"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing."
What are we worried and distracted by today? And what is the only one thing, that is needed? It has been a terrible three weeks.
· June 12, 51 people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando,
· July 5, the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge
· July 6th Philando Castille shot outside of Minneapolis
· July 7th, 5 police killed in Dallas, another 9 injured
· July 14th a terrorist attack in Nice, killing at least 84
· July 16, coup attempt in Turkey (Ankara and Istanbul), 181 killed and 1100 injured in violence.
The world order seems to be unraveling. These are difficult times. What are we to do? What is our response to these events? How do we pray in the midst of this disorder? How do we mourn?
And the events of our own lives—I went to a wedding on Friday. I visited a parishioner who is dying the day before I left. My children are involved in sports and summer work and fun. My parents are aging and looking forward to family events, and are worried about illnesses or health crises. Our vestry is thinking about our work to bring new people into our church, engaging our families, doing ministry with the poor who live here in Marin.
Our worries and distractions run the gamut from the profound questions, to the mundane worries. We struggle with personal challenges, and we are affected by the world events.
As I listen to Scripture today, I am thinking about these three women—Sarah, wife of Abraham, who prepares the bread for the Lord, Martha the friend of Jesus who does all the chores when he visits and Mary, the sister of Martha who is Jesus’ student.
In our Gospel, it might seem that Jesus is criticizing Martha for being a generous host. We don’t know exactly what Martha is doing, but it seems likely that she is trying to make Jesus welcome-maybe she is preparing a meal, or making up a fresh bed and bath for him. In so many other passages we have lessons about being hospitable, caring for our guests. Just last week, we had the lesson of the Good Samaritan—the story about caring for the other. But in this passage, Jesus is lifting up Mary’s attention to him. He is showing Martha that the “Most important thing” is paying attention to the guest. Mary has recognized Jesus and put her worries aside so that she may sit at his feet and listen to his teachings. Martha, who might want to be a student of Jesus, has instead been distracted by her chores. The essence of hospitality is not doing for another, but welcoming them by noticing, listening and paying attention to them.
In our Hebrew Bible text we see Sarah who has been instructed by Abraham to cook for the three visitors. In this story, we also have a message of extreme hospitality. Abraham recognizes these visitors as a visit from the divine. Sarah is the worker who provides for them. She might seem like Martha—another one who is focused on the tasks. But she is rewarded for her efforts—being blessed with a child in spite of her advanced age. What’s the difference between Sarah and Martha? Maybe it is that Martha is distracted by her service, where as Sarah has focused her service on the needs of the visitors. Sarah and Abraham have recognized the true nature of their visitors. They have come together to serve beyond expectations—instead of just bringing a little grain, they have produced a feast with breads, and a calf and milk and curds. Martha is distracted and in her distraction is drawing out a tension between her and her sister, instead of reall y serving Jesus by listening to him.
I hear in these passages an instruction to us about hospitality. On a global scale, we must recognize the other as a child of God. We must not be distracted by what we imagine are their needs or simply focused on what we can give them. In our encounters with people who are not like us, wee must listen for God’s voice and recognize God’s presence. Our hospitality is not about what we can do for other people, it is about listening carefully, trying to really understand the other person. The is the one and only thing—we must listen and serve their needs. We must not be distracted by the events of the day or the tasks at hand.
I hear in the events of the past three weeks distracting messages—what does the shooting in Orlando say about racism against Latinos or violence against the LGBTQ community?
What does this shooting tell us about gun control policy or mental health care in the United States? What does it point to about hatred and bullying in our schools?
The police shootings of black men—what messages about racism and profiling by police? What about the protests and the need for love between people of different races.
The shootings of police—raising questions about fear and distrust, retribution rather than healing.
The attack in Nice giving rise to the war against terrorists. But raising the need to speak against racism against people of Middle Eastern descent. The killer’s name was Mohammed—he was a Muslim. He may have been part of an ISIS group. But there is a danger that we might equate his violence with a wrong conclusion that all Muslims are violent or all committed to terrorism.
If we take on one of these issues—if we begin to work for gun control, or police reforms, if we protest systemic racism, if we work to promote peace and understanding between religious groups, if we study to understand the history behind the Turkish coup or look at the motivation of a madman who would kills peaceful people enjoying Independence day celebrations. If we begin to work on these issues are we being Martha? Are we distracted by doing? Or are we Sarah or Martha, recognizing God and participating in God’s radical hospitality.
We may be overwhelmed by the events of the past three weeks and decide that we cannot do more than carry on with our personal lives. We turn off the television and the radio. We go for a hike, take a vacation, focus on family members, concentrate on our own self-care or the needs of our chidren and grandchildren. If we ignore the painful news, we may be distracting ourselves. But I want to suggest that we will suffer Jesus’s rebuke as Martha did, only if we are distracting ourselves to avoid true hospitality. When we are faced with another person, we must ask what it means to notice them, and really listen to them.
I think that there is no right answer in this confusing time. At this moment, there is chaos in our world and each of us must ask, “What does it mean to extend God’s hospitality here?” What does really listening and attending to our neighbor mean in the chaos of this week?
I have changed our prayers this week and written a special Litany for healing. I ask that as we pray together, you might imagine yourself as Mary, listening at the feet of Jesus. When you hear about others addressing the events of our times in the news, try not to be judgmental as Martha was judgmental of Mary—instead, try to really listen to voices and perspectives that are different from your own. In this lesson, God will be present.