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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

When Hospitality Is Hard

John 12:1-8

When Hospitality is Hard

Sunday September 18, 2016

Rev. Dr. Susan E. Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port

Our theme for worship this month is Hospitality. The Bible is filled with stories about hospitality because it was a topic explored repeatedly in both Old and New Testaments. On the first Sunday in September we read the story of Abraham and Sarah. This Hebrew patriarch and matriarch greeted the strangers who showed up unexpectedly at their gate by creating a sumptuous feast for them. Their hospitality was rewarded because after the delicious meal was consumed Abraham got the best news of his life form these strangers, and their message turned out to be a true gift from God for him. Last week we talked about the way that Jesus offered hospitality to the people of Jericho and how he sought out society’s outcasts and invited tax collectors to dine with him. His was a gracious kind of hospitality that changed lives. When he invited the tax collector Zacchaeus to eat with him, the man was so moved by Christ’s acceptance that Zacchaeus gave most of his fortune away to the poor in a generous gesture of his own. (If you missed one of those sermons you can find them in the weekly email or on our website)

Today we look at another dinner guest at a meal where Jesus is the guest of honor at the home of Lazarus. This is not a state dinner but an intimate meal where Jesus is gathering with some close friends. Now this party should have been a huge homecoming. You may remember that Lazarus was the man whom Jesus had recently raised from the dead, and he and his sisters Martha and Mary were hosting a feast in Jesus' honor, to show their appreciation and to celebrate all that Jesus had accomplished over the course of his ministry. The guest list was set and the people were chosen carefully. The food had been seasoned beautifully, and simmered patiently. It is 6 days before the Passover so there is a heightened sense of holy expectation for what should have been a big victory lap for Jesus.

But things did not go as planned. Half way through the meal Mary came from the kitchen and entered the room full of men. She came carrying a large jar filled some of the most expensive ointment. She walked around the table to the place where Jesus was seated. Now women came with jars to fill wine pitchers or offer more food, but Mary’s entrance was not a routine appearance. When she knelt down at Christ’s feet everyone must have known that something was up. After she had everyone’s attention, Mary broke the jar spilling nard, this pungent perfumed oil all over Jesus’ feet. Then to top things off, Mary wiped Christ’s feet with her hair. People must have been aghast. Everything was supposed to be so perfect that night; it was all meant to be beautiful and then suddenly the dinner was in chaos. The smell of the fragrant oil was everywhere. Judas scolded Mary for squandering a treasure. Let's take a closer look at this story and see what we can learn about hospitality for our lives today.

In the first place, Hospitality is often messy. In the story this morning Mary took an extraordinary amount of pure nard and poured it all over the floor. Nard was the oil they used in funeral processions to cover the stench of a corpse. The smell of that oil must have been so strong in an enclosed space it would have been enough to knock you out. But Mary did not stop there. She bent over Jesus’ feet and took her veil off, unwrapped her hair and used it to wipe his feet. Now people had the same concerns about women’s hair in the Middle East then that many do today. Mary’s hair was for her husband to see, and should have remained hidden from view because the rules about women’s hair were just as strict like they are now in some cultures. Not only was her hair now full of oil and dirt, but you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see the sexual aspect of her gesture. It was all wrong on so many levels- wrong for a woman to enter the room except to serve, wrong to disrupt the meal and make such a mess, wrong to waste the nard, wrong to make this sensual gesture. Bad form, bad manners, bad taste. It must have been a mess in every imaginable way.

You may remember that Mary had a reputation as a loose cannon. In Luke's gospel at a different dinner party left the kitchen and invaded the men’s space. Even when her sister Martha, asked for help in the kitchen Mary continued to cause a scene. In a story that most of us have domesticated we lose the outrageous quality in Mary’s behavior too easily. Mary was your nightmare intruder at a formal dinner. She was the person you did not want anywhere near your house. She needed too much attention, and had an instinct for ruining things. Most of us have a few loose cannons on our guest list. We have someone at the table who needs to get the evil eye from time to time to keep them in line. We have someone in our family who will inevitably grab the spotlight, or drink too much, or cause a scene intended to provoke everyone, or push your buttons. 

When we entertain we try to make things practically perfect. We try for Martha Stewart moments. Most people make an effort to be on their best behavior. Both guests and hosts plan ahead, seek harmony and strive to sustain it. We all join together to keep everyone in line or to smooth over gaffes when necessary. Between the menu and the seating plan we strive for congeniality. But things can go either way.

  Nowhere have I seen this truth more clearly demonstrated than on the popular PBS series Downton Abbey. Set in the country estate of the Early of Grantham and his American wife Cora the show revolved around the family’s social life and the extraordinary efforts they went to, to create a home which offered a near perfect standard of hospitality. Before every meal in their formal dining room butlers set the table using rulers to line up the cutlery and stemware. A gong rang throughout the house to summon the upstairs crowd to dress for dinner, and then no effort was spared. Men arrived in the drawing room for cocktails before dinner wearing tails or tuxedoes in a pinch. Women wore formal evening gowns. The courses of the meals were served by elegant footmen in their own formal wear and white gloves. As these characters in Edwardian England made a life of entertaining people, no expense was spared in some of these dinners, shooting weekends, elaborate picnics, and elegant luncheons. 

