest must be welcomed with sweetness, and so a jam-jar and spoon are kept ready at the door to give a guest a taste of summer even in the coldest winter. From as simple a gesture as a welcome mat, a smile and an open door, all the way to the lavish welcome of a red carpet being unrolled, and a brass fanfare, hospitality is almost universal as a human phenomenon. As the song says, ‘Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome’ — to the tent, to the home, or to the palace.

However, in addition to this kind of hospitality there is another sort. And the clue to this lies hidden in the word hospitality itself — notice that it begins with the word hospital. The first hospitals were not just places for the sick and injured, but resting-places for pilgrims traveling on the road, in particular those pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land. Resting places were set up along the way for pilgrims to take refreshment, and recover from any injuries they might have suffered. Most of these hospitals were operated by religious orders of monks and nuns, such as the Order of Saint John (of which both Brother James and I are members, still supporting the hospital in Jerusalem as part of our ministry).

The secular world also soon got into the business of welcoming people — although they tended to drop the letters S and P from hospital to end up with hotel — and yes indeed hotels and hospitals share a common history, as you can see from the fact that the uniform of even a twentieth-century nurse was not all that different from the uniform of a nineteenth-century chamber-maid. Both of those uniforms ultimately derive from the habits of the nuns and monks who served the original hospitals — as indeed some of the sisters and brothers in the nursing orders still do. I am old enough to remember being cared for by “God’s Geese” when I had my appendix out at the age of five — the nursing sisters gained that nickname because of the large, starched white cornettes they wore on their heads as part of their habit. These were the original flying nuns! Most nurses, by then, their headgear had shrunk down to a small starched cap — now, I’m not sure any nurses still wear even the small starched cap any more — but I remember God’s Geese: they had the whole nine yards.

The point in all this is that the hospitality is about welcoming someone in — into your home, your world, your life: whether they are guests or patients, they become the center of your concern.

For the point of welcome is to serve and comfort the one who you welcome in. There are few things worse than a poorly run hospital or hotel — and their bad examples can tell us a good deal about how not to be a perfect host. I am reminded of the comic irony in the character of Basil Fawlty, the worst hotel manager in the world, who once shouted at his guests in livid anger, “You people swan in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot — well I’m trying to run a hotel!” If anyone ever missed the point of hospitality more than Basil Fawlty, I wouldn’t want to stay in that hotel!

The perfect host is the complete and polar opposite to this — the perfect host is only interested in the guests — their needs, their comfort. One might well say, with our Lord, there is need of only one thing: to focus on the guest.

So, for the perfect host, the guest becomes the center of the host’s life. Of course, no one can do that perfectly — our own lives don’t grind to a halt simply because we have guests; in fact, if we are to serve those guests our lives can become busier. This is the side of hospitality that Martha experienced, busy with many things, resenting her sister Mary who grasped that what Jesus really wanted was to be heard — to be heard, and attended to rather than attended on. He wanted them. He wanted them to be one with him.

For in the long run Jesus is the only perfect host, the one who welcomes us, even as we welcome him. He has been there, done that, in a truly cosmic and universal way. As our reading from Colossians affirms, not only is it in Jesus that all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, all beings and powers — not only is he, in a very real sense, the host to all of creation — but in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And it is because all things in heaven and on earth share in this hospitality of Jesus together with the fullness of God, in him, dwelling in Jesus, that he is able to reconcile all things, drawing them together in him, and making peace through the blood of his cross. He is the perfect host who has reconciled us with God together in him — literally in himself, in his body.

As Paul goes on to affirm — not only are we held in Christ, the perfect host, but he and his gospel enter into us. By the miracle of grace, we the members of the church are the members of his body in whom he dwells with the Spirit and in the Father. We become hosts to God — just as Abraham invited God into his tent that hot day thousands of years ago, we also, through the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations fro the foundation of the world, but has now been revealed to his saints in him: the glory of this mystery, which is “Christ in you” —the church itself, the blessed company of all faithful people, the body of Christ, in and with whom the Spirit of God dwells and abides.

