A sermon preached for the Feast of Mary and Martha
Luke 10: 38 – 42
“Plenty good room,
Plenty good room,
Plenty good room in my Father’s Kingdom,
Plenty good room, plenty good room.
Just take a seat, sit down!”
We were three generations around the family table. Grandmother Mary had raised my mother in Mississippi. Her husband, the Rev. S.A. Morgan was an Episcopal priest, and wherever he went to start a new parish, Mrs. Morgan would start a new school. By the time our grandparents came to live with us, Grandmother Mary had officially retired from her years of sojourning as a teacher, but she had plenty of teacher left in her to see to it that her three grandchildren learned the important lessons of life.
I loved the times when I came home from school and Grandmother was getting dinner on. I especially loved to sit quietly in the kitchen and watch her hands. She could bake a cake from scratch with the touch of an angel. She could snap beans with a rhythm that would put me in a trance. And though she cooked the life out of vegetables, I liked when it was greens she was fixing. She’d save a little pot liquor, and we’d each have some from the same “squatty” cup. I imagined that the dark, hot, brown-green liquid was a strength potion. Maybe it was. As an adult when I drink from the cup at communion I still taste that pot liquor.
The family dinner table, already groaning with food, shouldered the complaints we brought home from school and sustained the grooves we wore in the family arguments. And though the table had its own unspoken rules, our school-teacher grandmother felt called upon to remind us of them from time to time. “Would you eat that way if you were at the President’s house for dinner?” she would ask spotting an elbow on the table or a bite of something sneaked in before we had sung grace. There was no right answer to her question. A “yes” answer meant that you were willing to embarrass her in front of the President by demonstrating that she hadn’t raised her grandchildren right. A “no” meant you thought it was alright to be impolite to her but not to the President.[i] Grandmother’s question was not a question after all. Having raised their daughter in the deeply segregated south, our grandparents knew all too well how important it was for their colored grandchildren to learn to respect their elders so we wouldn’t one day slip up and offend a white person. Turns out that learning our manners at the table was a lesson in surviving life.
With a place set for Elijah (and Elijah almost always showed up) the legend in the community and far beyond was that the Lawrences were always at the table and that there was always, as the spiritual sings, “plenty good room,” to sit down and break bread with us.
When, as a family, we visited the homes of extended family or friends, Grandmother had a rule for that too: “Just remember one thing, she would say as we children piled out of Grandpa Lawrence’s 1947 Plymouth with the Tennessee plates and scrambled up the steps to the front door. “Remember,” she said, straightening our clothes and removing a stray spot from a cheek with a bit of grandmotherly spittle. “Remember, you’re the guest,” Now, the mystery of that rule was that it got turned up-side-down when company came to our house. As soon as there was a knock at our front door, Grandmother would warn us, “Just remember one thing. They’re the guest.”
We learned many life lessons in the sacramental moments of bean-snapping and pot-liquor sipping at Grandmother’s knee, and in the not-so-sacred, raucous moments crowded in the back seat of the family car. But they could all be summed up by Grandmother’s one rule, unfairly amended by her, we thought, to suit the occasion: Remember, you’re the guest. Remember, they’re the guest. But Grandmother knew what we would one day come to know: that following the first part of that riddle-like rule would prepare us for being in a world that would not necessarily welcome us as strangers. Following the second part would assure us of encounters with God that would bring us enough promise to bear and fiercely protest the unbearable divisions of our world. We would some day come to know that the lessons learned at Grandmother’s knee would prepare us for a lifetime of following Jesus, commissioned as Christ’s disciples in the world.
In the Gospel of Luke, we hear the story of Jesus stopping by the Bethany home of Martha and Mary. “Now as they were on their way,” it begins. Though this particular story of Mary and Martha is told only by the writer of Luke and told sparingly at that, we can look back on the Gospel readings leading up to it and get a glimpse of the context of Jesus’ brief visit to the sisters. Jesus had “Set his face toward Jerusalem” and he and his disciples were on their way. This was not a casual outing he was on. This was his last journey, his final earthly pilgrimage, his sojourn to the cross, and he is moving with Passover speed.
“Jesus entered a certain village,” the story continues, “where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” Now we know that when Jesus is invited in, things are going to be different. That’s the way God’s hospitality is – what almost always begins as an interruption or an inconvenience is ultimately a sign of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. You know, three angels showing up at Abraham’s tent flap in the heat of the day, making wild promises. A young Jewish girl’s reveries about her upcoming marriage interrupted by an angel telling her that she is going to bear the Son of God. A stranger invited in from the Emmaus road who breaks bread and open eyes. When Jesus is invited in, it’s never business as usual. Something’s going to get turned up-side-down.
In Jesus time, it was expected that the woman of the household would provide hospitality “for any and every guest, and the more unexpected the guest, the more lavish and bountiful the hospitality ought to be.”[ii] Since our story gives us no reason to believe that the sisters expected Jesus to stop by, we know by the simple phrase “Martha welcomed him” that she finds herself especially caught up in and more than a little anxious about the preparations. Meanwhile, her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Martha complains to Jesus, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Now, contrary to the way this story is too often perceived, when Jesus replies “Martha, you are distracted by many things, but there is need of only one thing,” he is in no way rejecting the gift of her dutiful preparations and thoroughness. He fully appreciates that the essential mark of hospitality in Martha’s household as well as in her good and generous heart is her capacity to give. But in telling Martha that “there is need of only one thing,” he is saying that right now there is a higher priority.
