This is a sermon presented to the church on July 17, 2016 by Rev. Dr. Michael Chittum, the Executive Director of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and the Center for Congregational Leadership. The Readings for this sermon were taken from Genesis 18:1-8 and Luke 10:38-42.
The story from Luke’s gospel is short and to the point. Jesus is on one of his preaching tours through the countryside. As he moves from one unnamed place to another, he meets a woman named Martha, who invites him to a meal at the house she shares with her sister, Mary. Jesus accepts the invitation.
When he and the disciples arrive, Martha is hard at work in the kitchen to get things ready. After all, someone has to make sure that their honored guest and his disciples are entertained in a suitable manner. There is likely some pressure here because Jesus already has quite a reputation and would qualify as, at least, a minor celebrity in the region.
I will confess that I cannot speak with any first-hand knowledge here. I have never given a dinner party or even invited a few friends over for dinner for which I was completely responsible for everything. I have, though, helped in some pretty involved food preparation. When my older son was married, my wife and I prepared the food for the reception. We picked English Teatime as the coordinating theme.
We prepared the scones and shortbread the morning of the wedding, and, thus, we faced a time crunch. We had to finish our baking in time to get ready for the wedding. Have you ever prepared shortbread or scones for 200? We were up to our elbows in flour. There were times on that morning when I did not think I was going to make it; I was exhausted.
That is how I envision Martha, rushing from task to task and ready to drop. While Martha is working hard in the background, Mary stays in the living room, sitting at Jesus’ feet like a de-voted disciple, so she can hear every word he speaks.
Finally, Martha gets tired of the situation and gets a little bit upset at her sister. And, I can understand why. It is a lot of work to prepare an impromptu dinner for 13 drop-in guests. I suspect most of you would also have expected some help.
Sometime in the midst of preparing the meal and setting the table, Martha sticks her head out of the kitchen to complain. She asks Jesus to tell Mary to get into the kitchen and help.
Unfortunately for Martha, Jesus seems to take Mary’s side. He looks at Martha and says, “Martha, you are worrying about many things, but Mary has chosen what is better …” In other words, Jesus is saying that, of the two of you, Mary is right in sitting here to listen to me and you are wrong in staying in the kitchen to do the work. Mary, not Martha, is praised for doing the needed thing. That is often how we see the punch line of the story.
We hear that conclusion and find it easy to make it define the entire meaning of the passage. Preachers have done this for years. Most sermons I have heard on this text glorify Mary and criticize Martha. These preachers like to say that Mary represents the faithful, spiritual disciple, devoting herself to learning from Jesus and that is good. Martha represents those church members who do not spend much time in Bible study and are not as faithful in worship attendance, and that is bad.
Frankly, most church members like that interpretation too. After all, it is a lot easier to be a church member who wraps up in the glow of spirituality and refuses to do any of the necessary work of the church because it is not needful.
That is the typical interpretation. I happen to think there is another, more foundational, issue that needs to be considered before you get to that punch line. Namely, both sisters should be role models for the church because they both are practicing hospitality. And, hospitality is a virtue that ought to characterize people of faith.
I grew up in churches that brag about evangelism or mission support, and both of these are commendable traits. Others churches are proud of being friendly churches. This is also something worthy. Yet, I hear very little about hospitality, genuine hospitality, in churches.
Practicing hospitality has sound scriptural support. The passage from Genesis 18 is the first example. One day, Abram and Sara opened their door and found three strangers outside, by the Oaks of Mamre. Sara and Abram invited them in and prepared dinner for them. The strangers turned out to be angels in disguise, who blessed the old couple for their hospitality.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel were enjoined to “love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” The Apostle Paul, in writing to the churches he founded, often urged them to practice hospitality.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? God’s people should be known for their hospitality. There is, though, risk involved in hospitality.
Hospitality requires a willingness on the part of the host to be completely open and vulnerable to another. You know what that is like. Every time you open your home to someone you create an intimacy in relationship.
All of us have been invited into the homes of friends, and have entertained friends in our own homes. Think for a moment, if you will, of going to the house or the apartment of good friends who have truly made you welcome. They say to you, “Make yourself at home.” And they honestly mean it. All of you gather around a table or a meal of fellowship, and laugh and talk. You share old times, talk about what’s going on in the world today, share joys, speak of disappointments, and connect in a deeper way than ever before. When the evening is over, we leave those friends with a great sense of richness in relationship. We have heard and experienced much. And because of our sincere openness, we have learned much about one another. In that context of hospitality, we have had an experience of building kononia, true, deep, and lasting fellowship, with our friends.
Within the practice of hospitality, we are to create that kind of experience with the stranger as well. We are to open our lives to that other person, to that one whom we do not know well, and to make a space within our lives for them.
21st century America is known by the isolation and alienation felt by large numbers of people. The sociologist, Robert Putnam, described the phenomenon in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which came out in 2000. He observed that Americans used to form communities within their communities. We formed bowling leagues. We joined community service organizations, like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. We were active in PTA.
Now, according to Putman, Americans do not bowl in leagues; we bowl alone. We do not join community service organizations to the same extent that we did before. We are becoming a society of people and families without social connections. We are becoming a people alone.
Human beings, however, do not function well in isolation. We need that sense of deep community to flourish. Dear people of God, that provides an opportunity for the church. You can create an atmosphere of hospitality here within this community of faith. You can reach out to and welcome the people who live around you. You can make them part of a community here. The question is, do you want to do so?
I believe, the church is called to practice hospitality. We are enjoined to follow the example of Martha and Mary, of Abram and Sara, and of the first century church. We are called to take the risk to welcome all people, those like us and those who are different from us, into fellowship with us. That is what we are called to do. May we all be faithful. AMEN.