On Melissa, on Mother’s Day

MaryCassattBoatingParty

Today is Mother’s Day, celebrated in much of the world. Ideally, it is a day based upon love of the type spoken of in today’s Gospel; in reality it is much more firmly-rooted in the confection, floral, and greeting card industries. These substitutions are of the sort that can occur when we are not paying attention, and after awhile we don’t seem to notice that something wonderful has been lost, especially since there are so many dazzling things filling up the space.
Most of us have days throughout the year set aside on our calendars to honor and remember particular people who have meant much to us, some of them for our entire lives and some for less time, but of no less importance. Some are still with us, and sadly, some are not, though we can pause and acknowledge their importance and be thankful for the blessings they brought to this life.  We can also thank God for them, since the love they brought to us was his gift in the first place.
In my life there is no longer any mother, grandmother, or aunt to honor in person on this day, so I would like instead to speak to and about my granddaughter Melissa, who is 25 years old today.  It is very easy to remember the day she came into this world and the birthdays that have come and gone since then.  But there is one little piece of all that chain of days and years I would like to share, and it came to mind as I read the lessons appointed for this day, in particular the words of the Gospel about the love that comes from God.
When Melissa was a very little girl her parents were separated, having found the world too much interfering in their lives as a couple. Happily, many things worked together as they so often do, and they were eventually reunited stronger and more deeply than ever before. As I saw and felt the heartbreak over those terrible years, one thing stood out and does still, something so profound I cannot forget it.  Though I did not see it, my heart did, and these are the pictures that last forever.  On a brief visit between Melissa and her parents when she was perhaps three years old, she took each parent by a hand and then gently placed one hand on top of the other, very quietly and deliberately. There can be no explaining how this little one would have the wisdom and sensitivity to give a lesson in perfect love unless guided by its author.
Since their reconciliation as family, Melissa and her parents have lived very close to God, and this exercise in love is being passed down to Melissa’s younger brother and sister. Melissa has been more than a big sister, she has been another mother to them, and love is what you see and feel when you are in their home. Happy birthday, Melissa; what a beautiful day it was when you came to live in this world, giving a little glimpse of the beauty of the world from which you came.
Thanks be to God. Amen and amen.
– Susan Leach

‘It’s déjà vu all over again’

I don’t dwell on it.

I don’t care to be defined by the disease. I do not claim it as my own. I declined to put a pink ribbon magnet on my car. I wear my screaming pink “Survivor” T-shirt from the Komen walk only when everything else is in the wash.

Still, I can’t forget that I had breast cancer. The reminders are as close as the scars I bear, and the tiny tattoo on my sternum that helped  the radiation techs calibrate precisely where to blast me. They are as close as the pill bottle on my nightstand that contains the unpleasant maintenance meds I have to take when I awake each morning.

And now it’s back.  As the late Yogi Berra famously misspoke, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Actually, that cancer is not back, which is a blessing; the oncologist tells me that if it shows up again, the end will be in sight. No, it’s a new and different breast cancer: ductal, not lobular; early stages, not late. The refrain has changed, but the song remains the same.

Frankly, I’m annoyed. It’s too soon: almost exactly two years after my first diagnosis. I haven’t had a chance to recover fully. My friends, a wonderful, generous, giving group who provided a life-saving support system, haven’t had a chance to recover fully.  I have work to do. But life is indifferent to our schedules.

This time is easier, in that I know what to expect, like an ex-con returning to the pen. My medical team, one of the best in the world, is already in place. The treatment should be simpler and less debilitating. If the cancer has not spread, I can avoid chemo; if it has spread, the chemo won’t be as bad as last time. If I undergo the surgery – a “simple bilateral mastectomy” – radiation treatment will not be necessary.

More importantly, I have already been on the knife’s edge between life and death. I have felt the reassuring presence of Christ as I hovered on the verge of unconsciousness. I know that there is more than this world, that there is nothing to fear.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to go without a fight. I have promises to keep. I have things I need to do, and plans I intend to see through.

And so I try to maintain a balance between the tug of this world and the promise of the next, doing what I can in the here and now, but aware that my life here may end at any time. It’s a useful reminder: isn’t that how Christians are supposed to live every day?

