Whenever I think about my dream house, the first – and often the only – thing I think about is the kitchen. A big gas range, double ovens, a large refrigerator, pantry, double sink, plenty of food prep space. For me the kitchen is the heart of the home. It is a place to practice hospitality. It is a place of welcome, a place that stimulates your senses and invites you in: the warmth from the oven, the smells that get you salivating and remind you just how hungry you are, the sounds of meat browning or vegetables sautéing, the sight of the food as it is plated, the anticipation of the delicious meal that you will soon enjoy.
Hospitality is central to our lives. Holiday traditions often revolve around welcoming people into our home, or traveling to others’ homes, whether it’s for birthday celebrations, summer barbecues, or Thanksgiving meals on a table groaning with turkey, stuffing, and pies. We even have a whole industry devoted to hospitality, with hotels and restaurants that emphasize making us feel as “at home” as possible.
Hospitality is central to Jesus’ message in the tenth chapter of Luke, as well. Earlier in this chapter, in our Gospel reading from two weeks ago, he sent out the 70 to share their peace with Samaritan towns. He told them that in some places they would find hospitality, While in other places they would not. He instructed them not to stay in towns where they were not welcome, and to rely on the hospitality of the townsfolk to meet even their most basic needs. The middle of the chapter, our Gospel reading for last week, finds Jesus responding to a lawyer with a parable about hospitality. The Samaritan offered hospitality to the man who was beaten,
taking care of him and fulfilling his needs for safety and healing. The innkeeper, too, offered hospitality to the man, taking him in on the promise of full payment from the Samaritan, but with no guarantee that it would be forthcoming. Now we find ourselves at the end of this “hospitality” chapter, and it is Jesus himself who is being welcomed…and who has words for us on the very nature and importance of hospitality itself. Perhaps Jesus is even the one extending words of welcome.
It’s safe to say that most of us grew up with a certain interpretation of the Martha and Mary story. It goes something like this: Jesus stops by, Martha busies herself in acts of hospitality, probably offering him water to wash, then heads to the kitchen to make a meal. Meanwhile, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. Martha eventually gets frustrated that she’s doing all the work and complains; Jesus chides her, saying that what Mary is doing is more important, and sticks Martha with everything.
But I want to challenge this interpretation. Think about what Martha is saying. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Or put another way, “I would really like to sit and listen to you, but first there is all this work to be done, and it will get done faster if Mary helps me.”
Cast your mind back to the Gospel reading from the last Sunday of June, and listen to these words from the end of chapter 9. 59“To another [Jesus] said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” 61“Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’” To both of these, Jesus responds that if they really mean to follow him, they need to realign their priorities. They need to reset their focus. Jesus is telling them that the kingdom of God is near and that they are welcome in, but if they want to enter, discipleship needs to be their identity.
There is an urgency to all of Jesus’ responses: to the ones who he invited to follow him, as well as in his response to Martha in this morning’s Gospel reading. He knows that time is running short, although they do not know it yet. He has set his face to Jerusalem, and he needs to assure his followers that the kingdom of God is near. Soon, they will be called to believe the unbelievable, to have their faith tested by supernatural acts of God, and to emerge from these trials as leaders, rather than as followers. But in order to prepare them for that, Jesus needs them to be fully present, not distracted by even such important things as practicing hospitality.
This gives us a different lens through which to view Jesus’ words to Martha. Perhaps, when he speaks her name, he is not chiding her; he may be trying to get her attention. “Martha!” he could be calling. “Martha! You are worried and distracted by many things! But there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen in this moment to listen to me call her name, and to see that the kingdom of God has come near. I am asking you to do the same.”
Jesus is offering Martha and Mary his own hospitality. He is welcoming them into the kingdom with the same urgency With which he welcomed the others who would follow him, and the same urgency with which he extended peace through the work of the 70.He tells them the Kingdom of God has come near to them – so near that he is sitting in their house,
teaching them and asking them to follow him. Jesus wants Martha, not just Mary, to know the kingdom of God. Jesus wants Martha to prioritize sanctification over hospitality. He wants her to understand that in the kingdom of God, it is more important to understand that we are set apart, holy, consecrated to God’s purpose than it is merely to engage in acts of welcome. If we understand that we are holy, acts of hospitality will flow from this understanding. If all we have are acts of hospitality, We will be too distracted to ever comprehend our holiness in God’s eyes and our place in the kingdom.