Even though Mary knows that the expectation of her as a woman is that she should join her sister Martha in providing the tangible means of hospitality to their guest, she also senses the urgency of Jesus’ time at their house by the side of the road. She understands that Jesus and his disciples are “on their way” (or as the Greek says, “in the course of their travels, in other words, “on the move”) and that with so little precious time, it is important to drop everything, to listen to whatever Jesus has to say, to attend to his presence, and to receive his teachings. In the urgency of this moment, Mary is called to challenge the expectation of the woman’s role by choosing what was at the time solely the prerogative of male disciples – the honor of sitting at Jesus’ feet.
“There is need of only one thing,” says Jesus to Martha, pointing to a new way of experiencing hospitality. His challenge to Martha is radical: It is to become a guest in her own home, to receive, rather than give. “There is need of only one thing,” says Jesus, and we hear him challenging us in our own lives to make receiving a priority over giving. But for most of us, receiving is hard. It makes us feel beholden to the giver. It renders us without control. In our culture, giving is power. It is a sign of autonomy, self-reliance, one-ups-man-ship, and self-sufficiency. Receiving in our culture is considered a sign of dependence and weakness. But the Gospel has never been about power and possessions, and it is certainly not about going it alone. When Jesus tells us There is need of only one thing,” he is pointing to a new world which is not humanity’s achievement, but God’s awesome gift of grace.
“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says, and it is not to do for me, but to be with me. It is not to give to me, but to receive from me. There is need of only one thing,” he says, and I hear in his words echoes of my Grandmother’s teaching: “Just remember one thing: You’re the guest.” “You are the guest,” says Jesus to Martha and to Mary. “I am the host.”
While her rule seemed unfair to me as a child, it turns out that Grandmother was onto something I did not learn until at the age of 50 I went to seminary and had to study ancient Greek (apparently so that I could speak to God in Her second language.) I learned that “xenos,” the word that means ‘stranger’ in Greek, also means both “guest” and “host.” This one word signals the essential mutuality that is at the heart of hospitality. Theologian, Ana Maria Pineda writes, “No one is strange except in relation to someone else; we make one another guests and hosts by the way we treat one another. There is a common English word that uses the same root: “xenophobia,” fear of the stranger. Turn this word around and make a little change, however, and you get the [Greek] word for hospitality: “philoxenia,” a love of the stranger or love of the whole atmosphere of hospitality.”[iii]
I grew up in the Episcopal Church at a time when girls and women were excluded from any liturgical role in the church. I sat with my Grandmother in the pew (with an adequate supply of life savers) and looked on as boys carried crosses and torches, and men (like my Grandfather) preached and served at the altar. I longed to be as close to Jesus feet as they seemed to me to be.
The Feast of Mary and Martha is a high Holy Day in the life of the Episcopal Church. Almost 47 years ago at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, the women known as the “Philadelphia Eleven,” like Mary of Bethany before them, challenged the expectation of women’s roles in the church by choosing to answer a call that was at the time solely the prerogative of male disciples – to be ordained as priests. Their “shameless act of holy defiance,” as it was called by some bishops, cost them dearly. But in the urgency of that moment, these women answered God’s call to a vocation of ministering to the church ahead of its time. Bishop Robert DeWitt later would write, “The Philadelphia Eleven belong with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks. They are part of that godly company of women through history who have seen that in overcoming the restrictions which circumscribed their own lives they brought release to countless others.”
It is a hot summer Sunday a few years back. The early morning air is already warm and thick on this first day of our parish’s summer schedule. Thankfully, inside it is cool with a very slight breeze as I set the table where in a few moments we will gather for the Eucharist. As I begin to smooth the linens that have been lovingly prepared for us ahead of time by faithful members of the altar guild, I am reminded that one of my favorite times as a child was when we were expecting a lot of company. Then it was time to go to the closet and get out the leaves for the dining room table. I loved the magic of opening the table, my sister on one end and me on the other, pulling straight and strong until we had a wide enough gap, matching up the notches, then closing the original table around it. This arrangement called for an extra large, special-occasion tablecloth to cover the faded leaf. I loved expanding our table, setting extra places, welcoming more people with their stories and their experiences, receiving the gift of their presence.
Just as I am recalling the joy of anticipating the presence of guests in our childhood home, I look up and there is Catherine, a lovely, young, attentive female acolyte quietly holding the chalice, ready to hand it to me. Our eyes meet as she acknowledges that I have it firmly in my hand. We bow to each other before she turns to get the next holy thing and I turn to place the chalice on the altar’s clean, white, special occasion table cloth. I see mirrored in Catherine’s peaceful countenance the young girl who seven decades ago sat in church by her Grandmother and longed to be at the feet of Jesus, and I am at peace. In Catherine’s Mary-like attention and joy in the moment, I remember that we come here, not to do for Jesus, but to sit at Jesus’ feet, to hear with open hearts an urgent word of hope and hospitality. We come to be welcomed at the “plenty-good-room” table where we will sit quietly near the kitchen and drink a little pot-liquor from the cup, a little strength potion for the journey ahead. Here, as Jesus’ guests, we will open our hands and receive the host. And when we do, we will be enlivened by the presence of Christ within us.
Brothers and Sisters, it is that enlivening that makes us the Body of Christ where guest and host are one. It is coming alive as Christ’s Body that sends us forth into the world to bear witness to God and to carry God’s radical, up-side-down hospitality out to feed a hungry and broken world.
“Plenty good room,
Plenty good room,
Plenty good room in my Father’s Kingdom,
Plenty good room, plenty good room.
Just take a seat, sit down!”
[i] Personal Communication: Charles R. Lawrence III
[ii] Peter Gomes,
[iii] Ana Maria Pineda