Martha and Mary

Rev Ruth Fitter, 2019-07-21 (Genesis 18:1-10a, Luke 10:38-42)

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At the end of May I opened the vicarage door to find three strangers standing on the doorstep. Unlike Abraham, I had been expecting them but in the same way as Abraham experienced I was not entirely sure how the next week was going to be. They spoke a foreign language – some of which I can speak and understand but listening to them speak in their own language at a very fast pace left me feeling a little unsure even standing in my own kitchen.

I wonder if this is how Abraham felt when he realised there were three strangers standing at the door to his tent on that hot summer’s day and didn’t really understand why they were there. He was flustered and goes into overdrive – offering water and bread as hospitality in the first case but then moving things up a gear getting Sarah to make cakes of choice flour, killing the calf and preparing it and then standing with them whilst they eat the food that has been prepared.

As Mathieu, Nicolas and Gerard, who had come to stay with me for the week whilst they rescued the organ from St Stephen’s church, talked I went into overdrive – every possible type of drink was offered, food, showers, bedrooms, relaxing space, garden to smoke in etc etc – I wonder if that was what Martha did when she realised Jesus was coming for dinner. I mean, let’s face it if Jesus turned up here this morning or you knew he was coming for dinner wouldn’t that be all our natural instinct? Everything would have to be perfect for him. Even I would have to get the hoover out! Eventually I settled down and so did they and for the next week we had an amazing time of sharing – sharing food, wine, company, life experience and learning from one another – about faith – how does someone with pink hair become a vicar?, music, art and the simple joy of sitting in the garden watching the stars as they came out. The greatest gift they gave me that week was the ability to stop and enjoy life in all its simplicity. In the end the hospitality that I offered to them was given back to me a hundredfold.

My small and rather paltry hospitality given to Mathieu, Nicolas and Gerard – a small blessing – became in the end a blessing that gave life and hope. It is no exaggeration to say they taught me how to sit at the feet of Christ again. We do nothing less this morning. I don’t know what it has cost you to be here this morning. Maybe you are like Sylvia and hobbled down the road or have had to put pressing tasks and things that distract you to one side – in order that you might come and offer yourself, a blessing, to God. The hope is that when you leave you will have experienced greater blessing in bread and wine than you could have imagined. We bring our broken selves to the broken body of Christ and in so doing we are blessed beyond our wildest dreams.

Jesus does the same when he visits Mary and Martha and let’s not forget their brother Lazarus. It is a safe space for him to go and be; to discuss over food and wine the issues of the day; to teach and think; to perhaps sit in the heat of the evening and watch the stars come out. The temptation for us over the years of reading this story has been to play the two sisters off, passive spirituality in Mary versus aggressive fussiness in Martha. Mary wins, but at a cost – the argument has been used in the debates about women priests and bishops that Jesus shows they should sit at his feet and listen – they should not be at the same level as the disciples and be in leadership with him. The same voices still come to me in July 2019. In so doing we do a disservice to both Mary and Martha – we keep them in their neat boxes devised by the patriarchal society – one is sedate and devout (note that we couple being devout with being sedate – it is the case for both women and men) and the other is welcome as long as she is making tea and sandwiches.

The reality is more complex though. What is going on in Martha and Mary’s home and in the tent of Abraham is what I like to call the ‘radical and generous hospitality of God.’ I’m sure we can all imagine what ‘generous hospitality’ might look like – we’ve all seen the laden bring and share tables and I hope we have been on the receiving end of it but what does God’s generous hospitality look like and what might a radical hospitality look like for us and for God?

I think the generous hospitality of God is a little akin to what I experienced with Mathieu, Nicolas and Gerard and what Mary particularly experiences. We can come to God in whatever way we are on any particular day and he doesn’t need our kitchen to be perfect in order to visit – we can be busy or sedate, we can be stressed or calm, we can be heart-broken or at peace, we can be the worst person in the world or the best and he will accept us. He will do much more than accept us though he will actively love us in return. He will show us the joy of life in the simplicity of being in his embrace and in his love. He will give us blessing as we come to him that will roll out over us and around us and will also roll out into the wider world. When Abraham meets the Lord in his tent the Lord goes on to tell him that Sarah will conceive – by giving hospitality to the God of generous hospitality Abraham and Sarah will go on to be blessed by the birth of Isaac – after many years of feeling ostracised for her barren-ness and being humiliated by Hagar the hospitality is returned a hundredfold. It is then returned over and over again as the whole people of God come to be the inheritors of God’s generous promise of life through Jesus Christ. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of all people. In the generous hospitality of God the lives of Abraham and Sarah are transformed and so is ours because we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

Mary has the same experience – she comes to the feet of Jesus to offer herself, giving generously we could say as surely she would have known this action would make Martha cross – not to gaze languidly with drooping eyelids – but to learn from him so she might also go and pass on the generosity she finds there. It is the generous hospitality of God that speaks and tells her she has a place there and encourages and encompasses her that then enables her to go out and teach others – speak the Word of God and in Paul’s words ‘make the word of God fully known.’ The generosity she offers gets transformed by the generous hospitality of God and her life and ours are changed.

