There are nights when I am unable to sleep because I’m stressing over a project that has been consuming me. There are times when I wake up, thinking about all that I need to accomplish during the day. And there are my days off in which I’ve spent food shopping, cooking, cleaning, and setting the table to prepare for a special dinner. In all cases, I’m a bundle of nervous energy – and no one better get in my way. It’s about getting things right – my own sense and drive for perfection. My doing something – usually for someone else.
We hear this restlessness and hurriedness in several of our readings today. All centered around acts of hospitality.
Three strangers suddenly appear at the tents of Abraham. Abraham hastens inside to Sarah and tells her to quickly make some cakes. He runs to his herd, chooses a calf and tells his servant to prepare it. He gathers all of this and brings it before his guests, standing under the tree with them as they, presumably seated, eat the feast he has set before them.
In today’s Gospel reading, an occasion of hospitality sets the context. After Jesus’ exchange with the lawyer last week about “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37), he and his disciples continue on their way to a village, where Jesus is welcomed into the home of a familiar family: the sisters Mary & Martha (with Lazarus apparently out of town at the time).
While we don’t actually know what Martha was doing, we can imagine her in and out of the kitchen. Making sure the meal was being properly prepared, bringing drinks to her guests, hanging up their cloaks in the closet.
We could say that both Abraham and Martha were being the perfect host, tending to every whim and need of their guest. Running to and fro, making sure all was perfectly prepared so as to make their guest comfortable, welcome, and satisfied.
The responses to these acts of hospitality receive different responses in each story though. We hear Sarah’s laughter at the comments of the three strangers. Is it really laughter of unbelieving or laughter of the nervous kind? Who are these guys? What do they really want? Have I prepared things well enough?
Martha shows a different kind of nervousness – one of frustration and anxiety. Why doesn’t she get any help from Mary? Aren’t women supposed to be in the kitchen and not listening to a teacher? What will the neighbors say? While Sarah laughs, Martha gets angry.
Both are showing what we might call “anxiety” today. And we do live in anxious times. Bankruptcy in Detroit. Continued unrest in the Middle East. Violence in our neighborhoods. Being wary of the stranger who is our neighbor.
Suzanne Guthrie writes a lot about anxiety:
Anxiety, like the common cold, is catching. One person’s anxiety at work or at home, infects the esprit de corps like a rampant infection. An unnamed anxiety can attach itself to a perfectly solvable problem and spread from an individual’s phantasms to the coffee pot in the course of a morning.
I inherited anxiety biologically. When I gratefully consume my daily dusting of medication for depression and anxiety I often think with regret that my father struggled without meds, pacing and pacing around the house in worn paths of worry over things beyond his control. I have to watch my anxiety, feeding on me and offered by me – the bread of anxiety. (I must say, to my credit, that many disasters have been averted by my detailed, all-consuming hard work of worry. If you worry hard enough, the disaster won’t happen. That’s what it feels like, anyway.)
How many of us can related to either Abraham’s, Sarah’s, Martha’s or Suzanne’s anxiety? Where do we find God in the midst of it all? I think that’s what Jesus is really trying to tell us.
Jesus’ answer cuts to the core about anxiety: “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Mary has chosen the better part.” Wait a minute – isn’t hospitality a core value of Jesus’? Welcoming the stranger? Embracing the outcast?
Suzanne also writes,
The rebuke was not because Martha served instead of listened. Jesus himself came as one who serves. The rebuke was for anxiety and distraction sabotaging Martha’s own desire to offer hospitality. Jesus, too, offered hospitality. Mary accepted it. She offered the hospitality of her heart to the Word made flesh.
Who doesn’t get distracted and anxious? Doing too much good in too many directions is one way of thwarting your own desire to offer hospitality. Rather, seek the one thing. Even then, it may be necessary to re-evaluate your energies and sense of hospitality.
What is that one thing? Some people believe this story places the importance of the contemplative life over the active life, but I don’t believe that’s true. We need both action and contemplation, and God calls people to both. Indeed, many activists are deeply contemplative, while many solitaries are fully engaged with the world.
Jesus is calling us away from distracting. To put our focus on what matters most – God and each other.
In our age of Total Information Overload, it’s “no small struggle” to move from the experience of Martha, distracted, agitated, and anxious, to Mary’s quiet, centered interiority. Dag Hammarskjold famously observed that the longest journey is the journey inward. That’s how and where we experience the love of God.
Many of us have shared how St. Matthew’s is like a family of welcome and hospitality. How do we embrace this in the busy-ness of our lives to simply come and be present in worship – to turn off the cell phone, sit in silence before worship and save the chatting until coffee hour?
Here at St. Matthew’s we have been evaluating and re-visioning what it means to be hospitable to the “stranger” among us; to slow down and embrace God in our midst. Did you know that almost every Sunday we have visitors among us? Our newcomers’ committee has been working to re-imagine ways to make sure we are paying attention to how we invite and include those who have recently come to our community. How we engage in providing a space away from the busy-ness of life as well as a place where we are comfortable talking about our spiritual journey. What happens after that first handshake? What happens during coffee hour? Do we tend to converse with our friends? Are we running around taking care of church business? Or are we seeking out someone we might not know – seeking that one thing which might be the hospitality of our heart and our presence?
I’d like to leave you with a few quotes to help us set aside our anxiety:
The Dalai Lama has said,
This we can all bear witness to, living as we do plagued by unremitting anxiety. It becomes more and more imperative that the life of the spirit be avowed as the only firm basis upon which to establish happiness and peace.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.
There is a verse from the book of Ezekiel quoted in Night Prayer, a service in the New Zealand Prayer Book that is one of my favorites:
It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.
Jesus invites us to be hospitable. A hospitality void of anxiety and full of awareness. He invites us to be aware of our surroundings, to look around, breathe the air, gain some peripheral vision. For there are strangers and visitors among us, and we’ll miss them if we aren’t careful.
A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, Connecticut on July 21, 2013.