This is the “one thing,” the only thing we need — not to be distracted by the many things of this world, but to open our hands and our hearts and our minds to accept our Lord and our God as our guest, as indeed he has accepted us — and in doing so we are made One in him.

I know we’re reading from the Luke’s Gospel, but the message here is similar to John’s: reminding us that we are in God as God is in us, made one in Jesus Christ the perfect mediator, the perfect host but also the perfect guest — the one who like Abraham washes his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, who feeds them not just with earthly bread such as that which Sarah baked, but with his lively Word that inspires us day by day, and with the bread from heaven that we receive in the Holy Eucharist — in that bread that is also called a host.

What more perfect host can there be than this, who invites us into his house — God’s house — this house, even with a red carpet — and gives himself to us his guests even as we invite him into our hearts. As the evangelist John quotes Jesus as saying to God the Father, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This is the one needful thing; this is the glory and the love of God, that Christ, in whom all things exist and were created, all things in heaven and on earth, can be our guest as well as our host. Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome.+

Shame on You!

SJF • Proper 23d 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“Was none found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”+

One of the first things that Paul the apostle wrote to the Corinthians was the reminder that God uses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong. Judging from today’s Scripture readings, we can also be sure that God uses the foreigner to shame the native-born.

We see this first in the story of Naomi and her daughters-in-law. As you may recall, a man of Bethlehem in Judah takes his wife Naomi and his two sons to live in Moab. The two sons marry Moabite women — but then all of the menfolk die, father and sons, leaving three widows: Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her husband’s ancestral home in Judah, and tries to dissuade the two foreign women from following her there, as their chances for marriage would be slim, especially under the rule that required a childless widow if at all possible to marry her brother-in-law or close relative. To add to that, Moabites were looked down upon in Judah as ancestral enemies, going back to the days of Balak, and that would likely stand against their marriage prospects too.

In spite of Naomi’s urging, in spite of the unlikelihood of finding a husband, and in spite of the harsh way in which a Moabite immigrant woman might expect to be treated in Judah, one of the women pledges her loyalty in that beautiful and moving passage we heard. Ruth will neither give up nor turn back. She will cling to Naomi like a vine on a trellis, pledging that even death itself will not be able to part them. What daughter-in-law has ever pledged such loyalty to a mother-in-law?

Of course, there is much more to this story. Ruth does in the end discover a distant relative of her late husband; she finds Boaz, who because of Ruth’s loyalty to him and to Naomi marries her. She bears him a son — and that son, it turns out right at the end of the story, is none other than the grandfather of King David!

Imagine how that punch-line must have sounded in the ears of proud Judeans: David’s great-grandmother was an immigrant Moabite — a foreign-born member of one of Israel’s ancestral enemies. For Moabites had once long before treated the wandering Israelites themselves as lower than dirt and wouldn’t let them so much as set a foot in Moab on their roundabout way to the promised land; and in latter days the songs of Israel would declare, “Moab is my washbasin” — and yet here it turns out that our greatest hero, David the King, David the Deliverer, is part Moabite, and wouldn’t even have been born at all had it not been for the loyalty of a woman of Moab, Ruth, in not turning back from Naomi. And perhaps a feeling of shame might rise in the heart of any Israelite who had ever mistreated a foreigner.

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The message is brought even closer to home in the gospel passage about the ten lepers, only one of whom — and a Samaritan at that — gives thanks to God for the gift and grace of healing that all then of them receive at the hands of Jesus. And if there is any doubt at all as to the point of this incident, Luke sets the stage by specifying that this incident takes place in the border-country, between Galilee and Samaria; and Jesus spells it out: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except the foreigner?” Remember that Samaritans were hated by the Jews of Jesus’ time as much if not more than their predecessors had hated the people of Moab. Yet the Samaritan distinguishes himself as the only grateful one among the ten, foreigner that he is; Luke emphasizes the fact, yet again, by pointing out his nationality. And Jesus hammers it home to the shame of the other nine (in absentia) but also to challenge and shame the prejudices of those listeners who would have regarded all Samaritans with contempt. That goes double for the Galileans, who, as that opening phrase in the Gospel reminds us, stand in relation to Samaria as Texans do to Mexico.