– Sarah Bryan Miller

I have always loved this hymn. The words are from the 5th century, by Synesius of Cyrene; the translation was made by Allen William Chatfield in 1875. The tune, “Southwell”, is number 641 in The Hymnal 1982; Benjamin Britten made memorable use of it in his church opera “Noyes Fludde.”

Lord Jesus, think on me,
and purge away my sin;
from harmful passions set me free,
and make me pure within.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
with care and woe oppressed;
let me thy loving servant be,
and taste thy promised rest.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
nor let me go astray;
through darkness and perplexity
point thou the heavenly way.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that, when the flood is passed,
I may the eternal brightness see,
and share thy joy at last.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that I may sing above
to Father, Holy Ghost and thee
the songs of praise and love.

 

 

Sermon notes: The labor of love

In the garden…and on the way out.

SERMON NOTES, PROPER 22, YEAR B (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue on October 7, 2012)

The comic strip “Non sequitur,” by Wiley Miller, features as a recurring theme the Garden of Eden “B.E.,” or “Before Eve.” In the most recent episode, it put Adam and his dog, along with other male animals, on a sofa in front of a TV set, where they swilled beer, gobbled pizza, belched, and engaged in other obnoxious – and obnoxiously stereotyped – guy behavior.

The humor of this setup lies largely in the implication is that God finally created Eve so that somebody would restore order and clean up the mess – and that the guys were in a true paradise before she came along. But humor is essentially a way of presenting something discordant so that it seems funny.

The Book of Genesis and its account of Creation are problematic for our time and culture. The best scientific evidence available today suggests an age for the universe of about 13 billion years. The Earth is somewhere above four and a half billion years, and life – in some form or other – has existed on our planet for about two and a half billion years.

This is an issue for those whose faith requires them to take everything found in the Bible absolutely literally, and who calculate the age of our planet at around 6,000 years. They get bogged down in the details of the story, instead of concentrating on its larger arc.

They believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days, and, based on the passage we just heard, that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib in order to be his helper. In the next chapter of Genesis, she’ll take the blame for original sin, the Fall of Man, hard work, death, and all forms of human suffering, including, probably, political campaigns.

The Book of Genesis as it has come down to us combines several early sources, and two related but distinct accounts of the Creation. The more basic account, the section which begins the entire Hebrew Bible, presents the events of Creation in a recognizable order that largely matches scientific understandings but on a much-simplified scale: God made the universe, the Earth, plants and animals, and, finally, human beings.

This section presents all of humankind as the culmination of God’s work. All of humanity are equals in God’s sight, and more: “God created human beings in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

And a better reading of the word translated here as “helper” might be “partner”: a true marriage is a genuine partnership, in which each considers the other, supports the other, helps the other, according to his or her own strengths and abilities.

Marriage is seldom a 50-50 proposition. Sometimes it’s 40-60 or 70-30; the give and take flows back and forth, according to personalities and circumstances. But the giving, like the tides, can’t flow in just one direction.

A true, loving partnership is clearly God’s wish for us; such a partnership cannot easily be put aside. But over the millennia, human beings have made marriage into something far removed from that image, something conducted for financial, political or dynastic reasons – just read the Bible – and, at times, something readily dissolved.

We see that in the reading from the gospel of Mark. By Jesus’s day, Marriage had become a matter of convenience. Jewish law, the Law of Moses, permitted men to divorce their wives easily, without cause; the Talmud even says it’s acceptable for a husband to divorce his wife because she burned his dinner. Under that system, only a man can institute a divorce, and the consent of the woman is not required.

The rulers of Palestine were enmeshed in secular Greco-Roman culture, where divorce was an even more casual affair. It was equal-opportunity: women could initiate divorce as well as men. In fact, Herod Antipas, the nominally Jewish ruler of Galilee, had recently divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law, Herodias. Herodias, meanwhile, divorced Herod’s brother, Herod Philip, to legalize a relationship that was wrong on many, many levels.

John the Baptist denounced their marriage as sinful; soon after, John the Baptist lost his head. That political context makes the Pharisees’ question – “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” – a dangerous one for Jesus. They’re playing gotcha, and they’re playing for keeps.

