Last week we began a time of summer reflection on what it takes to create a vital congregation; a congregation that is spiritually renewed, turned around, full of the life and the Holy Spirit. We discussed that at the core of a revitalized congregation is the practice of neighboring (to borrow the phrase from our congregant, Diane Wood) – acting as a good neighbor, like the good Samaritan was, fulfilling the Great commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Even if that neighbor is difficult, oppositional, negative, perhaps even enemy material. Today our scriptures invite us to look deeper into the process of neighboring. Today we see that at the core of neighboring is the practice of sacred hospitality and holy listening.
I remember a conference Forrest and I attended a few years back, when we were co-pastors at the Community Church of Little Neck, in Queens. We belonged to the International Council of Community Churches, formed by the historical joining of a black and white association back in 1950, long before desegregation took place. So racial unity and cooperation has been at the forefront of the ICCC these 60 plus years.
The year of that particular conference racial tensions have been ongoing in our country, and it was a particularly acrimonious summer. The conference paused its usual workshops and took a time out. It called all the members, of all races to sit down and talk together about what was on their hearts in light of the racial conflict. African American members, pastors and high-ranking lay leaders shared their experiences, concerns and hurts. White leaders strove to listen in the presence of the pain and hurt in the room and shared their responses. The racial tension in the room, like in our country seemed an impossible divide. While we were far from resolving the tension, I witnessed a sacred practice of listening to each other, and the healing power of acknowledging each other’s pain and point of view, even in the -presence of differences. The gift of listening and sharing is an incredibly hospitable act. It is an act of neighboring. It is an act revitalization.
Our lessons today seem to present us with impossible situations as well. Abraham and Sarah offer traditional hospitality to three strangers are reassured of God’s promise of a son. How impossible is that? Abraham would be 100 years old, and Sarah 90 years when this prediction came true. How could this dream, that has filled their hearts all their lives, led them to leave their homeland some 25 years earlier, ever come true? Yet during the hospitality, the listening, a promise is given, a miracle happens. A year later, a son is borne.
For Jesus, if there ever was an impossible situation it was dealing with the two headstrong sisters, Martha and Mary. Although they have a brother, Lazarus, he doesn’t figure in the story, which is striking. He should be the one welcoming Jesus into the home. Yet it is Martha, who is named first. Martha is busy with the rites of hospitality, which are sacred and not to be ignored, unless shame be brought upon the household. Yet she is pulled in many directions, the demands of preparing meals, worry that everything will work out, and most of all why her supposedly younger sister isn’t obeying her and helping her get things ready?
Mary herself is in a culturally impossible situation: she is bucking the system that would relegate her to preparing the meal and service and choosing instead to sit at the feet of Jesus, in the position of disciple. Finally Martha, pulled in so many directions, demands that Jesus send Mary to the kitchen to help her.
Jesus listens carefully to Martha. However, Jesus defends Mary, as he will again when Judas makes criticisms when Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with a costly nard the week before his death. Yet Jesus gently lets Martha know it’s not the hospitality that’s the problem; it’s the distractions that are pulling her in many directions that are the problem and making life unmanageable. Jesus points out that Mary’s focused discipleship is better than distracted and resentful service that results in bitterness and breaking of relationship. So, Jesus defends Mary, but he reaches out to Martha as well, to heal her spirit, and also preserve the family relationship. Martha’s and Mary’s hospitality, demonstrated in different ways, demonstrate how the church should demonstrate hospitality by balancing action and listening like Abraham and Sarah do. Such hospitality leads to communication and connection, which is at the heart of a healthy spiritual life, a renewed life, a revitalized life.
We find ourselves daily in impossible situations that call for us to choose the better part. We find ourselves embroiled in impossible situations as citizens of a polarized society. We face challenging health matters, or family predicaments with Mary and Martha conflicts, or persistent longings of Abraham and Sarah. All impossible to solve on their own. We need God’s help to choose the better part.
At that conference I attended, leaders were pleading for direction out of the impossible. For answers. What do we do next? How do we get to that better part? Lots of ideas come forth some conventional others challenging. Pray and fast. Encourage community development and conversations that includes police departments. Develop stronger ties between churches of different races, encourage pulpit swaps. All pieces of the puzzle that can help make the impossible possible if we get involve and serve and be hospitable. So, Jesus calls on us to choose the better half—to do our part in the impossible situations we face. That’s how we become a revitalized people. We face the impossible with hospitality and listening to each other. We take the time to be together in fellowship, away from the business and busyness of church life that distracts us from our true purpose: a relationship with Jesus Christ grounded in prayer and worship, expressed in hospitality and service of our neighbor. We may not see eye to eye, but we can, through Jesus, connect heart to heart. That connection with one another is the foundation of a renewed congregation.
Toward the end of the conference, a long-time youth leader got up and shared. She shared her observance of groups of youth, black and white, weren’t mingling. So, she decided to work with them. She had them write out what they had heard about the other group. On the list from black a youth commented :“white churches are so quiet” because once at a white church he wanted to applaud a powerful performance, but was stopped because no one else did. On the list from the white youth was written “not interested in college” The leader probed further. A white girl began to cry. She said it wasn’t true, what she was taught. At the conference she met many black youth very interested in college. The group discovered they had learned things that were stereotypes. There was more to the story, the youth learned. It took spending time together to learn what was true.
Ultimately, each family, each church, each community, must figure out is the better part to what God is calling us. The 225th General Assembly of the PCUSA, meeting in Louisville KY, in the listening process on race relations, has recently issued a formal apology for the sin of slavery and its legacy, with a commitment to repairing the breach caused by the ongoing effects of racism. We have chosen the better part.
To what acts of hospitality and listening are we being called to do so that the love, mercy and justice of God in Jesus be manifest in our midst? Surely, we can reach out with food like Sarah and Martha did, it’s one of our most common forms of hospitality. However, like Mary and Abraham, we can be hospitable by listening, listening to the stories that others need to tell. As we get involved in each other’s lives, from this group here, to all the groups out there, we learn what we once considered impossible becomes possible through the power of divine love. That is the practice of neighboring. That’s how we begin the process of congregational revitalization, of spiritual renewal of our own souls.
Abraham & Sarah’s hospitality made possible a new generation to be born. In Mary and Martha’s struggle, a community is born guided to always listen to each other, to balance our differences to serve one another. In these impossible times, let us choose the better half, found in the practice of hospitality. This summer, let us begin the process and reach out and get to know each other’s stories. Can we do this intentional act of hospitality? For this is how we begin to renew, heal, become vital: through hospitality and listening, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Just select someone in the congregation that you don’t know well. Go out for coffee and get to know each other. Give the gift of time to someone and see what a difference it makes in your life. So by sitting at the feet of Jesus, may we learn to listen and to choose the better part. Amen.