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And so it is — from the time of Abraham’s wandering from his home between the rivers to live in a foreign, strange land; through the time of Moses as an exile in Egypt; to the roundabout wanderings of the children of Israel as they sought to return to the land of promise — every last one of them a non-native immigrant; to the special grace and favor shown to Ruth the faithful Moabite; to the return from exile in Babylon; to the stranger and the foreigner and the outcast, who are promised protection by the Law and the Gospel: the message is clear. If you mistreat a foreigner or an immigrant, shame on you.

Now, in this congregation I know I am speaking to many immigrants, or people closer to being the children of immigrants than David was to his great-grandmother Ruth. How many here this morning were born on other shores? How many are the first generation native-born here in the United States, or the second, or the third. And how many of you have faced the scorn of those who look down on you for your nationality or your ancestry, for your language or your race? I know that some of you have felt this, and those who have so treated you ought to be ashamed of themselves, in this nation of immigrants — a nation in which only a tiny fraction can truly claim to be people of the land, rather than the descendants of the foreign-born who arrived as colonists or immigrants.

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You know that I rarely if ever preach on political subjects. I prefer to preach the gospel and let it speak for itself, and for that gospel to speak in your own hearts as you form your own opinions about the state of things in the world. But I hope you will forgive me as I tell you that I cannot help — both as I read our Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, that is included in your bulletin this morning, and even more-so as I read those Scripture passages and am reminded of God’s great care and love for foreigners and immigrants, and of Galilee with Samaria just to its south — I cannot help thinking of that wall being built along the border between Texas and Mexico. Of course, both our bishops and I are fully aware of the real concerns and issues, to ignore which in this era of terrorism and economic crisis would be irresponsible. But a wall! I cannot help but think of the one built long ago in China to keep the Mongols out, or the one being built to divide Palestinians from Israelis, or the one of which President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall.”

There is something about a wall, you see, whether meant to keep people in or out. It seems to be the last resort, the confession that we just don’t know what else to do — as if we’d really tried everything else, every other way of dealing with the problems we face. As the great American poet Robert Frost once wrote, in response to the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors”:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

And it’s not what Robert Frost or Ronald Reagan or you or I or even the bishops of the church might say about such a construction that’s important. What is important is, what would God say about it? The United States has a very mixed history when it comes to how it has treated immigrants: and it does not take a degree in social science or American history to see how skewed and selective the flow of immigration has been, how favorable to some nationalities and races, and how difficult for others. Some of you here have no doubt faced some of those difficulties, even more stringent than the abuse my own great-grandparents faced (as far from me as Ruth from David) when they fled the Irish famine to come to a new land filled with opportunity — but also with prejudice and unfairness.

That was then, and this is now. What would God say about it now, say to this nation’s leaders, or to this nation as a whole? Or to us? “Shame on you”?

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Whatever the leaders of this land might do, whether they feel the shame or not, we at least as individuals can vow never ourselves to treat a stranger or sojourner, a foreigner or an immigrant as anything other than a fellow pilgrim in a world in which all of us are but temporary visitors and resident aliens. Our true homeland, after all, is above — at least that is our hope! But in the meantime, in our sojourn here, here in our own exile, we have the opportunity to begin to practice the gracious fellowship that welcomes all into the household of God, not as foreigners but as sisters and brothers, all of us tegether — not just one in ten, but the whole assembly — giving thanks to God, for the grace that we have known through him. We can realize our hopes for a future heaven in how we act here and now, as another great poet, William Blake, put it, to see “Jerusalem builded here...” on our own shores and see righteousness prevail through our own exercise of fairness, justice and equality. If we do this, we will, as Saint Paul said to Timothy, have no need to be ashamed.+

The Spirit’s Doing

SJF Pentecost • B 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you.+

On Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, and in fulfillment of the promise he had made, the apostles saw and felt the Spirit descend upon them in tongues of fire, and began to proclaim God’s saving deeds in many languages. But given the amount of woodwork in this church, if we were to see tongues of fire distributed and alighting anywhere we would likely sound a fire alarm! Clearly, when the Spirit comes to us — and I have no doubt of the Spirit’s presence, as I shall explain in a moment — when the Spirit comes to us it is in a less inflammatory fashion. We don’t see flames alighting on the tops of each other’s heads, we don’t find ourselves speaking languages we never learned to speak. How, then, do we know when the Spirit visits us?

