When these readings came up three years ago, I introduced you to a concept — a Greek word — that is the goal of the Gospel for today. That word is philoxenia. Throughout the New Testament philoxenia is translated “hospitality,” one of our favorite concepts, a concept we will hear more about later this summer when we hear this from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.”

Philoxenia is the goal of the Gospel today; the Gospel we experience in the story of Abraham, Sarah and their three visitors, the Gospel we experience in Mary, Martha and Jesus and the Gospel we experience at the font and at the table. Philoxenia — hospitality — is always a principle goal of God and of the Gospel.

But before we talk about the goal, let’s be clear about the problem; about the opposite of philoxenia because that opposite is one of the most serious problems we face today. The opposite of philoxenia is xenophobia, the objectifying fear (phobia) of strangers; the objectifying fear of “the other.”
Xenophobia has always been a societal problem, particularly in America. Yet, since September 11, “Fear of the other” is emblematic of 21st Century America society; the center of virtually every divisive and paralyzing issue we face. Immigration law, gun laws, ‘stand your ground’ laws, ‘stop and frisk,’ NSA surveillance, the demonization of the rich and concurrent de-humanizing of the poor all have their roots in our growing, irrational “fear of the Other.”

It is increasingly true that, on any given day in this country, especially in this city and particularly — and deliberately — in this building, we are surrounded by strangers by “others” different from us. This reality is not going away, no matter what and, unless we make some serious changes, the gap between immigrants and residents, rich and poor, “haves” and “have-nots”, “us” and “them” will only grow wider and the problems only increase.

Ancient biblical and modern American society share one way to deal with xenophobia and with the gaps, the “us” and “them” thinking that accompanies it. That way is called “law.”
Biblical laws codified in Torah and asserted by the prophets demands Israelite society to give preferential treatment to “the stranger and the alien” because, God tells the Israelites, “you were once strangers and aliens yourselves.” The same is true for the poor — “the widow and orphan” as Torah puts it. As Christians, our support for such laws, our advocacy and lobbying of our representatives to pass such laws flow naturally from that biblical foundation.

But today Sarah and Abraham, Mary, Martha and Jesus show us another way, a better way, a “still more excellent way;” the way of the Gospel, not the way of the law.

Mirage-like, three visitors appear to Abraham, who is sitting by his tent flap in the heat of the day. It’s siesta time and what Abraham wants to be doing is taking a nap. Thanks to 3,000 years of both Jewish and Christian interpretation and art, we already know that God, Yahweh, the LORD is one (or all?) of the three visitors — even the Book of Genesis tells us that — but Abraham did not know their identity immediately. Ultimately, the identity of the visitors didn’t matter to Abraham —
it doesn’t matter to his descendants even today! Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality was immediate and quickly becomes lavish: First, water to clean their feet; then, water to slake their thirst, bread to satisfy their hunger; finally a rather sumptuous and, on both Abraham and Sarah’s part, sacrificial, feast. Abraham and Sarah go “all out” to be hospitable to these total strangers.

This story is the foundational narrative of biblical hospitality. Next to the call of Abram itself, this story sets the scene for the way God will perform the “tikkum olam,” the “repair of the world.” Sarah’s laughter at having “pleasure in old age,” and their son Isaac’s birth are essential to the later stories of the rescue from Egypt, the gift to the Promised Land and the return from Exile that make up the core of the Bible’s story. Promises made; Promises kept; promises received and believed in the context of philoxenia — hospitality — pretty much sum up the essence of biblical practice and faith.

Which brings us to the story of Mary and Martha and their guest, Jesus. Because I also am “distracted by many tasks,”
I tend to be sympathetic to Martha and, like most of you, find it easy to recognize her sense of hospitality. Mary’s hospitality, her ability to be attentive and open to her visitor, is not so easily recognized but of equal importance. But what most of us don’t recognize in this story is Jesus’ hospitality as well.

This story is unique to Luke and several things about it are worth noting. There is an atypical presentation of traditional gender roles: Martha is the one who welcomes Jesus, an indication that she is the host. This would be unusual, although not unheard-of, in Jewish culture of the time. And Mary is allowed to assume the typically male role of disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus appears comfortable with both roles as appropriate. His hospitality offers a clear challenge to the gender role expectations of their day and of ours. In this story, as in every Eucharist, Jesus has a dual role: Honored guest, to be sure and giver of gifts, maker and keeper of promises, as well. In the presence of God, and especially in the presence of Jesus Christ, hospitality is always mutual. The roles of guest and giver are always intermixed.
We all know how to practice hospitality. Here at Saint Peter’s, we take our hospitality-responsibility quite seriously. This is best expressed in the deliberate connection which, from the beginning, we have consistently made between this Table, where all are nourished by Christ the Giver and the Guest, and the other tables at which we eat together and share and serve those who are homeless, those living with HIV/AIDS and the hundreds of others — at least 1000 people each week — who come here to be nourished and whom we welcome with warm embrace. Yet what we practice here, sometimes haltingly but always deliberately, needs to be practiced outside these doors as well. And that brings us back to that New Testament Greek word, “philoxenia.” “Philoxenia” — the word we translate as “hospitality” — literally means “love of strangers,” and that’s the life goal, the faith skill, of the Gospel we experience today.

God comes among us so that we would love in precisely the same way God loves us. What is true at this table, what we make true at all our tables in this place, we must strive to make true in the rest of our church, city,
and national life as we seek to live every day in the presence of God; in the presence of Jesus Christ. In God’s presence, there are no strangers, there are only guests. In God’s presence, there is no “them;” there is only “us.” In God’s presence, both guest and giver are one.