Jesus confounds them by taking his answer not from the Law handed down by Moses, but from the story of Creation. By going back to original sources and then turning them on the Pharisees, he avoids the fact of what marriage had become – a transaction, essentially – and focuses on what marriage should be: a loving, exclusive partnership.

In our time, too, divorce has become casual, a first resort rather than the last, a step taken only after all else has failed. In 21st century America, as in first-century Palestine, we have lost sight of what both Genesis and Jesus are telling us.

Stepping outside of today’s lectionary for just a moment, the First Letter of John proclaims, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” God’s essence is love, and all of us, remember, are made in God’s image.

The important things here are not the details of a particular story about Creation. Let’s not get bogged down in those specifics, but look at the wider arc of the whole point of that creation: God’s love for us, God’s intentions for us, and what they mean for us and for the world.

When we bear in mind God’s generosity toward us and reflect that love in our words and actions toward others, we can truly become partners and helpers to one another. Comic strips are intended to be amusing; selfishness has obvious appeal. Sometimes we have to work hard at loving one another, but it’s a labor for which we were made.

Sacred or profane?

I’m a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, the Anglican Franciscans, and at around this time every year I get a form from our Area Guardian asking me for a brief spiritual report. It enquires if I’ve been to the local and area meetings this year, if I’ve seen my spiritual director (alas, I still haven’t acquired one), if I’ve been on retreat, and its final question is, “Has any one thing impacted on your life in the past year?”

Well, yes, it has, I thought, as I scanned the form; it’s been the move from our parish church to Lichfield Cathedral. A series of unpleasant incidents at the church made us feel that we really had to leave, and it was a very painful and difficult time. While we were considering where else we could worship we thought we’d go to the Cathedral, only a few miles away, and enjoy the music there without getting involved.

But we were made welcome, people talked to us over coffee, and it didn’t take long to realise that we felt at home there. So we’ve stayed, and are finding it so much more intellectually and spiritually stimulating than our former church that what we experienced as a disaster a year ago God has turned into a real blessing.

So that seems the obvious thing to put on the form; but then I thought again, because the other major event of the past year has been the redesigning of our kitchen. We inherited a cramped, badly planned kitchen when we bought this house, and over the years it became more and more cluttered and uncomfortable. Finally we nerved ourselves to ask our friendly builder about putting in a new one, chose the fittings, had it designed, endured four weeks of banging and drilling and dust, and now have the most beautiful light, bright kitchen, which feels about twice the size of the old one. Every morning when I come downstairs I look at it and think how much I like it. It’s a joy to be in and a pleasure to work in, and it’s changed my attitude towards cooking and entertaining. And that too is a blessing.

So which do I pick to put on the form – the blessing which has made me feel closer to God, or the blessing which has made me more eager to offer hospitality to others? I still can’t decide; and after all it isn’t a question of sacred or profane, because Jesus puts the two commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbour, together. Perhaps I just need to answer that question in the smallest possible writing and include both.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

 

Sermon notes: Miracle sandwich

Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage. (Image from the catacombs of Rome.)

Sermon on Proper 8, Year B (July 1, 2012) Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Louis

Most gospel readings that deal with the healings or other miracles of Jesus focus on just one marvel at a time. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark is a little different: it gives us a sort of healing sandwich, with one miracle enfolded inside another.

By this point in his story, Jesus is a celebrity. He no sooner gets out of the boat than he is mobbed by people who want to see him for themselves, to hear his teachings. Perhaps they hope to witness Jesus work wonders; perhaps they want to be the focus of a miracle, to be fed, or to gain healing for themselves or a loved one.

We meet two particular miracle-seekers in these verses. One is Jairus, an important man, a wealthy man, a leader of the synagogue, begging for his little daughter’s life. The other is a poor woman, a sick woman, not important at all, who decides to take the matter of her healing into her own hands.

Jairus is so desperately concerned about his child that he goes to meet Jesus himself, rather than sending a servant. He falls at Jesus’s feet, and says, “My little girl is dying. Come and lay your hands on her and make her well, let her live.” And Jesus and his disciples – and the crowd, sensing a chance to see or hear something remarkable – go with him.

In the midst of this, the nameless woman sees her own opportunity, and takes it.

