Well, that was quite an exciting day or two around here, wasn’t it? On the hottest day of the year so far, a downtown power outage that lasted for hours. Fortunately, power was restored before too much damage took place. Around here, all of the meat in the pantry freezers was safe, and power came back in time that the nave was at a comfortable temperature for Friday afternoon’s wedding rehearsal. Still, it was kind of eerie driving downtown on Friday—the streets were practically empty, and between the heat and the power outage, there was almost no one walking around. The only lingering effect here at Grace is that the internet is down.
So things are back to normal. The heat has broken and if the weather forecast is to believed, we are in for a week or so of cool, beautiful weather. The heat wave reminds us of the larger global trends that we are facing—the growing threat of climate change which is already occurring and helping to drive migration away from increasingly uninhabitable parts of the globe. Our lifestyles and the lack of courage on the part of politicians and policy makers mean that future generations will face unimaginable challenges, and the world as we know it may no longer exist.
We may not think our faith has anything to say about these issues but as Christians we believe that God created us to tend and be stewards of God’s creation, to participate with God in the ongoing unfolding of God’s creative power. We’ve not done a particularly good job of that. For many Christians, instead of stewardship, the prevailing model is one of dominion—that God gave us the world to use and exploit for our own ends. And so we have done; shaping the world God created to our purposes and for our pleasure, with little or no regard for its future. Some of us, even we Episcopalians, may believe in the back of our minds that whatever mess we make of life on earth, Jesus will return to rescue us from it and save us or our descendants from the coming global climate catastrophe.
Our readings, especially the reading from Genesis and the gospel, encourage us to think about hospitality. It’s a topic I preach on quite regularly because our scriptures, both Jewish and Christian, have as a central theme the welcoming and care for strangers, and the embrace and protection of foreigners. In our current political and cultural environment, it’s an important message; one that we can’t emphasize enough or stress how different Biblical values and ethics are from the dominant perspective in our politics and culture.
Today, I want to take our reflections in a different direction; for in both the reading from Genesis and the gospel, it wasn’t just anyone who was being welcomed, it was God. In the case of Abraham, it was only in the course of the story, and really later on, in parts of the story that we didn’t hear, that it becomes clear that the three men who came to Abraham while he was seated in his tent by the Oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day were not ordinary men, but were somehow divine messengers, even God. So in the letter to the Hebrews, when its author praises the gift of hospitality, he writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Christians have noted the mention of “three men” and so this theophany, this appearance of the divine to Abraham has been understand as a revelation of the Trinity to Abraham, most famously depicted in the icon written by the Russian Rublev. We needn’t read Trinitarian theology into this encounter in order to understand its significance. Welcoming God into one’s home, offering rest, protection from the heat of the day, and a lavish feast, seems an appropriate response to an appearance of divine strangers.
In the gospel reading, we are presented with another story of hospitality, but it is more than that, it is also a story about discipleship, about following Jesus.
The story of Mary and Martha has borne an incredible weight in the history of Christianity. Often, Mary and Martha are presented as two different models of the Christian life—Martha exemplifies the active life, the life in the world, while Mary represents the contemplative, the one who withdraws from the world in order to focus on her relationship with Jesus Christ. In the terms of the Christian tradition, Mary was the nun, Martha, the laywoman. Mary had chosen the better part. It’s hard not to hear this story without thinking of women’s roles. What does it have to say about the role of women in early Christianity? Which role was better, more appropriate? That of the quiet disciple, or the one who served?
But there’s more to the story than that. Jesus has just been teaching his disciples and the crowd about discipleship. Today’s reading comes immediately after last week’s gospel, the story of the Good Samaritan and the demand to love God and love neighbor. It also comes after Jesus has sent out seventy disciples to spread the word. Like those other texts, today’s gospel is also about discipleship.
The story itself, short as it is, raises all kinds of questions. Mary and Martha, two sisters, welcome Jesus into their home. It would seem that Martha is the householder, she is acting as host (until Jesus takes over the show), bustling around to provide the hospitality that is both natural and necessary in this culture. Is it the same Mary and Martha as the pair mentioned by John—Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus? If so, we have Martha acting quite differently here. In John, she takes Jesus to task for not being present during her brother’s time of need. But I would like to point out something else about Martha here—even as she seems to be complaining about Mary and perhaps about her own work load, she is also going about the business of ministry. The word Luke uses for her actions is the language of ministry, service, diakonia—from which our word “deacon” comes.
But there’s another dynamic that I find interesting. On the one hand, Martha, who is shown being just a little bit uppity, complaining, demanding, and on the other hand the picture of a docile, quiet Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet in a posture of submission. Is that part of Luke’s message as well? That women, if they are to be Jesus’ disciples should shut up and behave themselves? Perhaps we should go even further and suggest that Luke is not only implying female disciples are to be docile, obedient, and quiet, but men are as well. The task of the disciple is to follow, to do their work with diligence and without complaint, and to let the leaders lead.
Whatever Luke may have intended with this story, we can know this:
Mary and Martha are or would be, Jesus’ disciples. We don’t see them again, but we can take for granted that Jesus coming to them, their opening their home to him, was not simply a sign of hospitality, but a sign of their commitment to him. Whether they left their home and followed him as he made his way to Jerusalem, whether they were among those women who Luke tells us followed Jesus from Galilee and stood by at the crucifixion, we don’t know.
Are we prepared to welcome Jesus, to welcome God into this world God created and which God created us to tend and be stewards? Another time that the phrase “in the heat of the day” comes up is in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. We are told that God liked to walk in the garden in the heat of the day. Adam and Eve hid themselves from God because of their shame for what they had done. As we look around and see the mess we have made of God’s creation, are we full of shame? Are we ready to welcome God to join us as we preside over the end of the world as we know it? Or are we going to dedicate ourselves to the work God has given us to do, to mend the world, to tend the garden we’ve been given, to preserve it for future generations?
Thank you, Jonathan, for the insight offered beyond the obvious; and, especially, both references that tie in from Genesis.