“Taking Sides at God’s Table”
Genesis 18:1-8 & Luke 10:38-42 ~ Northwood UC ~ July 17, 2022 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld
There was a period of about ten years in my married life when I got to play hostess to all sorts of interesting people. Most of them were friends or colleagues of my husband, who would be in town for a few days and would eventually get invited to dinner at our house. Sometimes, I would have very short notice for these gatherings. As a young mother with three small children, this, at first, was rather daunting. I would run around the house, picking up toys, vacuuming, and thinking at the same time about what I could serve that evening.
I had no car; grocery stores were usually not within walking distance; microwaves and Door Dash were not part of life then. With an hour to plan, things could go wrong. So I developed the Suedfeld Instant Hostess Dinner Plan. It was always the same meal, and it was made up of things I could store in the cupboard or freezer for emergency festivities. The menu was: Clamato juice, canned ham with pineapple slices, scalloped potatoes from a mix, frozen asparagus, and for dessert, trifle, with plain cake soaked in sherry, canned fruit cocktail and vanilla instant pudding. The whipped cream on top was always real stuff. Trust me, if you put enough sherry in, no one will care about the instant pudding and the canned fruit cocktail.
These foods were always on hand, with instructions to other members of the house: “You touch, you die!” And then one winter afternoon, I got a call from my husband’s secretary: “He will be home around seven. Mike is here from Indiana.” I took this to mean that the emergency dinner was called for. By the time my husband got home, the children were ready for bed, the table was set with lace cloth, good china and candles, and I was basting the canned ham with gravy and juice. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Where is Mike?” I replied. “Oh, I just took him to the airport! I told Lila to call and tell you.” Apparently, Lila thought she had given a clear message. The two of us had a lovely romantic dinner, all alone. And there were leftovers for the next day.
In today’s Gospel story, Martha’s home has been blessed by a number of visitors. We can assume that Jesus did not come alone; he was always traveling with a few of the disciples. Martha didn’t have the advantage of instant scalloped potatoes and frozen asparagus. She didn’t get a phone call from Jesus’ secretary to warn her. She couldn’t call out for pizza. She had to make everything from scratch. So she ran around, with guests waiting in the front room, and prepared the best meal she could, on short notice. She was glad that Jesus had decided to visit, but she thought that maybe a little help from her sister was in order. Mary had plunked herself down at Jesus feet, to participate in the scintillating conversation.
And that’s where this story starts to make me uncomfortable. Because, you see, we are used to stereotyping ourselves into one role or another. Am I the “Martha type” or the “Mary type”? Do I serve, or do I study? Am I a do-er or a be-er? And then we take what Jesus says, and we use it to rebuke Martha, not for what she has done, which is admirable, but for what she leaves undone in her life; she neglects the contemplative, spiritual side of her nature.
It’s better, we think, to be at Jesus’ feet, than in the kitchen. It is dangerous to preach against the Gospel message. I’m not going to do that. But I do want to explore this passage and take it a bit further than we usually do, because I think that the either/or, black/white, concrete interpretation is not all there is to be gained from the story. Every time we hear a passage, we should be able to find something new in it. That’s why Scripture is “the living word.” It grows, and breathes, and changes, not the basic message, but the way in which we guide our lives today.
First of all, when Jesus says “there is need of only one thing…” it may mean, not that contemplation or prayer is all that is necessary for our relationship with God, but, only, that he wants a simple meal, not a fuss. Just some bread and cheese and olives; you don’t have to prepare a seven course meal. Secondly, maybe he means that for Mary, the best thing at the moment is to study and converse. That’s a revolutionary attitude in the first century, and it’s one that the gospel of Luke celebrates all the time. Luke’s Jesus is very supportive to women. But it doesn’t mean that Martha is wrong in her efforts to show hospitality. And as we look at Jesus’ reaction, we can see that he is being compassionate. He’s a very good listener, he reads the situation well. He acknowledges that Martha is harassed and busy and worried, and he names her frustration to show that he understands and is supportive.
A new word has crept into our contemporary vocabulary: “Multitasking”. So many are now proud of the fact that they can do several things at once. I am not one of them. Many years ago, when my grandchildren were small, my daughter and I took them out for an early dinner picnic at a water park. We stayed for three hours, relaxing, and watching the children eat, get wet, eat, dry off, eat, run around. There were many young families there, and right next to us was a mum, dad and three children. The father, a young man in his late twenties, had a cell phone, which rang constantly. He had to keep leaving the children to answer the calls. At one point, he ran past, muttering “I wish they had never invented these things.”