In first-century Palestine, life expectancy was short; if you made it out of childhood alive, you might hope to hit your 50s. There were no hospitals, and there were many, many ills, from skin diseases and eye diseases to epilepsy, death in childbirth, parasites to cancers. Too many of them had no cure.

Although there were physicians, the first step in treatments for most illnesses was still incantations and sacrifices. Greek innovations in medicine were much celebrated in Rome, but it’s not clear how deeply those innovations had penetrated in backwater provinces like Palestine.

If conventional treatments didn’t work, you might seek out a magician. Demons were generally thought to be responsible for causing not only madness, but heart trouble and asthma, among a host of other troubles. Or it might be that your sins, or those of your parents, were responsible for your suffering. We see that in the case of the man blind from birth, whose healing, recounted in the gospel of John, so irritated the Pharisees.

The woman in the crowd had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years – which, interestingly, is the age of Jairus’s daughter – and spent everything she had on physicians. They had not helped her.

Besides being poor, she was probably physically weak from her condition. She was almost certainly a social outcast: Anyone with a flow of blood such as she had was considered ritually impure. Anyone who touched her would be ritually impure as well, and face time-consuming rites, with a seven-day purification period, in order to be clean again. (Who could afford the time to be her friend?)

Imagine suffering all this for so long – and imagine realizing that perhaps someone who could repair your physical brokenness was at hand. She knew about Jesus and his healings, and when he stepped off the boat she saw her chance. In what must have been a mixture of faith and deep-seated desperation, she burrowed through the crowd until she got close enough just to touch his cloak. And she was healed.

And here we get one of those disciple “duh” moments, when the very men who have been traveling with Jesus and listening to his teachings and observing his miracles demonstrate how little they really understand of him. Jesus feels the power going out of him, and asks, “Who touched me?” And the disciples say, “What? Look at this crowd. We can hardly move. Are you kidding?”

But the woman knows what he’s talking about, and kneels in front of him to confess. And Jesus calls the pariah “daughter,” and tells her that her faith has made her well. Probably no one but the two of them and a few disciples even realized what had happened.

Then he is gone, with Jairus and the disciples and the crowd, tells the mourners who have already gathered at Jairus’s house that they are mistaken, that the child is sleeping. He raises the little girl from the dead, and, compassionately, orders that she be brought something to eat.

The way these miracles are juxtaposed shows, in compact form, that Jesus and his love were available to all, of both high rank and low. The important may have had easier access to him, but Jesus never turned his back on those in need.

We see, too, that Jesus put all classes on the same level, that he imposed an unheard-of equality on those he encountered. In this, in his calling an outcast “daughter,” we see the truth of what Paul would later write in the letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And this radical equality in Jesus is one of the things that sets Christianity apart. Whatever our status in the world outside the Church, within it we are all accounted equal. We all share in Christ’s love to the same extravagant extent, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, status-heavy or status-free.

The world and human nature being what they are, the Church has struggled with staying true to this concept. Right in the very beginning of the movement, the well-to-do would come to the house churches for the common meal, and eat their own dainties without waiting for others, not sharing with those who had less. We only need to glance at the later history of the Church to see even more egregious examples of a class-based structure within it.

But Jesus calls us to step outside social expectations, to recognize and greet our fellow Christians as sisters and brothers. He calls us to help those who are in need, not only with our checkbooks but with our time and energies. Jesus calls us to be as radical and inclusive in our love as he was. If we truly intend to follow him, we can do no less.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes, Good Friday: Walking with Jesus

Jean-Jacques Tissot: What Our Savior Saw from the CrossSERMON NOTES, GOOD FRIDAY, April 6, 2012 ∙

Today, Jesus’s long journey to the Cross has come to its end.

We have been walking with him on his painful road for the last 40 days, in the Sunday Gospel readings, in the daily office readings, and in our own Lenten disciplines.

From week to week, we have followed the story: from Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, to his teaching his disciples about his future suffering. We have seen him enter Jerusalem in triumph and drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. We have watched as he celebrates the Passover with his friends, and then as he is sold to the authorities by one of them.

The arc of the last day is particularly dramatic. Jesus goes quickly from hero, hailed by the crowd, to criminal, denounced by the mob. And it all happens so fast.

