Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hostesses with the Mostest: Mother's Day Sermon, 2014

Mother’s Day Sermon 2014
“The Hostesses with the Mostest: Images of Maternal Hospitality 
Acts 2:41-47
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
            Blessings upon all of you and Happy Mother’s day!  It is certainly a joy for me to be here this morning and I’m especially grateful for the connections this congregation has had to Pfeiffer University through the year, through all the Pfeiffer grads you’ve employed over the years, and now by sharing Mike and Donna with us.  We are truly thankful for congregations such as this and am pleased to have been asked to preach here this Sunday on such a special day. 
            When I looked up the lectionary text for this Sunday, I was quite surprised and pleased to see that it was the text on which I wrote my dissertation.  This text only comes around in the lectionary every three years, so imagine my delight at seeing it for today.  When Sherri Barnes, our director of church relations, found out I was preaching on this text, she already began praying for you.  I don’t know why.  My dissertation was rather short, only 230 or so pages and my defense didn’t last but 2 hours.  So I’m sure we can get out of here by 2PM.
            All joking aside, this text paints a portrait of the early Christian community in Jerusalem within only months of Jesus’ ascension.  It’s a lovely picture, just like the pictures of smiling graduates we posted on facebook yesterday.  Everything is perfect, abounding promise.  The church at this point is experiencing great joy, growing by leaps and bounds, sharing all their possessions, sharing meals together, worshipping with great joy and warmth, and caring, growing by teaching, studying, and listening to the Apostles, and even speaking bold truths to the community around it.  It is a picture not only of what the church was, but of what it could be, maybe even what it should be.  It is about the kinds of distinctive friendship we practice in Christian community, sharing our possessions across class and status lines, speaking bold, difficult and life-transformative truths to a broken world around us, and, yes, sharing acts of radical hospitality. 
            Since it is mother’s day, I thought I’d focus a little on this distinctive friendship practice, the practice of hospitality, that which so many of our mothers know so much about, especially if they practice the more traditional roles of nurturing and preparing meals.  And, since it is mother’s day, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on my own mother, as many of us are today.  My mom passed away about a year and half ago.  And in her waning years, my mother struggled some with a light dementia, as so many of us do as we age.  But one gift of hospitality my mother left for us was a spiritual journal in which she reflected about her life.  It was something you can sometimes find in a Christian bookstore, a hardbound volume that asks someone to reflect on their upbringing, their life, their experiences, something that a mother would want her children to keep and reflect on after she passed away.  Now my mom wasn’t so talkative as the dementia set in.  But one way to get her talking and thinking about the past was to read this spiritual journal with her.  And I remember one section, a section in which she was had written about her father, a deeply Christian man.  You see my mother lost her own mother at a very young age and my grandfather was a widower, having to take care of four children during the depression.  But he was determined to raise them in a home that was actively evangelical.  Evangelicalism at that time, at least in the North, in Philadelphia where my mom grew up, meant also having what we call today a social conscience.  So my mom wrote in her diary about how, during the depression, my grandfather took the four children every Sunday to downtown Philadelphia to hand out sandwiches and coffee to the homeless.  And I can still remember, months before she passed, asking my mom about this and her telling me, reverting back into the accepted language of her youth, “Oh, those bums loved Dad, and he loved them right back.”  Hospitality, radical hospitality.  As I’ve told that story in different contexts, folks have shared with me how in the depression, their parents would take in the homeless men who were wandering from place to place, or share with them a meal.  One woman whose family lived on a farm during the depression told me how her mother always set an extra place at the table for hungry strangers.  That was part of the depression era mentality, I guess.  But whatever happened to that radical practice of hospitality.
            I suspect that many of us tend to find hospitality hard because it requires us to be vulnerable.  I know I’m in Andy Griffith country, so I can’t preach a sermon without some kind of reference to that show.  I’m sure you all remember the character of Aunt Bee, who by the way, isn’t herself a mother, but certainly seems to fill that role in Andy’s atypical family.  She’s always preparing or doing for others and yet so often you see in her face a certain vulnerability.  When we open ourselves to radical hospitality, when we share with the stranger, with the other, sometimes we have to be prepared to be hurt.  I recall one show where Aunt Bee picks up with an elderly widower who was a suitor from her past.  As the show progresses, Andy gradually comes to have suspicions that this gentleman caller isn’t exactly what he claims to be, and is instead after Aunt Bee’s money.  One show after another, the plot revolves around Aunt Bee’s good natured hospitality being potentially taken advantage of by a stranger—and Andy has to find a solution without hurting Aunt Bee or shaming her dignity.
