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Sunday 29/10/17 – Hospitality – Matt 22:34-46 by Craig

It’s been a tough time for Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading is one of the final disputes between him and the religious leaders, their attempts to entrap him into uttering blasphemy, and sealing his own fate.
This is a pattern in the Gospel that we’ve followed over the past few Sundays: from the beginning of Chapter 19, as he leaves Galilee for Jerusalem, he has been almost constantly quizzed and hounded by the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two main parties in the Jewish religious hierarchy.

This tension rises sharply after Jesus’ outrageous entry into Jerusalem riding on a Donkey, with all the prophetic implications that raised. If you read from the beginning of Chapter 19 to today’s reading in one sitting, you will sense the momentum of Jesus’ destiny.

The Pharisees had a very legalistic take on God’s commandments. Over the centuries, the original ten had burgeoned into 613. No wonder the ordinary Jew found it almost impossible to find God: there were too many rules, too many hurdles to jump, with the Pharisees in their self-appointed role as guardians of the faith; God’s policemen, always looking to trip them up.

So, this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees is a fitting end to the legal wrangling, arguments, and ‘catch-him-out’ questions that have been going on. Jesus distils the commandments of God into two. The 613 rules are now redundant. When pressed by a lawyer ‘which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ Jesus replies with two:

‘The first is this: love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind….And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

First; and second. I don’t believe that you can observe one of those commandments without the other. They are held together in an intricate and live-giving tension. We can all ‘know’ our neighbours, but the challenging thing is that loving them takes loving God wholeheartedly.

Without that we can never see them through the eyes of God, or with the mind of Christ. That makes me feel very uncomfortable. Some ‘neighbours’ that I encounter on a daily basis (and that’s not just the people who live next door) sometimes try my patience: how can I love them as I love me?

Yet I feel it is right for us to dwell on that phrase ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ and just ask the question: how can we do that?

You may recall my Ministry Team letter in the last edition of the Parish Magazine, where I wrote about the Christian tenet of ‘hospitality’, especially our experience of it when we first came to St George’s (11 months ago!). It was wonderful! Up until then, our experience of hospitality in a church usually involved ‘fitting in’, which the outspoken me has never been comfortable with!
If you read it, you will also know that I am an ‘Oblate’ (Lay Member) in the Benedictine community at Alton Abbey. Hospitality is a central tenet of the Benedictine way of life. In chapter 53 of his Rule, St Benedict urges the Monk to ‘welcome the stranger as if Christ himself were present, for in them, Christ himself comes.’ Strangers are our neighbours too.

Hospitality in the Monastery is manifested in the warmth of welcome, sustenance, love, care, and space underpinned by the cycle of worship, work, and prayer. We found all those things when we first came to this church. Jesus and Benedict seem to be saying similar things, and whilst we perhaps find it relatively painless to do within our church community, how can loving our neighbours as ourselves work out in our Parish?

Our first natural thoughts are likely to be: ‘what can we do? What action can we take? What ideas, and events will demonstrate that we love them as much as we love ourselves, and welcome them as if welcoming Christ himself?’ We’re culturally conditioned from birth to be ‘busy’, to ‘do stuff’, it’s just how we are. And I must say that there is nothing much wrong with offering tangible and practical things to our village.

But – through activity, we can often squeeze out opportunity, and become unavailable to the neighbour, the stranger who calls. I’m dreadful: ‘Hello, welcome to our church…. here’s a bundle of leaflets, this is what goes on…. sorry I’ve got do such and such, can’t stop to chat’. And I’m gone. What have I missed; more importantly, what has my neighbour lost out?

In the monastery, it’s different – apart from the usual daily cycle of worship, work, and prayer, there is no programmed activity. Space is intentionally left for those who call in for a chat, a pray, and so on.

The perfect environment to simply ‘be’.

That would never work in our Parish of course, so I’m not suggesting that we open St George’s Abbey! But I do think that we ought to ask: are we really available to our neighbours?

Folk in this village, and beyond, are longing for a break from the relentless pressure to be something, to be seen to live up to certain standards. Working all hours. Keeping up with the bills. Driving the children here and there to this and that activity. Time poor, no opportunity to simply be.