From the supper in the upper room, to the garden where he goes to pray, there is a sense of foreboding. Then he is betrayed, arrested, denied, taken to trial, scourged, condemned to death, all with bewildering speed. It cannot have been more than 12 hours from the time he was taken in the garden until he was nailed to the cross between two bandits.

By now, a little after noon, Jesus has been hanging on the cross for just over three hours. His followers have scattered, afraid of meeting the same horrible fate; only a few of the faithful, most of them women, remain to watch their Lord to the end. His earthly journey is nearly at an end.

Crucifixion has a long and loathsome history in the annals of human savagery. It was a regular feature in the Mediterranean world from the 6th century before Christ until the 4th century AD. For tyrants, it was the perfect combination of public humiliation and unspeakable torture.

Crucifixion assured that the victim would experience the maximum suffering possible, often over a period of several days. It thus had the additional benefit of providing passersby with a vivid incentive to toe the line. The Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero called it “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” I’m always impressed when the ancient Romans denounce a practice as too cruel.

He added that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” Indeed, crucifixion was a punishment for slaves and criminals. To be crucified was to lose whatever status you had in that highly stratified world.

No wonder the apostle Paul found the cross a tough sell to Jews and Greeks alike.

The noted philosopher Mel Gibson has been quoted, in justifying the violence in his film “The Passion of the Christ,” as saying that no one else has ever suffered as much as Jesus Christ suffered. Not only is that untrue – many thousands suffered as much or more as Jesus suffered – but it misses the point.

This is a part of the path that Christ walked, a part of the miracle of God humbling himself to be born not just as a human but as one of low rank, and to die as the lowest. Born in a stable, extending the hand of love to the unclean, feeding the hungry and washing feet, even dying like a slave, Jesus consistently took the part of the poor, the weak, the despised. He died, as we will die, but in dying he gave us life.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, all through Holy Week. In this hour, we watch his last agonies, and hear his final words from the cross.

We sometimes doubt and question God; and even Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, could cry out in his pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in his pain, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We see the grief of his disciples, the women and men who had the courage to stay with him to the end. We see the courage of Joseph of Arimathea, who dared to ask Pilate for the body, and took it down from the cross for burial, and Nicodemus, who once came by night to see Jesus, from fear, but now openly assisted him.

We feel the faith of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, who watched as their Lord was buried, noting the spot. When all seemed lost, on that darkest of days, they still did not desert him.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, but will we continue to walk with him when Lent is over? We will be freed of our Lenten disciplines, but will we remember why we took them on? We will celebrate the Paschal feast, but will we remember Christ’s humility and his love and sacrifice for us? Will we remain as faithful as those who watched and stayed?

Loving God, when the darkness of this day is past, keep us ever mindful of what our Lord suffered for our sakes, and ever walking in your way in faith and truth, that when our own trials are past we may join you in eternal light. This we ask in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: The next morning

SERMON NOTES, CHRISTMAS DAY (10 a.m. December 25, 2011, St. Peter’s/St. Louis)

“But Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

It is the morning after the most momentous night in human history, an event bearing layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Jesus did not enter the world in the way foretold in scripture, “in power and great glory.” He was born a helpless baby in the poorest setting imaginable, to humble parents, a member of a subject people living far from the centers of worldly power.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t go into detail about the events of the previous 24 hours, but we can imagine them. Mary, a teenager, was newly married to her husband, Joseph. She was pregnant, and near her time. In spite of that, they undertook a difficult, dangerous journey on the orders of an oppressive government.

They arrived in Bethlehem, but failed to find a place to stay. They had no relatives there to take them in; there was no space to be bought or begged in the town’s guest houses. Instead, they found cover in a shelter for cattle, with a roof and walls to provide some protection, and the heat of the animals around them for warmth.

Perhaps it was the rigors of the journey that brought on Mary’s labor. Luke doesn’t tell us about that. He doesn’t tell us whether Joseph delivered the baby himself, or if – as seems much more likely – women were found in the neighborhood to help with the delivery, to encourage the young mother, to ease the child into the world.

Someone wiped Mary’s face with a moist cloth and brushed her hair from her face; someone held her hand as she struggled through childbirth. Someone cut the umbilicus; someone washed mother and infant when the birth was complete. Someone emptied out a feeding trough to serve as an impromptu cradle. Someone found bands of cloth to swaddle the baby, to ease his adjustment to the cold and colors of this new world outside the womb.

