July 21, 2019
Proper 11 C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hospitality. In the mission statement of St. John's Church, we proclaim that we are a church of "healing, hope, and hospitality" and we achieve that "through personal prayer, corporate liturgy, Christian formation, stewardship and by respecting the dignity of every human being." That's what is in our bylaws.
In our 21st century world, we often define hospitality as being nice to one another, perhaps providing a cold drink or a snack to someone who comes to visit. But in the ancient Near East, hospitality was a social obligation. It could mean the difference between life and death. Travelers depended on the hospitality of others to provide food and shelter, especially when traveling in the extreme heat of that region. Remember there were no 7-11's, or McDonalds on every street corner. They could only eat what they could carry with them, so if they were going a long distance, they would have to depend on the hospitality of others.
God's people were called to welcome strangers and treat them well as a response to the hospitality shown to them by God. In our reading from the Book of Genesis, Abraham welcomes three strangers who show up at his tent. He doesn't know who they are or where they came from. But the first thing he does is give them food and water, and offers them shade under a tree. Then one of them tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will give birth to a son, even though they are past their child bearing years. God had told Abraham that he would have descendants as many as the stars in the sky. But they had not been able to have their own child, until this announcement by this stranger. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews states, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Heb. 13:2)
Now let us take a look at our lesson from the gospel of Luke, about Mary and Martha and their hospitality. This is a very familiar story, but one that is often seen as honoring the contemplative life more than the life of service.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he stops at the home of his friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha, brother and sisters. We don't know how long they have known each other, but they are now close friends.
Having Jesus stop at their home was quite an honor. We can be sure that Martha wants to prepare a nice meal for Jesus, and for the disciples who may be traveling with him. Getting a meal together, especially if they arrived unannounced, was no easy task in the days before microwaves, gas grills and take out food. We can imagine that she has been running around - distracted by her busyness, anxious about wanting a perfect meal - so she has no time to listen to what Jesus has to say, no time to listen to his teachings when he is right there is her own house. She is missing out on a great opportunity because of her distraction and busyness.
Adding to this picture of frantic busyness, we see her sister Mary sitting contentedly at Jesus' feet, listening with rapt attention to each and every word. If that didn't make Martha's blood boil! Finally, when her anger swells up to overflowing inside her, she addresses not Mary but Jesus. "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me." Jesus replies, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her."
We have several things going on in this story. First of all, Jesus' itinerant ministry depended on the hospitality of others as he traveled about, preaching and healing the sick. Martha knows this rule of hospitality and eagerly gets busy to prepare a proper meal.
Secondly, Jesus breaks down the traditional role of women by allowing Mary to sit at his feet like a disciple or student, and learn from him. To sit at the feet of a teacher was a man's role, and women were not allowed even to study the Torah. Mary acknowledged Jesus' authority and received him as a prophet.
Martha has often been criticized for her busyness and not stopping her activity to listen to Jesus, while Mary has been praised for her focus on Jesus. But doing and listening are both important. Luke's gospel repeatedly emphasizes that discipleship is characterized by service as well as by listening to the Word of God. Each is dependent on the other. We are not called to choose between active and contemplative responses to Christ. Doing without listening can be without purpose while listening without doing is also incomplete. Active service and patient attention to God's word are both required for a balanced Christian life.
Martha's generous service is not minimized by Jesus but her worry and anxiety are getting in the way of her love for him. Hospitality is a form of service and cannot be discounted. But sitting at the feet of Jesus and contemplating his words is also important.
So how do we intertwine these two aspects of the Christian life? How do we strike a happy middle ground by honoring both service and quiet contemplation?
Brother Lawrence, a monk who lived in the 16th century, wrote, "The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees." Brother Lawrence did the work of Martha in the kitchen but had the heart of Mary. This is a way to do the business we need to do but to transform it into holy action. Ordinary work, whether it be in school or home or office or machine shops can become holy moments where we are sitting at the feet of Jesus while in the midst of work.
However, not all of us can be like Brother Lawrence, having the calmness and will to focus on God in the midst of our busyness. To be able to serve, we need to be empowered by our quiet time alone with God. In the midst of healing people, Jesus took time apart from the crowds to pray. There are times when we need to work tirelessly, particularly when trying to eleviate the suffering of others, and there is time to pull back and sit quietly at the feet of Jesus. Jesus modeled this balance for us.
If we can focus on God in our busyness and see God at work in the mundane activities of our lives, that is wonderful. We need to do that. But we also need time away from the busyness, to be quiet and receive the word of God, to consciously sit in God's presence, and bask in God's love. Then we can be recharged to do the work of serving others and providing hospitality that God calls us to do. Amen.