Some years ago my husband and I were invited to brunch at the home of a distinguished person. We looked forward to this event. We knew him slightly and hoped to have an opportunity to really come to know him better. So one Sunday at lunch time, we arrived at his magnificent home. It was, of course, immaculate. Everything in the house, even the people, seemed perfect. The table was set with exquisite China and silver. Beautiful flower arrangements stood at strategic points in the home. It must have taken literally hours to prepare for this event. Every detail had been attended to – no effort spared. But that is all I recall of this grand occasion. The host s wife spent most of her time in the kitchen. We caught a glimpse of some teenage children who were produced for polite introductions, and our host made small talk. Everyone was polite – but nothing happened. The event had been substituted for true hospitality – hospitality based on true sharing of self; a real welcome forthe one who enters. I have no memory of the conversation because nothing was offered, nothing was exchanged. The meeting of persons had been buried in the dust of convention.
I am sure you can recall events like that in your own life – it s what my mother called putting the cart before the horse. Event over-powering the meeting of hearts and minds. It s just so easy for us to hold back. Perhaps, we feel that the offering of self will not be acceptable. That we might not match up to what is expected of us. It is less risky to offer our caring obliquely – through well-cleaned and decorated houses, nice clothes, and good food. Certainly Martha Stewart would have us believe that appearances are everything. Yet, I can honestly say that some of the most memorable acts of hospitality stored in my brain have little to do withgrand events but have an awful lot to do with warmth and welcome. They were very often simple acts of sharing involving little preparation but a lot of love.
Just after we were married, we were more or less camping in a rancher in the grounds of my husband s seminary. A Belgian monk was visiting the seminary and, for reasons I do not remember, he visited us in our home. A stranger to us, he had no possessions, carried no gifts, spoke only adequate English but, sitting in one of the two chairs we had, he revealed a beauty of spirit I could never forget. He touched our hearts. We found ourselves offering the only food we had at hand – the top layer of our wedding cake. I can see his incredible delight in the sharing of our food. We might have been eating the food of angels so pleased was he to share in a little of our wedding celebration. He has remained for me the image of the hospitable Christian – sharing of self and sharing in life.
The story of Martha and Mary encapsulates both these stories. Here we have the image of two very different individuals – one a strong and capable woman organizing chaos into provision for her guests. The other, a woman capable of focusing entirely on the moment at hand when confronted by the presence of the holy. The former clearly resentful at finding herself at doing all the work and feeling excluded from the inner circle. The latter, who not only steps into the circle, but places herself at the very feet of the teacher. One woman who experiences herself as excluded, even martyred to the needs of others. One woman who flouted convention to act on her priorities. One woman who, despite her best efforts, can’t help feeling resentful, secure in a place of her own finding.
Martha knows how to bring things off. She can do what needs to be done. I can hear her now. Well, Mary, I really would have appreciated some help. What right do you have to go off and listen to Jesus all the time? I never get the chance. If it was all left to people like you nothing would get done. Someone around here has to be responsible for seeing that people get fed. What do you think people would say if they heard that when Jesus came there was nothing to eat. This place would be a pigsty if it wasn’t for me. I bet you wouldn’t know where the kitchen was if I asked you. You know what people are like. Jesus may be the main event but they’re going to expect to be fed. You know as well as I do that you can’t rely on any help from the men. Even if they helped, it would be no use. Ever seen a man trying to clean a kitchen? Of course, I can’t ask anyone to help. Good heavens, they’ll think I can’t cope.
Martha bought the myth. She understands what is expected of her. She grasps the significance of the rules. She is an expert at this game and she can make it all happen. And she can do it better than Mary.
Of course, it seemed never to have occurred to Martha to ask whether there is anything wrong with the rules. Her life has been spent mastering them. She lives in a the box labeled expectations – a closed reality where possibility is not a word of any significance, where risk is unheard of, and where she is very nearly dead.
For when Jesus arrived, she sees not the Lord of Life but only her responsibility to feed him.
Just as Abraham in receiving the Lord at his tent saw not the promise of the presence of his God but three men passing by. Just as Sarah on hearing that she would bear a child in her old age, laughed in derision and grief over what might have been. Martha, Abraham, and Sarah were all called by God to be active participants in God s story, but they couldn’t participate because they couldn’t let go of their individual versions of the world as they understood it. Salvation was to be on their terms. God comes and we resist.
We struggle to keep careful control of the way things are and then are surprised by anger, resentment, and depression when things change or people won’t cooperate. We use pots and pans, clean rooms, job promotions, bigger houses, money, big vacations, and whatever else we can find to ask with trembling hearts, Do you still love me? But we are too afraid to listen for the answer.
The Gospel can break through boundaries only if we consent. The Gospel can bring the question of love to voice, to simple words and gestures only if we are willing to have God be truly present in our lives. For God discards our petty ordering of reality. God is present to bring life. God does not offer an easy victory, cheap grace, or cozy security. Instead we are invited over and over and over again to co-operate in God s reclaiming of this world for love – beginning with our self.
It is Mary, shattering the conventions of her day, by claiming her role as student, a role reserved exclusively for men, who has responded to the invitation. She gives her undivided attention to the presence of love. Jesus was a scandal for allowing such a thing.
And it is still at scandal – the scandal of a Gospel that challenges every convention, every human grasp of the status quo, every life denying rule of culture. A scandal that sweeps away every barrier to life, to fulfillment, and joy. So it was that Mary took her place. The world would not fall apart if dinner was late. There were plenty of people to help. Perhaps even some of the men might be asked to lend a hand. For if, in Jesus world, a woman could be a student then perhaps, in Jesus world, a man was free to be a cook.
Last week, in Honduras with the mission team, was such a moment. At a simple Eucharist celebrated atop a dusty old sewing machine table, with one ceramic paten and chalice and one jelly jar and a cracked plate, on a sticky evening outside in a place where the light bulbs didn’t work, surrounded by tiny children swatting away the insects, tiny hands crowding at the edge of that table, eyes fixed on the bread and wine. There amidst the sweat and heat, the insects and the darkness, was the banquet Martha sought but didn’t know how to find. Christ present. Love incarnate. Unable to share words of common communication, we had become one through the grace of God s Holy Eucharist.
The Lord s words to Martha, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, are words addressed to us, there is need, he says, of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
I expect Jesus reached out and took Martha s hand and drew her into the circle and she learned to leave the dishes til morning. A student of this story wrote that if the Martha of the anxieties and troubles ever achieves a shift in her perspective, that the repercussions will be felt around the world. She will no longer speak through a male authority figure, she will no longer put up with a group who expects to be waited on, she will take the good portion as she wants it and demand it as forthcoming. She will find a relationship with God herself that fits for her which may include preaching and serving at table. She will reclaim her friendship with Jesus. She will raise hell.
And so would we. Amen.