The Right Rev. Eugene T. Sutton
Let us pray. Tell us what we need to hear, O God, and show us what we need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
We in the Sutton household like to entertain a lot which—for those of you not in the Washington area—means that we like to have people over for dinner. Given the number of our family, friends and neighbors, this seems to me to be a fairly constant stream of people coming through that we always have to do things for. At least I’m told that we’re supposed to do things for them. And I’ve learned some rules over the years about what to do to be a good host when people come over.
The first thing I’ve learned is something that men everywhere should keep in mind, and it goes something like this: Don’t start a major household project ten minutes before the guests are supposed to arrive. I think you know what I’m talking about. You just want to finish that flagstone patio real quick, before they come. Or it’s that toilet downstairs and it’s always a problem. Let me run to the hardware store and get the machinery there so I can fix that. Before you know it, you’re full of grease and the water’s all over the place, and the doorbell rings. And then you get that “look”—that look from your spouse. I can’t describe that look but I think a lot of you know what look I’m talking about. It’s the kind of look you get that tells you that there’s nothing you can say that’s going to make this better. You’d better just go and wash up and get yourself ready and come out there and we’ll step around all that water and what you had to get done before they came. So don’t start some projects. Don’t even start it that day, guys, because you know you can’t do an hour’s work in an hour.
The second rule is: When you’re entertaining guests, spend time with the guests. All so often—and I think I’ve learned this from my father—when guests come you’re always doing things. You’re making sure that everything is running right and going the right way. And then sometimes you get the video cam and you just videotape everything that’s going on, but you’re not really a part of what’s going on. And you do it all because you’re just trying to be helpful. “It’s not, honey, that I don’t want to spend time with Aunt Edna and Uncle Jed whom I haven’t seen in 27 years. It’s not that. It’s just that I have things to do.” We do them to show hospitality. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it, hospitality?
It’s a very good thing in the Scriptures. The Bible makes a great category out of showing hospitality. It’s a spiritual category. You know in the Scriptures that hospitality is spirituality in action. God wants us always to welcome strangers, and that’s why you have in the Old Testament lesson assigned for today, Abraham. It’s said in Genesis 18 that the Lord appears to Abraham and he looks up and he sees three strangers. Some Christians believe, of course, that this was a foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity. God is One but God appears in various forms. But I see no reason to believe that the Scriptures are simply telling us that the Lord did come to Abraham, but that he came to Abraham through others, through those who were at his house. And he had to show hospitality.
In the New Testament, Saint Paul says be sure to show hospitality to strangers because you may be entertaining angels unawares. Angels. Messengers of God. You can learn something about God through welcoming others. And that kind of hospitality is not about doing something for them. It’s about being with them. Of course, I’m thinking about all that when we look at the Gospel lesson assigned for today, the old story of Martha and Mary. I hate that story. You do, too. I hate that story because Jesus is getting after me and you…because we identify with Martha, don’t we?
You know the story. Jesus and his disciples, as they were traveling toward Jerusalem, enter a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home. Well, she wasn’t just any woman named Martha. We know in the three other Gospels that Jesus had a long relationship with that household: Martha and Mary and their brother, Lazarus. So Jesus on his way to Jerusalem said, I’m going to pay a visit. I do hope he sent messengers ahead of time to let them know that he was coming. “Martha, great news! Jesus is coming!” She gets all excited, thinks about the list and the things that she has to do. And I hope the messenger said, “Oh, and by the way, he’s traveling with twelve guys.” “But don’t worry yourself about that. They can just sit out back while Jesus is there. They don’t eat much. Just two or three dozen loaves of bread, a barrel of olives and a barrel of fruit. And they love meat. Do you have any spare cattle?” Martha is going crazy because she wants to make sure everything is right for them.
Jesus comes, and you know what happens. He’s in the living room there, and who is with him? Mary, her sister. Mary. Boy, you’re glad you don’t have a sister named Mary. Mary, in that whole time, the Scripture says, is sitting at the Lord’s feet listening to what he was saying. Who does she think she is? Everybody knows, in that culture especially, that a woman should not be alone with a man in the living room, let alone a rabbi. And everybody knows where the woman’s place is; it’s not there sitting where the disciples normally sit. The disciples sit at the feet of the rabbis. And they were all men. She’s breaking the rules. She’s not doing the expected thing, and Martha is where she’s supposed to be, working—working for the Lord.
Do you know Martha? You know Martha. You’ve been Martha sometimes. Martha is in every family, and she’s not always a woman. Men, women, children are Marthas, doing things, always picking up the chores that nobody else wants to do, making sure that things go right. Somebody has to do it. Marthas are in the workplace. They mow the lawns. They change the light bulbs, if they’re lucky enough to get an office that’s some little cubby hole in the basement of a dingy building. And that’s where they are, licking stamps, doing the mailings, filing away, doing the grunt work. And all the muckety mucks and all the important people are always upstairs and in the limelight, lapping up the glory and the love. But the Marthas, the Marthas, they get things done. No, I don’t like this Gospel story. I don’t know how things get done. And as Martha is working for the Lord, doing all that to make sure that her Lord is having a good time (she’s trying to be hospitable and she’s just working and working) and the more she’s working, the angrier she gets. Have you been that way in church?
