Monday, July 19, 2010

Abraham's Guests

16 Sunday C #108

Gn 18, 1-10
Ps 15
Col 1, 24-28
Lk 10, 38-42

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
July 18, 2010

Deacon Tom Cornell

Hospitality is the theme today. One of the most famous icons ever painted is Andrey Rublev’s The Hospitality of Abraham, from 15th Century Russia. He called it The Trinity, but the mystery of the Trinity was not revealed in Abraham’s time, so most people call it Abraham’s Guests or Hospitality. I have a copy. It’s too fragile to bring here to show you, but if you like, drop in on us at our home, Peter Maurin Farm off Lattintown Road. Take a look and maybe we’ll be able to give you some fresh chard to take home.

Abraham was sitting in the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day when he saw three strangers standing by a spreading pine tree, the terebinth of Mamre. They just appear, stand there, not walking. They don’t speak. They don’t ask anything of Abraham. He assumes they are traveling. Abraham goes to them and begs their leader to allow him to host them. He has a servant bring water so that they can wash their feet. He has Sarah bake fresh bread for them and he has a steer slaughtered, butchered and put to roast. He and Sarah go way beyond the normal hospitality expected of peoples of the Near East then and today. They go all out and they expect no reward. But they are rewarded. One of the men, in fact an angel, the three are angels, a manifestation of God, tells Abraham he will be back in a year’s time and that by then Sarah will have a son!

Abraham is one hundred years old. Sarah is ninety. Fat chance! Lots of luck, Abraham! But it comes true, and through his son Isaac, Abraham will father as many sons and daughters as the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea shore, and they shall be a blessing to all peoples for one of them will be Messiah, the Christ. He will break down the wall of enmity between Jew and Gentile and the two shall be one in him. Abraham and Sarah have given freely and lavishly, and God will reward them freely, lavishly, above anything they can imagine. “God will not be outdone in generosity,” Dorothy Day used to say.

Dorothy Day bought our property, 50 acres in back of the cemetery for our Catholic Worker community, in 1979, thirty-one years ago. Monica and I moved here in 1992 but we were part of the Catholic Worker community back then too and helped set up our new farm. I paid a courtesy call on the pastor, Monsignor Dugan at the time, on behalf of the community. We didn’t know him yet, but he knew us well. He told me he used to sell our paper, The Catholic Worker, on the streets of New York City back in the Thirties when he was in seminary. He told me that anti-Semites and racists used to physically attack him and his friends, tear our paper from their hands and throw them into the gutter and even beat them up. Can you imagine Fr. Dugan in a fist fight? I had to laugh! Fr. Dugan welcomed us, but I don’t think he or anyone else has ever tried to explain to the people of this parish just what we do back there. Our house, our farm community is a “house of hospitality,” as we call it. People around town call it “the camp,” why I don’t know.

First of all, it’s not a camp! It’s a farm, or better, a large garden. We cultivate two acres, and it’s a home for people who would otherwise be homeless, a house of hospitality on the land. We have two houses for the homeless in the City, one for men and the other for women. We give all our produce away to soup kitchens, our own soup kitchen in the City first and to Saint Patrick’s in Newburgh. We don’t sell anything and we don’t charge anyone anything for any service we provide. We don’t ask rent from anybody we take in for room and board. We provide utilities and laundry and all the rest at no charge and with no reimbursement from any agency of Church or state. And when our guests die we bury them. When we run out of money we pray and we beg and it comes, from readers of our paper. "I was a stranger," Christ said, "and you took me in.” Come take a look, about a third of a mile at the end of Cemetery Road. We’d love to show you around.

If people in Marlboro know anything about us it’s probably because of Slim. “The Man Who Walks,” they called him. You could hardly miss him as he walked the streets, summer and winter, often with a dog, or two or more. He was tall, well over six feet, even stooped with age. His clothing was worn and didn’t always fit. He looked a little like Freddy Kruger. He didn’t care. When he got tired, Slim just stretched out, wherever he was, on the side of the road, in a parking lot, or even in the middle of a supermarket aisle. The police knew him and they would drive him home sometimes if he seemed over-tired. Our local police are friends and neighbors. That’s one of the reasons why we pay one hundred percent of our property taxes. We are legally exempt from property taxes as a religious charity. But we want to share our neighbors’ burdens, and not be a burden ourselves in any way. Some things we can do on our own, by way of personal responsibility, but some things we have to do together as citizens, like police and fire protection, and the education of our children. We love our parish and our town, and we want to stay here in Marlboro. We’ve been very happy here.

But back to Slim. Slim’s mother had brought him to our house on Mott Street, downtown New York City. She told us, “He’s a good boy, nineteen years old, not quite right in the head but he never gives any trouble.” She said she’d really appreciate if we’d take care of him over the weekend. She’d come back for him on Monday. That was in 1937! She dumped him! She left Slim with no papers, no birth certificate, no identification of any kind, no nothing. We didn’t even know his name for sure until just a few years before he died, at age 84. If his mother had brought Slim to a hospital ER and just dumped him there, the State of New York would have had to spend $30,000 a year to keep him in an institution, tranquilized probably, where he’d have nothing to do and would fade away stuck in a bed somewhere, never a family around him, never a dog, never children, never a job. People need to work, to know that they are contributing, for their own sense of self-worth.

