Fr. Paul's Homily
I would like to invite each of you to think about someone that you love who has either died. Have you picked someone? Now, I want you identify two or three memories that you have of this person. Chose the memories that seem most important.
I’m going to pick my Mom. I certainly have memories of growing up when she was fixing meals, putting laundry on the line, canning food. But the memories that really stand out are the times when her and I connected in some way: maybe it was a smile that she gave me, or a moment of prayer together, or her words to me, “I love you, too.” But those moments all involve a closeness in our relationship.
Doing things for people is a wonderful way to express love. But even more important is the times we connect in relationship. Let’s talk about this in light of our Genesis reading about Abraham and Sarah, and our Gospel reading about Jesus visiting Martha and Mary.
Our reading from Genesis shows the amazing generosity of Abraham toward his three visitors. In this story, Abraham goes to the front of his tent and sees three men approaching who are travelers. Abraham is delighted and proceeds to encourage them to allow their feet to be washed and to share in a meal. Welcoming strangers in a desert climate was expected, but Abraham does so much more. The meal is beyond imaging, since he kills a steer which provided hundreds of pounds of food and has Sarah prepare bread from three measures of fine flour, a huge amount. A true huge feast was placed before the men!
Without Abraham and Sarah knowing, these three men are actually angels from God who have brought the message that one year later, Abraham would have a son with Sarah. To understand the significance of this prediction, you must remember two facts: 1) Abraham has been given a promise by God that he would become the father of a great nation, yet he has no children with Sarah; 2) Abraham and Sarah are way beyond childbearing years. In fact, when Sarah, who is behind a curtain preparing the flour, hears this prediction that she will be pregnant, she laughs! The prediction is so crazy that she sees humor in it.
This story for Genesis is a powerful example of generosity to a stranger and the fulfillment of God’s Promise.
A stranger should be welcomed with generosity. Our culture has a tendency to be suspicious of strangers, wondering if they are going to abuse us or steal from us. But Abraham gives us a totally different approach: He honors the strangers by bowing to the ground to show respect. He pleads with them to accept his hospitality. He gives a meal which is far more than what would be expected.
The sense of generosity overflows throughout the story.
Some friends of mine tell the story of being in Austria a few years ago and visiting the town where her family originated from. Seeing a sign with her father’s name on it, the couple proceeded to knock at the door, hoping to have a few minutes with a possible relative. This began a three hour encounter which involved being served a meal and a translator being found to help with communication. They were the stranger at the door, yet they become friends even with a language barrier. Could we learn something?
When we are willing to reach out to a stranger, we open ourselves to profound encounters with the Lord. The stranger is a child of God; the stranger is my brother or sister; the stranger could give us a message of hope or become a friend. Can we have the generosity, openness and joy of Abraham?
Now let’s step into the Gospel. We have heard this story so many times and most people will tend to side with Martha. We understand her feelings about being left to do all the work of preparing the meal while her sister simply sat and listened to Jesus. It does not seem fair, does it?
A couple background points. Although we know from a later story that Martha and Mary have a brother named, Lazarus, in this story it appears to be only the two sisters, Martha and Mary. It was against the culture of the day that Jesus would go to the home of two unmarried women without others around. This just wasn’t done in Jesus day. Mary also sits at his feet listening, which is the traditional position of a disciple. Woman were not seen as being able to be disciples, yet Jesus accepts her in this role. When Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her, his response is, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” What is Jesus trying to tell us?
It is clear from this statement of Jesus that Martha had allowed the anxiety of the meal to overcome her, thus making it impossible for her to benefit from the presence of Jesus.
We have all had this happen to us that when a particular anxiety becomes too great we are no longer enjoying the relationships that we are with. The person who wants everything to go perfectly will often find themselves deprived of the enjoyment to be found in being with others.
For Jesus, the focus was not the meal. The focus was his time with Martha and Mary. Mary must have realized this immediately for she moves directly into the role of disciples, and perhaps friend. I say ‘friend” because it seems that Martha, Mary and their brother, Lazarus, were friends of Jesus. They were not simply disciples and they did not have the honor of being one of the 12 apostles, yet their home seemed to be a place where Jesus felt comfortable and enjoyed spending time.
Now imagine you were visiting a good friend whom you did not get the chance to see very often and the whole time you are with your friend, she/her is fretting about getting the meal just right?! We might say, “I’m not here for the meal; I’m here to spend time with you!” Love can be shown in many ways, but nothing will substitute for a relational experience…being present to each other. Mary was experiencing the presence of Jesus; Martha was worried about preparing a meal for Jesus.
No doubt a few of you are saying in your heads, “But the meal still had to get on the table and Martha was doing all the work!” I think we want to defend Martha! But remember Jesus did not criticize Martha about the meal, he challenged her about her worrying and the fact that Mary was doing the most important part…listening and talking with Jesus.
So, there is much to learn from these readings. Can I open my heart to the stranger in our midst? Can I receive the stranger truly as a guest and open my heart to them as a child of God? And can we hear the story of Martha and Mary so that I do not let the worries and anxieties get in the way of our open hearted presence with each other? Much to learn.