Someone placed him in his mother’s arms, and helped to make both of them comfortable as he nursed for the first time. Someone who had experience imparted womanly wisdom and helpful hints about the best ways to do things, the sort of information that a new mother doesn’t fully appreciate until she is finally looking on the long-imagined face of her child.

The Evangelist is more concerned with the announcement of the birth, and with those who heard that announcement. The hearers weren’t King Herod’s courtiers, let alone members of the Imperial court in Rome. They weren’t scholars or members of the priestly class. They weren’t merchants with connections on the Silk Road. They weren’t even respectable. They were shepherds.

Shepherds occupied a spot on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They were poor workingmen, not renowned for their honesty or for a robust work ethic. They were itinerant, wandering with the flocks they kept, usually for other owners.

And yet it was to shepherds that the angelic messenger appeared; it was to shepherds that the angelic host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was shepherds, members of a despised class, who beat a path to the stable to see the baby, who told Mary and Joseph the things that they had seen and heard that unforgettable night. “And Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

But the night, with all its excitement, has passed. The angels have disappeared. The shepherds have returned to their work and their flocks. The women are back at their daily routines. Now, in the calm light of day, the little family is adjusting to its new dynamic, its new form, its new life, with a beloved child who will – as we know – grow in strength, learning, and holiness in the years to come.

Last night we celebrated Christ’s birth here, the message of the angels, the witness of the shepherds. It’s a big night, the most festive in the Church year. We observed it with a traditional Christmas pageant, with carols and other special music; there were platoons of acolytes, and crowded pews.

This morning’s service is an altogether quieter affair. The population in the chancel and sanctuary has plummeted from the full ranks of last night – clergy, lectors, choirs, acolytes – to the handful you see before you now. Right now, many of us still have a portion of our brains revolving around questions of preparing Christmas dinner, gift-giving, and of the coming celebrations with our families and friends

With the pageantry over, in the calm light of day, we can take a few moments to consider what all this means: that the Savior of the world should come to us in such humility; that he came for all people, even – or especially – the lowest among us; that God’s love abounds for us, in spite of all our faults. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Room at the table

Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis, 8 and 10:30 a.m.,  June 26, 2011 (Proper 8, Year A)

My mother practiced hospitality all her life. Hospitality was both an art – the art of making others feel welcomed and at home in her home – and a commandment: the Bible’s constant command to welcome others.

When I was in high school, my family moved to the Chicago suburbs. We knew no one; we had no family there. All of our accustomed arrangements for holiday celebrations and other special occasions were overturned.

Still, in a very short time, every space at our table was filled again. My parents welcomed acquaintances from church, newly established colleagues, neighbors, and young seminarians far from home. I brought home friends from college, all of whom had hollow legs, and then my fellow starving young artists from the opera, those with no family nearby. Real widows and temporary orphans spent Thanksgiving or Easter dinner with us.

Everyone, from a wide variety of backgrounds, was made welcome; no one left hungry – and my mother usually pressed leftovers upon them, to take home for later.

The law of hospitality was an imperative in Biblical times. In harsh lands, with travel difficult and places to eat and to shelter rare, survival could depend on the kindness of those one met. From the Book of Genesis through the New Testament, we read of the importance of welcoming the stranger.

Abraham and Sarah rushed to offer three travelers refreshment, and were rewarded with the son they had longed for. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” says the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus raises the ante a little: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” he says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

He’s speaking here specifically of those whom he has sent forth to preach the good news – of missionaries – but the principle goes much further. We are to welcome all those who come to us in the name of Christ.

We’re not likely to be comfortable with all of those who come to us in the name of Christ. Jesus, remember, was forever making his would-be patrons squirm with some of his less-fashionable associates: lepers, harlots, drunkards, beggars, tax collectors. He accepted women as equals.

Consider the sort of people he might reach out to today: people with AIDS, streetwalkers, druggies, the homeless, Madison County class action lawyers. I’m sure he’d accept gays as equals.

Whom would Jesus have us welcome?

Well, if you’ve read the Gospels, you know some of the people that we’re to invite inside: the poor in possessions and the poor in spirit, the oppressed, the sick, the needy, those who mourn.