We might begin by noting that even with such marvels as tongues of fire and the miraculous gift of languages there were still some folks who failed to see the Spirit at work on Pentecost in Jerusalem on that day so long ago. They attributed the disciples’ inspiration to hitting the bottle rather early in the morning, accusing them of being drunk and disorderly. Some, it seems, can not recognize the Spirit even when the Spirit is most obvious. So how, then, do we recognize the Spirit?

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The first sign of the Spirit’s presence with us is community, for the Spirit calls and summons us, drawing us together, or rather back together: re-membering us as members of the church so that we can remember God together.

There have been great souls who have been able to go it alone, great saints whose solitary encounter with God is the stuff of legend and sacred history. These are the spiritual athletes who encountered God flying solo, out in the wilderness, like Moses and Elijah, or the monks who dwelt in the Egyptian desert, some of them going so far as to live solitary lives on the tops of pillars, as far away from human society as they could get. But unlike such rare souls as the desert hermits, most of us will not find God in solitude on top of a pillar, but in community. If we are spiritual athletes, it is only as team players.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit appears to favor the public assembly over the private audience. “The disciples were all together in one place” when the Spirit came upon them. They were not pursuing their own personal holiness, but praying together — for and with each other — when the Spirit blew through the windows and set their souls on fire. It is in community — from the most intimate community of a loving couple, to the wide community of the church — that the Spirit comes to us, revealing Christ in our midst. Community, then, is the first sign of the Spirit.

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And the Spirit reveals Christ gathered with us too, revealed in our midst, revealed foremost as one who serves, who before his death washes the feet of his friends, and afterwards responds to their betrayal and lack of belief with words of peace, who offers them forgiveness so that they might be able to forgive in turn. This service and forgiveness find their natural home in community. For just as it takes two to tango, so it takes at least two to serve, two to forgive. Service and forgiveness flow from community as naturally as dance flows from the music, when you simply have got to move your feet to the persuasive beat.

So the ministry of hospitality, which combines service and mercy, and grows from community, is the second sign of the Spirit’s presence: as I have said many times before, “see how they love one another” is Christ’s identity badge for the church, a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence.

Hospitality takes many forms, in a parish coffee hour or visit to the shut-in; in an act as simple as an outstretched hand to help someone up these steps to the altar, or as formal as baptism. We offer a hospitable welcome to each newly baptized person, welcoming them “into the household of God” — a dwelling for the Spirit whose building-stones are ourselves — our selves, souls and bodies — as the church’s members.

Remember the children’s game: here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the little people. The outside of a church looks like a building, but when the doors are opened the living, human construction is revealed — as a community. So hospitality is the natural response of the gathered community we call the church, the second sign of the Spirit’s presence.

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And what the disciples did upon the Spirit’s arrival was to proclaim the story of salvation to each other in many languages, so that those outside the house were attracted by the sound, and were astonished to recognize their native tongues.

This proclamation is the third sign of the Spirit’s powerful presence. The children of Israel knew this, and they were always telling their story to each other. Their story sustained them through exile and captivity in Babylon; and through and beyond the destruction of the Second Temple, and even up to this day — as we are reminded of the bombing attempt at two synagogues right here in the Riverdale section of the Bronx — through and beyond the most terrible and single-minded efforts to exterminate them. The Jewish people have told and retold their story to each other, in synagogue and schul, down through the years, and the Christian church’s story is added to theirs; and each of us has a story, too, like footnotes and annotations expanding the history of salvation — so that the whole world could not contain the books that might be written.