How can we be more available? Being available rather than doing ‘stuff’ – I have no simple answer. One example of hospitable availability is the Christmas Midnight Mass. Starting it at say 10pm might make it convenient for some of us, but what about the once-a-year visitor who longs for a glimpse of something beyond the Christmas drudge? They turn up at 11.30pm, and the church, and its people are unavailable….

So what’s my cunning plan? I don’t have one – as such. The hospitality I speak of can only come through the discipline of prayer, meditating and mulling over scripture, and regularly receive the Eucharist. All these things are our food for the journey. Things that will help us to love the Lord our God with every thing and faculty that we have.

At the end of John’s Gospel is the story of the Disciples out fishing one night. The events leading up to Jesus’ death had crushed them, heads and hearts spinning from the relentless pressure: emotional, physical, spiritual… Since his resurrection, he had appeared…and disappeared. God must have seemed strangely absent, just as the fish were too.

They spot Jesus after he gives them a clue where to cast their nets. He’s cooking breakfast. When they came ashore, they simply received his hospitality – he had made himself available. He fed them. Chatted. In that space and in that fellowship, they got a glimpse of something beyond, a new sense of purpose, and really knowing that they are truly loved.

Our neighbours are desperate for this intimate encounter with the mystery of God. So, here’s the plan – let’s consciously deepen our love and devotion for the Lord our God, with all our hearts, with all our soul, and with all our minds.

Let’s come to communion with a deep sense of longing for a renewed sense of loving our neighbours.

Loving them through the eyes of Jesus, in which our neighbour can get a glimpse of glory, and find ointment for their sore and hurting souls

Thoughts about Jesus, Mary and Martha Luke 10:38-42

So these few verses tell a story of drama and passion, a conflict between two sisters, and in it Jesus is a hero – he is the model for us – we are each called to be heroes.

So let’s start the story. We all know that hospitality is a massively important aspect of middle-eastern tradition. In desert countries the welcoming of the stranger is the difference between life and death. And in Luke’s Gospel in particular hospitality is hallowed.

And Martha is doing it – or trying to do it perhaps. Martha is probably the older sister and she has invited Jesus and his mates into her house. She suddenly has a dozen or more people to feed with no warning.

Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. Women were meant to be in the kitchen – why was she doing this? How dare she mess with roles and take the place of a man?

Martha gets a bit fed up – she starts banging the pans, hoping that someone will notice that she’s having to do everything. She looks forlorn. She glares at her sister. She gets more and more upset until she explodes… storming in to confront Jesus:

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”.

Have you ever done that? Mary must have been very upset and angry indeed to ask a guest to intercede! She accuses Jesus of not caring for her – presumably she felt if he had cared then he would have sent Mary into the kitchen. I can relate to Martha – that dreadful feeling of hurt… that feeling of being overlooked, not cared for, that feeling of anger that others aren’t honouring her when she was trying to be hospitable. However, the fact is that it was terrible hospitality – how embarrassed everyone must have been.

Jesus responds “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her”.

She was so distracted that she couldn’t do hospitality – she couldn’t be attentive and gracious to her guests. Instead, she was grumbling and complaining. She was nasty to her sister and unfair to Jesus. There was a power play – she wanted to control Mary and she enlisted Jesus in this struggle.

But Jesus doesn’t play these games – he is a hero. Heroes respect the dignity and honour of all people, heroes rise above social contructs that demean and inhibit others. Heroes are almost always lone voices because people get sucked into ‘group think’. Heroes speak out – they aren’t passive.

Jesus could have colluded with the social convention and told Mary to get into the kitchen.

Jesus could have told Martha that this was between her and her sister and he didn’t want to get involved.

Jesus could have berated Martha for embarrassing him and the disciples.

Instead he recognised the pain inside her. Perhaps she had often been overlooked and this anger was about more than the events of the day. Perhaps she had many worries – perhaps she worried that if her sister behaved like a man then she would never marry. We don’t know, but it is an act of kindness to recognise the worries, to acknowledge then.

