God the Guest
Rev. Fritz Ritsch
Colossians 1: 15-28
Luke 10: 38-42
Here’s a very familiar scenario at this time of year at St. Stephen. It’s Tuesday night about 6:00 pm in the Parish Hall, and about 30 people form a large circle holding hands and lift up their gratitude to God for the table set before them. Then the group breaks up. One set of folks sits at one of six round tables and another set rush into the kitchen and bring out delicious food. Around the table are our homeless guests whom we have received for dinner, fellowship, fun, deep conversation, breakfast and a good night’s sleep. Also at the table are folks from the church or community who simply want to talk with our homeless guests—get to know them and likewise for them to get to know us. In many ways this table fellowship is the whole purpose of Room in the Inn, the program that everyone is participating in. Our homeless guests can get two hots and cot at the three local shelters. Admittedly, it’s not as nice as our Parish Hall, but it meets the need. Room in the Inn is not about providing for the bodily needs of the homeless but their spiritual need, and our own spiritual need, for one another. Our shared stories and our listening ears are the real purpose of Room in the Inn. Most if not all the preparation—the food, the room set-up, coordinating volunteers, cleaning and making the beds, every last bit of it—happens well before our guests sit down to eat. All that invisible activity is what makes this ministry of hospitality hospitable.
But imagine that for some reason none of this invisible activity has happened beforehand. People forgot to prepare the food. They forgot to set up the tables and chairs. The beds had not been set up and the sheets hadn’t been washed from the week prior. Maybe even the dishes haven’t been washed yet.
Now all the volunteers are scrambling and desperate. They buzz around our homeless guests who have no choice but to stand around the Parish Hall—because there aren’t any chairs or beds yet–or wander into the church yard where things aren’t so crazy. And they keep waiting and waiting and waiting to eat; and then when they finally do, those who are serving the food keep nagging the volunteers who are at table eating with our homeless guests, nagging and demanding that they get off their duffs and help out. And maybe even they go to our homeless guests and say to them, “You need to tell all these church members who are sitting at table with you doing nothing to get to work and help out. After all, we’re doing this for you!”
And this is what’s wrong with Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha. I doubt that any of us would actually wait for our guest to arrive before we did the basics of cleaning the house and prepping the meal. It appears one of two things has happened: either Jesus showed up fairly unexpected, or Mary and Martha put off preparing ahead of time for their guest to arrive. Whichever has happened, now Martha is running around like a chicken with her head cut off and demanding that Mary leave off listening to Jesus in order to help her out. And she tries to enlist Jesus’ help in getting Mary to go to work because, after all, “We’re doing this for you, Jesus!”
But just as the main point of RITI is the time spent in fellowship with our homeless guests, so the main point of Jesus’ visiting Mary and Martha was for them to fellowship with and learn from their Lord. And so all of Martha’s “much serving,” as the Greek puts it, is a distraction from ‘the better part,’ the main point of the whole event.
One reason that Martha feels so obligated to go crazy cleaning is because it’s her house. She’s the owner. So it’s a matter of pride of ownership for her. But it’s worth pointing out that Jesus is often hard on householders. And it is often over matters of hospitality. For instance, Jesus complains that while he was a guest at the home of a Pharisee, the Pharisee did not offer water for him to wash his feet, a long-standing middle-eastern custom.
When Margaret and I were in Rome in May, we stayed in Trastevere, which at the time of the early church, and even into today, was largely the location of Rome’s Jewish community. It was in the Jewish community that early Christianity first took root. We visited a few churches in Trastevere which had their roots in the earliest Chrsitianity and are therefore likely the oldest functioning churches in the world. One was the church of Santa Pudenziana, where the Apostle “Peter is thought to have enjoyed the hospitality of his friend Pudens, a Roman senator, in his house on this site.” In other words, this church, which is dedicated to Senator Pudens’ two daughters, was once Senator Pudens’ house.
Another site is the church of St. Prisca, where Paul’s friend and “fellow worker in Christ,” as he called Prisca, and her husband Aquila, maintained a “church in their house,” according to Romans 16:3. “The early Christians, including Peter, who may have baptized Prisca and Aquila, would have gathered here to hear Prisca’s preaching and to share the bread and wine of their love feast.”
Both the Church of Santa Pudenziana and the Church of St. Prisca are functioning churches that have gone through many transformations since their First Century roots, but both of them started as people’s personal homes and became churches. All the early churches were in people’s homes; so much so that throughout the New Testament, when we read of events taking place in people’s homes, we do well to understand that we are getting advice not simply about maintaining a better home, but how to be a better church.
With that in mind, we can look at the story of Mary and Martha in a different light. The issue is not simply how to be good hosts, but how to be a good church. It all comes down to how we treat our guest who in this story is Christ. In fact we can argue that Christ is always the guest who enters our church, and every guest is really Christ.
