Entertaining Angels and Strangers: A Sermon for Proper 11, Year C, July 21, 2013

Proper 11, Year C

July 21, 2013

Take a minute. Look around the pews a minute. If you’re a visitor this morning, never been here before, were you welcomed? Did anyone greet you, ask your name, thank you for coming? If you’ve been coming a few months or even years, do you know the names of the people sitting next to you in the pews? If you’re a long time member, is there someone you’ve seen before, perhaps many times, but don’t know their names or anything about them? Well, here’s your opportunity. Take a few minutes—don’t start chatting with someone you know, start chatting with someone you don’t know.

We have two stories of hospitality this morning, two stories of people inviting and welcoming people in, sharing food and fellowship with them. The first is the wonderful story of the appearance of God to Abram as he as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Three men, three strangers appear to Abram. It’s a story that captured the imagination of later Jews and early Christians alike. In the letter to the Hebrews, Abraham’s actions are a model of hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In Eastern Orthodoxy, this story has become an iconic example not just of Abraham’s hospitality, but also of the Trinity, as the three men appearing to Abraham are a manifestation of God, and thus the Trinity.

Like Abraham, Martha entertained the Lord. She invited him into her home and served him at table. The story of Mary and Martha has borne an incredible weight in the history of Christianity. Often, Mary and Martha are presented as two different models of the Christian life—Martha exemplifies the active life, the life in the world, while Mary represents the contemplative, the one who withdraws from the world in order to focus on her relationship with Jesus Christ. In the terms of the Christian tradition, Mary was the nun, Martha, the laywoman. Mary had chosen the better part. It’s hard not to hear this story without thinking of women’s roles. What does it have to say about the role of women in early Christianity? Which role was better, more appropriate? That of the quiet disciple, or the one who served?

It’s difficult not to think in those terms even today. And in the midst of our busy lives, we might think wistfully about an opportunity to sit and think, or meditate or listen to a teacher, instead of doing all the daily tasks we need to do. And certainly, many of us occasionally feel guilty for not following the model Mary seems to provide and sit at Jesus’ feet. Others of course see our responsibility elsewhere—to be in the kitchen, cooking, serving, cleaning.

But there’s more to the story than that. Jesus has just been teaching his disciples and the crowd about discipleship. Today’s reading comes immediately after last week’s gospel, the story of the Good Samaritan and the demand to love God and love neighbor. It also comes after Jesus has sent out seventy disciples to spread the word. Like those other texts, today’s gospel is also about discipleship.

The story itself, short as it is, raises all kinds of questions. Mary and Martha, two sisters, welcome Jesus into their home. It would seem that Martha is the householder, she is acting as host (until Jesus takes over the show), bustling around to provide the hospitality that is both natural and necessary in this culture. Is it the same Mary and Martha as the pair mentioned by John—Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus?

It’s likely that this pair, Mary and Martha, were important figures in early Christianity, or important in the memories of those earliest followers of Jesus. That they appear in two gospels is evidence of that. There’s a sense in which Martha behaves similarly in both gospels. In Luke, she chides Mary for not helping out in the kitchen. In the gospel of John, she takes Jesus to task for not coming earlier when her brother was sick, but arriving only after he was dead. Mary stays at home but Martha rushes out to greet Jesus. And when they meet, she says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” It provides the occasion for Jesus’ familiar words, “I am the resurrection and the life,” to which Martha responds with a profound statement of faith of her own: “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

But there are more puzzles. Jesus’ response to Martha is ambiguous. The words we heard were: “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” An alternative reading puts it “few things are necessary, or only one thing.” That raises the possibility that instead of commending Mary for her decision to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him, Jesus is telling Martha that a simple meal, one dish will suffice. So perhaps instead of Jesus criticizing Martha for expecting another set of hands in the kitchen, he is telling her to lighten up, to not cook so much so that she will have time to sit at Jesus’ feet as well. By the way, the language behind the description of Martha as being distracted by many tasks, is the language of ministry, of service, of diakonia.

But there’s another dynamic that I find interesting. On the one hand, Martha, who is shown being just a little bit uppity, complaining, demanding, and on the other hand the picture of a docile, quiet Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet in a posture of submission. Is that part of Luke’s message as well? That women, if they are to be Jesus’ disciples should shut up and behave themselves? Perhaps we should go even further and suggest that Luke is not only implying female disciples are to be docile, obedient, and quiet, but men are as well. The task of the disciple is to follow, to do their work with diligence and without complaint, and to let the leaders lead.

To view Mary and Martha as exemplars as models of the contemplative and the active lives is to fail to listen to their story carefully and to listen to how Luke tells their story. Mary and Martha, whether from Bethany or not, whether they were the sisters of Lazarus or not, were clearly important enough in the early Christian tradition to have stories told about them. When you think of how many of Jesus’ disciples, how many of the twelve, we know nothing about, that in itself is remarkable.

But what makes their story remarkable? Two women invite a man, perhaps a number of men, into their home. That’s radical behavior. One goes about the business of preparing a meal, the other chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. Then we have some sort of conflict, who knows what really took place, what really was said, but Jesus praises Mary, and perhaps, just perhaps, tells Martha not to work so hard, to sit down herself and listen, too.

Mary and Martha are or would be, Jesus’ disciples. We don’t see them again, but we can take for granted that Jesus coming to them, their opening their home to him, was not simply a sign of hospitality, but a sign of their commitment to him. Whether they left their home and followed him as he made his way to Jerusalem, whether they were among those women who Luke tells us followed Jesus from Galilee and stood by at the crucifixion, we don’t know.

We are, all of us, called to be Jesus’ disciples. What that means may be different for each of us. For some, for some of the time, it may mean sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. At times, it means rolling up our sleeves and serving dinner. At other times it may mean something quite different. What it does mean, and this Jesus makes clear in the gospels, is a radical reorientation of our lives, upsetting the normal way we do things. To invite Jesus the stranger into our lives, into our homes, into our churches, means changing everything.

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