Little Miss Manners

Genesis 18:1-8, Luke 10: 38-42

“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.”

We are approaching my first anniversary with Kenilworth Union. I will have traversed an entire calendar with you, not just the liturgical Christian milestones of Advent, Christmas and Easter, but also the rhythm of New Trier spring breaks, the comings and goings of snowbirds, or exodus to summer cottages.  I have participated in the sacred worship practices of Kenilworth Union – some of which are legacy Christian traditions and some are unique KUC, non-denominational traditions.

I had thought serving a Latino congregation in Ravenswood, urban ministry at Fourth Presbyterian, which ranges from street ministry and weekly social service dinners to Mission Benefits at the Ritz, coupled with my remembrances of small town churches across the country…I thought I had some inkling of what church was about and was prepared.

Then I met rummage.  Since the very beginning I kept saying, “I intellectually understand, but whispered, I have no idea.”  You would just smile and nod your head.

I had no idea, so I listened and watched.

I heard you say, “so much stuff gets dropped off, but look at the fellowship among the workers.”  Our kitchen has been filled with food.

I heard you say, “We try to cover the carpets. It is so messy. It is dirty.”  Another north shore minister sent a quick note advising me to carry hand sanitizer.

I heard you say, “it is chaotic, throngs of people, most are pleasant, but not all, some are demanding, and some come back year after year.”  I witnessed every shape, color, economic condition, education and age imaginable lined-up for our wares at 6am both days.  I witnessed competitive shopping.

In the tension of last minute work, I heard some of you say, “this is how we do church.” And I waited to see how this was embodied.  How do we do church?

Welcoming another, whether an invited guest or a stranger, is one of the basic tenets of our Judeo-Christian heritage, reaching as far back as Abraham.  Hospitality was not conceived by Miss Manners or during the Victorian era, welcoming the stranger and seeing the divine image in another human is woven into the fabric of our faith.

In the first scripture, we heard of a traveler who stopped at Abraham’s tent in the desert.  Ancient laws of the desert required you to welcome any stranger who appeared at your tent, to share your food, drink and shelter. In the searing heat of the desert, the law of hospitality was a matter of human survival and is practiced among the Bedouins today.

When God unexpectedly stops by Abraham’s tent, Abraham does exactly what custom demands, he offers modest refreshments, and then upends the entire household to serve the finest – fresh bread, a tender calf, curds and milk. Abraham recognizes this traveler as the greatest of guests, bows to the ground saying “my lord.”

God richly rewards Abraham for such hospitality in the desert.  The story of Genesis records many other encounters Abraham has with God.  Abraham is obedient to God’s call, is blessed by God and is called to be a blessing to others.

So with this as a backdrop – a story any Jew in first century Palestine would know – don’t you wonder why in our gospel reading from Luke, Martha is rebuked so by Jesus?  Not just Martha, but the entire household is called to be hospitable, to offer food and drink.

It is a simple story.  Jesus stops on his travels.  Martha hurries to prepare a meal while Mary sits at his feet.  Martha is exasperated and appeals to Jesus to get Mary to share the load.

Mary appears to be prioritized over Martha.  She sits and listens and in doing so, neglects her traditional duties, invades a place previously reserved only for a man, and upsets the social convention in first century Palestine.  Feminist scholars uphold Mary’s reach for equality.

Others theologians contrast Martha and Mary, placing Martha at one extreme, focused on action while Mary represents learning and contemplation.  This inspired hundreds of years of debate between the superiority of the contemplative life versus a life devoted to service.

Intellectually, I try to digest all of this, yet the story gnaws at me since I continually see myself as Martha.

I love to entertain.  Fuss for days.  I have a file of recipes and menus that are best for entertaining as they allow me to enjoy the party.  I want to ensure guests are welcomed, dietary restrictions not just respected, but to the extent possible, I will avoid dairy, gluten, red meat, whatever the offending or toxic food may be.  I want people to be welcomed and relax.

Hopefully, you can imagine why I identify with Martha and always question my ability to extend hospitality in a manner Jesus would approve.  Am I too focused getting the manners right, justifying myself, or do I spend enough time listening and most importantly, opening myself to the other person?

Hospitality involves the obvious: offering food, drink and shelter.  In the Bible, however, hospitality is an embodied, expansive concept and extended to the guest as well as the stranger.  It is not measured in actions, but with an attitude that allows you to generously give to the other and receive from them.

Hospitality is a habit of the heart that must be cultivated. This requires us to overcome our initial human response of hostility toward people who we don’t know, strangers.  The stranger seems to portend danger – sometimes physical harm, but more often the stranger represents the unknown, a challenge to familiar constructs of our personal world.

The Latin root of our English word, “hostility,” is hostis, which means enemy.  Our Christian task is to turn the stranger who is perceived as an enemy, a hostis, into a hospes, which is the Latin word for “guest.” This is where our English word, “hospitality,” comes from (Rev Dr Kathryn James.  Day1 Aug. 10, 1997).