I have learned over the years that there is much more to hospitality than cooking an elaborate meal. In fact, I have discovered that, most of the time, the simpler the meal, the better. I have learned that, most of the time, if I am busy over the stove while our guests are there, my attention is divided at best. I am distracted with timing, chopping, stirring, and plating. My focus is on the food, rather than where it should be – on the guests who have come to enjoy fellowship with us. Most of the time, if I am standing over the stove, I am missing out on Jesus’ call to me in that moment: to be welcoming, opening my home and my heart to those who enter, and truly experiencing what matters in offering hospitality: the relationship, not the act.
This has changed my perspective on what it means to offer hospitality. Oh, of course, there are still times when it is appropriate to be laboring over a meal when our guests arrive; sometimes, we do the work together. Sometimes, such as a holiday meal, the preparation becomes the focus. But at other times, it is appropriate to sit and listen: to rejoice with those who rejoice. To mourn with those who are suffering. To welcome those who are lonely, or who feel isolated or set adrift. To extend true hospitality is to place the emphasis on those who have entered our home – and to recognize Jesus in our midst.
We practice hospitality here at St. James. Every Wednesday and Sunday, we open our doors to the food pantry recipients, and invite them to experience God’s bounty, helping them to satisfy their nutritional and calorie needs. We provide material comfort in the form of our pillowcase ministry to those who are ill, and quilts for the MLM Christmas store. Each week, a different family provides treats for the coffee hour, and welcomes members and visitors alike to stay and visit. Our ushers welcome people into the building for worship, and make sure our visitors are comfortable. But how often do we stop to think about the source of this hospitality? How often do we really stop to listen to Jesus’ voice calling us, both individually and collectively, to use our gifts for hospitality in service to God? How often do we really stop to feel the Spirit working in us, prompting us to action and reflection on our lives as disciples?
We often identify with either Martha or Mary – either we are the hard workers, laboring in the kitchen and maybe getting upset when we don’t get any help, or we are the ones who prefer to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. I think that we need to be both Mary and Martha at different times in our lives; we may even find ourselves a mixture of the two.
There are times in our lives when we are called to act – to do the work of Jesus, to practice hospitality and radical welcome for all. And we all have particular ways of doing this. For some, it’s volunteer work – whether here at St. James or elsewhere. For others, it’s serving on Sunday morning as a reader or assisting minister, or in some other capacity. For still others, it’s a call to a profession of service. But we cannot really do the work of the kingdom without understanding that we are holy, that we are God’s beloved, sanctified through our baptisms.
And there are other times in our lives when we are called to listen faithfully for how God is calling our names, and to prayerfully discern what God is asking us to do. We all have particular ways of doing this, as well. Some of us listen best while sitting in silent contemplation. Some of us find it easiest to listen to Jesus when we are exercising, or playing or listening to music, or reading a devotional. Some of us find we listen best when engaging with others, whether through an activity such as a Bible study, or in intentional conversation with friends, family, or mentors. But listening only gets us so far. If we want to be faithful followers of Christ, we must respond. We must follow. And we are called to share our stories with others. We are called to understand how and why our faith compels us to act, and then to tell those around us, so they, too, can begin to discern Jesus’ call to them in new ways.
In just a few moments, we will lift our voices together in thanks and praise to God, and then we will hear the invitation to the meal that Jesus has set before us. It’s just a simple meal, nothing fancy. Just bread and wine. But here is the amazing thing about this meal we receive: in the invitation to dine at Jesus’ table, in the morsel of bread and sip of wine, Jesus is at the center.We are reminded that Jesus is so invested in extending true hospitality to us that he gives his own body and blood for our sakes, so that we can have everlasting life. We are invited to join the whole host of heaven in praising and blessing Jesus for this act of selfless hospitality. Jesus welcomes us to the table, offering us a moment of respite from the busy-ness of the world, an opportunity to listen and to reflect. He feeds us, refreshing and strengthening us before sending us out again. He invites us to remember this moment, to remember that we are called together to be disciples, listening with intentionality to the ways he is calling us.