[I preached this sermon at an ecumenical vespers service at Wesley Glen Retirement Community in Columbus, Ohio, July 17, 2022]
Have you ever had someone drop in unexpectedly when your home wasn’t ready for company? Tom, one of my clergy friends tells one of those stories that are funny when they’re over, but not so much as they unfold. He and Elizabeth, his wife, lived in one of the tiny efficiency apartments on the campus of the Methodist Theological School. They were one-bedroom apartments with a kitchenette that was half the size of a closet. They were relaxing one Sunday afternoon when Tom got a call from his District Superintendent saying he and his wife were in the area and would like to stop in for a visit.
When you are a Methodist in seminary you usually haven’t learned yet that it’s ok to say “no” to a District Superintendent because they are the people you depend on for a job when you get out of seminary. So even though the apartment was a mess and the little kitchenette was stacked high with dirty dishes Tom said, “Sure, come on over.” When she heard that, Elizabeth went into a panic. She said to Tom, “I haven’t showered yet; so since you invited them over you can deal with cleaning up the apartment.”
Elizabeth took the fastest shower of her life and came out of the bathroom to find the District Superintendent and his wife chatting with Tom in the living room. The apartment looked like a photo from “Better Homes and Gardens;” so the whole time they talked she was dying of curiosity about how Tom had pulled off such a miracle. After a short visit their guests left, and as soon as they were out of earshot Elizabeth asked Tom what he had done with all the dirty dishes and other clutter? He sheepishly led her into the kitchen and showed her where he had put all the dirty dishes – in the oven, refrigerator, and cupboards—and then to the closet where he had thrown all the magazine, books and things that had been on the tables, couch and chairs. After a good laugh they started washing the dishes and reorganizing the books and magazines.
I don’t know if Martha and Mary were expecting Jesus in Luke’s account of his visit. We can’t tell from these few verses, but I want you to notice something in the very first verse of that story. We almost always list Mary first when talking about these two sisters. Mary and Martha just flows of the tongue better than Martha and Mary, doesn’t it? But when Luke describes this incident, notice that it is Martha who is named first. She’s the one who invites Jesus into her home, and then we learn that she also has a sister named Mary.
Mary gets Jesus’ praise at the end of the story because he says she chose “the better part,” namely to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching, but I think Martha deserves some credit too. Which role in this mini-drama would you choose? If Jesus knocked on your door, would you sit and listen to his every word, or would you be like Martha scurrying around trying to be the hostess with the mostess? After all it would be a real faux pas to not offer a guest some food or drink, and an even bigger no-no not to offer the very best hospitality to Jesus!
Mary reminds me of a song from “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye sings about what he would do if he were a rich man. After listing the fancy house he would build and all the privileges of being wealthy, he says, “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.” But Martha shows up in that song too. Tevye sings about Goldie, his wife, having all the servants she needs to cook and do other household chores, that is take care of hospitality.
A very dear friend of ours named Sonnie died earlier this year after a long illness. Sonnie was a great cook, and one of the things I said about her at her funeral was that Sonnie never met a person she didn’t feed. I especially miss her carrot cake, which was the best ever. But hospitality is so much more than food and drink. My wife and I visited Sonnie in the hospital early on in her illness. While we there two women whom Sonnie had recently welcomed into our church the first time they came to worship also came to visit Sonnie. The fact that these two women became active members of our church might have happened anyway, but not nearly as quickly if Sonnie had not extended hospitality to them on that first Sunday.
After the two women left the hospital room I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I asked Sonnie if she knew if the two women were a couple. You need to know some history before you can appreciate Sonnie’s response. She grew up on a farm in one of the most conservative counties in Ohio – wonderful people live there, I know, but for many of them their hospitality includes only those who look and think like they do. So, I was a little shocked and very pleased when Sonnie responded to my question. She said, “I don’t know if they are a couple or not, and it’s really none of my business.” That’s real hospitality.
Like all biblical stories, we need to put the Martha and Mary story into the larger context of whole Gospel. Even though Jesus says Mary has “chosen the better part,” he often himself provides the Martha-like hospitality to those who need it. He makes water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He feeds the 5000 when his disciples urge him to send the crowd away to McDonald’s; and that story also says there was enough food for the women and children in the crowd, namely those who had no standing in society. Jesus included them all. Robert Frost was once asked, “What is the ugliest word in the English language?” His response was “exclusion,” the polar opposite of hospitality.
Extending hospitality to people we love is easy, at least most of the time, but both the Old Testament and Jesus tell us and show us a much more radical kind of hospitality. Even the book of Leviticus, one of the most rigid and exclusionary books in the Bible, also includes some of the best words of hospitality. Leviticus 19 includes these words often quoted by New Testament authors: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” I still remember teaching a Bible study on that passage, and the good church folks in the class said, “But that doesn’t apply to us today does it?” Oh, yes it does, and it is never clearer than Jesus telling us in Matthew 25 that how we treat the “least of these,” including the strangers/immigrants/foreigners, even those we label enemies, is how we treat Christ himself.
So, the bottom line about Martha and Mary is this, like so much in the Scriptures and in life, the choice between listening to Jesus and doing acts of hospitality is a false dichotomy. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. The letter of James captures that perfectly when it says, “Faith without works is dead.” We need times of prayer, Bible study, and worship, but sitting at Jesus’ feet is meant to help us have an attitude of radical hospitality toward everyone we meet.
Now I know you all don’t have to do yard work or cook and clean anymore, and I’m jealous of that. But it’s because Wesley Glen (a local retirement community) is a place of hospitality for all of you at whatever level of care and service you need. But that doesn’t mean you can only be on the receiving end of hospitality. How you treat the people who clean your rooms and those who prepare and serve your meals can either be hospitable or not. The way you interact with people here who may be hard to love can be hospitality or it’s opposite.
Now I know very well that kind of hospitality can be hard to do sometimes. When my chronic back pain is really bad, or when I’m stressed or overwhelmed with things I need do, it’s all too easy to be anything but hospitable to people who move too slow in traffic or even in the grocery aisles. That’s because I’m “distracted and worried by many things,” just like Martha. I don’t think Jesus was being judgmental about Martha’s acts of hospitality; he was concerned about her being distracted and worried by many things.
These days it is almost impossible not to be worried – about the sad state of affairs in our nation and the world; about what the future holds for our kids and grandkids and great grandkids; and about our own health and mortality. How do we deal with all those concerns that distract us, all those things we really have no control over? When we take time to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear the good news of salvation, we can trust God to be victorious over all the evil and sin humankind can create. We can rest in awe over the incomprehensible pictures we’re getting from the Web telescope. If our God can create such a magnificent and endless universe, God can certainly welcome us with unconditional hospitality. And that is why no matter what happens to us or around us, we dare to sing “It is Well with My Soul.” (This beautiful hymn was written by Horatio Spafford in1873 after he and his wife had experienced a horrible tragedy. If you don’t know their story you can find it at https://www.bethelripon.com/life-stories/horatio-gates-spafford.)