Rev. Sarah Buteux July 21, 2019
Proper 11, Year C.
What to wear? It’s the quintessential question of summer. Not simply because we need to navigate our way from the blistering heat of the out doors to the artic tundras of our offices and grocery stores on a daily basis, but because summer brings on a rash of social engagements – everything from your neighbor’s pool party to the company picnic – and you don’t want to overdress for the one any more than you want to under dress for the other. Am I right?
But perhaps no event of the season brings on as much sartorial angst as the outdoor wedding. High heels and lawns, extreme humidity and wool suits, heat waves and thunderstorms – I don’t care if you’re male or female, picking out just the right outfit for a summer wedding can be tricky.
Steven is totally with me here.
Lucky for us, brides are getting savvy these days and at least offering us helpful hints in the form of code – dress code that is – but cracking the code isn’t as easy as it used to be.
You see, in the good old days your weddings came in two sizes: formal or black tie, and then somewhere along the line someone got cheeky and added “cocktail” to the mix. But thanks to the bridal industrial complex, in this age of casual Fridays and Project Runways, your invitation could say anything from “festive attire” to “wild chic,” “international” to “cosmopolitan,” “dressy casual” to “casual dress.”
My mother-in-law (and this is true) recently showed me a wedding invitation with an option to join the bride and groom for a brunch the day after their nuptials. The dress code, (I kid you not): “nautical chic.”
“What does that even mean?,” I asked her.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” she said.
So we googled it and given that it’s just brunch I’m pretty sure “Nautical chic” falls somewhere between “beach formal” and “boating elegant,” but to be honest I’m really not sure.
What I do know is that in spite of all the silliness – and yes, I am being a little silly this morning- we still do our best to assemble an ensemble that strikes just the right note, wherever we’re going, not only because we want to fit in and look appropriate, but because how we present ourselves at these gatherings is one way we show respect for our hosts.
Likewise our hosts, out of love and respect and perhaps some small desire to impress us, will have put a great deal of effort into making the event itself memorable. There might be great food or beautiful place settings, lovely flowers or lively music, drinks aplenty or – God willing – an overabundance of cake.
The art of hospitality is as old as the hills. It is a dance between host and guest that has been going on since the time of Abraham and will no doubt continue till the return of Christ. So when we read about Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home for a meal, in spite of the fact that this event occurred about 2000 years ago, I think we all have some sense of what is at stake here.
Actually, before we go any further, I want you to take a moment and imagine with me that tonight you really are going to have dinner with Jesus. Someone asked you: “If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be?”
You were going to say, “Pete Buttigieg,” (admit it!) but because you’re not exactly sure how to pronounce it, you decided to play it safe and say “Jesus,” and now, low and behold, it’s going to happen. Tonight. 6:00. Your place.
Dinner. With. Jesus. Seriously, how do you feel? I want you to really think about it. Dinner with J.C.. Tonight.
Do you feel a little scared? Excited? Vaguely guilty?
Who here (show of hands) feels like your house is clean enough? How about your soul?
What would you make? What would you talk about?
And not for nothing but, what would you wear? I mean would you go the Nomadic Chic route or lean more toward Jerusalem casual? Sabbath formal or your Sunday best?
Something tells me that no matter how perfect our clothes or fine our china, we’d all feel at least a little intimidated if Jesus walked through our door. And although it was Martha who made the invitation, I have no doubt she felt some trepidation as well.
Keep in mind that in the ancient near east, hospitality wasn’t just a matter of etiquette, it was a question of honor. As Jesus and his twelve disciples entered her brother’s house, Martha would have wanted everything to be so perfect you’d think her last name was “Stewart.”
So imagine her with me right now. See Martha with your mind’s eye as she rushes into the kitchen and tosses some olives, cheese, and bread together.
“Mary,” she says, assuming her sister is right behind her, “pour some water into the good pitcher and take it out to our guests right away.”
But when she turns around, Mary is nowhere to be seen.
So Martha picks up her platter and moves to the doorway off the main room and there sees to her horror that Mary isn’t in the kitchen because Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet.
Her sister is out there listening to Jesus as he teaches his disciples and what you need to know to fully understand this passage is that Mary’s behavior here isn’t just a slight breach of social etiquette, it is completely inappropriate. Worse than showing up for the Oscars in a pair of shorts. More like wearing a playboy bunny outfit to the church social.
In a situation like this, women were to be seen, if they were seen at all, just long enough to get the food on the table and the drinks poured. They were on hand to give not receive, to cook not eat, to serve but most certainly not to learn.