Oh, I know, I see some of you. You’re operating the Sunday schools. You’re serving on the Altar Guild. You’re taking over the annual stewardship campaign. You’re organizing the rummage sale one more year. “This is the last year, I swear it. I know I’ve said it ten years before, but this is it!” You’re also mowing the lawns. You’re shoveling the snow. You’re doing the work of twenty people in the church, and the more you’re doing, the more you’re working, the angrier you’re getting. That’s the first sign, isn’t it, that maybe you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, if your work in the church is making you angry?
And so, she finally has enough. She goes to Jesus and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” I like to think when she came to Jesus it was like a prayer. We, the Marthas of the world, when we get exasperated enough with the way things are, then we go with a prayer to the Lord. “Lord, do you not care? Things are coming down here. I could use some help!” I think, in fact, that when she prayed that prayer, she had the emphasis on “you.” “Lord, do you not care, also? I know Mary doesn’t. I know the others don’t. But you, you, do you not care? I do all this work and I’m not happy and nobody’s happy.”
I think of that story by Leslie Weatherhead that talks about a couple who came in for marital counseling, and the wife is saying, “I don’t understand why we’re not happy. I do all this cooking, I pick up after him, I clean up the house, I do everything around here. And I don’t understand why we’re not happy.” We’re not happy because working constantly for others and doing their work is not the source of happiness.
She comes to him, “Lord, do you not care?” and Jesus answers her, “Martha, Martha. You are worried and distracted by many things.” Martha, Martha. Whenever in the Scriptures you see the name pronounced twice, you know that it’s a moment of recognition. This is a “Hallelujah” moment. This is a moment of conversion. “Martha, Martha.” What kind of tone of voice did Jesus have when he said that? I don’t think it was angry: “Martha! Martha!” And I don’t think it was derisive either, in a kind of humorous way: “Oh Martha, Martha.” I think it was sad: “Martha. Martha. You are worried. And distracted by many things.” “Worried” – that word in older translations was “cumbered.” You are heavy ladened. You are weighted down. And then “distracted”—that word in Greek is merinmao, which literally means you are going in different directions. No focus. You are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing.
Worried and distracted—that sounds like our culture. Faxes and e-mails. Cell phones and beepers. You can’t go on vacation without checking to see if there’s wifi so you can bring your laptop. I’m reminded by one of the older members in my office that there used to be a time when people went away and they went away. Now there’s no away. Distracted. Jerry Seinfeld once said that men don’t grab the remote to see what’s on television. They’re only interested in what else is on television. Distracted.
There’s need of only one thing. What is that? Jesus is trying to show her that this thing—that which she really wants—is that intimacy, that closeness with him that Mary is enjoying. That one thing is about relationships. It’s about love. Martha wanted to express her love for Jesus by doing things for him. That’s a good thing. That’s commendable. But Jesus knew that she longed for more. She just didn’t think she could do it. She didn’t think she was worthy of being in that living room. Maybe she didn’t think she was worthy spiritually of being with Jesus. Jesus knew that there was a better way. And he said, “Mary has chosen the better part.” She’s chosen to nurture her relationship with Jesus. She chose to not let her duties hinder her intimacy with the Lord. She did not want to always be working, not when Jesus is there. Martha thought she needed to be the Lord’s host. Mary chose to be the Lord’s guest. And here’s where we are today.
There is a quote in that marvelous children’s book (and later, movie) The Last Unicorn, about heroism: “The true secret to being a hero is to know the order of things.” The true secret to being a hero is to know the order of things. There’s one man who has been much in the news who reminds us of the order of things lately. His name is Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy became famous in February for leading the Indianapolis Colts to the championship in the Super Bowl, Super Bowl 41. And he made news. For many the news was that for the first time an African American coach had won the Super Bowl. I kind of think the news was something else, though. I’d like to think that in the year 2007, being African American and leading a team to victory should not be news. I think the news was how he did it. He talks about how he did it in his latest book, his only book, called Quiet Strength, which just recently came out: Quiet Strength: the principles, the practicalities, and the priorities of a winning life. Tony Dungy said in this biography that he doesn’t want to be known as the Super Bowl winning coach. He says, “The thing you need to know about me first is that I love God and God loves me. I’m a Christian. I’m a follower of Christ.” That’s what he wants people to remember.
Second, he said, I’m a husband. Third, I’m a parent. Fourth, I’m a friend. Fifth, I coach football. And that’s the way he taught his players. His players all loved him and he showed that you can go to the top not by harassing, haranguing and berating your players and cussing at them, but just by love and empowering them. And even before the Super Bowl game he said, “winning this game is not the most important thing. I know we do football as a career and we love it, but that’s not the main thing.” He reminded his players of the main thing and then they won the game.
The order of things. Maybe that’s why we are all here now.