Now of course we talk about the church being “God’s house” and so on, but even though we say that sort of thing, I suspect for a lot of us, the church isn’t “God’s house,” but ours—that is to say, the members of the church. We’re the ones who maintain it, we’re the ones who pay for it, we’re the ones who figure out how it’s used. In the case of St. Stephen, we feel a lot of proprietary pride—look at this magnificent building! And a story I hear often is the day that Rev. Bill Jablonowski burned the note on the building in the eighties. This building is ours. Literally. We paid for it.
When Jesus is criticizing householders, as he is criticizing Martha, what he’s critiquing is proprietary pride. Often the examples he gives are of how people treat their guests. In Middle Eastern tradition, the householder becomes the servant of the guest—the guest is more important than he or she is. But often the reality of churches—not necessarily St. Stephen but churches in general–is that we treat our guests with a bit less than that sort of honor—as if they’re interlopers who are welcome as long as they respect our traditions and values and don’t touch the china. Are you our kind of people? Will you do things the way we like them done? Are you sitting in my pew?
One of the worst things we churches do is get new members and put them straight to work. Sometimes we even talk about drawing new members from the perspective of “we need more people so we can do all the things that need doing.” Do you hear in that comment householder Martha’s plaintive cry? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;” Jesus says to her. But another way to translate that from the Greek is “Martha, Martha, you are worried by too much ministry.” Yes, too much ministry. Churches can be wrapped up in busy-ness; and when we start to think that those who we hope will join us will just become more worker bees we run the dangerous risk that we are no longer hosts welcoming esteemed guests but employers screening job applicants. Jesus’ point is that, if we the church are to be more welcoming, maybe we actually need to do less doing.
This goes somewhat against the grain. For many of us, certainly for me, we feel the church’s calling is to make the world a better place, to show compassion and love by doing things for people in need. But I wonder—and I speak for myself in this as well—if we’ve begun to think the church’s only purpose is to do things to make the world better. In the present cultural milieu, we feel the church is declining in its influence—that it is in danger of becoming irrelevant. And so we scramble to “do” something to prove our worth. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do mission and ministry and try to make a positive difference in the world—of course we should. But how much of this is driven by anxiety about the future, rather than trust in God?
There is, Jesus says, “a better part.” The part where we sit at Jesus’ feet, and listen. And the truth is there is a desperate need for this in our world. We face constant demands, whether because of the pressures of work, our anxieties about the future, or, and this is the killer, the multiplicity of voices that demand our attention and our loyalty. Media and social media bombard us with messages, often conflicting messages, about truth and fiction, about values and morality, about how to be a good person, about how to be a spiritual person, about how to matter. It’s as if the world is screaming at us sometimes.
There is a desperate, desperate need for the church to be the place where we sit at Jesus’ feet, and listen. For the church to be like an evening at Room in the Inn, where what we do is sit down and tell our stories, and listen to other people’s stories, and to hear the stories that shape our faith: The story of the Exodus, the story of the Exile and Return, the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son; and story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To hear these stories and reflect on them and see how they shape our lives and the lives of others; how they can guide us through the challenges of the day. Sure there’s work to be done to get us to the point where we sit and listen and talk, but it’s in the background. The point is the talking and the listening.
Hearing each other’s stories builds bridges: bridges of reconciliation and hope and mutual understanding, bridges of human empathy, bridges of divine awareness and oneness with God.
This need to sit and listen, to open our ears and hearts, is also what we all have in common. Republican and Democrat, citizen and immigrant, cop and criminal, American and Iranian, Protestant and Catholic, Christian and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and Jew and Atheist—what we have in common is our search for meaning, our need to discover ourselves, our purpose, what it all means. Doing can distract us from that, especially if it is unreflective, simply doing without listening first. First we need to understand our why—who we are and whose we are. When we begin to understand why, how and what fall into place.
So much of the work we do as a church isn’t something we might think of as work. It’s that time talking in the narthex or having a Dinner for Eight with some new members you haven’t met before. It’s reflecting on what you learned in Bible study or Sunday school or thinking back with awe on the stupendous music you heard and sang at worship on Sunday. It’s growing up in the faith, attending Sunday school and youth group and Vacation Bible School and then one day realizing, “That’s what made me me.” It’s the church friend who calls you because she trusts you and she just has to talk to someone.
And yes, all of that may also lead us to develop new ministries, new outreach, new ways to serve others. But it doesn’t start with the doing. It starts with the being: Being the presence of Christ, being in the presence of one another, being there while someone tells you what’s going on in his life, being in prayer, being open to the movement of God’s spirit in your life.
It starts with sitting at the feet of Jesus.
 P. 77.
 P. 87.