II Kings 4:8-17; Luke 10:38-42
First Congregational Church, Columbus
July 28, 2002 -- 10th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
Some people don't venture very far from home in their lifetime. And that's fine. No one says you need to. But then there's also folks who are constantly on the go. They are here today and there tomorrow. Life is filled with both kinds of people. And we see both kinds in our scriptures today.
The prophet Elisha was one of those frequent travelers. In fact, he passed through one town so often that a couple took pity on him, to the extent that they altered their house to accommodate his visits.
The text relates that "One day Elisha was passing through Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to have a meal. So whenever he passed that way he would stop there for a meal. She said to her husband, `Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God. Let us make a small chamber and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.'"
Sounds like the furnishings of a Holiday Inn! This was certainly hospitality above and beyond what would normally be expected. Here Elisha was welcomed as if he were family, a great honor in ancient society. In that household he had a permanent place at the table.
Jesus, too, seemed to have a ready room for himself whenever he passed through the village of Bethany. It was in the home of the sisters Mary and Martha. Our reading tells of one instance where they received Jesus into their house. On that occasion Mary sat at Jesus' feet as he taught while, at the same time, Martha was scurrying around trying to straighten up and prepare the meal. Jesus' gentle rebuke of Martha was not made so much critically as it was out of concern.
"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better way, which will not be taken away from her." Jesus' words are a caution for Martha, concern that she not let ordinary dinners distract her from things more important.
These two stories show us how the hosts served the needs of both men, yet the hosts-- in return-- were also served by their guests. Caring went both ways. Through something as basic as hospitality, these caring families provided an invaluable gift. Elisha and Jesus slept and ate in homes where they were not only received, but loved. These houses were more than just convenient places to stay, but second homes for them. Jesus and Elisha always found that the welcome mat was out.
Keep this in mind, but let's move to the present time. When a lady by the name of Sudie Black died she was mourned by scores of people, many of whom didn't even know her last name. She had lived in a small apartment over a Washington, D.C. drugstore for more than 35 years. Truly it was a modest home, but one that always had an open door to others. No one was ever a stranger there, at least not for long.
As word quickly spread about her death, many people she had befriended returned to the neighborhood. One successful businessman recalled the day when he arrived in Washington with only a single dollar in his pocket. He was 19 then and first met Sudie when he struck up a conversation with her on the way into a restaurant. After talking for a while she offered to pay for his meal so that he could use that dollar to start his new life. Whether it was the dollar or the confidence she helped to instill in him, this was his first step on making good in life.
Another man told of the time Sudie had gathered up a group of young people and took them to a farm to pick strawberries. When they returned to the inner-city they were exhausted, but Sudie was still full of energy. Before she went to bed she made each of them a pie from their own berries. He said it was the first pie that he ever had that was his very own.
As people gathered on the street in front of the drugstore they told many more stories about things she had done for them, about her help with jobs, or transportation, or a place to live. The stories were as varied as they were.
A restaurant owner remembered the time when she pitched in as a waitress on a holiday when he was short-handed. Another who was president of a construction company recalled how she had taken him under her wing shortly after he arrived here from Greece. A prominent attorney told how she had gone with him when he was looking for his first apartment. And the stories went on and on.
Sudie Black, who spent much of her free time caring for the people of her neighborhood, would probably have been surprised by how many still remembered the little favors she had done for them. A humble, sincere person, she only did what seemed right at the time. She truly lived by those words of Jesus where he said, "As you do unto the least of these, you do unto me."
Christ was indeed well-served by Sudie Black. Her example reminds us that Jesus didn't preach the Good News in the abstract, but always tied our good to the good of others. They are inseparable. He taught us not to withdraw from the world in pious retreat, but to enter actively into life and to become involved with our neighbors. We can't love God, he said, unless we learn to love those around us.
The Shumenite couple sensed the need of Elisha and responded to it directly. Martha and Mary knew that Jesus longed for a place of rest which he could always count on. They provided that very thing. The hosts in these two accounts didn't ask for any rewards. Precisely because their hospitality is genuine, they are given great gifts in return.
We may not be able to add a wing onto our house or, realistically, even make space for another person to move in, but that doesn't mean that all chances for hospitality are cut off. Hospitality begins by first opening our hearts to others. It starts by welcoming people into our world.
What Jesus encourages us to do is to show an enthusiasm for others' lives as well as our own, to see their welfare and our welfare intrinsically linked. That's something we may have to grow into, to learn how to do. The more we practice it, though, the easier it becomes.
Again and again we're presented with opportunities to be of assistance to others. We're given chances to show how we can be there in responsive ways to those in need. In a sense you might say that this is a test of how real our love for God is. It's easy to talk a good game but, the truth is, we also have to show evidence of our faith. This is what separates the devoted from those who only posture their concern.
In a biography of Mother Teresa, Malcolm Muggeridge recalled the time when he saw her and another sister off at a train station in Calcutta. "It was very early," he writes, "and the streets were full of sleeping figures; sleeping with that strange, poignant abandon of India's homeless poor.
"We drove up to the station, absurdly enough, in a large American limousine which happened to be at my disposal. The porters rushed expectantly forward when I got out followed by two nuns carrying only a basket of provisions, most of which, I well knew, would be distributed along the way.
"I saw them to the train, and settled them into a third-class compartment. Mother Teresa has a pass on the Indian railways given her by the government [to support her work..]" Muggeridge then goes on to say that she would have liked an airline pass, too, and that she even tried to work out an arrangement for free travel to save money for her order. She told the officials that she'd gladly work as a stewardess in exchange for her ticket.
My guess is that she would have made a great flight attendant. I certainly would have been totally comfortable in her care, and that's from a person who doesn't like to fly. She was one of those persons whose heart was truly bigger than she was.
More often than not, what we're called upon to give to others is little things, but done generously. Sometimes a person lacks something small, but significant. A ride to the grocery store, help with yard work, a babysitter for a few hours. Maybe all they need is a smile, but it's yours to give or withhold.
"To serve and protect" is more than just a saying you see on some police cars; it's a way of life for the Christian. It's the servant model shown us so clearly by Jesus. But there's also a good feeling in knowing that someone else's day is a little better because you cared enough to be part of it, that you gave something of yourself to benefit them. To love another in this way-- a friend, a neighbor, even a stranger-- is central to our faith. To love another through caring is to meet Jesus in his need, though to us he may wear a thousand faces.
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