Genesis 18: 1-10a; Luke 10: 38-42
Under the leaves of the huge trees at Mamre, Abraham had erected his tent. While Sarah was in the tent getting the next meal ready, Abraham sat outside looking at the landscape, perhaps counting his sheep and cattle.
Suddenly standing in front of him were three men. From the rest of the story and later interpretation we assume they are angels, messengers sent by God. The first thing people of the Middle East think about, then and now, is hospitality. So, first, Abraham has the feet of his guests washed. And then, he feeds them, with bread which is quickly made, and then with a freshly slaughtered calf. Hospitality of the day demands great service to the guest.
The guests must have been there quite a while, as they waited for the calf to be prepared for cooking, and then seasoned and cooked. Certainly, the whole conversation is not included in this passage from Genesis, just the important parts. I imagine the men/ angels asking Abraham about his land and the wealth of his herds. About his children and grandchildren. And I imagine his sadness as he tells the men/ angels that he and Sarah are childless.
I imagine, also, that Sarah hears every word as she bustles about with meal preparations for these guests. Imagine, too, her shame and sorrow at being barren, renewed in this conversation.
But, she is a proper woman of her time, and remains in the background, as hospitality demands. She might prepare and present the food, but she will never be part of the conversation, even if it is about her. She is paying attention, but is not able to give her opinion, share her feelings, tell the men they are right or wrong, or even laugh at the jokes with the men.
Two thousand years later, the women are still in the kitchen, behind the scenes, offering great hospitality. Women prepare the meals, and present them to the men, but they are never part of the conversation. They pay attention by hovering at the doorway, by doing quiet tasks at the table so they can overhear the men talking.
In our Gospel story, Martha is busy in the kitchen, doing what women have always done, paying attention while doing their own jobs of serving the men. On the other hand, her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet with the men, taking part in the conversation, listening intently as Jesus speaks.
Martha could be thinking: This is just not done! Women are not intended to be sitting with the men and taking part in the conversation. Or, she could be thinking, if Mary helped me, we could finish faster and we could both listen to Jesus. Whatever Martha is thinking, she is upset. Perhaps she has been trying to get Mary’s attention, to call her into the kitchen, but Mary stays put. So, she calls on the man in charge, Jesus. “Tell my sister to help me!” But, surprisingly, Jesus tells her to chill, and that Mary has chosen the right thing to do.
We don’t know Martha’s response. So, perhaps she returned to the kitchen and sulkily finished the meal preparations. Or, perhaps, she took the hint and sat down with the rest and listened to Jesus.
Often, when we read this story, we focus on whether it is better to work or to pray. Or we focus on offering great hospitality. This year, I see the need to pay attention to whatever we are doing.
I have the habit of doing several things at once, and have burned a grilled cheese sandwich while I put away the food I no longer needed. I forgot to pay attention to the main thing, the cooking.
The other day, Mike and I were driving south on Hwy 200 from Ocala to home in Beverly Hills. Ahead of me, a car was weaving back and forth, crossing the outside line which has rumble strips, and then crossing the center line, which also has rumble strips. I figured the driver was texting. He or she was not paying attention to the main thing, driving.
I have a hunch about us all that when we come to church to worship, we don’t always pay attention to the main thing, worshiping God. We are thinking about a loved one, and lifting that person to God for healing – that is worship. We are caught up by a word or phrase in one of the readings – that is worship. We also think about where we will go for lunch, or what we need to buy from the store on our way home. We think about what we have to do this week.
We are not making the main thing the main thing. It is impossible to give God 100% of our attention 100% of the time. But we can strive to give God most of our attention most of the time we are intended to be paying attention to God.
This is what Jesus is saying to Martha. While Jesus is present on earth, the main thing Martha should be doing is paying attention to him. He is also saying that the rules about hospitality have changed. Women are just as important and welcome at his feet as men are. Women are no longer required to stay in the kitchen while the men talk. Women are included in the call to make paying attention to Jesus the main thing.
We are called to pay attention to God in our daily lives. Most of the time, our daily lives are pretty humdrum. There is nothing to sort of force us to pay attention to God. So we have to work at it, with regular prayer times, regular study times. Even saying a table prayer can remind us to keep the main thing, our relationship with God, as the main thing we pay attention to.
Sometimes, something more life-changing happens. Then, we can make the choice to pay attention to God, or let what happens become the main thing we pay attention to. One of my cousins, Janet, is the grandparent of a critically ill infant. So the parents can continue working, Janet has gone to be with the baby at the hospital as much as possible. Almost daily updates about the baby have been posted on Face Book and Twitter for months. At the same time, each post includes a quotation from scripture, and the admission that the baby is in God’s hands at every moment of his short, troubled life. Janet is working to pay attention to the main thing, putting God first in the life of her grandson.
Early in the year, I began to pay more attention to how I was feeling. I was restless, feeling like God has been calling me to do something else. Then I got sick with blood clots, and then Mike got sick and needed surgery. We began to pay more attention to each other and what God wants for both of us. That led to the decision to retire this fall, though it took a while to determine the best timing. It will be hard to leave, but I – we – believe it is what God is calling us to do now.
This week, I hope you pay attention to how well you pay attention to whatever you are doing. Some of us find it easier to do something with our hands, like knitting or crocheting or sanding wood as we pay attention to someone. I do. Just so you are paying attention to the main thing. And, the main thing is your relationship with God.
Please pray with me. Jesus, our teacher, help us to make you the main thing in our lives, and to keep you as the main thing, whatever else we are doing. Amen