A very bold and curious woman might have listened at the doorway and then ducked behind it if anyone saw her, but to go and sit in the center of the room like a disciple – that is, to go and sit in the center of the room like a man – would have been completely unheard of. It wasn’t just inappropriate, it was dishonorable. It was culturally, socially, morally wrong.
And yet there is Mary, bold as brass, not just hanging around the edges hoping to glean a little wisdom, but sitting right in the middle of it all, right at his feet, gazing up at Jesus for all to see.
Martha would have been scandalized, and then horrified at how scandalized everyone else would have been.
When she says: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me,” chances are, Martha was not only looking for back up in the kitchen, she was also trying to repair the situation, reverse this huge social gaffe, give Mary and Jesus a graceful way out.
And in that situation, any other good teacher would have been thankful and said, “Mary, sweet heart, Martha’s right. Enough of this. You be a good girl now and go help your sister in the kitchen.”
Only Jesus isn’t just another good teacher. Jesus is the messiah, and as such he never lets an opportunity pass to heal what has been broken.
Whether it’s a hand or a heart, our sense of self worth or our ability to see the worth of others, Jesus always takes the time to mend what has come undone, right what has become all wrong. And so, instead of addressing Mary, he turns his gaze upon Martha.
“Oh Martha,” he says, “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.”
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me not to hear those words – at least at first – as hurtful or dismissive, hear them as disrespectful of Martha and all she is trying to accomplish.
After all, people have traditionally read Jesus’ response here as a rejection of her efforts and an elevation of Mary’s desire for learning: a privileging of contemplation over action, faith over works. And that way of reading the text has made a lot of us uncomfortable if not angry over the years, as well it should.
The fact is, there’s always been this tension, in our scriptures and in our faith communities, between the Marys and the Marthas – the believers and the doers – and for good reason.
We may revere people of great faith, but we all know that if it weren’t for the worker bees of this world – the Peg Whithams and Sue Stones and Barbara Parsons, God rest her soul – nothing would ever get done. So when we perceive Jesus’ words as a slam against Martha, we get mad on her behalf and ours.
But Jesus isn’t stupid or insensitive, so there’s got to be a better way to understand what is going on here. Jesus knows how important the work is. He must. He just also knows that at the end of the day there is something even more important.
I don’t think he’s rejecting Martha here at all nor do I think he’s devaluing her work.
Instead, what I think Jesus is doing is inviting Martha to step out of the kitchen, step out of her proscribed role as hostess, and come sit by Mary – not because her work is unimportant, but because she, herself, as a woman and as his friend, is even more important.
Jesus knows that Martha isn’t only distracted by the details of lunch, she’s also anxious because she wants everyone to act properly. She wants Jesus and the disciples to think well of her and her family. If Mary is behaving inappropriately, that behavior reflects poorly on all of them, so she is understandably concerned.
But rather than judge her or Mary, what Jesus wants Martha to do – are you ready for this? – is relax. He’s giving her permission to let go of her proscribed role here, let go of her responsibility to keep everything running smoothly, let go of her fear of what other people will think, let go of her need to be perfect, right, or good – just as Mary has – and simply be… be with her sister, be with his disciples, and be with him.
Jesus wanted Martha to know that he valued her not just for what she could do or make or say, but for who she was before she had a chance to do, make, or say anything. He didn’t love her because she was good: a good person, a good woman, a good Jew.
He just loved her.
And the good news is that he loves you too.
Jesus loves you too.
So relax. Sure there’s still a lot of work to do, on yourself, in the world, and certainly here in the church. But know that even before you begin any of that work that you are loved and valued… already. Know that Jesus is pleased to be with you, pleased to be in your company, already.
He’s not looking to be entertained like an honored guest by you, Martha, or anyone else. He doesn’t just want to be a part of your life on those rare occasions when you feel good enough to finally invite him in.
He isn’t looking for the sort of relationship where you dress up nice and try to be on your best behavior because it’s Sunday, anymore than he wants you to wait till it’s Sunday to pray, or communion to confess, or Easter to go to church. He wants to be the guy you hang out with every day because he actually likes you just the way you are.
The real you. I’m talking about the messed up, confused, doubtful, insecure, dressed down, vulnerable, unwashed, morning breath version of you that you do your best to clean up and spit shine for the rest of the world. Jesus loves that version of you.
So forget for a moment about what you ought to wear, all you’ve been meaning to do, who you’re supposed to be, and come sit with Jesus now. Come close and listen. Come close and breathe. Come close and know his love for what it is, pure and unconditional, and yourself for who you are; enough already.