Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Strange People, Strange Passions

Strange People, Strange Passions.

Our lessons are about hospitality
– Abraham and Sarah entertaining God in the guise of 3 men
in their tent under the oaks of Mamre
– Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus at their home in Bethany.

Hospitality wasn’t something we talked about
in the Baptist Church of my childhood.
Hospitality was associated with Southern Living Magazine,
not the Bible.
It was something they taught in home economics.
So as a chauvinistic young Texan, I didn’t respect it.

I still remember the first Episcopal sermon I ever heard
on hospitality.
It was about the mustard seed that grew into a tree,
extending its branches to welcome the birds.
I thought the priest was reducing the gospel to something trivial.

But it wasn’t trivial to him. He was Japanese,
and the Japanese make an art of hospitality.
It is a spirituality expressed in the tea ceremony ritual.
In Japan, hospitality isn’t just a nice thing social custom.
It’s a spiritual thing,
Later I learned that hospitality was the core
of Benedictine spiritual practice.
Benedictine monasteries were open to anyone.
The monks’ job was to welcome and serve
those who came their way.
They housed and cared for travelers, the sick, and the dying.
Hostels, hospitals, and hospices are all centers of hospitality
born of the Benedictine tradition.
For them too, it was a spiritual thing.

Last of all, I learned that hospitality was the highest moral duty
in Ancient Civilizations like the Greeks
in Homer’s time and before.
It was the highest moral duty of desert dwellers in the Middle East
during the days of Abraham and Jesus.
Hospitality was the path to wholeness and holiness.
So it is important to get it right, both in church and at home.
It is important to get it right,
so let’s see what we can learn from our two stories.

Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent
when he saw three strangers,
and immediately asked for the privilege of being their host.
He was not just willing – he was eager
– to serve the stranger at his gate.
So Abraham and Sarah bustled about baking cakes,
butchering beef, pouring milk, setting the table.
It was a busy, scurrying kind of welcome.

There is something good in that.
It is active caring, practical caring, comfort-giving work.
But it can go wrong.

Maybe Martha had read Genesis
because she welcomed Jesus the same way.
She was scurrying about too, fretting over getting it all right.
She was so intent on her practice of hospitality
that she wasn’t paying any attention to her guest.
She was, the Bible says, “distracted by many things.”
Blessed Martha is the patron saint of multi-tasking.

But do you see the problem?
How would you feel if your arrival set your host in a dither?
Her dither says you are a nuisance, a burden.

Now Mary practiced a different kind of hospitality.
The Bible says, “She sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him.”//

Martha, was in a state, all frustrated and ruffled.
She saw Mary just taking it all in and it made her angry
– so angry that she reprimanded someone.
Notice she didn’t even reprimand her lazy sister.
She reprimanded Jesus. “Lord do you not care . . . .?” she demanded.
She was working so hard at being a host, she went from ignoring her guest
to yelling at him.

We might see it as a problem yelling at the Savior.
But that isn’t the problem Luke wants us to see.
It’s that she’s yelling at her guest.
Hospitality can turn itself inside out.

Jesus said, “Settle down now Martha.
You are worried and distracted by many things.
But only one thing is needed.
Mary has chosen the better part.”

You see Mary paid attention to Jesus.
She sat down and listened to him.
Abraham, after his initial scurrying around, got to that point too.
Once he served the meal, the Bible says,
he stood beside them under the oak tree while they ate.

So what can we learn from these stories?
The heart of hospitality – the part that makes it feel real,
the part that makes it a spiritual discipline,
the path to wholeness and holiness –
the heart of hospitality is an open, kind attention.
It is just being still, looking and listening.
It is acknowledging the other person is present and they matter.

Hospitality is dropping our agenda
to simply see and hear another person.
It is setting aside our agenda so we can see and hear someone
for their own sake, appreciating them as they are,
valuing them for being who they are.
Hospitality isn’t just for guests.
It’s a way of being in the world.
When we were raising our children,
I was like Martha, always fretting,
working too hard at it, parenting too intensely.
It made my kids wonder what was wrong with them
that I was so anxious.
I regret that.

When I was a parish priest,
I was like Martha, always fretting,
working too hard at it,
trying to make the church better, improve it
– which was a sure fire way to tell the people
they weren’t quite good enough.
I regret that too.

I should have known better.
I used to go to an annual workshop in
New York for mental health workers.
The workshop title was “the caring power of unconditional presence.”
The teacher, Dr. John Wellwood, believed that wounded people
heal when other people just sit with them
– just listen to them unconditionally, without an agenda
to change them, fix them, or improve them.
That’s hospitality.

It isn’t easy. It ‘s hard to set aside our judgments,
our projects, our grid of good and bad.
It is hard to just be still and listen.
But that’s hospitality.

When it sinks in we find a spiritual treasure.
If we practice hospitality with other people,
over time we begin to practice it with ourselves.

As all the different feelings ebb and flow in our hearts,
as all the random thoughts scamper through our minds,
we learn to welcome them in a calm, neutral way.
That is very hard. It isn’t what we usually do.
Usually, we latch onto some thoughts and feelings.
We hold onto them until they get a hold on us.
Other thoughts and feelings we try to banish, repress, exile
because we don’t want to think that, don’t want to feel that.

But hospitality just sits with them like Mary sitting with Jesus,
like Abraham standing under the oak tree beside his guests.
Hospitality is not afraid of our thoughts and feelings,
does not pat some on the head and slap others in the face.
When we become serene in the presence of our own inner dramas,
we can become serene with other people.

Hospitality moves from the outside in, then out again.
We start with welcoming others,
then it sinks into our hearts as deep serenity,
then it comes back out as an even more authentic hospitality.

So, brothers and sisters, whether the stranger that come to us
are strange people or strange passions,
“Never neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing so, many have welcomed angels unawares.”