Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. \She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”Luke 10:38-41
My sermon from the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (July 17, 2022) on Luke 10:38-42.
There’s a scene in the 2001 film adaption of The Fellowship of the Ring that makes me wish I could experience the hospitality of a hobbit. Aragorn, an extremely well trained swordsman and a natural leader, had just saved a small group of hobbits from being killed. This small fellowship headed off into the wilderness, seeking safe passage to the elvish city of Rivendell. The next morning while trudging through some rough terrain, Aragorn looked back and saw Pippin, Merry, Frodo, and Sam taking off their packs while preparing a small campfire. Aragorn was a bit confused and he told them they weren’t stopping until nightfall. This bit of news shocked the hobbits because they had some expectations of how the day was supposed to go. Pippin asked the leader of this growing fellowship: “what about breakfast?” Aragorn reminded them they had already eaten. “We’ve had one, yes,” Pippin agreed, but “what about second breakfast?” Aragorn didn’t even bother responding to that and kept leading them through the wilderness. Merry, Pippin’s good friend, came up and said, “I don’t think he knows about second breakfast.” Pippin was crushed and he cried out: “ What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn’t he?” Merry, who was getting to keep following the one who saved them, simply replied: “I wouldn’t count on it Pip.”
Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is a story that has been identified as a kind of competition between Martha and Mary. Martha, after welcoming Jesus into her home, was busy showing her guest hospitality. A good definition for what that hospitality looked like comes from The Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras, a Lutheran pastor of Palestinian descent. She recently wrote, “In my culture and in first-century Palestine, hospitality is about allowing the guest to share the sacredness of the family space.” We can imagine the work it took for Martha to make that happen. And while moving between what needed to be done and her guests, she kept seeing her sister Mary doing nothing. Every time Martha refilled a glass or brought out a new snack to share, she noticed her sister just sitting there. Martha, at first, kept her feelings to herself. But after a bit, she begged Jesus to intervene. Jesus, I believe, truly listened to Martha – hearing the anger and worry and frustration in her voice. Yet he chose to answer her in a way she didn’t expect. Jesus said it was Mary who had chosen the better path which makes it seems as if Mary won whatever competition these two were in. One lesson from this passage is that those who do too much should learn how to stop and listen to Jesus. But I also wonder what this story says to those who do too little because serving others is part of our life of faith. Something else, I think, was happening within Martha’s home. And if we only pay attention to what the women did in the home, we forget that Jesus was doing something too.
Now this story took place only a few verses after Jesus began his long journey to Jerusalem. He was headed towards the cross but he also took the most round-about way to get there. Instead of heading straight to the city, he sent his followers 2 by 2 to visit villages in the land of the Samaritans he planned to go to. Jesus told his disciples they would have to depend on the hospitality of others. And when they came back to him, they overheard Jesus tell a story about an unexpected hero who was a hospitable neighbor to their so-called enemy. After he shared the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus then entered the village where Martha and Mary lived. Once he wandered into what might have been a strange new place, Martha made the choice to welcome him into her home. There’s a bit of a parallel here between the commands he issued to his disciples and what he, himself, chose to do. And just like he sent them into unexpected places, Jesus did the unexpected thing of entering the home of a woman. It was the cultural practice at the time for the home to be identified as belonging to whoever the male head of the household was. So if Martha lived with her husband, father, or even her brother, Luke would have said the house belonged to them. But this was Martha’s home which meant she was, most likely, an independent woman. This independent woman extended hospitality to a wandering Jewish teacher and those who followed him. Jesus wasn’t supposed to be there yet when he entered the home, he did what he always does. He taught; he listened; he ate; and he was the kingdom of God come near. In that moment, Martha’s hospitality created a space where he belonged. But since Jesus is always Jesus, his presence showed how they belonged too.
And we can see that by paying attention to Mary. She, like her sister, was expected to serve since the work of including a guest in the sacredness of your family space was often assigned to the women of the household. Even though it was Martha’s home, she and Mary were called on to make sure Jesus was included. Yet instead of following along with what Martha was doing, Mary did something else instead. She sat at the feet of Jesus which isn’t a phrase simply describing her physical location. Rather, when someone sat at Jesus’ feet, they were taking on the posture of a disciple. Mary, in that moment, engaged with Jesus in the same way that all the apostles did. And instead of sending her away to help Martha serve, Jesus served Mary by including her as one of his own. Suddenly, the family space within Martha’s home became bigger because Jesus made sure to include them in his. Jesus, by entering an independent woman’s home, did more than just stretch the boundaries of where God chooses to show up. He also changed what hospitality looks like because he welcomed Martha and Mary while they were welcoming him. Hospitality, when Jesus is involved, means more than just inviting someone into your family space. It also means staying open to the ways you will be changed since the unexpected people God values and loves is now part of your family too.
Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary is more than an example of our need to prioritize our time with Jesus. It’s also an illustration of how Jesus’ presence extends the body of Christ beyond every one of our expectations. We, who are busy living on the other side of the world almost 2000 years after Jesus visited a certain village, are not much different from the kinds of people Jesus reached out to. We, like Martha and Mary, are the unexpected followers of Jesus who, through baptism and faith, have been brought into his family space. It’s a family space that, like all families, is full of love and joy and hurt and frustrations and many broken expectations. But it’s also a space that’s not centered in blood lines, DNA, cultural bounds, or even our choices. It’s an environment drawn together by Christ because, through God’s love, we have been chosen. You have already been welcomed into God’s family space with a love that will keep pushing the limits of our welcome until it matches God’s own. Instead of serving and loving and welcoming others in the ways we’ve always done, we will need to re-evaluate and change what we do while staying open to the ways Jesus is already changing us. He is the one who shows us what God’s hospitality looks like. And when we find ourselves focused on our expectations, choosing to stop and stew and chew on what we thought we already knew, Jesus will be right there to lead us into a fullness of life that we can always count on.