I thought to myself, “Why do you bring it with you? Why do your business associates, or customers, or whatever, have the right to interrupt your family time on a Friday evening?” What are we doing to ourselves as a society, if we feel we must be available to everyone on a twenty-four hour basis? Can’t we just enjoy a summer evening with family? Must we interrupt meals in a restaurant, endanger ourselves and others in the car, have private conversations in public places, because the cell phone rings?
What kind of message are we giving our children, when we can’t pay attention to them for a two hour period? How can we relax and enjoy our friends and guests, if every moment is interrupted? What’s the one thing that is needful? Our whole society has become this way. We run around frantically, trying to do everything. We want to contribute to every worthy cause that comes along, because there are so many in need out there. Many people are on more than three committees in church. Maybe there are too many committees. Maybe someone else should lend a hand. Maybe some new people would like to be invited to participate, but are shy about pushing in. Maybe some things can be let go.
In this passage, I think Jesus is trying to be affirming to both sisters, and to us as well. Find the important things in your life, and do them. Don’t take on so many responsibilities that you begin to resent others who feel they can do what is most rewarding, while you only have obligations. Turn off the cell phone when you are having dinner, so you can hear what your family is talking about and trying to share. Choose the better part for you and don’t feel guilty about it.
Many of us would like to do something different, once in awhile, but we are afraid that it won’t be useful, or acceptable, or that it is self-indulgent. We stereotype ourselves in church life – the perennial Sunday School teacher, or dishwasher at coffee time, or accountant. We let others put us into a box, so that children, or the church kitchen, or the account books become a burden instead of a service of joy. We don’t feel fulfilled; there is something missing in our lives.
Another thing that became clear to me because of this story is that it feels as though in the past two or three years we have been allowing ourselves to be pushed into that “either/or” idea and it has become a destructive force in society. Politics has become so polarized that some issues have reached a stalemate. During the meeting of the premiers last week, a number of them remarked on how, at the beginning of the Covid crisis, people were so willing to cooperate, and now that kind of positive energy and fellowship is gone.
I can’t think of a world leader who is not being criticized, reviled, threatened, deemed unsuccessful. I don’t think there is anyone who could have responded perfectly to the things that have been going on globally. Would you want to be a prime minister, president, or monarch just now? Leaders are being blamed for everything, when they have been given an impossible task. A lot have been pushed or voted out of office. We all need a healthy dose of cooperation – the both/and model of handling problems. Rather than the either/or way. It’s time to stop trying to do everything all at once, and simplify life. Welcome others out of love, sit down with them and share stories. What does hospitality mean in your family traditions? What does it mean to refugees arriving here, or waiting for entry? Do we need to break some social conventions, to make room for Jesus?
Two fun things to end the exploration of this passage: Sometimes I am tempted to write a little verse on the end of this story. “After dinner, Jesus arose from the table, told the disciples to clear up, grabbed a dishtowel, and said to Mary, “come on, you wash, I’ll dry, and Martha can put her feet up with a nice cup of tea.” OK, never going to happen, but there is a delightful group of legends about Martha and her family that changes the way we look at this perfect hostess. In areas of western Europe, there are churches with stained glass windows and statues and carvings that tell a story of a different approach to this family.
It seems that after Jesus died, Martha, Mary, and sometimes Lazarus and others, were expelled from their home and traveled by sea to Marseilles. Lazarus became a bishop - sometimes shown being crowned by Martha, and Mary matured into a famous missionary who called many to convert to Christ.
And what of Martha, and her pots and pans? Well, she apparently left them behind in Bethany, to take up her new profession: dragon catcher. She is depicted, in numerous artistic scenes, holding up a cross, sprinkling a people-eating dragon with holy water, and then tying it up with her belt, so that villagers could make an end to the evil that was threatening their countryside. Martha serves God by her actions and her faith. Legend gives her a new and fulfilling holy call.
This week, let’s all think about our own call to faith and holiness. How can we best welcome Christ into our lives? How do we spread the message of the Gospel, and call others into our community? How can we use our lives to overcome evil? How do we choose the best things for ourselves, our families, our church and our world? What is needful, and what’s getting in the way? This week, let’s try, every day, to really hear what Jesus is saying to us, to put aside our busyness and our worries, to serve with joy and be the people we are meant to be, to the glory of God.