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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies
given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI. Each homily is transcribed
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From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide
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NOTE: The homilies are available here five days after they are given, always on Friday. By signing up for our weekly e-mail, you will be notifed as soon as each is available. (See the upper right corner of this screen.)
When we listen to the first lesson, we might be a bit surprised at how, as soon as Abraham and Sarah saw some strangers coming, they stopped everything they were doing to welcome them. It shouldn't really surprise us that they wanted to show hospitality and make these strangers feel at home. Remember that Abraham and Sarah lived in what we now call the Middle East. My experience over the last few years of traveling in the Middle East is that hospitality is a very high value in that culture. Abraham and Sarah's hospitality was very typical and still is typical of people there.
Whenever I went into the homes of ordinary people, even very poor people, they were always extraordinarily gracious and generous. I found that the people of Iraq remained generous in their hospitality even as they had been deprived of necessities after years of sanctions. I remember one time especially when I was in the marketplace in Baghdad, just wandering around stopping at various small shops, and got into a conversation with the owner of one of the shops. At first he was very hostile.
He recognized me, of course, as someone from the United States, and he challenged me. "What are you doing here? What good will it do, that you come over here?" It was like I was intruding. But after a moment or so, he changed and became very friendly. In fact, he wanted me to take something from the shop as a gift, which I did. I wanted to pay for it, but he would not let me. He said, "I want you to understand that we are hospitable. That is part of our culture. We are ready to welcome anyone and everyone."
The scriptures today, the first lesson and the Gospel lesson, tell us about two very extraordinary situations of hospitality. We should reflect on them.
Abraham and Sarah, as I said, stopped everything and went to great lengths to prepare a full meal, a banquet really, for these strangers -- but this is much more than the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming strangers. We discover when we go further on into the passage that it is about God coming into their lives in a special way. God came to tell Abraham and Sarah, "Now is the time that the covenant will be fulfilled. As a sign of this, a son will be born to you a year from now when I return." The passage really is a story of a theophany, an appearance of God. Just like the letter to the Hebrews, it reminds us that when we welcome a stranger, we are welcoming God into our midst, because, of course, God lives in everyone.
It is important for us to try to develop this spirit of hospitality and welcoming here in our community. We welcome those who come into our midst on Sunday for our services, but also those who come into our soup kitchen every day. We welcome God when we welcome the stranger.
What we learn in the Gospel lesson is somewhat different. In the Gospel, Martha and Mary welcome Jesus, show him hospitality. This is a familiar story. I'm sure all of us remember hearing it many times, and perhaps remember our spontaneous reactions: "How unfair! Martha is doing all the work, and Mary is ... relaxing. Sitting at the feet of Jesus enjoying his company." I think if you asked most people, they would agree that the situation was unfair. Yet Jesus used the incident to make a very important point. He went as a visitor into a home, and the people there welcomed him. They began to serve him as they would any visitor. But, as in the first reading, this was no ordinary visitor. It was Jesus, the Son of God. Martha was so concerned about doing everything right that she forgot that she had a guest and who that guest was.
Jesus did not disparage the work that Martha was doing. Last Sunday's Gospel, the story of the Samaritan, showed us that Jesus clearly taught we should reach out in service to our neighbors. You stop what you are doing and you serve the other person. Jesus wanted Martha -- and all of us -- to understand that when we welcome a stranger, we should not just go through formalities. When we welcome a person, we try to interact with the person, to enjoy their company, to try to understand who this person is. That, of course, is especially important when it is Jesus who comes into our midst.
But there are other things to learn from this incident, too. First of all, scripture commentators point out that Jesus was, in fact, breaking customs that conflicted with his message. Last Sunday we reflected on how Jesus did not pay any attention to the rules about ritual purity, such as not touching a corpse because it makes you unclean. Jesus said, "Those things have to give way when someone is in need." In the reading today, Jesus again broke rules and customs by raising up women and giving them their full dignity and rights. In the time of Jesus, the rules prohibited women from being disciples, and scripture commentators tell us that for someone to "sit at the feet of the master" -- in this case, Jesus -- was to be a disciple.
By showing that women have as much a right as men to be disciples, to follow Jesus, to do his work and minister in his name, Jesus was breaking the customs of the time. That is a very important lesson for us to hear, because we still discriminate against women in our church.
I couldn't help but notice, and I'm sure some of you did too, that the words in our responsorial psalm were very masculine. "He who does justice" instead of "those who do justice," which would include everyone. We discriminate in our church. We exclude and separate. And we should not. By welcoming Mary as his disciple, Jesus showed us that those kinds of barriers have to be broken. Everyone is equal in freedom and dignity in Jesus' community of disciples. We have to learn that very important truth from this incident.
Another thing this incident tells us is that Jesus invites us to sit at his feet often. He invites us to spend time in quiet prayer and communion with him. That is what Mary did. This is so important for us to remember, especially in times of turmoil and difficulty. I know that I almost get overwhelmed sometimes because of how bad things seem in so many ways in our world. Think of the violence happening in our city now. It seems to be on the increase again.
A parish member told me today about how she feels overwhelmed because of a terrible violent incident. I hadn't heard about it on the news; perhaps you did. In Van Buren Township, just south of Detroit here, a man shot his wife, then killed himself. They were this parishioner's friends, and she is overwhelmed with sorrow. What do you do at a time like that? One thing to do is to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him.
If you are following the news at all, you are aware of the terrible violence and suffering among some of the poorest people on the whole planet. In Sudan, tens of thousands have died already and it seems nothing is being done to stop that violence. Or you hear about Israel and Palestine and the violence there. It seems to be getting worse and worse. I have friends in Baghdad who tell me that what you read in the papers about the chaos and the violence there is nothing compared to what is really going on.
It just seems to be overwhelming, the violence that surges up in our world and within our own country, and sometimes, if you are working to try to end some of that violence, you feel helpless. It can seem like nothing you do makes a difference. What do you do at a time like that? It seems to me that you should follow the example of Mary: Sit at the feet of Jesus for a while. You can do that here as we celebrate the Eucharist or some other quiet time with just yourself in communion with Jesus. Sit at his feet, and remember that it is not your job to change everything. That is God's job, and Jesus invites us to enter into that work. In the midst of any difficulty, any suffering, any violence, if you take the time to sit at the feet of Jesus -- be in communion with him and listen to him -- you will experience a kind of peace, I'm sure.
As I reflect on these scriptures today, one final thing occurs to me that relates to what happened when I was in Baghdad and met that shopkeeper. The root of the word hospitality is hospes, which means "guest" or even "friend." This reminds me of a very similar word with the Latin root word hostis, which means "enemy." One of the things that you do when you become hospitable is that you take a hostis, an enemy, and make that person your hospes, your guest or friend. That is what happened in Baghdad that afternoon. The two of us were sort of hostile to one another at the beginning -- saw each other as hostis -- but because he reached out, we changed to hospes, and a genuine regard for one another developed immediately.
That can happen for any of us, if we remember to be hospitable. We can take any hostis, or enemy, and transform that person into our hospes, our friend.
So there is much that we can learn, then, from these scriptures today. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Jesus said Mary had chosen the better part, had chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus, and that would not be taken from her. We must make sure to do that often. Then we will be able to be hospitable, to make enemies friends.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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