Special Teaching Sermon on The Middle East: On a Flight From Cairo to New York With Isaac and Ishmael
I’ve been teaching, working, and traveling, with students and adults, in the Middle East for forty-five years. My experience has included working in churches in Jerusalem and Cairo, travel and study in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, teaching Arabic, and translating materials from Arabic into English, including a full length book by an Iraqi human rights lawyer on the concept of tolerance in Islamic thought.
In a moment I’ll describe an encounter I experienced with the sons of Abraham - Isaac and Ishmael - on a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago. Of course, I don’t mean the actual sons of Abraham, but the eponymous ones: Abraham’s spiritual descendants: Isaac for Jews and Christians and Ishmael for Muslims. By the way, Ishmael’s name in the Qur’an is Ismail, a popular name for Muslim males.
We know from Genesis that both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham: Ishmael by a slave woman named Hagar, and Isaac by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Isaac, of course, outranked Ishmael because his mother was Abraham’s legal wife while Hagar was only a slave. Ishmael and Hagar were eventually banished. Tradition says they wandered in the Arabian peninsula and wound up in Mecca where their descendant Muhammad would many centuries later introduce the world to the religion of Islam.
And so was born the rivalry between the monotheistic religions that comes down to us to this day, a rivalry not only of religion, but also importantly a rivalry over the lands and resources of the Middle East. And, as Nine-Eleven reminded us, it’s a rivalry that has spread to include much of the rest of the world, even a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago.
So, what about that flight from Cairo to New York? In the spring of 2004, I took a group of students to Cairo to participate in a Model United Nations conference. Model UN is an international organization that brings students together from all over the world. In 2004, the conference was held in Cairo. I’ve also led my students to Model UN conferences in Amman, Doha, and Lisbon. And, I’ve taken students to Istanbul to meet and discuss international affairs with Turkish students.
The Cairo trip began with sightseeing at the pyramids, the medieval Islamic monuments and markets in the Old City, visits to museums, and a boat ride on the Nile, all of this before the conference itself where my students debated the big international issues of the times with their peers from all over the world.
When it was over and we’d boarded the plane for the twelve-hour flight back to New York, I was looking forward to a very long nap in the air. While my group was seated together several rows up from me, my seat was in the middle of a row in Coach between two strangers.
It quickly became clear there would be no napping on that flight. I discovered I was shoulder to shoulder between two men whom I silently nicknamed “Ishmael” and “Isaac,” not those rival sons of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, but the Ishmael and Isaac of the religious conflict of our own times.
“Ishmael” was an Egyptian Muslim from Alexandria and “Isaac” was an American Jew from New York City. These were men whose hatred for one another quickly became loudly apparent. And so, there I was, shoulder-to-shoulder between two of the world’s oldest and most deeply entrenched hatreds.
When “Ishmael” and “Isaac” discovered who one another was, a shouting match erupted. Muslim Ishmael, leaning across me, yelled at Jewish Isaac, “I hate Jews; I’ve always hated Jews.” I asked him why he hated Jews. He yelled, “Because my father hates Jews and all my brothers hate Jews.”
The New York version of “Isaac” hurled similar epithets across me at his Muslim enemy on my left. I helped calm them down. However, no minds were changed that day. Isaac got up and moved away to an empty seat behind us. Ishmael and I didn’t speak for the rest of the flight. My attempts to foster at least some reconciliation and understanding that day ended in failure. Needless to say, I didn’t get the nap I’d hoped for.
After returning home, I tried to make sense out of that experience. I was drawn back to the Book of Genesis and to my first trip to the Middle East in 1979. On that trip, I’d visited the Palestinian West Bank town of Hebron, which Palestinian Arabs call al-Khalil. Traditions in all three faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) say that Abraham, Sarah, and other patriarchs and matriarchs from Genesis are buried there in a cave called Machpelah. In the first century, King Herod the Great built a shrine over the cave.
When Abraham died, Genesis 25 says that both Ishmael and Isaac returned to the Machpelah Cave to bury their father – together!
Sadly, that spirit of mutuality was short-lived. Today, Israeli soldiers guard the tomb because there have been serious disturbances there, the worst, in February, 1994 when, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an Israeli-American physician opened fire on early morning Muslim worshippers inside the shrine killing twenty-nine and wounding 125. This incident typifies tribalistic animosities that seem bent on blotting out the memory of what happened there three thousand years ago when two brothers, who had become patriarchs in their own right, buried their differences long enough so that they could come together and bury their father. The Machpelah of Genesis was sadly as far away as I’ve ever felt it on that trip home from Cairo.
