Here's today's homily. The readings are here; I'm using Track A.
Many years ago, when I took my Preachers in Training class, I was given the story of Martha and Mary as a homework assignment. I was supposed to think about how I’d write a homily about it. As someone who’s often been criticized for being a dreamer – my mother once commented to my sister, “Susan has many skills, but none of them are practical” – Mary had my full sympathy, and I had to struggle to see the other side of the story.
And then, in one of those coincidences that may not be coincidence at all, my husband and I had a dinner guest. The nephew of a friend, he had just gotten back from ten months working for an oil company in Algeria. As the three of us sat drinking iced tea in the living room, I asked him what it had been like living in a foreign country. “What taught me the most,” he said quietly, putting down his glass, “was seeing the effects of a totalitarian government first-hand.”
He began talking about the sufferings of his Algerian friends, but suddenly I couldn’t concentrate. He’d put his glass, dripping with condensation, directly on the oak coffee table, and all I could think about was water stains on my furniture. I sat paralyzed, wondering what to do. Should I say something? Should I snatch up his glass and slide a coaster under it? Surely those actions would be rude: I felt honored that he was sharing his experiences with us, and I didn’t want to interrupt his story. But because I was distracted by, and worried about, water stains, I wasn’t listening to his story as closely as I would have liked to, either. I was more worried about my house than about my guest. In Gospel terms, the Martha in me had won out over the Mary.
Today’s readings are about generosity and hospitality. In Amos, God thunders at people who care more about making money than about helping the poor. In Genesis, Abraham famously offers hospitality to three strangers and receives a great blessing in return. And in Luke, Martha and Mary demonstrate two different kinds of hospitality.
This story speaks directly to our baptismal covenant, which charges us “to seek and serve Christ in all persons.” It’s no accident that there are two verbs in that sentence. “Seek” is Mary’s verb: go find the guest; sit down next to him; listen to what he has to say. “Serve” is Martha’s verb: make sure that the house is clean, that there’s food on the table, that the guest doesn’t need another glass of wine or cup of coffee. The two verbs are joined by an and, not by an or: “seek and serve.” Both forms of hospitality are essential components of Christian discipleship, but they function properly only in balance.
Listening to this story, it’s easy to think that Jesus is valuing Mary’s hospitality over Martha’s. “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.” But Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to sit down and stop working entirely: rather, he tells her that “there is need of only one thing.” One dish would be enough, but Martha’s preparing a seven-course gourmet meal. She’s so busy serving that she’s forgotten to seek. She’s replaced that and with an or. It’s only fair to point out that Mary seems to have done the same thing; my mother, at least, would certainly understand Martha’s exasperation with the dreamy relative who’s too enthralled by a guest’s stories to help clear the table. But today I want to talk about Martha, whose anxious efforts to welcome God, to be good enough for God, actually take her away from the God who’s sitting in her living room, right under her nose.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” The ultimate Martha of our culture -- the uber-Martha, if you will -- is, of course, Martha Stewart, who has spawned an entire industry devoted to preoccupation with miniscule details. Toronto columnist Donna Lypchuk has listed the symptoms of Martha Stewart disease. “You polish every lettuce leaf with a clean white cloth before you put it in the bowl.” “You save snowballs from last winter in your fridge, in case you need them to create an ice-sculpture centerpiece.” “All of the grass in your front yard is braided.” This kind of hospitality quickly becomes aggression, competitive performance: it’s a perfectionism designed to make the guest feel inferior to the host. While Lypchuk’s list of symptoms is funny, her suggested cure offers a withering commentary on how Martha Stewart disease blinds its victims to more pressing concerns. Says Lypchuk, “Buy the afflicted woman a one-way ticket to Bosnia, Bangladesh, or any other Third World country, so she can appreciate the real meaning of ‘lifestyle.’” Lypchuk and Amos are on the same page.
Most of us, I think, do appreciate the real meaning of ‘lifestyle.’ We recognize the gifts we’ve been given, offer thanks, and try to share what we have. These are, after all, among the most basic tasks of the church. But today’s Gospel story challenges us to ask ourselves how our personal definitions of being good enough for God interfere with our ability to seek and serve Christ in all persons. If your idea of being good enough for God is having spotless white carpets, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone with muddy feet. If your idea of being good enough for God is being well dressed, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone wearing rags. If your idea of being good enough for God is having furniture unmarred by water stains, you may have trouble serving the Christ in someone who has just put a dripping iced-tea glass down on your coffee table. Our definition of “good enough” needs to be as various as the Christs who come to us, and always it needs to include the willingness to listen, both to strangers and to friends.
Mary, after all, already knew Jesus. She wasn’t gazing starstruck at him because she’d never seen him before. She listened so raptly because he brought news, the news he spent his life proclaiming: the Good News, the Gospel. She refused to take for granted the astonishing fact that God was sitting in front of her, telling her a story. She refused to consider her house more important than her guest.
Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, in his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, observes that “preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same.” Listening the way Mary did takes courage, because the news we hear often requires us to act, to change – even if only to change our minds about what we thought we knew. Seeking God, we often discover that God asks us to serve in ways we may not have originally planned. It can be easier, safer, to remain preoccupied with the finish on the furniture or the polish on the lettuce leaves. It can be safer to hide from the astonishing fact that whenever anyone speaks to us, stranger or friend, Christ is there in front of us, telling us a story.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” I’m not sure we worry less when we learn to listen to God. There are a lot of worrisome things in the world, after all. I do think we worry about different things: less about lawns, and more about love; less about canapes, and more about compassion; less about furniture, and more about freedom. As worrisome as Christ can seem in his more unlikely disguises, Christ himself has promised us that those who seek shall also find. Seeking Christ in all persons, we will surely find our own ways to best serve all of Christ’s creatures, to help transform the world into the welcoming, hospitable Kingdom of God.