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Risky Hospitality
a homily based on Luke 10:25-37
Thomas Hall, DPS homiletics editor

Some time ago, I was to speak at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I took the last flight out of Durham. We landed late. A hair-raising, fifty-dollar, one-hour cab ride later, I was deposited at a now utterly dark, locked-up-tight Lutheran seminary. Had no idea where I was supposed to sleep. Wandered about, bag in hand, trying this door and that, everything locked and dark. Midnight. Finally, I saw one last light on in a house on campus. In desperation, I knocked on the back door. A woman came, peered out. I told her who I was. She invited me in.

As it turned out, her husband was the only person I knew at the seminary-John Vannorsdahl, the president. He wasn’t home, but Pat graciously fed me, phoned for me, got me to where I was supposed to be. It’s great to be on the receiving end of hospitality offered to a stranger.

"I don’t usually open the door at night when John is away," said Pat. "It’s a tough neighborhood. But you looked harmless."

I am. As a Methodist preacher wandering around Philadelphia at midnight, I am harmless. But if you’re a woman alone, be careful how you open your door to strangers. It is not always great to be on the giving end of hospitality.

You’ve heard the story of Mary and Martha’s house-the story about women who opened their door to strangers and got surprised.

Here’s another story: There was this wealthy woman over in Shunem. Anytime prophet Elisha happened to go through town, she invited him over for fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, and squash. It’s in the Bible. She said to her husband, "I tell you Abe, this is a real prophet, this bald-headed man of God who’s always stopping by for lunch. Let’s build him a special room so he can stay here whenever he likes."

My grandmother’s house had a room called "The Prophet’s Chamber" which was set aside for traveling Methodist preachers. This is where the term came from-the room which the Shunammite woman set aside for Elisha. Elisha loved the room as much as he loved her cooking. So he says to her, "I want to repay you for your hospitality. Name whatever you need, it’s yours just for the asking."

Well, I told you she was rich. She tells Elisha thanks, but she’s well fixed and doesn’t need a thing. "What on earth can I give an old woman who’s got everything?" Elisha asks his servant.

"Well," says the servant, "she’s got no son and, although her husband is a rich man, he’s old. "Great idea!" says Elisha. "Call her over and I’ll give her the good news."

"At this season, when the time comes around, you shall embrace a son," Elisha tells her.

"I’ll embrace what?" she said (as she turned up the volume on her hearing aid). "Young man, do you know how old I am? Have you seen my husband? Who said I wanted a son?"

Nine months later, the Thursday afternoon Book Club really had something to talk about. Moral: Be very careful about being nice to prophets. A cup of tea perhaps, a light lunch, but be wary of sleepovers.

They’re a couple of sisters, Mary and Martha, who lived over in Bethany. Mary, who loved to sit around and talk about great ideas, and Martha, who loved to throw big dinner parties and make cakes from scratch. Jesus was on the road traveling and Martha invites him in for a big meal. (Remind you of the Shunammite woman?)

Now put Jesus’ visit to Martha in context. Were you here last week? Do you remember the story that Jesus told to the lawyer? The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). A man, on his way to Jericho, falls among thieves. They beat him up, leave him "half dead." Now, two men go down the road: a priest, a pious layperson. They both pass by the unfortunate traveler without helping. A Samaritan, a lousy Samaritan, was the only one who stopped and helped the suffering stranger, receiving him, bandaging him, risking his own life for the life of the wounded stranger. "Go, do likewise," says Jesus.

So maybe Martha heard that story of the good Samaritan and took it to heart. Here is Jesus, out in the road. "Come on over to our house," she says. "In two hours I’ll whip you up the best kosher meal you ever ate." See? Martha is doing what Jesus said to do. She has gone and "done likewise"-received this hungry, needy stranger into her house. She’s in there working like a dog (before the days of Kenmore or Cuisinart). But there’s her sister Mary, lounging at the feet of Jesus as he explains to her the finer points of the Nicene Creed.

"Hey," says Martha, wiping her dishpan hands on her apron, "Jesus, how about telling that egghead sister of mine to get in here and help? ‘Go, do likewise’; right, Jesus?"

"Wrong, Martha," says Jesus. "Settle down and let’s talk. Doing is okay. But there’s much to be said for doing nothing, for listening. Mary knows.

I’m not just passing through town on my way to Jerusalem. I’m on my way to Calvary, passing through life to death. A few weeks and I’m outta here for good. Then you’ll need the Word more than food. Your fresh-baked rolls are great, Martha, but as they say, ‘You can’t live by bread alone’" (Deut 8:3; Lk 4:4).

He spoke these tough words to busy Martha just a few verses after he took his sharp left turn toward Jerusalem (9:51). The strange man of God that Martha invited to dinner has a cross on his back. What’s more, opening your door to Jesus, asking him in, is not just a matter of fixing up a few nice things for the preacher. It’s a matter of Martha taking up her cross as well.

Remind you of Elisha and the Shunammite woman? Open your door to a man of God, you might get surprised. God’s intrusions are rarely harmless. "Look, all I wanted was a little food, polite conversation." What she got was a trip from the geriatric ward to the maternity ward.

"Look, Jesus, we were supposed to have a nice evening, a little activism, collection of canned goods for the less fortunate, old clothes for the poor. You have to go spoil everything by this depressing talk of death. How much is this meal going to cost me, anyway?"

Open your door to God. Okay. Just remember: this is a real God, not some make-believe image of ourselves, not some tame deity you can have over for a chat. Break bread at the table of the living God; you don’t know how you’ll be surprised.

The Shunammite woman was like a lot of us. She was well fixed, yes. But her life was still fixed. Well fixed can be-well, fixed! The diamonds were nice, and the spring cruise. But at her age, with no child (which then meant no future) about all she could do is settle into what is, redecorate the den, add on a wing for the nice new young preacher. Her life was fixed.

Then she opened her door to the bald prophet and finds out that Elisha is more of a man of God than even she expected. He gives her more than her heart’s desire, some gift she could not dare to ask for because she dared not to conceive it possible. God’s presence intrudes, not always bringing what we ask for, but what God knows we need.

Martha opened her door to a divine intrusion. Surely it was true that conventional rabbis did not go to a single woman’s house, much less waste their wisdom in teaching women. But look at Jesus. Jesus makes Mary and Martha disciples. Jesus will not spoon feed them, patronize them with innocuous religious platitudes. He gives the truth of his way to them with both barrels, even though it be truth that is ambiguous, not easily defined, much less lived.

"Get our of the kitchen, listen, learn, follow me," he says.

Martha, like her Shunammite sister, also receives a gift, but not the gift Martha expected. She with Mary, is taken seriously, given opportunity to be a full disciple of the one who proclaims the intruding, barrier-breaking, living God. Having knocked on their door, he knocks down the barriers that have separated these women from the grace and power of God.

Be careful to whom you open your door, and whom you invite to sit at table. Every Sunday, when the wine is poured and the bread is broken at our church’s altar, we are risking intrusion by the barrier-breaking, loving God whose intrusions change everything.

I wonder if, in your life right now, there is a knock at your door. I wonder (I’m just asking) if where you are now living, there’s a stranger outside waiting for you to open up. That tug at the heart, that tap upon the door, it could be you-know-who?

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock," he said.

Let’s go ahead and let him in. You want to ask him in? What harm could he do? Amen.