So, is religion part of the problem in the Middle East? History is, after all, full of holy wars, crusades, and jihads. Is religion responsible for these divisions? To the extent that religious extremists feel free to exploit and amplify the differences between peoples in the region as they compete for land and resources, then, yes, religion is part of the problem.
The late Israeli-American Rabbi David Hartman thinks monotheistic religions deserve a big share of the blame for the animosity and violence between people who really do have more in common than they acknowledge. He used to say, "The one god of monotheism is an indicator not of unity but of division between and among people. The message throughout monotheism is sometimes one of intolerance. When occupation and ownership of land become linked to monotheistic religion, the message seems to be, ‘There's only enough for one.'”
This is especially the case, Rabbi Hartman says, in the Bible. In the Old Testament in particular there is a deep sense of scarcity. Adam has two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel gets his father’s blessing; Cain doesn’t. Abraham has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac gets the blessing, Ishmael doesn't. Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob gets the blessing, Esau doesn't." There never seems to be enough for everyone (in the Old Testament at least).
Rabbi Hartman argues that if pluralism and inclusivism don’t replace exclusivism in the Middle East, then everything is going to be lost for everybody. Sadly, a portion of the exclusivism in the Middle East is being practiced by Americans, like my seat partner Isaac on that flight from Cairo: he belongs to that faction of evangelical Jews and Christians who believe that the Messiah will not come until Israel is a secure Jewish state and all challenges to Israeli sovereignty over all of Palestine are removed.
But, while religion may be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. To the extent that religion encourages people to bury their differences, as Isaac and Ishmael did when they buried father Abraham, it can be a powerful force for hope and change in the world. For every vengeful soul in the Middle East who chooses violence (and in spite of what we see in the media, the number is actually quite small) there are many more who have chosen the way of peace and are working hard to make peace happen. Ishmael and Isaac saw their pasts come together and intertwine at that cave south of Jerusalem. As their pasts intertwined, my hope is that eventually so, too, will their futures.
There are good reasons for holding onto that hope. Historically, Middle Eastern adherents of all three monotheistic sects have for the most part been good neighbors with one another: for millennia, they’ve attended one another’s worship services in the synagogues, churches, and mosques, and celebrated one another’s weddings, funerals, and other religious festivals together with mutual joy and good will.
I’ve worshiped in a synagogue in Jerusalem made up of an interfaith Jewish and Christian congregation.
I’ve known Muslims who routinely attend services or prayers of all three faiths: they go to mosques on Fridays, synagogues on Saturdays, and churches on Sundays.
During a sabbatical year in Cairo, I served on the clergy staff of the Anglican All Saints Cathedral under Egyptian Bishop Ghais Abdel Malik and his Provost, The Very Reverend Philip Cousins, now retired and living in his hometown of York, England.. Services were held in both English and Arabic. On Pentecost, to honor the many tongues spoken on the first Pentecost day, scripture readings were both in Arabic and English. Meetings of the clergy staff with both Egyptian and non-Egyptian clergy together, opened with all of us reciting the Lord’s Prayer in both English and Arabic.
The cathedral sexton was an Egyptian Muslim named Mustapha. His is one of the most revered nicknames of the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an: it means “the chosen one.” Mustapha put all of us to shame because he’d memorized the entire Eucharistic service and other large portions of the Anglican prayer book. What some might call doctrinally incorrect behavior included Muslim Mustapha coming to the rail and crossing himself before receiving the bread and wine. I’m reminded of those services in Cairo each time Heather or Molly says just before communion is distributed, “No exceptions!”
There are many examples of people of all faiths who as I speak are working tirelessly for peace in the Middle East. But, let me close by mentioning a personal and somewhat unusual experience. I spent two summers working on the archaeological dig at Tel Miqne, the site of the ancient city of Ekron, a Philistine city mentioned in First Samuel 17 in the story of David and Goliath. I made friends on that dig with a Palestinian Muslim college student named Talal Nasrallah. Talal lived in Gaza, just a few miles away.
To pass the time, Talal and I discovered we liked to sing rock ‘n’ roll oldies (in my late teens, I played in a rock band on the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland. I still occasionally do public gigs with another veteran of ‘60s era rock bands). One of Talal’s favorite American groups was the Beach Boys. Never in my life did I expect a bond would be forged between an American Episcopal Priest and a Palestinian through singing Beach Boys songs together, but that’s what happened: “Isaac” and “Ishmael” singing rock ‘n’roll songs together while digging up biblical history on steamy hot summer days in Israel/Palestine! Go figure! God works in mysterious ways.
