Sermons from St Faith's   

Martha and Mary

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 17th July, 2016

At the first, you are welcomed into a beautiful house, richly decorated and sparkling clean. The host takers your coat, hands you a drink and disappears until the doorbell rings and she repeats the procedure.

You smell something wonderful in the kitchen. She must be attending to it in between greeting guests. The rest of the evening continues in the same vein. She scurries around, fusse4s over details and constantly runs back to the kitchen.

When she is with you, she anxiously asks if there is anything else she can get you. The food is great – complicated and interesting. But you haven’t had more than two minutes with the host. You know a bit more about her from her tastes in décor and chice of furnishings, but she knows as little of you as the day you first met. The other guests seem ill at ease. The conversation is stilted.

The next night, you are welcomed into a comfortable, simple home. The host greets you warmly, takes your coat and then returns to sit down and ask you how your day has been. You tell her. Other guests arrive; she takes the time to do the same with each. Her warmth is contagious: you turn to your fellow guest and ask what his week has been like. He tells you. The host invites you to table, and then returns with simple, nourishing food which is flavourful and invites savouring. The conversation at the table turns to politics; your fellow guests speak honestly of the things that concern them most about our common life. The next courses are similarly simple, nourishing and flavourful. So is the conversation, with equal parts honest sharing and laughter. At the end of the evening, you feel that you have begun to know your fellow travellers and they you. There was no rushing, no anxious seeking to please. Which hospitality would you prefer?

The story of Martha and Mary is a familiar one; most of us have heard it countless times. We cringe at the description of Martha as distracted and worried, recognising how we live most of our days. We want to be Mary, really we do, but there is so much to do. We hear Jesus’ words – “There is need of only one thing; Mary has chosen the better part” – and we resolve to do better. To pray more, to slow down, to put down the smart phone, the tablet or the game console and pay more attention to God and to each other. We put this on our mental “to do” list. Our resolutions are well – intentioned. But the last thing we need is a longer “to do” list. St Augustine would recommend a reordering of our desires by focusing on our heart’s desire. What do we really need? We need to be welcomed into God’s love and to welcome God into ours. The invitation issued by this story is just such an invitation to participate in the life-giving hospitality of God, the kind of hospitality that satisfies like a long drink of cool water on a hot day, a hospitality that heals? hears? into speech.

Our lections today show Abraham and Mary showing lavish and attentive hospitality to God. Abraham runs to provide his three divine guests with the best and then stands by while they eat, with Sarah doing the same out of sight. Their hospitality loosens the visitors’ tongues, who give them the impossible news that Sarah will bear a child. Abraham and Sarah’s listening liberates not only speech of angels but also their own fruitfulness.

We see, in today’s Gospel, Mary rapt at Jesus’ feet, giving him her full attention. He has already turned his face to Jerusalem; God knows what was on his heart. I imagine that her heart burned as she listened.  I imagine that her hearing him into speech served him and served to transform her own soul. When she stood, she wasn’t the same woman who had opened the door to him earlier that day. In days to come, she would draw on what she had heard to serve her Lord. In the gospel of John, it is Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet as if for burial. Her listening became the wellspring of her faithfulness. This kind of listening, this kind of hospitality to God, is akin to drinking from a deep well. The cool, clear water not only stakes the thirst, but restores, refreshes and revitalises. God is asking for us to embody the hospitality that God Himself offers us. It is a mutual giving and receiving: we lavish our attention of God, listening with not just our ears but with our whole being, and in the process God’s Word takes hold of our hearts. Our deepest needs are met; we are brought into the fullness of who we were created to be. God is heard into speech, as our speech and action are liberated by our listening. The American Theologian, feminist activist and civil rights leader Nelle Morton in her anthology of essays titled “The journey is home” coined the phrase “hearing into speech.” Like Paul Tillich, she knew that the first duty of love is to listen. Listening and lov9ing are of a piece, and they bear the fruit of more listening and love. “Once a person is heard to speech”, Morton wrote, “She becomes a hearing person.” She is able to extend the hospitality that she has received. None of this happens in a heartbeat or to a time schedule. Attentive list4ning requires unrushed time, even the willing ness to be interrupted, to stop, look and listen. I suggest, too, that the invitation is not just to dwell in and savour God in the Word, but also God in the world. Sir Francis Bacon said that God reveals Himself to us in the book of God’s Word and in the book of God’s works, the created world.   

Let birdsong captivate us and the scent of freshly mown grass move us to thanksgiving. Let us notice the careworn and weary, and offer a listening ear. When we let the world call forth our hospitality, we find ourselves offering hospitality to God. The invitation is to fullness of life. God is the ultimate host and guest, savouring our attention and cultivating our delight. We can throw away the ‘to do’ list and park the anxious striving to please. All we are asked to do is to listen. And let our hearing, our drinking deeply from the well of living water, restore, refresh and revitalise us and God in the world.

It is the one thing that is needed.  Thanks be to God.  

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