Sunday, July 17, 2022
By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
I recently read a beautiful essay by writer Sean Dietrich about Tennessee. Dietrich describes the hospitality of the state I call home with humor and fondness. I consider this remarkable because he lives in Florida and Tennesseans are not known for much kind talk about Florida, especially during football season. In response to a stranger telling him how he’d moved to Tennessee from New York years ago because Tennessee was home to the nicest people, Dietrich says…
He’s right. I’ve only been in Tennessee for 24 hours. But so far, two waitresses have called me “sugar,” three people have held the door for me, and one guy on the street was thoughtful enough to sincerely try to save my soul from everlasting damnation.
My guess is that each of you carry stories and memories of the place you grew up calling home. And that although I am terribly partial to my place I know that there are many places in this world that are beautiful and full of kind people who offer hospitality to strangers and friends alike. But I hold one top spot for my home. Our biscuits. I will fight you about biscuits because they make those best in Tennessee.
Offering hospitality is at the heart of today’s readings. We all have ideas about how to be hospitable to others, how to greet and welcome people into our homes, into our communities. Hospitality is described as an art. The span of the concept of hospitality can range from the way a table is set and what food is served to accounting for the feelings and needs of each guest.
What I am struck by in the hospitality represented in both of today’s stories is how even in trying to get it right, Abraham and Sarah and Martha miss the mark. Hospitality, deep and meaningful hospitality requires a foundation of trust and a clarity of focus. Trust in God, in God’s mercy, in God’s promise to us. And focus on serving God and others rather than ourselves. Hospitality springs from a place of faith in the goodness of God and a desire to let that goodness extend to others. And that is hard work for us humans.
At first you may think I am crazy to suggest that Abraham wasn’t thoroughly hospitable to the three strangers that show up in the camp. We know that these strangers show up in the heat of the day. It should be noted that this day was a particularly unique day for the men of the camp having all just been circumcised the day before. So indeed Abraham’s enthusiasm at greeting just about anyone is certainly a sign of something remarkable. But Abraham in greeting the strangers set about asking others to do the work of offering hospitality to these visitors. Sarah is instructed to bake bread and he tosses in that she should use the best flour. This makes me giggle a bit. I imagine Sarah standing there rolling her eyes at Abraham like she didn’t know what flour to use. Abraham does pick out a calf but them he hands it over to a servant to prepare. It seems like a whole lot of other people are being hospitable on Abraham’s behalf.
After accepting the gift of food that Abraham has had Sarah and the servants ready, the strangers tell him that when they pass by again, Sarah will have a son. This is not the first time that Abraham has heard this. God had promised this to him several times before and it simply seemed impossible because he and Sarah were old. Apparently it seemed so impossible to him that he and Sarah conscripted their servant Hagar to bear an heir for them. And what Abraham and Sarah offered to Hagar was far from hospitable. They were merciless and cruel to her. But here they are being incredibly kind to a bunch of strangers.
The hospitality that Abraham and Sarah offer is dulled for me when I think on who they had harmed as the promise God had made to them had not yet been fulfilled. The kindness to strangers means less to me when they offered so little to Hagar.
In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, professor and priest Lauren Winner in her look at hospitality recalls, Julianus Pomerius, a 6th century Christian. Pomerius said that Hospitality required an “unbending of oneself”. Winner goes on to say that “The irony is that the unbending requires inviting my neighbors into the very places where I am most bent.” (Mudhouse Sabbath)
Abraham and Sarah’s distrust for the goodness of God and his promises had led them to bend themselves into a heap of folds. Like the homework papers and notes from teachers that I used to find at the bottom of my son’s backpack. This hospitality they offered these strangers while well intentioned is hollowed out a bit for me when I think about their whole story. And I see in my own life the creased places and times where my inability to trust in God’s promises have dulled me too.
I suspect we’ve all experienced being offered hospitality that hits all the marks of what is expected but seems somehow lacking. And then there are those times where maybe the trappings of hospitality are not quite as shined up but the experience of the people you are with are genuine and full of love. Living a life where you are able to offer God’s goodness to others must be strengthened by believing in God’s promise to you.
We know that sincere hospitality also requires a clear sense of purpose. A rooted understanding in why one is taking on whatever acts of service that the hospitality being provided calls for. This is where I believe that Martha gets herself sideways with Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Truthfully, I would guess that just about all of us have found ourselves in somewhat of the same predicament as Martha. I know I certainly have.
It’s reasonable to assume that in offering the proper hospitality to Jesus and possibly a gaggle of his disciples there was a lot of work to do. The text does not tell us what that work was just that Martha had many tasks. It appears that Martha was left to do this work alone. Or at least she felt alone in the work. Feeling like you’ve been left alone to manage something that you feel should be a shared load. That’s a miserable feeling and one that many of us have shouldered I bet.
I think it is fair to say that Martha was neck deep in her feelings when she looks at Jesus and asks if he even cares that she’s doing all the work. “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to all the work by myself?”
“Tell her then to help me!” Can you imagine being so undone that you look at Jesus as command him to do something? She had to be pretty off the rails by that point.
I’ve heard what Jesus says next different ways in my lifetime of hearing this story. As a scolding. As a gentle rebuke. As a dismissal of Martha’s work. If I consider Jesus, I sincerely doubt the response is meant to sting, but to soothe.
He reminds Martha that in her worry and distraction she’s hollowed out the hospitable intentions she began with. Jesus calls Martha back to remember the task at hand. I believe that task is loving and serving others in the way Jesus has taught. What follows just before in Luke’s text is the story of the Good Samaritan. Martha had in the process of serving wrapped herself into a knot so tightly she could only see her own needs at that moment.
Mary had been listening to Jesus’ teaching, unbending herself to the love of Jesus. That is the better part, that is the good part. In her frustration, distraction and worry, Martha had reduced her good intentions of hospitality to something as useless as that wadded up homework in my son’s backpack.
No matter how hollow or bent we get, God in God’s mercy is faithful, faithful to the promises made from the beginning. God fulfilled the promise to Abraham and Sarah for a son. Jesus loved Martha, despite her come apart. God is faithful to us too. And mercifully God stands by as we attempt to trust in the goodness already revealed and the goodness that is to come. God is steadfast when we derail ourselves with our own distrust, pride and selfishness waiting for us to simply listen and follow in the way of Jesus. Jesus offers us continually the good part, the better part, that loves that comes when we can trust and unbend. And this, this will never be taken away.