In today’s New York Times, British author Karen Armstrong says her understanding of religion has been influenced by the renowned medieval Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). He says in his Fusus al-Hikam (“The Seals of Wisdom”) that he felt at home in all places of worship because no faith has a monopoly on truth:
He wrote, “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.’ (Qur’an 2:115).”
And with that, I want to close with a traditional Arabic blessing. It goes,
السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allahi wa Barakatuhu!
May the Peace, Mercy, and Blessings of God be upon you!
by The Rev. Ted Thornton
My text this morning comes from our Epistle, The Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, verse 16: “...for he has prepared a city for them.”
And, two chapters later - 13:14 - we read a more extended development of this image, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
A city! According to the author of Hebrews, the Christian dream from the beginning has been an urban one, a community marked by all the features we'd expect from a city: cooperation and interdependence chief among them, and as a Christian city, defined further as a place where its citizens practice loving charity one with another.
Let’s listen to those lines again: “For he has prepared a city for them," and, "here we do not have an enduring city.”
These lines strike my ear at a time when they are especially hard to hear. When Covid struck, and more recently when Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, I, like many of you perhaps, began to feel even more acutely than usual the sense of impermanence that pervades our human existence on this planet: a military attack on a democratic country on top of a potentially deadly virus that just won’t go away, the relentless poisoning of our global biosphere, the senseless loss of life as people armed to the teeth with high tech weapons take life after life in our streets, churches, shopping centers, and homes, political, social, and cultural turmoil and divisiveness in our society, perhaps the worst since the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Yes, at times like these, I often succumb to what the Buddhists call a sense of the extreme impermanence of existence: a penetrating reminder that nothing this side of the grave lasts forever and, sometimes it seems, most of the good things hardly any time at all.
But then into these dark thoughts comes the lovely reminder of God’s promise. Our solace and salvation, Hebrews tells us, is our faith, based on God’s promise in scripture that all of us are in perpetual motion toward a perfect “city that is to come,” however that phrase may translate for each of us. For us Christians, beginning with the author of Hebrews, that city which is to come has been a heavenly version of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem? Jerusalem which to date has been sacked and burned to the ground over and over again by its neighbors near and far? Even the Mongols from far off East Asia raided it. There has been nothing permanent about the earthly Jerusalem to report in our telling of its story. Throughout its long history beginning in the fourth- millennium BC, Jerusalem has been attacked fifty-two times, captured and recaptured forty-four times, besieged twenty-three times, and completely destroyed twice.
Jerusalem? No, not the earthly, finite, transient, and vulnerable Jerusalem of our times. Not that Jerusalem, but "the city that is to come.” What a beautiful vision (if visions are to be trusted)!
Whatever we make of Jerusalem’s often grim history, it is true that cities are the result of relationships, relationships hewn from the trust - the faith - that human beings can cooperate and come together to build healthful, nurturing, and secure communities for the mutual benefit of all.
This morning, I find myself looking back nearly fifty years ago to my years in Divinity School and one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known. His name was Dieter Georgi. Dieter was a German émigré to this country, a minister and New Testament theologian.
But, it wasn’t in college or seminary that Dieter Georgi became a scholar. He became a scholar, he used to say, at the age of fourteen, in 1944 and 1945 as whole swaths of his homeland of Germany were being reduced to rubble in the wake of the Allied advance. Much of that time he remembered spending on the move from bunker to bunker to escape the bombing raids. He was still too young to fully fathom the horror Hitler had been wreaking upon Europe or to be held responsible for any of it. He saw his home town of Frankfurt go up in flames. And, he was in an underground shelter in Dresden when the “firestorm” destroyed that city. These experiences taught him that the essence of life is impermanence, and the essence of faith is what Christian theologians call theologia viatorum: the theology of pilgrims, wayfarers, a people and a theology in perpetual motion, never at rest, always on the move. What this means is that our search for an understanding of God and God’s purpose is never complete this side of the grave. God is never revealed all at once, only by degrees as we journey through life. The best we can do is put ourselves on the path and journey on.
Our atheist friends think we’re fools. They always have. Yes, as Paul tells us in the first century, “we are fools for Christ’s sake (First Corinthians 4:10).”
