Sixth sunday After Pentecost: July 21, 2019
Year C, Proper 11: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28, 7-16; Luke 10:38-42
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In today’s world, we think of hospitality as the custom of feeding family, friends, and neighbors in our homes or hosting these people for a night or two. Or hosting a community meal or food pantry.
In the first century, and during the times of the Old Testament, folks were working with a significantly different definition of hospitality. The ancient custom of hospitality revolved around the practice of welcoming strangers or travelers into one’s home while promising to provide them with provisions and protection. Hospitality in the first century could be a very risky venture, just as taking strangers into one’s home is a dangerous decision in many corners of the world today.
In today’s scripture readings, we get a double dose of the importance of hospitality.
Abraham was sitting outside on a hot day. He looked up to find three men standing nearby on the path. We understand this passage to mean that the appearance of the three men is the appearance of God to Abraham.
How does Abraham react to God’s presence?
He flies into action. He bows down and he begs these visitors to relax from their journey and receive comfort, nourishment and rest. He then rushes into the great tent, issuing commands to his wife Sarah. “Make ready quickly, three measures of choice flour! Knead it and make cakes.” He picks the best calf and orders the servant to prepare it. He dashes outside to get curds and milk and at long last, sets the whole meal before the men. It’s quite a welcome, especially for strangers.
In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus comes to Bethany, he is warmly welcomed in the house of Mary and Martha. Martha then busies herself with her tasks. Although we are not told precisely what those tasks are, a good guess is that she began preparing a meal.
Meanwhile, her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, focused upon him listening to his words. Rather than assuming the role expected of women in her culture, she takes her place at the feet of Jesus. She assumes the posture of a student learning at the feet of a rabbi, a role traditionally reserved for men. If you remember the movie, “Yentl”, you’ll remember that Barbra Streisand’s character had to pose as a boy in order to be educated.
Well, Martha is tired and exasperated, and basically asks Jesus to make Mary stop lounging and help out a little. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”.
Well, I guess she is irritated. She has this rabbi, this teacher, this important man in her house. If Martha is anything like most of us, she wants to make a good impression and serve a feast. And it seems to her that she’s been left to do all the work herself. Some of us might empathize with Martha’s resentment of her sister for leaving her to do all the work. Honestly, my sisters used to accuse me of it all the time. When it was time to do dishes after dinner, somehow, they always claimed I disappeared. Apparently, they often felt like Martha.
Jesus’ response to Martha seems less than empathetic. He tells her she is anxious and worried about many things, but not the one thing necessary.
What is the one thing necessary?
My answer to that: right relationship with God.
And what is right relationship with God?
Right relationship means a relationship where there is real hospitality, real interaction, real presence. A presence in which a host and guest are present to one another in many ways. Hosts have to work on the details of preparation. But, somehow good hosts manage to get everything ready while also listening and conversing with the one who has come.
The problem with this Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality. Certainly, Jesus commends this kind of service many times. The problem is that her distraction and worry seem to leave no room for the most important aspect of hospitality – gracious attention. Martha’s worry and distraction prevent her from being truly present with Jesus. She has missed out on being in relationship to Christ. I believe that’s why Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.
In a culture of hectic schedules and the relentless pursuit of productivity, we are tempted to measure our worth by how busy we are, by how much we accomplish, or by how well we meet the expectations of others. I think we often feel like Martha. Pulled in different directions, feeling worried and distracted by many things seem to be common threads of life in our fast-paced world. And yet, Jesus says in a subsequent chapter of Luke, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” In fact, we probably take hours off our life span by worrying so much.
Much of our busyness and distraction stems from good intentions. We want to enrich our lives, we want to serve our neighbors and we even want to serve the Lord. Indeed, where would the church be without its “Marthas,” those faithful people who perform the tasks of hospitality and service so vital to making the church a welcoming and well-functioning community? We’ve had some garden gnomes who have been beautifying our grounds even in the midst of this heat. So, for sure, we need our Marthas.
Yet if all our activities leave us with no time to draw nearer to God and hear God’s word, we are likely to end up anxious and troubled. A healthy dose of anxiety is normal, but as someone once told me, “A little bit is good.” That’s basically true of all our life. “A little bit is good.”
Jesus invites all of us who are worried and distracted to sit and rest in his presence, to hear his words of grace and truth, to know that we are loved and valued as children of God, to be renewed in faith and strengthened for service.
It was hot this past week. I spent some time moving boxes in the 100-degree heat index. In the midst of that busyness, someone important and special to me in life died. There just didn’t seem to be enough time in the week to attend a funeral. But going seemed very important to me, much more so than I could have imagined.
So, yesterday I drove to a suburb of Philadelphia for the funeral of a gracious, loving woman who spent her entire adult life as nun. She entered the convent in 1959 and spent almost sixty years in dedicated service to God.
It was a time of grace in my car, protected from the brutal heat, blasting the air conditioning and listening to music. As I drove, I thought about the hospitality that Ann showed me over the years – from the first time she invited me to her beloved city of New York, to the times when she as a formation director listened to me with love and care as I struggled with my sense of call.
Her graciousness was about so much more than the scones she baked or her fabulous tour of Greenwich Village in New York. She was always kind and loving and she remained that way even as she struggled with her health through the years.
My strong sense of Ann’s hospitality is that it was rooted where all Christian hospitality must be rooted: in the love of Jesus Christ. She remained hospitable even after I left the community, which broke both our hearts in some ways.
Ann was one of the people in life who helped me realize we can find God in all things, in all the people we meet, no matter how busy we might be, if we relate to them.
Christ, crucified and risen, offers us a deep and abiding and love. We find Christ when we listen – when we care for the stranger and the guest – when we are compassionate for those who have suffered and need our hospitality. We find Christ and offer Christ’s love when we as Christians extend a deep, inviting Christian hospitality; one that welcomes strangers into our midst even when we hear people being told to go back home.
We find Christ in being the Marys and Marthas of the world, the Abrahams and the Sarahs, and the Anns of the world. Amen.
 Luke 10:40, NRSV
 Luke 10:41, NRSV
 Luke 10:42, NRSV
 Luke 12:25, NRSV
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