"The Hard Work of Hospitality" - Luke 10:38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”
Each time we invite people to our home, my wife and I run through an unwritten checklist of tasks to accomplish before the guests arrive:
- buy groceries
- pick up all the toys
- vacuum the floors
- clean the bathrooms
- take care of any visible landscaping issues
- cook the food
- wash the dishes
- set the tables
- clear off the junk from the kitchen island and set the food out
- turn on the music
We do this as the reality of life swirls around us:
- the dog needs to go out
- the kids want us to play with them
- the phone rings
- the kids need us to separate two LEGOs that seem to have been super-glued together
- the dog needs to eat- the kids are fighting over toys
- one essential ingredient was either not purchased or not removed from the freezer
- the phone rings
- for at least one of us, something from work is weighing on our minds and is distracting
- the kids decide to play with every toy that was just put away
- the food burns
All that to say, preparing for guests often turns into a stressful endeavor and we feel like voices are raised, things are forgotten, kids are neglected, and the imperfections of our life are made apparent.
And yet, we love having guests in our home. We appreciate the experience of exchanging stories, laughing, learning new things, and enjoying good food and drink.
We say goodbye and close the door; we put the kids to bed, wash some dishes and then collapse on the couch, feeling blessed by the experience of being with others.
I wish that we didn’t have to go through all the stressful preparations in order to have people over to our home. I often attempt to justify my aversion to the hard work of hospitality by claiming that true friends wouldn’t care if there is dog hair on the floor, grass that obviously needs to be mowed, toys strewn about, or dirty toilets. (OK, even I know true friends deserve clean toilets).
I’d like to think that someone who enters my home in its everyday non-sterilized state would actually get a far better picture about my real life. I am even tempted to justify this approach using today’s gospel story of Martha and Mary, where Martha is busy running around playing hostess, while Mary neglects her responsibilities in order to be with Jesus…and gets praised for it!
Interestingly enough, pointing out that Martha didn’t help out and still ended up Jesus’ favorite has never convinced my wife that I should be allowed to back out of doing my fair share of the work of preparing our home for guests.
It turns out that Jesus’ words to Martha at the conclusion of the story are not actually an indictment against her busyness. Jesus’ repeated use of Martha’s name at the beginning of the statement is a rhetorical element that signifies compassion. Meaning that Jesus’ statement is less a dismissive indictment and more a compassionate invitation to remember that relationships are the most important thing.
Think of cooking shows. Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa is one that pops into my mind. The majority of the show is Ina walking you through the recipes and making you think, “Yeah, I could do that.” But the show doesn’t end when the perfectly-cooked dishes come out of the oven. Rather, each show ends when her friends and family come over and the camera catches the smiling and content lot of them sitting around the table…and she’s right there with them, enjoying the fruit of her labor.
Similarly you could think of all the home renovation shows. Imagine how anti-climactic they would be without the payoff moment at the end where the family shows up and sees their newly-remolded house for the first time and bursts into tears – the designers, contractors, and workers are right there ready to give and receive hugs.
The hard work of hospitality has its payoff in the creation of relationships. Jesus has to remind Martha that her hard work of hospitality is all for naught if she misses the chance to create a relationship with her guest.
This Biblical truth has some implications for us today, and they are probably not as easy and straightforward as you might think.
First, and most obviously, we should take a cue from this story and be more proactive about extending hospitality. Make the effort for your home to be a place of welcome and relationship-building. Engage in the hard work of hospitality, knowing that a life-impacting relationship could emerge.
Second, take care that your busyness doesn’t distract from your relationships. Are you someone who takes pride in the fact that your job demands 50, 60, or 70 hours a week? Is it possible that all that extra time at work is preventing you from being present (literally and figuratively) with family and friends or preventing you from meeting new people and creating new relationships?
Third, think about how this story impacts our life here at Cross of Grace. People come to a church looking for relationships – with God, with a spiritual guide, with people in the pews who they imagine could become friends. However, a church cannot nurture relationships unless the hard work of hospitality is being done. I hope you realize that every time you take on a role at church, you are engaging in the hard work of hospitality and doing your part to create relationships – whether it is cleaning the church, providing food, volunteering with the youth, or greeting people as they arrive. People show up at Cross of Grace for a myriad of reasons, but they only stay if they feel like people are going out of their way to build relationships with them. This is our collective responsibility.
Finally, think about how this story situates Cross of Grace in the wider community and world. A church like ours is called to engage in the hard work of hospitality – of setting the table in the wider community to nurture and provide leadership, Biblical truth, social justice, and relationships that bridge divides.
Our work as the body of Christ in the world is not just to say a prayer on behalf of those who suffer in our world, but also to join hands with the suffering as we pray for hope and peace to come.
Our work as the body of Christ in the world is not just to sit and think about ways we participate in the oppressive systems of our world, but also to sit down with those who are oppressed and listen to their stories.
Our work as the body of Christ in the world is not just to sing songs of praise inside our walls, but also to sing the songs of praise with all who need to a bit of joy in their lives.
We could sit on the couch and say that the hard work of hospitality is someone else’s responsibility, as I am so often compelled to do; or we could become so immersed in our responsibilities that we ignore the gifts our hard work brings about. In both cases we would miss out on the gift of life-giving relationships only made possible through this hard work.
Praise to Christ who has done the hard work of establishing relationship with us and has shown us the right way to set the table.