Whether one is religious or not, the lesson seems to be that nothing stands still and none of us is ever everything we can be; and that, therefore, we should never seek refuge in static dogmas about ourselves, about others, or about this changeable “city” we call our world: no final judgments about anybody or anything. We are never complete; we are never finished products, not on this side of the grave anyway.
Dieter’s experience instilled in him an acute sensitivity to change, a critical capacity for anyone who aims to become a genuine historian or theologian. And, his experience, mediated through his teaching, cemented my own twin loves of history and theology. Dieter was the best teacher of both disciplines I’ve ever known. His principal lesson was that we’re always on the road, always in flux: this is the chief reality of life.
As Heraclitus taught the Greeks, we never step into the same river twice. So, we’d best be humble about any conclusions we’re tempted to draw about one another, and, we’d best nurture a healthy tolerance for ambiguity, a quality, it seems to me, that is in desperately short supply in our world today.
Dieter Georgi’s favorite novelist was William Faulkner, who, he used to say without a trace of irony, was also in his view America’s greatest theologian. One of his favorite Faulkner novels was The Reivers. Like many great novels, the story is about a journey, this one to Memphis in a stolen (or “reived”) automobile. There are many hilarious misadventures on this journey.
Along the way, the car gets traded for a racehorse who, it turns out, always comes in last because he likes to look at the other horses. His owners finally get him to win by slipping him one of the more innovative performance enhancing drugs out there: administered on the sly, of course, and rumored to be a sardine. The story is a metaphor for life as movement, life as surprise, life as a joyride, a joyride none of us asked to be put on and for which none of us has full permission.
Faulkner’s metaphor of life as a journey from one state of impermanence into another is a good fit for all our readings this morning. Notice that in our reading from Genesis when God promises Abraham an eternal line of descendants, the promise does not include what might happen to those descendants along their way through history. It doesn’t include what they will suffer, what adversities they will endure, only that the line of descendents will persevere; it will endure.
And maybe that’s the point: to persevere, to endure. The late Harvard University Chaplain Rev. Peter Gomes used to say that the most fundamental truth is perseverance in the face of human folly.
Implicit in Jesus’ warning in our reading from the gospels today - to be watchful, to be alert - is the discipline of perseverance. To me perseverance is best summed up in our frequent advice to one another to “hang in there,” to endure and in watching out for the return of the master to prepare ourselves to welcome the promised kingdom, God’s new and lasting reality, again, "the city that is to come.”
Jesus’ call for us to be alert, or, literally in the original Greek, to be watchful for the return of the master doesn’t contain a foretelling of what might happen to us while we wait, watch, and remain on alert through our years walking this earth. There is nevertheless a great blessing attached to being watchful. The Greek word Luke uses in 12:37 we translate as “watching” (or being alert) is the present participle γρηγοροῦντας (do you know any males named “Gregory?” They’re the “watchful ones”).
Jesus says, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes.” More importantly, in asking us to be watchful for the return of “the master,” Jesus is asking us to be alert for signs that God is already at work in our worldly, our secular cities.
Another of my old teachers (still alive at the age of 93) is Harvey Cox, most famous for his 1965 best seller, The Secular City. That title and an insufficiently incomplete reading of the book led many to associate Cox with the “God is Dead!” movement of those times as people started looking for ways for us to carry on without God. Cox, who is an American Baptist minister as well as a theologian, says his original title was not “The Secular City” but “God and the Secular City.” His publisher thought the longer title wouldn’t sell as many books and insisted on the shorter one. But, it’s the longer one that gets at Cox’s real point: that God has not removed herself from the saeculum, the lifetimes of earthly cities and their citizens, but is already hard at work creating “that city that is to come.”
This coming week do your best to comfort someone, especially someone who appears to be in doubt or seems to be losing faith. Encourage them to be watchful, to be alert, to hang in there: in short, to become good “Gregories.” Encourage them to look for signs of God already at work on that “city that is to come” right here and now in our secular cities where people are working to heal, help, feed, shelter, and sustain others.
By Rev. Ted Thornton
Our reading from Luke’s gospel this morning pits us against a problem that should feel familiar to us all, the problem of competing agendas: in this case, between two sisters who are friends of Jesus. At stake in this contest is the ancient Middle Eastern code of hospitality, one of the most important virtues of life in the Middle East for all the people who’ve lived there throughout the ages and down into our own time.
