Listen to the sermon here:
Scriptures: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
Mary and Martha were sisters. Jesus was their guest. Mary knelt at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words. Martha stood at the stove in the kitchen. Which one of these persons pleased Jesus more than the other? Ah, you know the story. Mary pleased Jesus more.
Have you known people who were so wrapped in their activities and goals and honestly did not remember food? Or persons who, needing to spend the night somewhere, brought their briefcases but no overnight necessities or change of clothing? I have. Annoying to say the least if we are the host and need to supply overnight necessities for that person. Annoying also if we have prepared a good meal and the person does not appear at the designated time or anywhere close to the time.
This reminds me of Mary and Jesus. They had their priorities straight. However, those of us who are endowed with the gift of hospitality think that means good meals on time, a clean house, clean towels, toothpaste if necessary, clean bed sheets. God’s idea of hospitality means sitting with the guest, listening to the guest, caring what is in the briefcase instead of worrying about the absence of a suitcase.
Talking about hospitality, our Old Testament lesson tells the story of Abraham and Sarah and their lack of a child between them. Abraham practiced generous hospitality when three unexpected visitors appeared. They claimed to be messengers of the Lord. The words of Genesis 18:1 say, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.” [Mamre was part of the Hebron area which is southwest of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea.] So these three visitors were not just regular travelers. They were holy visitors on a mission as part of the long-standing promise of God to Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on a beach and yet Abraham is very close to being one hundred years old and still not a child with Sarah. Even before these visitors made the big announcement that a child would appear soon, Abraham treated them well. He commanded Sarah to make bread. Abraham ordered a calf to be killed and prepared for these guests. Then Abraham stood with these three men as they ate the meal.
These visitors finally asked where Sarah was. Abraham informs them that she is in the tent. One visitor then proclaims, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” This is an unusually significant moment for Abraham and for Sarah.
This designated scripture for today ends here. Sarah’s response is not included. I moved to my Bible to refresh myself about the on-going story. I happened to have the NIV version in my hands. It emphasizes the fact that one of these visiting persons was indeed the Lord God, not just a person representing God. I read from the New International Version of the Bible, from Genesis 18:10 just after the men had asked about Sarah. “Then the Lord said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’ ”
It happens that Sarah was listening to the conversation from the door of the tent. I read from verse 12, “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’ Then the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ The Lord continued, ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.’ Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’ But the Lord said, ‘Yes, you did laugh.’ ”
Holiness for sure! The Lord was present. The Lord knew what Sarah was thinking! Did all of this come true. Was there a child within a year? Yes, there was a child named Isaac within the year. Sarah was 90; Abraham was 100 years old. The word holy applies because the Lord was using his All-Powerful attribute to engineer this part of history. Holy does not mean that the human characters were sinless. No! Both Abraham and Sarah were like you and me in the sin department. But God was so much with Abraham that Abraham was compelled to go through the motions of building an altar on which to lay this partially-grown son Isaac as the sacrifice. You may want to claim this as a prototype of God sacrificing Jesus on the cross.
So that you don’t collapse from holding your breath, God stopped Abraham just before Isaac was going to be burnt offering. God provided a sheep to be the sacrifice. It was a test of Abraham’s faith. Abraham passed the test. I will always think of that incident as child abuse but, because God was the director, it passes as holiness and faith.
Be that as it may, holiness is not limited to one hour of worship on a Sunday morning. Holiness can happen in the most unlikely places. It can be two homeless people on a freezing night where one of this pair moves close to share a blanket and offers a turn with a pair of gloves. Holiness happens when a child gives his hat to another child who does not have a hat. I actually know that when a coat collection was being made, a child in the congregation took the coat he had worn to church and placed it in the collection. This is holiness. It is the Spirit of God leading us to do God’s will. I am thinking that some actions even surprise God.
Paul is saying to the Colossian people that the mystery is that God dwells in us. There is holiness within us. Will we be perfect because God dwells in us? No, simply because we are not God. We are human. However, the holiness that is in us creeps out of us in various ways. Did you ever find yourself giving more money than you intended to someone or a group of people in need? Did you ever find yourself on a mission trip despite strongly disliking to “rough it?” Did you ever find yourself saying just the right thing to someone who was hurting?” Have you found yourself genuinely listening to someone who needs to talk? Did you find yourself being kind and not annoyed when things go wrong and you are very disappointed?
These are times when the holiness escaped from our souls and hearts without moving through our minds. These are times when our strength has been multiplied to make a difference in the world. These are holy moments. Some of you are natured to drop whatever you are doing, whatever you had planned to be doing, to go to someone who is hurting and you did more than say hello and listen for a few minutes. Some pastors are willing to spend a whole night or more with a family during a surgery or when a family member dies. This is holiness.
If we are not natured that way are we not holy? Wow! Terrifying question! Does being like Martha in the kitchen not count? Is there no holiness in that part of hospitality? What about the people who prepare community meals? Did you ever notice that some people who serve in community meals enjoy the cooking part and the serving-the-food part but do not enjoy being noticeably friendly with the guests? While some people who are not natured to prepare the food think nothing of sitting and eating and having conversation with the guests? Is one nature holy and the other not?
Not by my thinking! If we were all natured to be sitters, eaters and listeners what would we eat? If we all crowded into the kitchen and behind the serving table would the guests miss the love of God and find the atmosphere to be cold and unfriendly? I believe that God finds both natures to be holy. But then what do we do with Jesus saying to Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her?”
Have you heard, “Our children are only young once?” Just so with Jesus on earth. Because Jesus knew that he would not always be on earth, able to be visiting Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus, Jesus needed to be fairly forceful in his demands. Sometimes we need to step out of our natural personalities to take advantage of a short-lived opportunity to show our holiness. We cannot live our children’s young years again. We can re-live them in our minds endlessly. If we do the childhood times with holiness to our greatest ability with the help of God, we will re-live the early years of our children with happy memories. If we regret that we filtered the holiness through a screen of busyness or annoyance or laziness, our tormented memories follow us relentlessly.
Holy and blameless is a goal. We need to be willing and open to God’s holiness within us so that later we can honestly claim, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Is it too late for you, for me? The Psalmist in Psalm 15 is asking the question, “Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill?” The Psalmist goes on to describe the blameless lives who will be dwelling on God’s holy hill. This is a good goal but so unattainable. A blameless life! We are humans. But it is not too late.
Our saving grace is that God is full of grace. We have this Holy One come to earth, yet part of God, who taught mercy and grace, love and humility, gentleness and forgiveness. Jesus came to take our unholiness, as often as we ask, so that for a few moments we can claim to be blameless. Catch it, hold it, claim it, remember how it feels – being blameless!
Paul puts it this way. “For in Jesus 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. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in His fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before God..”
Remember this holy and blameless condition is not just a coating like nail polish on our skin. God lives in us. The holiness is sitting inside of us waiting to be used. The appearance of holy and blameless on our outward body is given to us as a holy mantle because of Jesus Christ. Do we work to keep all this holiness? We accept this holiness as a gift to be shared. Just as in all things from God, it must be shared to be kept. Amen