This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Wednesday 29 July 2020.
There are very few families mentioned in the gospels. The story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus is a rare snapshot of New Testament family life. We meet a family who offered him hospitality. As was the custom it was only the men who sat at table together. There was Lazarus who was the host, and the disciples seemed to have been there too. It must have been quite a large gathering. Martha was serving at table, bringing the dishes and taking away the empty plates. When the guests arrived, Mary, in an act of unrivalled love, had not only lavished expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, but used her hair to wipe them, an act which risked her reputation as even today Jewish women do not let men who are not family members even see their hair, let alone be touched by it. The welcome, the hospitality and the love shown to Jesus are unparalleled.
Nearly all the New Testament characters we celebrate are the men with exciting lives, those who travelled with Jesus, or who, like St Paul, were missionaries taking the gospel throughout the known world. But everyone can’t be travelling. Life must go on, and someone must stay at home. St Francis was also a traveller, and he and his band of brothers went around Italy preaching. One day he visited Cannara, a small village near Assisi. The people there heard his sermons, and every one of them wanted to join him in preaching the Word of God. That was the moment that Francis realised that there were people who wanted to follow his example, but that it wasn’t practical for families to be either split or uprooted – someone must stay at home to care for children and elderly. The Third Order, a group of women and men who live according to a Franciscan Rule, but who have jobs, families and homes, was born.
There is much to be said for the ministry of hospitality. Without the stay-at-homes, Jesus would have had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. Throughout his ministry the unsung, anonymous people were his support, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus represent them today.
Let me tell you a story of hospitality which I experienced. Many years ago, we went to stay with a friend who was working in Uganda. One day we went for a walk up Mount Elgon, on the border between Uganda and Kenya. A little way up, we met a young man who we began chatting to, who joined us for the rest of the morning. He was fascinated by our map – although he was a Geography A level student he had never seen a map of the area. When lunchtime came, he invited us to his family home. It was a traditional hut, and in it his mother was preparing lunch. She immediately invited us to stay. We ate together with the student – I suspect that she had given us her own and her husband’s lunch. It was very difficult to eat – boiled potatoes and matoke, a sort of green banana. It was very dry, and we didn’t dare drink the water, our own supplies having long been consumed. But nevertheless, the hospitality to complete strangers, from those whose lifestyle was simple, moved me, and I have never forgotten it. As a thank you gift we left the map behind.
I wonder how many of you are thinking wistfully about the times when you boiled the kettle and cooked and baked for friends and family. Hospitality is one of the things that has become harder in the present circumstances. But we can now, at least extend friendship to people in their ones and twos, or a few more if we can meet outside. St Margaret’s and St George’s have always been good at hospitality, with Lent lunches, harvest suppers and the Sunday School anniversary as well as the coffee after the service every week. Wednesdays are not the same without the tea and chat, and frequent Birthday celebrations after the service. Staycation has always been an opportunity to meet together, to make sure that those who are by themselves can join in outings and activities. We are not letting social distancing defeat us – we have reinvented Staycation to fit the circumstances. Come and join us for a week which starts and ends with prayer and worship, with social activities in between. Let’s have fun, and celebrate our church life in the best way we can.