In 1979, I spent a summer studying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. One hot day, some of us traveled south to visit the tenth-century BC ruins of Beersheba, located in the northern Negev desert region of Israel. It’s the place where Abraham swore an oath with the Philistine king Abimelech in Genesis 21:25-34, the oath that gave Abraham rights to draw water from the well there. It goes without saying that rights to water sources are important to have if you’re going to survive, especially so in the Negev desert. That well is where God renewed the divine promise to Isaac in Genesis 26:23: “I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”
The day in July when we visited the remains of ancient Beersheba the temperature was close to a hundred degrees. A group of Arab Bedouins had pitched their goat hair tents near the site of the ancient city. Outside one tent we were amused to see a Honda generator and a TV antenna. There were a few children playing among the city ruins and a woman we assumed to be the grandmother of the kids who, with no questions asked and no hesitation, approached and offered us loaves of freshly baked pita bread still warm from the oven. She was practicing the ancient Middle Eastern custom of hospitality: diyafa in Arabic, eruach in Hebrew.
Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Peter Altmann offers one of the clearest summaries of the importance of hospitality in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. It all begins with this critical question: What should we do with strangers, people who just show up at the opening of your tent as we did on that hot July day, or in Abraham’s case from our reading in Genesis 18 when he shows up at Abimelech’s tent?
People away from home need protection, shelter, and food. They are at the mercy of the locals. In response, the Hebrew Bible makes a central virtue of hospitable care for outsiders. The Israelites were reminded in scripture (Leviticus 19:34, for example) that they, too, had been aliens in Egypt. Hence, it was their duty to care for strangers.
Jesus, like many Passover pilgrims and despite more than one visit to the city we know about, was a stranger in Jerusalem, and as a Galilean he was doubly suspect because his home region had a reputation for rebellion against the ruling empire of Rome. Anti-Roman terrorists from Galilee had become a constant thorn in the Roman side in Jesus’ time.
The law of hospitality is alive and well in the Middle East today, especially in Arab countries. Over the course of my thirty-four years teaching at Northfield Mount Hermon, I led several student and teacher travel study trips to Egypt and Jordan among other countries. More than once, I found myself face to face with those ancient laws of hospitality, especially at those times when I was there to conduct business of any kind such as securing lodging for my students and getting us started on our itineraries.
If you plan to do business in Arab countries, I quickly learned not to expect to seal any deals on the first meeting, or even the second, third, and sometimes fourth. Instead, I had to allow time to be lavished with hospitable offers of tea (shay), Turkish coffee (ahwa mazbut) and food. The custom of spending more time than seems necessary receiving hospitality from one’s Arab counterparts can become frustrating for Western businessmen and women who are sent over on tight expense accounts and for whom time is money. But that’s what you’ve got to be prepared to do if you want to do business in the Middle East.
Conversations that don’t begin with extensive questions over the course of perhaps multiple meetings about your family life and where you live will never be the case. Business is always business deferred until a relationship is formed. That’s the whole point of hospitality for Middle Easterners: establishing relationships. As was the case with Abraham, lavishing rest and refreshment on the strangers who visited him and the Bedouin woman who welcomed me and my friends with fresh bread, hospitality is its own reward. Relationships have always been the most important safeguard for making and keeping peace with one another in the Middle East.
So, why after taking note of all this is there a problem with Martha and how she behaves in the gospel today? Elizabeth Johnson, Catholic theologian and Professor Emeritus at Fordham University tells us that the problem in the gospel today is not Martha’s hospitality; it’s her distractibility. There’s more going on with Jesus’ visit than meets Martha’s eye.
What starts out as a pleasant story about Jesus being welcomed into the home of beloved friends takes a sharp turn when Martha, distracted by her many tasks, comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me (10:40).”
Many of us may cheer Mary for her inversion of the traditional role of women: she takes time out to simply sit with and converse with a man instead of waiting on him hand and foot. Others may empathize with Martha’s resentment of her sister for leaving her to do all the work. Some of us may do both and end up doubly perplexed.
Jesus’ response to Martha seems less than sympathetic: he chides her for her distraction and her worry, and in turn praises Mary for taking time out from her duties as hospitable co-host.
The problem with Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality. Certainly Jesus commends this kind of service to the neighbor many times, notably in the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard Heather preach about last Sunday. That story in Luke immediately precedes the story of Mary and Martha. It’s where Jesus goes out of his way to point out the duty we have to treat strangers, even those we may dislike. The problem again with Martha is not her hospitality, but that she is worried and distracted. The Greek word Luke uses in verse 40, periespato, that we translate as “distracted,” has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions. We’re back to competing agendas, aren’t we?
