It would impossible to preach today without making reference to what has happened over the past several weeks: we have witnessed policemen killing two black men under very suspicious circumstances; during a peaceful protest in Dallas over excessive police violence against black people, five police officers were senselessly gunned down while protecting the protestors; this past Thursday, a man ran over people as they watched the conclusion of a Bastille Day fireworks show in Nice, France; to top it all off we witnessed Friday’s bloody coup attempt in Turkey. Given all of this, it’s easy to conclude that the world has gone crazy and begin to draw apocalyptic conclusions. But, my friends, it’s always the end of the world until the end of the world.
As followers of Jesus Christ, in addition to wondering why all of these things happen (“Why?” being the most human of questions), it’s important to ask, what should I do? Today’s Gospel gives us a concrete answer. Bombarded as we are by both round the clock news and with access to so many social media platforms, we are exposed to horrific events much more quickly and incessantly than ever before. Our exposure is often unfiltered, sparing us no details of the horror. In times like these it is easy to feel overwhelmed and a more than a bit traumatized. But we are not called to give in to worry, fear, or resign ourselves to apathy.
Over the past several Sundays we have begun the section of St. Luke’s Gospel known as “The Journey Narrative.” This section comprises slightly less than half of Luke’s Gospel. According to Luke and the other synoptics (i.e., Matthew and Mark), Jesus makes only one trip to Jerusalem. So, for twenty Sundays in this cycle of readings, we journey with Jesus, as his disciples, towards the Holy City. We are invited to pay attention and learn along the way.
It has been observed that the meal in the home of Martha and Mary “is a story of both eucharist and ministry” (LaVerdiere, Dining in the Kingdom of God 76). This story “shows how those in ministry can be distracted by secondary considerations and diverted from what is absolutely necessary and critical to the meaning of everything else they do” (76). In the Eucharist Christ not only communicates himself to us, but desires and invites us to make ourselves fully present to him (76). We make ourselves fully present “by listening and attending to his word” (76). Listening to and heeding the Lord’s word is the only guarantee that what we do is in the service of ushering in God’s reign.
Today’s Gospel begins: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.” By welcoming Jesus, which was almost unheard of for a woman in that time and culture, Martha followed a very ancient Middle Eastern custom of extending hospitality to the traveler. It is precisely here that the Gospel story touches the story from Genesis we heard in our first reading. In that story a similar incident occurs when Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to the three strangers, who appear suddenly and unexpectedly. Notice the rush that occurs upon the strangers’ arrival. After allowing them to wash their feet and having made them comfortable in the shade, and no doubt scrambling to provide hors d’ouvres for his guests, Abraham “hastened” to tell Sarah: “Quick . . . make some rolls!” He then “ran” to pick out a choice steer for a servant to prepare “quickly.” In short, like Martha, Abraham and Sarah are “distracted with much serving” in order to provide hospitality for their guests. Yet, Abraham and Sarah are not chastised. On the contrary, after having offered their guests hospitality, Abraham and Sarah are blessed upon their departure with the promise of a son. Both stories share the common element of welcoming the holy one who may appear as a friend or a stranger. As the famous icon by Andrei Rublev intimates, Abraham and Sarah hosted the Holy Trinity. What earned Martha Jesus’ gentle rebuke was her anxiety-driven complaint. The Lord’s gentle rebuke was really an invitation for her to sit at his feet and listen to his word so that, like Abraham and Sarah, she, too, would be left with a blessing.
In Luke’s narrative, our reading for this Sunday is closely connected to what immediately precedes it and what immediately follows. In what might easily be dismissed as a quaint domestic story from which we draw the neat little moral lesson, namely that perhaps we should slow down a bit sometimes, we need to see how this meal in the home of Martha and Mary connects what came before and what follows. In this short vignette, Jesus modeled the challenge he gave to those who would be his disciples (9:57-62), as well as what he told the seventy-two, who were sent out to proclaim the Good News (10:1-12), namely to rely solely on God and bring peace to all who welcomed them. In the home of Martha and Mary Jesus also paves the way for what is to follow: learning how to pray. What follows begins with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, followed by several parables about prayer.
Like Martha, we can easily be distracted and/or become “anxious and worried about many things” and so neglect the one thing necessary, which is to be present to the Lord in order to attend and listen to his word. Our understanding of his word should be the basis of our action. Let’s note that just because Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet does not mean she wasn’t doing anything. “It does mean that she was not distracted by the ministry [the service] or worried and excited about many things” (Dining 85).
This brings me to how we should respond during this distressing summer and beyond. We respond by listening to the Lord and acting accordingly. Hence, we should make time to attend to his word daily. We do this primarily by reading the Scriptures. One way to effectively do this is by practicing the ancient Christian art of lectio divina, which is Latin for “divine reading.” The four steps involved in practicing lectio divina – reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating - are easy enough to learn. You can practice lectio divina using the Gospel from the daily readings, or, perhaps more usefully, by praying with readings for the upcoming Sunday each week in preparation for that privileged time when we gather on Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Doing this will facilitate our communication with the Lord and with one another. It will enable us to communicate the saving news of Jesus Christ to a world so badly in need of him.
New Testament scholar Eugene LaVerdiere noted that a number of features found in the story of the meal at the house of Martha and Mary indicate that it was written “to mirror” the Eucharist as it was experienced by early Christians: it is the first time in one of St. Luke’s meal stories that Jesus is referred to as Lord, Mary at Jesus feet puts her in the position of a disciple, a learner, Martha’s service is referred to using a term denoting Christian ministry, diakonia (from which the word “deacon” is derived) let’s not forget the sisters welcoming Jesus into their home (Dining 85-86).
We welcome Jesus into our home, into our very selves, not only when, just before receiving communion, we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only the say the word and my soul shall be healed,” but also when, after hearing, “A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke,” we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, over our lips, and hearts, as we say, “Glory to you, O Lord.” Our making the sign of the cross is our way of asking God to put his word in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. But let’s not forget that the effectiveness of Jesus’ healing word is at least partly dependent on our listening and responding to it. This response we call faith, which bids us to love, which brings about hope in a world that often leaves so many feeling hopeless. This is how we make known the mystery about which St. Paul wrote so beautifully in his Letter the Colossians.