And then an invitation. Mary has chosen the better part and it won’t be taken away from her. Perhaps Martha can choose that too… “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That thing is to know the love of God and to rest in it.

So what about us? Are we so busy that we can’t sit at the feel of Jesus? Are we so worried and distracted that our efforts of hospitality go awry? Do we end up resentful of others?

The story reminds me a bit of the Prodigal Son. The father being with the younger son, and the older son who is cross. Then the father pleading with the older son. In this case the story is suspended once again. We don’t know whether Martha joined the part or remained aloof. We don’t know whether everyone enjoyed the meal together and whether Mary and Martha reconciled their differences.

Where do you see yourself in the story – are you the one carrying pain, working so hard, worrying so much? Are you the one that has been attacked because you are following your heart? Are you the hero that can stand up for others without dehumanising anyone? Are you all three?

I am the bread of life

I woke this morning to the smell of freshly baked bread.

Ah, how wonderful is that!

Bob’s my baker, he loads the bread-maker the night before and knows how to set the timer so we can enjoy fresh bread for breakfast. And I know how lucky I am. The staff of life, bread, has become a real pleasure for us rather than a basic necessity. We also know that many people in our world go hungry and we are really privileged to have good food.

In the gospel story Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life” … And what’s more, today, we have heard how he takes this idea one stage further suggesting that people are to eat his flesh and blood.

That’s an odd thing to say. The people at the time were baffled, I’m a bit baffled too. Throughout chapter 6 of John’s gospel, Jesus seems to have this thing about bread, I’m tempted to say, he was on a roll.

Was Jesus really bread and what’s all this “bread of life” how is that different from ordinary bread, from the bread I ate this morning? And eating anyone’s flesh and blood – that’s gross. I expect we have got our own opinions about what Jesus meant and no doubt the people who witnessed that at the time were equally divided in their thoughts. It was too much for some, they left Jesus (oh oh, spoiler alert, that comes next week in the readings: John 6.66 – look out for it!)

So, enough of what is to come, let’s go back to the beginning: if you were in church for the first of this series of readings – oh about the end of July some time … or perhaps you have been avidly reading your lectionary, you might remember that John’s gospel chapter 6 opens with the story of the feeding of the 5000.

Miracles are fixed in time. For us, it’s 2000 years ago. For the people in Jesus’ time it might have been a few days ago. They had a party, had plenty to eat and didn’t have to work for it – hey! Let’s do it again, what we need is another miracle.

Wait a moment: feeding 5000? There aren’t 5000 people in this part of Galilee. Who counted?

But we all had some fish and bread to eat … Oh yes, really … did nobody but a small boy actually bother to think about bringing a picnic? And what about that small boy? What was he doing all by himself? Where’s his mum and dad?

Come on Jesus! Give us more bread, fresh toast, with butter and marmalade this time please, I don’t like fish. Why don’t you stay here with us, you could be our baker. Oh and when we are poorly, perhaps you could do some healing miracles for us. And we don’t really like the Romans, we have to pay taxes to them, it would be much better if you would hurry up and get rid of them so we can live happily here. Come on Jesus, get a move on!

Oh dear, was this what God had in mind?

Jesus has mentioned bread before. When he was tempted in the wilderness, before he started his ministry proper. Do you remember, Jesus has been fasting for 40 days when the devil tempts him saying that if he is the son of God, he could turn the stones into bread. What does Jesus reply?

“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

That comes from Matthew 4.4. But being a keen student at the moment, I looked up where Jesus had got the quotation from: Deuteronomy 8.3. Oh I could tell you a thing or two about Deuteronomy, but I’ll spare you and just give a brief résumé: the book reminds the Jewish people of their origins including how they were brought safely out of slavery in Egypt and given manna to eat in the wilderness. Clearly, the people in John’s gospel knew that story very well because they ask Jesus for similar proof. You can’t argue with manna, it falls from heaven, no one knows what it is and how it gets there so it must be a sign from God. And it comes in handy if you are hungry and in the wilderness.

God provided manna in the wilderness and the people were saved from starvation. They went on to live out their lives and die. So what’s Jesus offering? True and living bread, his very essence, his flesh and blood which we remember in the Eucharist.