Martha’s distraction leaves no room for the most important aspect of hospitality: gracious attention to the guest. In fact, she goes on to further break the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest and by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute. She even goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her (“Lord, do you not care…?”).
At this point, it’s helpful to consider the geography of this story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. The geography of the story is a crucial backdrop to understanding why there may be more important things going on in this particular visit of Jesus than hospitalitable offerings of food, drink, and a safe haven.
It’s well known that Luke uses the geography of the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem, to frame his theology of Jesus’ message and mission. Luke in fact saturates his geography with spiritual force. It would not be too extravagant to say that for Luke the geography of Jerusalem and its nearby surroundings is the stage upon which the good news of Jesus' conquest of death and our salvation is played out.
The story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha is set in Bethany, just a couple of miles from Jerusalem and very near the Mount of Olives. Bethany is a powerfully charged place in Luke’s gospel. It churns with cosmological potency. Bethany is near the summit of the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended into heaven. That’s only about an hour’s walk from the old city of Jerusalem, only a few minutes walk from the path Jesus took on Palm Sunday, and less than an hour from the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spends his last night on earth.
Early Christians who were familiar with the geography of Jerusalem and who listened to Luke’s narrative would have understood instantly why Jesus gently but firmly indicates to Martha that there are more urgent needs at this point, the last days of his life, than hospitality: Bethany, the place, is the beginning of the end of physical life for him and with his ascension into heaven the beginning for him and for us of salvation for this mortal and broken world we inhabit. It’s at Bethany in the home of good friends sisters Mary and Martha that Mary, echoing the Jewish custom of anointing corpses in their tombs, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil in John 12 and where Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead in John 11. Bethany is literally the gateway into eternal life. It’s where this world touches eternity. Orthodox Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, the first to rise from the dead will be those buried on the Mount of Olives. Forthis reason its slopes have been the most sacred burial ground in Judaism for centuries.
During the ‘80s, I spent two summers working on an archaeological dig in Israel. The dig team spent its weekends in Jerusalem. One Saturday morning, a small group of us got up before dawn and climbed the streets up to the Mount of Olives to watch the sunrise on the walls of the old city. Those walls glow with a dazzling, fiery, golden hue in first morning light. It was easy to imagine you’d temporarily entered the next world. We were reminded of the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 18: “The city was made of pure gold, clear as crystal.” I have to imagine that the writer of Revelation was inspired by the golden glory of sunrise on the city walls of Jerusalem.
The significance of the story we heard today of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha is that it belongs to passiontide: it’s part of a chronicle of the sequence of events of Jesus' last days on earth and indicators of another, better world to come.
Jesus isn’t saying to Martha, “Forget about being hospitable.” He is saying be attentive to those moments in our lives when we need to suspend business as usual and turn our attention to more pressing matters, in this case, the point in historical time when we become acutely aware of the convergence of two worlds: the present physical life we all inhabit and the eternal world to come, the convergence of the world of hospitality and acts of loving kindness on the one hand and the world of eternal divine reality on the other.
Luke’s stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Mary and Martha demonstrate clearly Luke’s approach to the gospel and in particular Jesus' ministry. Some have observed that the Gospel of Luke at various points breaks the mold of our expectations with the force of Zen koans, those paradoxical Buddhist word puzzles that challenge our expectations about what’s real and important, that challenge our prejudicial notions of what’s right and good, that challenge our egotistical judgments about things and about other people, that challenge our personal political echo chambers. Martha’s problem today is that she can’t quite bring herself to see that for Jesus it’s not business as usual anymore.
You and I are not in Bethany today. For us, the ancient code of hospitality is still one of the key ways we can act out Jesus’ commandment to love one another; just as long as we keep in mind that the backdrop of that commandment as well as the backdrop to all our business as usual is our faithful conviction that every hospitable act is fundamentally an act of love, not an act of duty, and that these acts are playing themselves out against the backdrop of the eternal journey of our souls through this world and into eternity.
On Friday, July 7, over a hundred of our fellow Episcopalians interrupted their business as usual as convention delegates to convene at a place near the convention center where yet another gun murder had occurred two days earlier. Will business as usual for you this coming week be interrupted by some event that brings you in touch with the spiritual reality that undergirds our everyday lives? If so, I hope yours will be one that leads you into deeper discernment of and commitment to your relationship with God. Look upon it as God’s hospitality, as nourishment and a safe haven for your soul.
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