Preached at St Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, MI on July 21, 2013. Proper 11. Luke 10:38-42.
I think today’s gospel story seems fairly straight-forward. Jesus is teaching a lesson about the value of listening to the Word of God, and how this practice, this form of worship, is primary. It is more important than the service work because the Word of God is what informs and inspires our service work, especially when this work becomes a distraction for us. When we lose sight of why we are serving others. When we get so lost in our need to “do” that we are in danger of using it as a weapon of self-righteousness.
I’m sure many of you know folks who are good at this form of doing our ministry. And perhaps you are someone who, like me, gets lost in the doing of ministry and forgets that prayer and silence always and should be more central to my life so I can hear the Voice of God.
Especially in a world of social media where we always have our smartphones with us so we can stay connected to our email and our text messaging and our Facebook and our Google hangout and our voicemail. And we can download apps to stay connected to other websites and news outlets and music. And we have tablets where we can watch TV shows or play video games. And we use all these devices and programs to help us do our ministry and stay connected, in some way, to one another.
We most definitely live in an age where this kind of cacophony has a hold on our attention. And we can kid ourselves into thinking that it’s ok because we are, after all, ministers of the Body of Christ. We are doing this to care for one another. But rather than speak to you about the problems of technology, I’d rather talk about Martha Stewart.
Martha Stewart came to the attention of many Americans in the 1980’s through books about entertaining and cooking. With titles like: Martha Stewart’s Hors D’oeuvre, Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts, Martha Stewart’s Wedding Planner, Martha Stewart’s Christmas.
Martha became synonymous w stylish, quality homemaking in America. She took it up a notch and became a professional homemaker. She wrote newspaper articles, appeared on Oprah Winfrey and, in the early 90’s started publishing her own magazine and launched a TV show – both of which were titled “Martha Stewart Living.”
Martha turned this into a media empire and her company soon developed divisions that design things like dishes and sheets, and placemats and paint. There is always a higher price tag associated with these items – they are stylish, well-designed for their purpose, and are made of, typically, mid-high quality materials.
Martha knows how to create an aesthetically pleasing space. She knows how to entertain her guests. She definitely knows how to run a business (although some of us might disagree w that as her ethics were thrown into question when she was convicted of insider trading in 2004). And Martha knows how to present herself and everything associated with her as something of substance. Worthy of noticing. Worthy of whatever it costs. There is a sense of extravagance to her image, a luxuriousness. And this extends to her products.
If you remember her little catchphrase… “it’s a good thing.”
And I’m sure it hasn’t escaped you that she carries the same name and, essentially, plays the same role as our Martha in today’s gospel. A person who understands her worth as being connected to the things she does – entertaining, hosting her guests, using extravagant gestures of welcome. And I’m quite sure I’m not doing anything particularly brilliant by associating America’s most famous “Martha” with the Bible’s most famous “Martha.” The parallel has likely been drawn by many, many others before me. But I think this connection is a helpful lens through which we might look at what ‘hospitality’ means. And what ‘love’ is.
When I look at Martha Stewart, I see someone whose sense of hospitality is an extension of herself. Her abilities and standards of homemaking and entertaining those who came into her home were and are a part of who she is. She has always taken them seriously and she encouraged us to take them seriously.
Even before she became a brand name in America, she had this fervor to do things to a certain standard. To create these good things because she wanted to impress, and help us to impress our guests with a sense of graciousness and homemaking that had an air of beauty and extravagance – no matter the cost. Her name is synonymous with this now. And it’s stamped on everything that she’s associated with.
But I think what is important for us to understand here is that Martha Stewart’s sense of hospitality is more about her, than about her guests. In making a name for herself – a brand name that we have come to know and, in some cases, love – she has been very attentive to how she is perceived. She is the gracious host and she wants to make sure we see her that way so we buy her product. Which is to say, we buy her image.
And although we can say, “Well of course it’s about her image. That’s what good marketing does. We buy the image.” But I think we do the same thing on a lesser scale. Because we, too need to be seen. We might not be like Martha, and be seen as the caretaker, the entertainer, the gracious host… but we all have an identity that we want the people in our world to acknowledge.
Sometimes this identity is about needing to feel useful or have a sense of purpose and sometimes is about needing people to see us for some character trait we value, even if we don’t possess it. And sometimes the need to have this identity seen becomes very desperate.
Perhaps we need to be seen as:
Smart. Well-read. Capable. Strong. Unique. Loving. Or right/correct, beyond the reproach or correction of others.
Maybe we want others to see us as beautiful or sexy or put-together.
It might be a particular role – like good parent or good friend or even the one who won’t bow to authority or the one who won’t be tied down to anything as mundane as suburban American family life.