So as we come with generous hearts – hearts open to the will of God as our prayer of preparation says so we are also transformed by the blessing that comes back to us.

But what about the radical hospitality of God – what does that look like?

To me the radical hospitality of God is hospitality that steps over the boundaries to help us come to a new understanding of the world around us and God does this time and again through Jesus in the Gospels to help us understand how we are to do the same in our own world.

In this particular Gospel story then – far from Jesus wanting us to know that women were only fit to make the tea and sandwiches and go on the flower rota or to sit still and be quiet whilst the men do the talking he is showing us that in the kingdom of God all are welcome, whatever they bring with them. Jesus allows Mary to cross the boundary of her gender, entering the very male dominated world of discipleship; Jesus affirms her right to be in the same space as the men doing the same learning and he affirms his desire for her to be there instead of remaining in the kitchen.

The three strangers at the tent of Abraham bring God directly into the pain and suffering of the situation – God crosses the boundary and comes to dwell with humanity.
And Jesus’ hospitality is radical because of the transformation that takes place in the life of the world because of his death and resurrection. The most radical hospitality was that of Jesus stepping from heaven to dwell with us in all our humanity and then stepping across the boundary of death into life – for you and for me. Transforming the world and bringing the kingdom of God to us in love; in broken body and blood poured out. It is a continuing transformation – one that continues to need to take place in the very active work needed to bring the kingdom to fruition. The kingdom may have come in as God’s radical hospitality stepped across the borders of life but it is us now who need to show radical hospitality to those around us and across the world.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians, as well as being a letter steeped in the adoration of Jesus the image, the first-born, the head, the reconciler, the fullness of God is also a practical, down-to-earth letter urging them to ‘get on with the job’ as he Paul is doing. Paul’s energy is not, however, just a character trait – he is not a “Martha”. It was the surging new life of one who had worshipped at the feet of Jesus in action.
This is, if you like, Paul’s gospel – worship at the feet of Jesus and in the transformation that comes, in the life you realise you are given in turn, go and get on with the job of making the Word of God fully known – go and get on with the job of bringing the kingdom to fruition.

The written word of God commands justice, sabbath-keeping, care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. Those who turn their back on the written word will also find the spoken word has gone silent on them too – we long for God and for his righteousness, for his kingdom but somedays it seems it is nowhere to be found for we have forgotten to sit at his feet in adoration. We have continued to turn our back on the Word of God and we are now surprised when we seem to hear silence?

It is then, however, we see the radical and generous hospitality of grace. For when the world has gone its own way, trampling on the needy, cheating, turning truth into lies and lies into truth, telling people to go home from where they were born so essentially casting them out from their home, building walls – physical and intellectual – and nobody holds any politician really to account; when we prevent the poorest and most vulnerable in our world from finding a place, casting God’s Word in Christ to love one another aside so another quick buck can be made then the Word of grace – the generous radical hospitality of God – is bound to cause a different sort of panic. The grace that comes despite our turning and always seeks us out. Not for nothing does Paul celebrate the fact that Christ is Lord of the principalities and powers. Sit at the feet of this teacher, and you will, as I found out, receive much more than you give and you will find work enough too – we have to be both Mary and Martha but be brave in our blessing of others.


Blessed are the agnostics.
Blessed are they who doubt.
Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.
Blessed are those who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about
everything that they no longer take in new information.
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are the small children who make noise and cut in line at communion.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are the mothers and fathers of the miscarried.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”
Blessed are those who mourn.
You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are those who no-one else notices.
The children who sit alone at school lunch tables.
The laundry guys at the hospital.
The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers.
Blessed are the forgotten.
Blessed are the closeted.
Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the under-represented.
Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms.
Blessed are the meek.
You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom
life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.
Blessed are those without documentation.
Blessed are those without lobbyists.
Blessed are the foster children and special children and every other child who just wants to
feel safe and loved.
Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.
Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono
case takers.
Blessed are the kind hearted football players and the fundraising trophy wives.
Blessed are the children who step between bullies and the weak.
Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven.
Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it.
Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.

A set of Beatitudes for the postmodern world re-imagined by Nadia Bolz-Weber – shared by her at Greenbelt festival in 2014

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