6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 17, 2022 (Proper 11, Year C)

I am not a great cook. Despite the fact that my mother wrote a cook book, I just didn’t inherit her culinary skills. Or interest. Of course, like any good suburban dad, I can barbecue. Obviously. But in the actual kitchen, I am a paragon of mediocrity. 

I am, however, an amazing dish washer. Plates, bowls, wine glasses; you use it, I’ll happily scrub it clean. Bryna complains that I sometimes start washing the dishes before everyone’s even done eating. Which I will grudgingly admit to doing. Occasionally. Not when company’s over, usually, but maybe at a random Wednesday night family meal.

The problem with jumping up to do the dishes is that you can miss the point of gathering around the table. It’s partly for bodily nourishment but it’s also about building and maintaining relationships. And when we focus too much on the mechanics of the meal and its aftermath, the bigger picture gets subsumed by minutiae.

And thus we come to Mary and Martha. Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. And Martha who was distracted by her many tasks. And through these two women, we encounter the interplay between doing and being, of racing around and sitting still, of action and contemplation. And it is an interplay rather than an either/or proposition. There may occasionally be tension between the two sides, but we need both to fully function in the world. We need to sit still and listen to Jesus, and we need to get things done.

Now, it’s easy to turn Martha into a caricature. The silly woman who idly runs around while Mary literally sits at Jesus’ feet. But to do so fails to recognize that doing and being aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Some of the great contemplatives in Christian history were also activists who got things done. Jesus himself often went away to recharge and pray before coming back down from the mountaintop to change the world. 

And just because Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, that’s not to dismiss Martha’s role. Food does need to be served, dishes do need to be done, people do need to be attended to. You just can’t get so wrapped up in the logistics that you miss the relationships.

And as long as we’re reimagining Martha, it’s important to note that the gift of Christian hospitality isn’t some add-on virtue. It’s at the heart of who we are as people of faith. Welcoming, inviting, connecting people to the community. When we do that well and with intention, not only is Christ served, but the community becomes more Christ-like. Jesus himself says he came not to be served but to serve. He lifts up the importance of welcoming strangers. He praises those who show hospitality to the poor and downtrodden. Martha’s role matters. And as we hear at the beginning of this passage, “Martha welcomed Jesus into her home.”

There are two details in this story that make it both radical and boundary-busting. The first is that very line about Martha welcoming Jesus into her home. It was very unusual that a woman in Ancient Palestine would be identified as a homeowner and the head of a household. A woman would be found serving and cooking and doing the dishes, sure, but welcoming a man who was not a family member into her own home was nearly unheard of. Certainly it would have carried the hint of scandal. 

And the second detail is the fact that Mary is described as sitting at Jesus’ feet. That was the traditional posture for male students learning from a teacher, for disciples seeking wisdom from a master. Having Mary in the role of a disciple shows just how much Jesus was willing to overturn cultural norms and expected roles in order to usher in the kingdom of God. So women in the role of homeownership and discipleship was a bold statement of equity and justice.

It’s true that Christian hospitality is about service and welcome. This is why coffee hour is such an important ministry of the church. It’s not just about, and this pains me to admit, but it’s not just about the coffee. Coffee hour builds community one cup at a time. It is the informal and non-sacramental extension of what happens around the altar. Sunday mornings offer a moveable feast from in here to in there, from the chalice to the mug. It is relational and interactive. It’s like the Peace, but with donuts and a little more room to maneuver.

And it’s why the people who bring things to eat and help set up and stay to help clean up are engaged in a holy, if unsung, ministry. It is the ministry of Martha. Bringing food to share or clearing away coffee mugs is an embodiment of Christian hospitality, no less important in this community than serving as a chalice bearer or reading God’s word. We don’t always think about it as such but it is a high calling, one that builds community and binds us one to another in God’s name. 

So Jesus’ point is not to denigrate Martha or minimize the importance of her tasks. Rather, it’s to remind us of what truly matters in the life of faith. And that is to sit at Jesus’ feet, to be in his presence, to worship him, to be his disciple. That, above all else is what gives us the strength to do the work we have been given to do. To welcome the stranger and show hospitality to the poor, to open our hearts to those in need and show compassion to others. Our lives must be a blend of contemplation and action, a blend of Mary and Martha.

And I think that’s the broader point. Jesus encourages us to both sit at his feet and be about his business. There are times and seasons where we find ourselves on one end of the spectrum more than the other. But eventually, if we’re intentional about it, we course correct. We pray more or we serve more. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to faith but we’re all collectively on this journey. Which is why worshiping together matters, and why serving together matters. 

Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan. And if Mary and Martha serve as the two-sided coin of discipleship, of contemplation and action, then the Good Samaritan and this story act as the two sides of the greatest commandment and the very heart of our faith: to love God and love neighbor. The Good Samaritan reveals how we are to love neighbor and Mary demonstrates what it means to love God. And so Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha isn’t meant to diminish the ministry of service, but rather to highlight the balance of loving God and loving neighbor. You can’t do one without the other.

It also stands as an important reminder about the reason we do things like serve on church committees or bring things to coffee hour or engage in outreach programs like B-SAFE or ASP or Laundry Love. We do this first and foremost to serve God. Sometimes we forget, or if not forget, get distracted by our many tasks and neglect to ground all that we do in prayer. It’s all about staying grounded in God. That’s Jesus’ reminder to Martha. And it’s Martha’s reminder to us.

So, like Martha I may sometimes spend too much energy on the dishes when I should be listening to Jesus. But this story of Mary and Martha always brings me back to what really matters. And I hope it does the same for you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s