We can also think of hospitality in the context of worship.  With all humility, it is God who calls people to worship. It may be through the casual reference of someone who is committed to worship or it may be a silent whisper that draws someone to enter the sanctuary.  We don’t always know.  But, we can be aware of our openness to welcome the stranger and extend hospitality in God’s house.

Part of our hospitality is in the warmth of our smiles and acknowledging the presence of someone new.  A deeper part of our hospitality is an ability to include someone in the act of our worship, appreciating this stranger’s familiarity – or not – with Christian worship.

Biblical scholar, Joel Green argues Jesus’ encounter with Martha and Mary may be indicative of the way the church, Christ’s body on earth today, is to offer hospitality to the stranger.  The nature of hospitality is realized in attending to one’s guests. Yet Martha’s speech and attitude remained “me” focused.  She was much more interested in following her script, engaging Jesus in her plans. Her anxiety in doing well overshadowed her ability to meet the stranger – who was God incarnate. Jesus tells us Mary chose the “better part” to be fully present so she could hear his word and be transformed by his presence in her life (Joel Green.  The Gospel of Luke. 432).

As a former consultant, I am still a bit of a research geek. American Grace, a study authored by Harvard professors of Public Policy, Robert Putnam and David Campbell, reveals the seismic shift in religious affiliations, awareness, and practices in the US. One of the most provocative changes in the last decade is the increase in young adults who now claim to have “no affiliation” with any faith tradition.

More than double from any other cohort studied, one in five young adults are in the “nones” category. These nones are not necessarily atheist or agnostic or uniformly unbelievers.  Many express some belief in God, the afterlife and say this is an important aspect of their lives.  Most often, conventional religious affiliations have not been a part of their lives. Add to this group the young adults who were raised in a faith tradition, but are self-described non-practicing or not engaged and we have large population of young adults who are not familiar with worship.

In practice, we find this in marriage planning when one of the bridal couple will candidly state they have never read a line of scripture or do not know The Lord’s Prayer. But, they want to create a union with their spouse and new family with God’s blessing.

I find it when planning a memorial service and suggest we should not assume everyone who will attend the service has basic familiarity with worship.  Oft times, a family member seems relieved and can name a relative or potential visitors who do not know what a pew hymnal might be or don’t understand why we want to talk about God.  At a time when grief can be painful, we need to make a memorial service hospitable.

Steve Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, presumed his undergraduate students might possess some awareness of religions; they were educated young adults who registered for an elective, religion class.  He was wrong.  After false starts in class, he quizzed students and found, on average, students could name two of the four gospels, many thought there was a gospel called Paul, and could identify only four of the Ten Commandments.

But, these tests are not the measure of what truly matters.  At the heart, the degree of religious knowledge really does not matter. Not the rules or the rites.  The sole purpose of religion is to enable someone to draw close to God and become what God intends…that is what churches try to accomplish in worship and fellowship.  If we ever lose sight of the purpose of church as the means to worship and serve God, we have strayed.

When strangers gather among us to worship, we can practice the hospitality our faith tradition teaches, open our heart and make simple changes to invite them in worshiping God. We now print The Lord’s Prayer.  Let’s do more.  We can introduce scripture readings by way of context and or simple definitions, for example describing a text – “Isaiah was a prophet before the time of Christ and his message and life is recorded within our Hebrew scriptures.”

We can worship with inclusive language whenever possible.  Not everyone was blessed with a loving father, or worse yet may have endured abuse from a man who was a father, father-in-law or step-father.  Or, someone may be grieving the death of a father. Using the word father for God may alienate or hurt at precisely the time someone needs strength.  This is not a feminist petition for sensitivity, but one born from compassion. I am not suggesting we change The Lord’s Prayer, but there are many other instances we can be inclusive. Much of this is incumbent upon the ministry staff, but it also depends upon support from those present to appreciate the reasons behind these subtle additions to worship and for you to challenge us with what is cumbersome or obtuse.  All our voices are needed in worship.

During rummage, I heard some of you say, “this is how we do church.”  Amidst all the anticipation and later chaos, I watched many of you welcome the stranger; help them select the “right” garment, golf club, or toy. Your eyes would light up as you described seeing the same shoppers year after year.  The stories you shared could only be told by someone who had truly listened.

I heard many of you say, “If we don’t put all this effort into rummage, into helping those who come into our church, we will not be able to raise money to give to agencies.”  In my mind I heard you say, “This the way we serve the lost, the least, the lonely, the true mission of the church. This is the way we welcome God’s people.”

God’s love comes to us through others, those who are closest to us and those we’ve never known until a chance encounter brings us together.  Listen to what Jesus taught; it is not that Martha’s manners and actions were wrong; she just needed to be reminded of the divine presence in her midst and ours.