 Yet even with all these preparations and high expectations the meals were often deliciously unpredictable. That dining room was the scene of stormy debates among the characters, stinging criticisms between sisters, guests flirting with footmen, servants listening to gossip and then transmitting it to the downstairs crew, trysts that cannot be ignored including one where a young gentleman ends up dead in the bed of a noblewoman.  

Though these events all started with high expectations for ideal behavior sadly nothing was perfect because imperfect human beings sat at that dining room and attended all those parties.  If you managed to watch the series and still imagine that the meals of the landed gentry were smooth untarnished affairs, then in the final episode Lord Grantham suffers a gastric aneurism that bursts right at the dinner table and he jumps to his feet in pain and commences to coughs blood everywhere all over the starched white linen. Even the actors now complain about the scenes in the dining room because the standards were so exacting. Sitting at ramrod attention for hours in those scenes was hard. One thing we all learned was that the show was a delightful fantasy in an era when rigid class rules were already breaking down. The drive for perfection came at a cost that was not sustainable. Hospitality is often messy.

Secondly, Hospitality requires a sense of humor. You cannot be a very good host if you cannot laugh at yourself. Two weeks ago we mentioned the story of Sarah Smiley, the wife of a serviceman in Bangor ME who dreaded her husband's deployments. One year she decided it would buoy her spirits and those of her three sons if they invited people over every week of the year Dustin Smiley was deployed to Iraq. Sarah wrote a book about her experience hosting television personalities, members of congress, Olympic athletes and high school principals. What made the story wonderful was Sarah Smiley's sense of humor. She could laugh at herself when a senator came for dinner and she had forgotten to buy napkins so served the meal with folded paper towels in their place. She could laugh when her youngest boy made the occasional bathroom joke and Smiley’s equanimity leveled the playing field making it possible for everyone to sit down together. Many of us forget that what makes our hospitality good is not perfection but our ease when we entertain. There is nothing more re-assuring than a host or hostess who can laugh at the person who tries to turn everything topsy turvy. Jesus had that ability to see the gift in what Mary did, laugh at it and re-frame her actions.

This week I read the delightful Cape classic by Marcia Monbleau called The Inevitable Guest: A Survival Guide to Being Company and Having Company. If you have not read it, it is a laugh-out-loud-till-the-tears-are-pouring kind of read. Hers is a survival guide written specifically for residents of the Cape who inevitably discover that once they have moved here their houses will be full of guests.  People they know and barely know will suddenly know them and want a spot on the season’s roster of guests.

Monbleau writes about the weekend when they entertained an actress from New York, an elderly gay couple and a nun from California. The nun almost burned down the house heating water for tea. The men renamed the dog. Her college roommate showed up unexpectedly and decided to sleep on the floor, and the actress chose to check in at a nearby Bed and Breakfast, which was fine by all.

For all her complaining Monbleau also writes touchingly about a summer house she loves where none of the chairs match and people leave books that they enjoyed but don't want to lug home. With just enough bedrooms to go around, and a clothesline full of towels and wet socks, she writes, "the house is always at its best on late summer nights when out of open windows all around spill supper smells, laughter, conversation from the dishwashing team, talk between friends and the occasional Chopin from the old upright…. And then it is over every fall. Wicker chairs are stacked in the front hall...windows are locked tight. All is unplugged and the last car pulls away.” She says, “I drive by often in the winter just to make sure of the old place. It's not my house. But it's in my life."

That is what these stories in the Bible do for us. We don’t own them. They did not take place in our house or happen at our dinner tables but they are in our lives now. They remind us of a holy menu that God is always setting for us when we gather. In the midst of life's confusion and all the crazy people who ruin any hope of perfection, we find a way to laugh at life. Then we discover what is best and must be cherished in the human journey – those experiences when we knew we were standing on holy ground.

Hospitality is a decision we make. We can complain about the awkward guests and the impervious intruders, but our faith calls on us to decide whether to face the world openly or in a defended position. For all her sarcasm, Marcia Monbleau only pretends to be a bad news host. She complains but that is for laughs. In the end she knows what real hospitality is, because she describes it to eloquently. It is the ability to be with one another. She cherishes this experience so much that she finishes her book with moving descriptions of an empty house that lights up every summer and welcomes the world in. She enjoys these times so much that she drives by to check on the place routinely. It is a symbol for her of something fleeting but precious. It is a place where true hospitality is given and received. That is always a choice we make.

  For all her curmudgeonly complaining about the guests she has entertained, Monbleau decided long ago to write about a world where people know how to welcome one another. We become good hosts when we decide to accept one another, the easy guests, the delightful family friends and the crazy people who inevitably make a scene, the snarling sisters who never let up and the nuns who make mistakes with your stove. In the end hospitality is always a decision. Jesus was unflappable as a guest and host at the table of life because he had decided long ago to receive everyone around him as a gift from God. In the end that decision profoundly changed the way he lived his life and the difference he made in the lives of others. 

Posted: Sunday September 18, 2016