The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      21st July 2019
Providing Hospitality and Paying Attention
Ayla Lepine

Genesis 18. 1 – 10a

Colossians 1. 15 – 28

Luke 10. 38 – end

This morning we are invited into two homes. The first is Abraham and Sarah’s. Three figures approach. Abraham responds with urgent speed. He runs around. He thinks, rethinks, and modifies his plans spontaneously, asking that those around him respond by matching his own sense of urgency. Some have interpreted the gap between what’s on offer and what’s actually provided (he offers a little bread and water; he produces a feast of the best fresh cakes and tender meat) as an etiquette code. When he says ‘won’t you have a little’ everyone knows he means ‘Sarah and I are offering the best of everything we have.’ It’s possible, though, that what he’s doing – and not doing alone, but delegating so that everyone is involved in loving and serving God together – is upscaling as he goes along, with the difference between the little morsel and the vast banquet indicating a lightbulb going off in his own head as it truly dawns on him not only who these strangers are, but what they represent. Sarah knows too, and listens attentively. Our last image of this encounter is Sarah at the door of their home, paying close attention to God’s promise of a son.

Elsewhere in Genesis she is so surprised by God’s promise of pregnancy that she laughs in shock. And then, embarrassed, denies she ever laughed at God. God responds with love, ‘You did laugh!’ There is no rule book for any of the things that God is doing and being in their lives. This is sacred improvisation, in which nothing is impossible, and the expectations of family and culture are all in flux. There are no comforting rules for when God drops in on you unexpectedly. Not only is there no time to hoover and to starch the napkins, but there is no plan for how to welcome the eternal, immutable, source of all life and love throughout the whole of creation into your house for a quick bite to eat.

Who is this God who, strikingly, as a Divine Trio, entered Abraham and Sarah’s home that day, not demanding a feast, but simply offering God’s presence as a blessing? When Paul speaks about Christ, the Word made flesh, the Son of God bound up with the Father’s love eternally, we learn something about who and what our God is like. It bears hearing again, and as we listen, imagine what you would make for dinner if you heard a knock at your door, welcoming someone who, uncannily, but somehow utterly clearly, is none other than the Lord. Paul writes: ‘in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

This is the divine man – truly God and truly human – who walks through the door of our second household in today’s readings. In the Gospel of Luke, right after the story of the Good Samaritan, in which profound and costly hospitality is shown by one unlikely stranger to another, Jesus comes to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (though Lazarus doesn’t feature in this passage). There are unique and unexpected things about this home. Mary and Martha are the hosts and head of the household. Normally it would be a man in this patriarchal society, but Lazarus is frail, and his sisters are his carers.

If we pay close attention to the Gospel, just as Mary pays close attention to Jesus, and listen deeply to him, as she is actively doing, certain words give us powerful insights into what kind of social event Jesus’ visit really is. The visit is about teaching and learning, and serving. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. That means that she is his disciple, learning from him as her rabbi. Paul describes being taught at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel. Sitting at the feet of someone wise and learning about God, scripture, and life from them is a close educational relationship where insights are being passed with care from teacher to student. Women aren’t meant to be taught this way, are they? But in this household, things are different.

Then there is Martha. There have been so many assumptions foisted upon Martha by two thousand years of, yes, patriarchy. Is she baking cakes for everyone and busying herself in the kitchen? That’s an assumption. The text doesn’t say anything about a meal. If we get as close to the original Greek as possible, we see that Martha was ‘pulled about my many kinds of service.’ That could be a lot of different things. She’s head of this household. The verb ‘service’ is ‘diakone’. That’s where we get the word ‘deacon’ from. Deacons are people in the Church who have committed to serve God and community as best they can. We could translate this passage ‘she was busy being a deacon’.

Now we do not have Mary a passive, perhaps lazy, listener lying down at the feet of her master. We have an eager student, ready to learn, close to Jesus, heart to heart and mind to mind.

Now we no longer have a caricature of Martha as someone distracted by cupcakes, castigated by Jesus for being too focused on housework and needing to get a little perspective. We have a deacon, serving the church and serving her household.

Why does Jesus say that Mary has ‘chosen the better part?’ Surely that sets up Martha’s activities against – versus – Mary’s. Not exactly. Perhaps it’s more about motivation for doing anything at all. Where our purpose in life comes from. Jesus speaks to her lovingly, using her name to bring her closer to him: ‘Martha, Martha…’

We could transpose this story, too. If Jesus came to your office, and you knew it was Jesus, and you love him and want to be with him, and he’s the inspiration for all you do, would you keep writing emails and drafting reports and decide that even though he’s present, right now, you’ll listen to him later because you really can’t shift that meeting and the person who’s coming has booked that slot in the diary and Jesus just showed up unexpectedly?’ When I put this to someone as an analogy yesterday, she responded – ‘No, of course not!’ 

Jesus gave everyone in that household, as he offers it to us, his full and undivided attention, ready to teach, ready to love. Mary responded by giving him her full attention. She chose wisely. Even if that meant being misunderstood or criticised by people close to her. 

In this church, Jesus has come through our doors and is with us now. Let’s give him our full attention. Our goal is to seek the One from whom all blessings flow, who gives us more than we could ask or imagine. To allow the stuff we have to do, the things that fill our days, to be foundationally undergirded by love of God, and the acceptance of God’s attentive love for us. St Augustine puts it like this: when ‘all our busy activities’ come to an end, ‘the only thing that will remain will be alleluia. That is what Mary chose.’

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