Sermons That Work

Hospitality Was an Important…, Proper 11 (C) – 1998

July 19, 1998

Hospitality was an important aspect of life for Abraham and his descendents. Life in the tents of that nomadic people required a gracious response to travelers and a reputation for providing a generous welcome for them was highly prized. Note how carefully the writer of Genesis details Abraham’s response to the appearance of visitors as he sits at the entrance to his tent.

It is the heat of the day, a quiet, drowsy time, most likely that early afternoon “siesta” time when wise people take it easy and wait for the cooling of the afternoon before resuming the busy work that requires great energy. And yet, see what Abraham does. Upon seeing the three men, he immediately begins to bustle with activity. He runs to meet them and a rush of words pours forth as he invites them to be his guests. He will bring water so they may wash their feet and bread that they may eat.

They accept and he dashes off to rouse the household. He asks Sarah to use the choice flour, to hurry and make cakes for the guests. Then he runs to the herd, selects a calf, and gives it to a servant who hastens to prepare it. We can almost imagine Abraham quickly making a mental list and crossing off the items as he summons the resources of his servants and family in order to provide rest and refreshment for these unexpected guests.

And what is the result of all this fuss and bother? The three ask, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” When told she is in the tent, one of the guests responds with the news that Sarah will have a son!

This is the tradition of hospitality against which we examine the familiar story of Martha and Mary. Like so many of the stories in the gospels, all we have are a few brief sentences. It is interesting to think about some of the ways in which our imaginations have filled in the details and shaped our interpretations of this story.

You may remember teachers who have painted a picture of Martha fussing over dinner for Jesus and the disciples he brought with him. Perhaps they speculated on her presiding over kitchen preparations, balancing the dozens of details that go into feeding a dining room full of guests. In one of your hearings of this story, you might have gotten a mental picture of Martha that reminded you of the character of Aunt Bea on the old Andy Griffith television show. This Martha would be a pleasant, plump, generous hearted, wonderful cook kind of woman who could never let a guest go away hungry. Along the way there would be some waving of her hands and an almost constant commentary as she talked to herself the list of things which must be done.

Perhaps your mental Martha is a more business-like, brisk personality overseeing the affairs of a very large household with a number of servants. Her modern incarnation would come equipped with a very efficient calendar and planning notebook. Her check writing would be computerized. She would certainly be on line and her purse might contain a cell phone. Our modern Martha’s “household” could certainly extend beyond her family to an office and visible role in the community.

And what about Mary? What does she look like in your mind. Is she that dreamy, less practical sister, the one whose attention wanders from the task at hand to think of books, art, poetry, and music? Or, perhaps you see her as an eager intellectual. There she sits, her eyes open wide, leaning forward to catch every word the speaker has to share, her mind busily shaping questions as she listens eagerly.

Or, is it possible that they are simply two sisters, reacting in their own unique ways to the awe and wonder over this particular guest. It is Jesus…the new rabbi…and, some say, the Messiah, God’s own messenger and deliverer.

It appears that Martha’s head is engaged with the matters of her household and responsibilities, while sister Mary’s thoughts are on Jesus’ words. Regardless of where their thoughts are, we do know where they are. Mary is seated at Jesus’ feet while Martha stands beside him with a request.

Now we have arrived at the point of the story, Jesus’ response to Martha’s request. He says she is worried and distracted by many concerns while Mary has chosen “the better part.” What does he mean?

Many interpreters of this story assume that Martha’s distractions center on marshalling the resources for her household to provide hospitality for her guest but, in truth, she could have been preoccupied with any number of concerns. Whatever she had on her mind, however, the important word here is “distracted.” Her full attention was scattered over all sorts of matters while Mary sat, her attention focused on Jesus and his teaching.

Our full attention, free of the thousand and one “distractions” that fill our days and, sometimes, even our nights – can it be that this is what Jesus is calling “the better part?” Its seems likely that that is precisely what he has in mind. Remember, this is the one who as a very young man, barely out of childhood avoided distractions so successfully in his efforts to be about His father’s business that he became separated from his family during a visit to the temple and they had to come and look for him. This is the same teacher who would not wait for aspiring disciples who had parents to bury and families requiring their aid. This is the Saviour who tells us we must love the Lord with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds.

Our undivided attention — this is what Jesus asks of us in a world that holds more distractions than Martha could ever have imagined. He is not telling us that work and family, and housekeeping, and management, and hospitality have no place. Rather, he urges us to choose Him first and let all of these take their place in accordance with that choice.

Some of this is easy to figure out. Jesus asks us not to become so preoccupied with the details of life, even in our faith community, that we neglect the one in whom we have that faith. His hope is that we will not become so concerned about hospitality when it is our turn for coffee hour that we leave the service early and miss worship with the rest of those gathered. We should not be so busy greeting old acquaintances that we do not see the guest in our congregation. His desire is that we do not become so involved in managing our affairs that we have no time for our eternal affairs, for prayer, study, reflection, and carrying out the primary affair of our lives, the work that God has given us to do.

If Martha, there in Bethany, could find herself distracted with Jesus actually under her roof, seated in the front room where she could reach out and touch him, how much more vulnerable are we? In addition to a much more accessible world, we have even more tempting distractions under our roofs. Consider the telephone, television, and the internet, not to mention books, music, workout equipment, and a home that requires ever more sophisticated maintenance. And these are just the things we find at home! His full attention – this is the kind of response Abraham gave to his visitors. The result for him and for Sarah was news of a son, a miracle child to be born in their old age. Our full attention — this is “the better part” to which Jesus challenges us today. The result for us is also a son, the only begotten Son of God, sent sothat whoever believed in Him might have eternal life. It is when we invite him in, offer him welcome, extend our hospitality, sit at his feet, ignore the distractions and shape our lives to his presence, that we open the door to his kingdom and claim that eternity.

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Christopher Sikkema


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