Slim wasn’t happy in our city house, too noisy, too crowded. When they drove him to our farm, in Easton, Pennsylvania at that time, he jumped out of the car and rolled around on the grass for joy. Slim had children and dogs around him. He had jobs. He could take pride that he was contributing. In the spring and fall he raked leaves, he hauled water, he took out the garbage and the compost. In the winter he shoveled snow, cutting paths between the houses and the barn and then anywhere his imagination led him, pathways to utopia, you might say. He had a good life, and it cost one-tenth of what the State would have spent.

How do we do it? How can we afford it? There are no administrative costs, no labor costs. We all live in voluntary poverty, we Catholic Workers. No one is paid. There is no pension fund. Our labor, it’s a gift: “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” That’s not Marxism. That’s basic Christianity as we find in The Acts of the Apostles. And it’s personal responsibility for the needs of others. We live as poor people among poor people, in community. And we have our rewards. It’s part of our understanding of nonviolence, not just refusal to engage in war but the building of a more just and merciful society by example. But some people thought otherwise. J. Edgar Hoover asked President Franklin Roosevelt to have Dorothy Day imprisoned during the Second World War, three times. He didn’t. And the Vatican has accepted Dorothy’s cause for canonization as a saint, that is a model of Christian discipleship for our time. We must be doing something right.

The story of Martha busy about the house as Mary sits at Jesus’ feet has always puzzled me. Why didn’t Jesus add just one little sentence? “Now, Mary, get up and give your sister a hand and we’ll finish talking after dinner and you’ve washed the dishes.” I think of this when I see my wife Monica, a modern day Martha, work far beyond anything that might be asked of her while some of our guests, a couple of them, just sit there on their fat cushions, watching TV. Maybe they’re praying during the commercials. I don’t think so. But that’s all right. If you don’t want to work then there’s got to be something wrong with you, and we’re here for people who have something wrong with them, so it works out! The point of this Gospel episode and Jesus’ saying is the primacy of the spiritual, the necessity of prayer. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

“The man who does justice lives in the presence of the Lord” (Ps 15). Micah tells us that the Lord requires only this of us, that we “do justice, love mercy, compassion and walk humbly with our God (Mi 6, 8). How do we walk humbly with our God? We have to walk where he leads us, and how do we know that? By prayer. Prayer isn’t just telling God what we think he ought to know. Prayer is listening, in the depths of our hearts for the voice of God, in our own conscience, to lead us. There are those who are called to a life of prayer without ceasing and good for them! But somebody’s got to pay the bills! Those of us in that category have to remember that whatever we do, we have to pray. Prayer will open for us what to do and how to do it. Prayer will sustain us as we go. Then we pray in thanksgiving. All for the glory of God. If not, remember the Psalm, “Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do the builders labor; unless the Lord guard the city, in vain do the watchers keep vigil” (Ps 126). Both Martha and Mary will have their reward.

And we are rewarded lavishly. We may seem to be poor, but we have so many wonderful friends, Nobel Prize winners and bishops and cardinals among them, wonderful nuns and brothers and humble people who have spoken the Truth in ways to astonish, and we have been part of so many wonderful adventures. Voluntary poverty and community free us for things that others only dream of. We were among the first to protest the Nazis in the Thirties and to try to protect the European Jews by opening up our doors and offering hospitality. We helped workers to keep control of their own unions when the Communist Party and gangsters vied for control. And we supported workers in strikes. During one picket at a department store, the New York City police rounded everybody up for arrest. As a cop shoved one of our women into a paddy wagon, he snarled, “Get in, yuh damn Communist!” She answered, “I’m not a Communist, officer. I’m an anti-Communist!” He then said, “I don’t care what kind of a Communist you are, lady. Get into the van!” And in the Fifties and the Sixties we were part of the movement to tear down the legal structures of racial segregation in this country. We weren’t in the leadership. That was for the Black people. But when they called us we answered, we were there. Two high points of my life were in early 1965. Monica gave me our first-born, a son in February, and in March, Martin Luther King accepted me as a marshal at Selma for the March on Montgomery. That changed America for the better, forever. What a precious memory! When Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers came to New York, he came to us first, and his men lived with us. We set up the lettuce boycott together, the first successful boycott in this country since tea in 1776. We took a leadership role in the movement to get out of Viet Nam. We helped to reintroduce nonviolence into the mainstream of Catholic and Protestant moral teaching; and we now know that we held back the hands of those who would have used nuclear weapons in Viet Nam. Precious memories!

All that and hospitality too. Come, take a look at the Rublev and our place! And take some fresh organic veggies home with you, and a copy of our paper, and come again! 

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