As if the world even cared! “The world” that confronts us today, is a world where community is shattered, a world that doesn’t know how to serve, a world that has forgotten its own story. The world will not stop talking — or Twittering, or blogging — long enough to hear the gracious possibility offered to it.

Well, the world needs a wake up call. And the responsibility to give that call falls on us, the members of the church, the Body of Christ: to tell the story of salvation to the world. If we at Saint James Church faithfully proclaim that story, the world may stop its chatter for a moment and overhear: that’s how it worked on Pentecost, and it can again. People who have forgotten that they are God’s children, in the midst of this great but terrible city, might suddenly hear a voice speaking a language they haven’t heard for a long, long time, but which they recognize at once: a language from home, reminding them who, and whose, they are.

If we at Saint James Church then open our doors and our hearts and welcome them in, we will be magnified, and together we will offer glory to God such as never yet has rung from this corner of the Bronx.

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The Spirit reveals Jesus’ presence in the gathering of the community, in the hospitality they shared, and in the telling of the greatest story ever told. But the Spirit also reveals Jesus to us through a last sign unlike any other: in broken bread and a cup of wine. In the fourth sign of the Spirit’s presence, in the eucharistic feast, the one serving at the table reveals himself as the bridegroom, and the story takes a classic turn: like Richard the Lionheart casting off his pilgrim’s cloak, revealing the king’s bright red cross on his chest to an astonished Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. And suddenly, everyone drops to their knees.

Suddenly, though the doors be locked, we realize who has been among us all this time, and we can hear his breathing. Suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon these gifts and we remember and are re-membered into the Body of Christ.

Once one special Pentecost, that ancient Jewish harvest festival, the Spirit gathered the apostles together like a harvest of grain once scattered on the hillside. And together they welcomed, served, proclaimed, and feasted: in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. We, their successors, can do no less. The Spirit has gathered us together. It is the Spirit’s doing, not our own. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, and the Holy Spirit our Pentecost has come to us. So come, let us welcome; come, let us serve; come, let us proclaim; and come, let us celebrate the feast. +

Only One Thing

St James Fordham • Proper 11c • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said to Martha, “One thing is necessary…” +

Have you ever been a dinner guest in someone’s home, only to find that your hosts are so busy tending to the cooking, the serving, and the cleaning up that you feel as though you might as well have gone to a restaurant without them? In spite of their good intentions to make the meal pleasurable, your hosts have missed the point of your visit: you were there for them, not for the food, however good it might be. The meal was only the vehicle for the real purpose of your visit, your fellowship and friendship your time of sharing, the companionship of company.

Well, this misplacement of the purpose of hospitality is what happens in our Gospel reading for today. Martha, dear, eager, hardworking Martha, taking pains to please her special guest, gets distracted from the guest himself, caught up with the many details of first-century Palestinian cuisine. This is long before the gas-range, and the refrigerator, to say nothing of the microwave and Wonder Bread.

We get a glimpse of the meal preparations needed in the reading from Genesis, a detailed description of just how much work was required when you had a dinner guest in the ancient Near East. If you want bread, you have to bake it — you don’t just run around the corner to the Associated. You want beef stew? Well, the recipe starts: “Run to the herd, take one calf, tender and good…” I guess the closest we come these days to that sort meal preparation is when we go to Red Lobster and get to see our future dinner swimming in a tank in the lobby! However, back in those days — little changed from Abraham’s to Martha’s — every aspect of meal preparation took much longer, before all our modern appliances.

So we can be sure there is plenty of work for Martha to be distracted by in preparing a meal for her special guest; and one can easily understand the testiness in her tone when she complains that her sister is just sitting there while she does all the work. Jesus, however, gently reminds this hard-working woman, that in the midst of all her busyness, she has neglected the one thing that is really important: his presence there in that household.

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All preparation has a purpose, though it can be difficult to keep our eyes and hearts on that purpose. How do we remain attentive to Jesus in the midst of our all-too-busy lives? How do we find the time to sit at his feet while all around us there is so much to do?