We keep coming back to food. Bread, even if it is in the form of manna. Come on God, we can’t think on an empty stomach. “Give us this day our daily bread!” And Jesus seems to be saying, yes, humans need food to live, to keep from starvation, but we need more than that, we hunger for the word of God in our lives.

“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

What are we really looking for?

Isn’t it time we woke up and smelt the true bread of life?

Lesley Shatwell

On the road to Emmaus

This morning’s sermon…

Luke 24.13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles* from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.* 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,* who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.* Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah* should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us* while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Have you ever walked in the wrong direction? Perhaps for a long distance or for a long time? In this story the disciples, who incidentally had been told by some women that the body was missing and that there were some angels telling them that Jesus was alive, they left Jerusalem and walked to Emmaus. Presumably because they couldn’t believe that Jesus was alive. Presumably they were giving up on being part of the fellowship and going to go home to resume their normal lives. They were sad, dejected, depressed, perhaps. This is a story of repentance, they walk 7 miles in the wrong direction and then they turn around and walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem. Repentance is simply this, it is turning around and walking in the right direction.
I’m writing a book at the moment. It is not very loosely based on my life story. In it, the main character Ashley spends all her time trying to sort her life out and walk in the right direction but despite these sometimes noble efforts she is often walking in the wrong direction. I belong to a writer’s group and each time that I submit a chapter the others in the group are saying “Oh No, Poor Ashley, what now!” I’m afraid the story of my life is a series of face palms. I relate to the disciples walking in the wrong direction. I am with them on the road. And fortunately so is Jesus. You’ll notice that Jesus is also walking in the wrong direction, walking alongside them, walking alongside us when we get it wrong. In fact you might find it weird that the journey where Jesus is closely walking with them is when they have it wrong, he doesn’t bother accompanying them on the journey when they have it right!
And the story is full of irony – they say to Jesus ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ Well actually Jesus knows quite a lot about the things that have happened, but responds, ‘What things?’ And they say to Jesus, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth.’ You can almost see Jesus sniggering at this point. Or perhaps imagine the disciples telling the story later – hamming it up – “So then we said to Jesus – JESUS – we said to him ‘do you know nothing of the things that have happened’…. And you’ll never guess what Jesus said….” And then there is the irony that they tell Jesus that it has been three days since these things happened – and what did Jesus say would happen on the third day?
Times of transition are immensely fruitful in our spiritual lives. These disciples had presumably been with Jesus for three years and not really understood what Jesus was on about. They wouldn’t have chosen it but the trauma and loss that they experienced enabled them to hear Jesus for the first time. They were in an abyss and that is the place where we can find faith in a new way, a deeper way…. Of course not if we are bitter and closed, but if we have open hearts and allow God into our places of fear and anger then transition can be immensely fruitful. And look at the disciples – they are open and candid even with a stranger.
There is a story of a Zen master who had a visitor come and ask for wisdom, and the visitor didn’t stop talking, talking about his problems, talking about all that he had tried. Eventually the Zen master started pouring tea into his cup and he kept pouring even though the cup was overflowing. The Zen master said “Stop you can’t fit any more in, the cup is overflowing.” “And so it is with you,” replied the Zen master.
The disciple’s cups had been emptied. Only now could they take in what Jesus was saying, and their hearts burned within them. It reminds me of when I first became a Christian – I didn’t want to believe in God, but I showed up to church each week, wanting to disprove it, and my heart burned within me when I hear the truth, however weird and freaky it was, I couldn’t help myself.
In the breaking of the bread they meet Jesus. I wonder whether that is because the see his wounds, one of the only things we know about Jesus’ resurrection body is that he retains his wounds. Our wounds are clearly nothing to be ashamed of.
So the disciples travel back to Jerusalem, they rejoin the church and they proclaim the familiar Easter greeting “Christ is Risen” to which the rest proclaim, “He is Risen indeed.” This is our calling – to be part of a church which travels towards the Holy City, the place where we can know God, and along the journey we proclaim the risen Christ. Amen.