Psalm 15 Genesis 18:1-10a Colossians 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42
A parishioner lived alone in the countryside with her pet dog, which she loved and doted on. After many long years of companionship, the dog finally died. Stricken with grief, the woman went to her priest and said, “Father, my dear old dog is dead. Could you say a mass for the creature?” The priest had been dreading such a request and firmly said, “I am so sorry to hear about your dog’s death but, unfortunately, we cannot have services for an animal in the church. However, there’s a new denomination down the road. There’s no telling what they believe, maybe they’ll do something for your dog.” The woman said, “I’ll go right now. Do you think $500 is enough to donate for the service?” At which the astonished priest replied, “Why didn’t you tell me your dog was Episcopalian?”
Social convention is hard to push back against. It’s important in hearing the Mary and Martha story, to remember the large role women play in the ministry of Jesus as well as the foundations of the church. Women were first ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1976. Many Mary’s and Martha’s and Sarah’s have been ordained since.
Practically everyone who reads or hears the story of Jesus as dinner guest in the home of Mary and Martha is drawn to the simplicity, the personal interest, the realism and the ease of identification with one of the sisters. This story is a radical one, if we notice how Jesus breaks through the social barriers of his time. Jesus is received as a guest in the home of the women. Jesus teaches a woman. Rabbis did not allow women to “sit at their feet,” and yet Mary is clearly pictured here as a disciple.
What does it take to be a good host? Good at welcoming people into your home, showing hospitality, making folks feel comfortable and offering space for fellowship. Do you have to enjoy being a host to be a good one? Martha has some issues with enjoying the moments Jesus is with her. Does she dwell on having enough food for all her guests, or whether everyone is comfortable and feels welcome? Will the house be presentable? If she had pets, you know how quickly a clean floor can become a trail of dog hair.
Sometimes worry and exhaustion keep folks from enjoying the present moment. To enjoy the opportunity to entertain them. Some become overwhelmed by what it means to host and lose the joy of fellowship – the major point of hospitality. Hosts do all the work to make space for fellowship, then don’t allow themselves the gift of time shared. Martha had some issues.
Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, while Mary sits at his feet and listens to him. Martha finds herself distracted with her hosting duties. Perhaps, she is occupied with making sure everyone is having a good time, that there is enough food and drink. Sometimes we get weighed down with the intricacies of life, with things that are important but not imperative. Attending to the minor details becomes a major problem.
If Martha could stop preparing, hosting and worrying long enough to fully enjoy Jesus’ company, I wonder whether she could feel cared for by him. Maybe she could see him return the hospitality and welcome she has shown.
Martha, the older sister of Mary and Lazarus, was used to being in control. Her household was known for their hospitality. That takes on added significance when we remember that hospitality was a social requirement in their culture. It was considered shameful to turn anyone away from your door. Martha was consumed by the details. She wished to please, to serve, to do the right thing – but she often succeeded in making everyone around her uncomfortable. We can cut her a little slack to think that as the oldest, she feared bringing shame into her home. She tried to do everything possible so that wouldn’t happen. As a result, she found it hard to relax and enjoy her
guests and even harder to accept Mary’s lack of cooperation in all the preparations. Martha’s frustration becomes so intense that she calls on Jesus to settle it. Jesus gently corrected her attitude and showed her that her priorities, though good, were not the best. The personal attention she gave her guests should be more important than the comforts she tried to provide to them – the need of only one thing.
My sister, Tyler loved to entertain. She had an eye for decorating and pulling off theme parties. When she would have a party, I was usually invited – invited to serve as Martha while she enjoyed her guests. She called me her “Hazel” from the old television show when we were growing up. I enjoyed being Martha – making things happen, pulling the details together and serving others. It has taken me years to have a Mary heart in a Martha world. My parents recognized productivity – not sitting at the feet of Jesus. Sometimes, you just have to let go of society’s expectations and choose the better part – the part that feeds you and secures you as disciple of Jesus – to choose only one thing.
Jesus calls Martha and all of us to the major of majors. Jesus is concerned with us, with the totality of our experience. The work we do, the things we worry about, our heart and mind and spirit. We get this glimpse of Jesus’ overwhelming love for our total being as we sit at his feet and listen to what
he says. This can guide us to understand what is needful, what will have deep and eternal impact on us. To be aware when we are getting distracted by many things and to choose Jesus – prioritizing “the better part, which will not be taken away.”
Jesus offers this to Martha. His correction to her question is filled with love. On this occasion both Mary and Martha are serving Jesus. Martha judges Mary’s service as inferior to hers. She doesn’t realize that in her desire to serve, she was actually rejecting her guest. Are we so busy doing things for Jesus that we are not spending any time with him? Don’t let our service become self-serving. Jesus didn’t blame Martha for being concerned about household chores. Hospitality in Hebrew tradition was very important. Jesus was only asking Martha to set her priorities. It is possible for service to Christ to degenerate into mere busywork, that is no longer full of devotion to God. Martha wanted Jesus to agree with her set of priorities. Jesus had a better idea – to choose the need of only one thing.
The Gospel of Luke is constantly illuminating and elevating the role of women. Martha is doing what society expects of women, expectations she knows well and has internalized. Mary, on the other hand, is doing something that would have been reserved for men. Jesus calls Martha to resist social expectations and to fulfill her role as a worthy disciple.
Today, too, some of us are seen by others as unworthy to sit at the feet of Jesus and to listen to what he is teaching. For any number of reasons, we may be kept from pursuing a life in his presence. Worried and distracted, we minimize our gifts, our talents are trivialized, our very humanity is diminished by a society that expects us to conform to its expectations. It takes a lot of encouragement and resistance from us and for us to choose to live outside these societal expectations and to choose the better part. To choose Jesus!
We can all get better at being hosts by focusing our attention on the excitement, we get from opening our homes and hearts to folks. It is a hard learning to place our priority on the joy of the presence of our guests and the possibility of fellowship. Instead of worrying about the tasks needed to be done. We as followers of Jesus have to learn to bask in the presence of our Lord. Since we have welcomed Jesus into our homes and hearts, enjoy the fact that he has accepted the invitation and sit down and enjoy. Amen.