I believe we will find the answer in that reading from Genesis. All the preparation that Abraham, his servants, and his wife make for the trio of guests — whom Abraham rightly recognizes as no ordinary visitors — all of these preparations lead up to an announcement. And the announcement is so off-the-wall, so unexpected, that Sarah literally laughs out loud when she hears it.

It is a birth announcement, among the strangest ever heard: this ancient couple — Abraham nearly 100 years old, and Sarah in her early nineties — this aged pair will soon be the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy. No wonder Sarah laughs! How could a child come from the withered loins of an old man, the dry womb of an ancient woman? Lift the tent-flap and peek into the tent: You can picture the grin spreading on those parchment cheeks, the desert-engraved fan of laughing wrinkles spreading from the corners of her eyes, over the blushing giggle: “Now that I’m old, and he’s even older, shall I have pleasure from the old fellow still!” This was, after all, long before Viagra!

But the Lord is more miraculous than any modern pharmaceutical, and he gently chides her, having heard every word even though she is in the tent. And, ever considerate, the Lord even misquotes her, when he speaks to Abraham, — who, we must assume, is a little hard of hearing — to forestall Abraham taking offense at the suggestion he might not be up to the task of fathering a child. So, instead of God saying, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I have pleasure?’” God asks, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child!’” But then God goes further and says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Sarah shall have a son!”

Of course, Sarah hears all this through the tent-flap. And does her laughter stop then? Does she choke for a second on a sob or a gasp, a hope she’s long forgotten? Sarah has grown old — old and childless. Desperate for a son, she’s already taken what she thought was the last resort: allowing her husband to sleep with her slave girl, hoping to experience surrogate motherhood through someone else. But now, now the Lord is promising that from her own womb a son will be born. She herself will give birth, and her dream and Abraham’s dream will be fulfilled.

This is, for Abraham and Sarah, the one thing necessary: an heir of their own flesh and blood, who will fulfill God’s promise already made to Abraham, the promise that with their son God will establish an everlasting covenant.Gen 17.19

All preparations, you see, have a purpose; and God’s preparations were far longer in the works than even those for the most elaborate banquet. Think of it: All of God’s work in creation, and then the Flood that wipes it all out to start over, after the massive cleanup; all God’s patient care for Abraham as he wandered far from home; and human labor too: all their work to prepare the meal for the divine visitors, all the hustle and bustle and to-ing and fro-ing that Abraham and Sarah undertake; all of this work, divine and human, crystallizes in this revelation of God’s promise, this one necessary thing, this one precious piece of news, this announcement of a new birth.

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All preparations have a purpose. When Jesus gently chides Martha, he is helping her to see that the generous purpose for all her work was to allow him to sit, and then for her finally to sit down too, at her sister’s side, to focus on the one necessary thing: the one great and wonderful piece of news: Jesus is here.

So too, all our labor of worship and devotion is of no use to us at all unless Christ is born within us, unless we too can say, Jesus is here. Our labor to bring Christ to birth in our hearts is like the labor of a woman in childbirth. It is this labor that Paul describes in his letter to the Colossians. He rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of those for whom Christ will become present by means of that pain, bringing to birth the mystery hidden for ages and generations but made manifest to the saints, which is, as Saint Paul says, “Christ in you.”

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All preparations have a purpose. All labor and pain and suffering can lead us to consciousness of the presence of Christ with us and in us. Each of us bears Christ, in our own flesh — completing what is yet to be completed, each suffering and labor pain we feel joined with the suffering of Christ himself, Christ made present, Christ born in the midst of pain, but revealing glory and mercy in that very birth.

All preparations have a purpose, and God’s purpose for us, through our whole life long, through all our busyness and occupation with many things, through all our labor and work, through our devotion and praise, through our suffering and pain, and even through our doubts and fears — as Sarah doubted, and the disciples feared — God’s purpose is that Christ himself be born in each of us: and that we be with him where he is — he, who is himself the one thing needed, the good portion, and who can never be taken away from us. And so, as Phillips Brooks wrote in his immortal hymn, “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We heard the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!”+