I suspect that our fellow Christians would also be near the top of the list – and not just those with whom we share specific beliefs and denominational ties, but members of the entire spectrum of the Body of Christ. We sometime peck at each other until we bleed over relatively little matters, while forgetting the greater truths that bind us together.

Even today, more than 50 years into the civil rights movement, different races might prove a problem for some. Class is always an issue; the divide between the haves and the have-nots had to be confronted early in the life of the Church, and has never really been entirely resolved. The poor we have with us always, and we are always called to lighten their suffering.

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will receive their reward, Jesus says. These little ones include the mentally ill, the emotionally needy, the veteran with wounds that show, or that don’t. They are children, the elderly, the jobless, troubled teenagers, immigrants, the chronically ill.

I’m sure my parents didn’t know what to make of some of the people I brought to their table in the 1970s, but they made them welcome in their home and drew them out in conversation. My mother was no doubt surprised the first time I brought a black friend from the opera home – but she and Sarah were both from South Carolina, and both Christians, and they found they had more in common than they might have thought at first glance.

My parents’ dining room table wasn’t that big, even with the leaf in place. When we squeezed people in, it could be as cramped as the middle seat in coach. We tended to forget that, though, once the food was circulating and the conversation got going.

God’s table is infinite, with space for all the world. There is no need ever to issue the coded warning “FHB” – for “family hold back” – for the Bread of Life can never run out.

Jesus bids us welcome there all who come in his name, and offer refreshment. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” he says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The women’s group

My parish has two women’s groups. One is a traditional daytime group, specializing in lunch, interesting speakers, and good works. The other is for women who work.

It’s called the Evening Women’s Association of St. Peter’s, although I still yearn for the second choice name, The Velvet Undercroft. Most of us are Baby Boomers, with a few fellow travelers leavening the mix. We meet on one Friday night per month.

Some meetings have set programs. Some are loose, and I – often unable to drive places lately – recently volunteered my house as a meeting place for one of the latter.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, despite my current physical weakness; the house was clean, and all I really needed to do was a little setup – with a lot of help from my best friends – and make some mulled wine.

Then I realized that I hadn’t considered the work involved in cleanup. Oh, well: It would get done when it got done.

These were thoughtful guests: early on, Ann asked, “What time do you need us to leave?” I usually tire out a little before 9, I replied. She nodded crisply.

It was a lovely evening, with a good group filling the family room, eating and drinking and making comfortable conversation. Then, a little before 9, Ann announced, “Okay, now we’re going to clean up.”

They moved into the kitchen, dealt with leftovers, pitched the trash, tossed the recyclables into the bin, then moved onto the dirty dishes, making light work of it all. Then, with cheery goodbyes, they headed out.

When you’re sick, the little things mean a lot. All those who help are a blessing – and, this night, that meant those who gave me a much-needed social evening, and even cleaned up the mess.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Breadwinning

When I was a little girl, some decades ago, fathers worked in offices, and mothers worked keeping house, cooking meals, and raising children, and played bridge on selected afternoons.

The mother of one girl in my Brownie troop was divorced and had a full-time job, and had to work. No one talked about it; everyone felt immensely sorry for her.

Unlike most of my classmates, I always knew that my mother had a profession – librarian – and, unlike the mothers of most of my classmates, mine didn’t have to go back to school to finish a degree when the time came to look for a job. Sooner or later, that time came for most of them.

When we finished high school, more of us knew the importance of getting an education and having a way to support ourselves. More of us worked when our children were young – eyebrows were even raised in some quarters when I took seasons off from singing in the opera when my daughters were born – and few of us played bridge.

Women’s incomes are rarely optional now; what was supposed to be a choice 25 years ago has become a necessity. That’s especially true for me; for the last 12 years, I’ve been the sole or primary earner in this household, the last two of them after divorcing. I am blessed in having work at which I’m good and which I enjoy, but with pay cuts and a poor economy, it’s a financial juggling act.

I often wish that my breadwinning were a shared responsibility, that this burden were not all on my shoulders alone. But times change, circumstances change, and we must change with them. Thanks be to God for the gifts of ability, of equal access to jobs and other roles that challenge and fulfill us, and for the adaptability to accept change of all kinds.

– Sarah Bryan Miller