From God's fullness we have all received, grace upon grace
Providing hospitality, receiving hospitality, sharing space

Providing hospitality, receiving hospitality, sharing space

Post-Covid-like fatigue led to me missing the 10am Eucharist on Sunday and preparing for lunch guests instead, and after waving them off going for a lie-down and a catch-up listen to the morning’s sermon. Morwenna was excellent – the live-stream of the service is available on Facebook and the sermon starts at 11:40 (the sound quality is poor though) – on a well-worn sermon topic. Had I been on preaching duty in the evening, I would not have had much to add, except perhaps my insight from my own situation. Here is the Gospel reading set for the Sunday.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Luke 10.38–42 (NRSV)

Based on my experience listening from the pew, the two standard approaches to preaching on this passage seem to be first, a straight retelling: Mary’s approach is indeed better. It is too easy in this day and age to be over busy, even to the extent of busy-ness being a badge of honour. We should be less task-focused, and take more time out to be still and pray. And second, redressing the balance: Martha is honoured too and her story should be reclaimed. For activity is not bad in itself – we need to eat, after all – but it becomes bad when we allow it to take over and distract us, leading us to resent it and other people. So what is needful in each moment?

Another approach might be to look at collaboration, sharing tasks and roles. I would go so far as to say it is the norm for preachers and many others in the Church of England, when they are entertaining, to be one of a well-practised couple: one in the kitchen, one out with guests pouring drinks and handing round olives and oiling conversation. They might swap roles, whether during the evening for pudding prep, or on other occasions. One might say more generally that each should have their own tasks or roles, spending more time on those which each prefers or to which they are best-suited, but also sharing in the others, not hogging the favoured tasks or neglecting the unfavoured or indeed being a martyr to the unfavoured, and both being mindful of all the tasks that need doing.

Preachers rather assume that hospitality is always provided by two separate people. Now imagine a single person entertaining. There is only one of me, so I have to be both Mary and Martha. It won’t do to be task-focused and neglect my guests, but there are times when I have to leave them to talk among themselves and return to the kitchen. (Ideally my house would be open plan, but I have to work with what I have.) So while I am in the kitchen, I also have to be mindful of my guests, and while I am with my guests, I have to be mindful of my tasks, but to bracket them off as much as possible so I can pay true attention to my guests. To do this, I have learned to prepare beforehand, to spend time with my guests at the beginning of the evening, and to be relaxed, giving the necessary time to food preparation, so that there is a pause and space for conversation as well as a time for eating.

These reflections lead me to a further approach, being both: the line between being contemplative and active line goes down the middle of each of us. There are activities to be done in contemplative religious communities and prayer in active communities. Within each type of community, nuns or monks might tend one way or another, and as they get older and are less able to be active, they might out of necessity spend more time in contemplation. We too need both for a healthy life, and the balance changes with us season by season and as we age.

What if we flip our approach, and come at the story from the perspective of Jesus the guest? In her sermon, Morwenna situated the passage in its context in Luke 10 as the third of three stories about hospitality. In the first story, Jesus sends out the seventy disciples to preach the Kingdom and minister in the villages on the way to Jerusalem. They are to take nothing with them on the road, so they are dependent on the hospitality they might be given. The people they will meet are their own country-people, strangers but known quantities. The second story is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus tells of a man receiving care from a foreigner, an unknown quantity, and the man is even more dependent on his hospitality, completely powerless in fact. In this third story, Jesus himself is now the guest. How is he a model for receiving hospitality?

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

Rev 3.20 (NRSV)

Jesus is patient. He does not impose himself, but waits to be welcomed in by Martha. His expectations are realistic: the meal does not need to be perfect, but sharing it is the means for a convivial evening. He would probably rather not be in the middle of a ‘domestic’, and he does not get caught up in it or take sides. He in turn gives hospitality to all present that evening, providing space for all. All aspects of hospitality and attentiveness that are given and received are valued: food for the body, mind and soul. Listening is as important as speaking. There is time for everything.

Finally, there might be the approach of challenging norms. (Mind you, I have already challenged the norms of coupledom, being single, and women’s work, in suggesting that both members of a couple share the hidden load.) Martha and Mary have a brother, Lazarus. Where was he during this story? Was he unmentioned because he was not there? Or was he unremarked because he was there and acting as expected? That is, a man it was expected that he as a man would be sitting or reclining with Jesus listening to him, while it was expected that Martha and Mary as women would do all the domestic work. So Mary might have been doing just what Lazarus was doing, but because she was a woman she was the one acting strangely, challenging the norm, doing the unexpected. In welcoming her choice to listen to him, as the one thing needful, Jesus is also affirming a woman in that space. Just as this “will not be taken away from her”, so may it be for other people who are not white, male, hetero, non-disabled, educated, well-off, etc claiming their space. Amen.