It could even be a need NOT to be seen. A need to blend in. To be nobody special.
And we all do this. We are human. We all have an identity that we need to have acknowledged somehow. But, what does this ‘need to be seen’, this need to have our identity acknowledged, have to do with understanding hospitality? And here’s where we come to what I honestly think Luke’s Jesus was getting to in this story.
When we are too engaged with the need to be seen, we have cut off our ability to be truly hospitable, to be truly welcoming.
When we get offended because someone doesn’t appreciate us or what we’ve given… or we get angry because someone doesn’t see us for who we need to be, we have forgotten how much God loves us simply because God created us. And in that forgetting, we have separated our self from our ability to love one another because we have isolated ourselves from God’s unbounded Love.
When I care more about how I’m coming across to you, when I care more about how you are seeing me… you have become nothing more than an object in my world from whom I get what I need. And that is what stops me from truly meeting you, from seeing who you are. That prevents me from extending true hospitality to you, from listening to you because I’m waiting for some sign that you’ve seen me.
If you are only an object in my world, then how can I possibly see your heart? How can I even begin to acknowledge your true nature as a holy and beloved child of God?
And when we extrapolate this to our larger society, it is at the heart of every prejudice we have – racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, classism, regionalism, ableism, sizeism…
The inability to see our neighbor, to truly see the loveliness, the holiness, the belovedness of their embodiment, the inherent worth that is their birthright, the significance and value they are simply because they breathe, the connection that they have to us because they come from the same earth, the same soil, the same adamah over which God breathed the Word into being…
Our inability to see that, to know that, to feel that is what enables us to see “otherness”. It is the first step to looking for some reason for me to be “OK” and you to not be “OK”.
Martha (whichever one we’re talking about) desperately needs to be seen as OK. As worthy. So much so that she asks this guest, this teacher to condemn someone who has chosen another way. So desperate is she that she will ask for her own sister, her own blood, to be condemned. What we miss in this… is that by condemning our own sister, we are condemning our self.
And we all do this when we forget. And so we confess when we come together to worship God. This is the “unworthiness” we talk about in today’s collect – it is the unwillingness we have to see ourselves as beloved and see God’s whole creation as holy and good.
The foil, the contrast to this in Luke’s Gospel, is Mary. And this is why Jesus calls it the better part. Mary, who sits in adoration of the Word of God – manifested in this story as Jesus the Christ, manifested all around us in the glorious creation given birth by the breath of God, manifested in our own selves as beloved children of God. Jesus reminds us that this awe that Mary displays, this adoration of God Word is what true hospitality is all about.
Hospitality is tapping into our own belovedness so that we might really behold another. It’s knowing that we, ourselves, are holy and loved so that we can extend ourselves in love to our sister and our brother.
Hospitality comes from a place inside of us that trusts (even in moments of fear) that we are God’s precious child. And trusts in that so deeply that we cannot help but see our brothers and sisters through God’s eyes. And therefore see them, not as threats or objects from whom we need acknowledgement, but see them simply as precious and loved and holy.
And then, all of a sudden something really cool happens… we want to know them more than we care about them seeing our efforts or acknowledge our purpose. We want to see their hearts open before our eyes. And we stop worrying so much about ourselves. Because we behold this amazing creation of God before us and we want this lovely creature of God to become, not who we need them to be – which is usually some reflection of ourselves – but who they are called to be. And we sit in awe-filled hospitality, in love w God’s Word.
And this, my friends, is what the Body of Christ is all about.
We are called into ministry to manifest that kind of hospitality, to be the embodiment of that degree of lavish Love. Not a love with conditions, that demands the other see us as some role or identity or collection of traits or abilities. And once they see us as worthy, then they are worthy of our love.
But a love that is invites the soul forth – our own soul and the soul of each one of our brothers and sisters. A welcome that is so radically abundant we begin to envision what the Reign of God actually means… that our salvation is tied to each and every part of God’s creation, that none of us are truly free until each one of us is free.
When we serve another, whether that is a homeless person who comes to the food pantry or a wealthy parishioner who is struggling with the ethics of running a company or a rowdy teenaged boy wearing a hoodie… we are called to see the Word of God in this person and love them.
Love them with a Love that sits in wait with a patient curiosity asking, “How will God’s Holy Spirit shine through this amazing person today?” A Love that listens closely to the guest in our midst, witnessing their heart… not so that they will remain a guest because we need somebody to love… but so that they will know that they too are called to join in the dance of inviting others by extending such abundant hospitality.
We are called to this kind of Love. We are called to this better part.
May it be so.