            You see, there’s a double sided risk to hospitality.  On the one hand, the host has to risk his or her own vulnerability with the possibility of being taken advantage of, all while trying to make sure that the guest’s vulnerabilities are protected and dignified.  And this is the character trait we honor during mothers day.  Those of you who are mothers know what it means to be exhausted beyond exhaustion in caring for the family around you—and yet you still give.  And all of us have mothers and know what its like to have had our needs met while also retaining a sense of dignity and self-worth in the process. And that’s what mothers do best, they give us all the dignity and self-worth that they can possibly give.  They meet us in the depths of our vulnerability, without making us feel unworthy, even though we couldn’t possibly do anything to earn or merit their love.  That radical practice of hospitality is a virtue that we can all engage in, regardless of our gender or status in the family and community.
            Again and again we see examples of radical hospitality in Acts.  As the church grows, we learn of an incident in chapter six in which the Hellenists complained that their widows were being “passed over” in the daily distribution of meals.  We learn two things from this passage.  First, that the church continues in its ministry of hospitality.  Furthermore, this ministry of hospitality seems to be vital for the survival of various ethnic and class groups in the congregation.  People need these meals and the church is sharing them.  Secondly, it would appear the Hellenist’s widows are being “passed over” in this act of hospitality.  Recent scholars looking at this text have demonstrated that the male scholars who have been interpreting this text throughout the years have mistranslated the word “passed-over.”  The widows are not mad because they aren’t getting food distributed to them, they’re mad because their ability to engage in acts hospitality is being “passed-over” by the dominant ethnic faction in the church.  What this means is that women were playing a key role in the survival of the ancient church, they were providing the hospitality the not only functioned as a social glue—we all connect over meals—but also was keeping vulnerable members in the church alive.  The church could not have survived without this ministry and these mothers certainly must have had honored roles in this community. 
Think of the story of Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, in chapter nine.  Her ministry was making clothes. When Peter gets to Joppa, he is rushed first thing to Dorcas’ household where he finds a group of women who lived and worked with her holding up the garments she and the women of her household were making for the poor in their community.  This too is an act of hospitality.  Clothing protects the dignity of the vulnerable.  Yesterday, it was such a joy to watch the “mothers” of our faculty help those of us who are less inclined in straightening out ours and our students’ caps, and gowns, and hoods.  Yes, hospitality.  Later on in Acts, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man calling him to come over to Europe and spread his ministry there.  But when he arrives in Philippi, who does he find but Lydia, a wealthy merchant from Thyatira?  Whose house do you think he stays in that night?  Time and again we find in Acts mothers and mother figures whose hospitality is vitally important to spreading the ministry of the church.   
            I could go on and on, but I guess what I want to call you to do, as we reflect on and honor our mothers, is to think about how and where you might be able to engage in a radical act of hospitality.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It is in small acts of kindness, the kinds of acts that our mothers do quietly, thanklessly, day in and day out that we find the best practice of hospitality.  These are the kinds of quiet, unrecognized acts that build community, one piece at a time.  Jean Vanier is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.  He is the founder of the international L’Arche movement, a movement that creates intentional communities where people with mental disabilities live, work, and worship with those who are more abled.  I want to close this sermon with his words today, as I think it shows us that the practice of maternal hospitality is something we can all engage in. 
“A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of a person is to accept insignificance, the human condition and the earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of humanity is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.” 

Are you ready to embrace community?  Are you ready to embrace acts of hospitality each day?  Are you ready to embrace the wonder of each day?  

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