I know I’m supposed to want an open-plan kitchen, but the truth is I don’t. You know the kind of kitchen I mean? The kind that looks out onto the living room and/or the dining area so that the whole thing is just one big space. It suggests a marvelous breezy style of life in which cooking is not a chore. I guess you’re meant to pop open a bottle of wine, toss a salad, and waft over to the table to wow your dinner guests with whatever it is you’ve happened to throw together. No big deal. Effortless perfection.
Now, I think open kitchens are beautiful but I’m not sure I would do well cooking in one. Nearly every dinner party I give involves a bit of panic, or at least a sense of urgency. Our kitchen isn’t wide open. It just has a kind of pass-through window, and I’ve always been grateful for that fact. There are just enough walls in our kitchen, I hope, to hide the piles of dishes and the cookbook covered in flour and butter and the cat and dog underfoot. In our kitchen, fortunately, you can duck behind the refrigerator long enough to swear when you burn your hand on a hot pan. But you can still smile bravely when you pass by the window that looks out onto the living room. There is a chance, in our kitchen, of hiding the fact that cooking is labor. I love to cook, I love having people over, but work must be done.
I’m sure Martha in today’s gospel would back me up on that. She knows that the time for sitting and listening attentively to your guests is not the time when you are trying to get dinner on the table.
But here’s where Martha and I might get ourselves into some trouble. It turns out that dinner itself is not a great time for listening, either. There is always something to jump up and get. There are glasses to be filled, and second courses to prepare. Dishes to be cleared away, dessert to be sliced and served. After dinner? Well maybe. It could be that when everyone is well fed and the glasses have been filled to everyone’s limit, there will be time to linger over conversation. That’s the hope. But often that’s when guests start to look at their watches and make noises about going. No, if you ask me, the best time to talk is when the party is over and you are sitting on the couch with your feet up, basking in the glow of the evening and nibbling on leftovers. But of course everyone’s gone by then. And anyway, aren’t you supposed to be doing the dishes?
You see the dilemma: if we aren’t careful, every moment of a dinner party becomes the wrong time for getting together with the actual people we’ve invited. I’m sure Martha would never have put it that way, but it sounds like that’s how she’s actually thinking: “I’ll have time for Jesus after he’s gone, when the dishes are done.”
We would never speak of our lives of discipleship in that way either, but if we don’t watch out, that’s exactly how we’ll live. We all want our churches to be filled with ardent disciples, for instance, but if you were to ask around the larger church about who those disciples should be—take a survey, or something--I bet you would hear the following implicit logic.
We might set up the questions this way: what’s the right age for encountering God in the Church? Who should be on fire with the Gospel? Who should be an ardent disciple?
Should young children encounter God in church? Well, not really, because they don’t understand what they are hearing. What we need to give them is something softer and more pleasing that helps them grow up and get along in the world. We should give them some kind of grounding in religion but our expectations should be low. Sunday school, sure, but mostly that should be fun. We just need to keep them coming back.
Should it be teenagers then? No, most teenagers have a lot of trouble reconciling faith with the world around them. They are busy getting close to their friends. They have to get into good schools and develop skills. Youth ministry, sure, but mostly that should be fun and it should keep them out of trouble. We just need to keep them coming back.
College students? Heavens no. They are too busy getting an education, and anyway their professors are just filling their heads with atheist notions. We all know college is a time for doubt and existential angst. We should make religion available to them but mostly that should be a social thing. We’re lucky if they hang on through college.
Well then, young working-age people? No way. They can’t be ardent disciples. They have to work long hours. They have to establish themselves. They might get married. They might start having families. And families with children should be busy nesting and attending to extra-curricular activities. And after that, middle aged and older people are tired and don’t have the energy, and they are stuck in their ways. And anyway, they can’t relate to what’s going on in young people’s lives. We should look to young people to be the future of the church. Although, of course, as we’ve just said, younger people aren’t the right ones for ardent discipleship either.
Do you see how this works? It’s just like a dinner party. If we aren’t careful we will define each moment of life as the wrong time to sit at the feet of Jesus. Each moment in our lives will be the wrong moment for God to command our attention and our interest, our ardent love. Everything we say about what’s important to us and other people will be about pushing God away. There never is that golden moment when the dishes are put away and it’s easy to imagine talking to God.
That’s one of the reasons we gather for worship on a Sunday morning, even when it’s hot. We remind ourselves, week after week, that it’s actually better to drop everything and sit at the feet of Jesus for a while, no matter what big ideas we have about what we should be doing.
We remind ourselves that, like Mary, we might have to risk looking wrong, selfish, misguided, or useless. In dinner party terms, we may in fact need to open the kitchen walls a bit, dispense with the fantasy of effortless perfection, and talk to Jesus our guest even while the sink is filling with dishes. Maybe dessert can be served later. Maybe we need to admit that we are throwing this party, not for the beauty of our own cooking, but for the beauty of true communion.
Maybe we need to face, as I see people in this parish do so well, the need to communicate the love of God to everyone: children, the aged, even teenagers. Maybe the flame of love for God is just waiting to be ignited at all sorts of impractical moments. Maybe that’s half the joy of following Jesus: seeing love spring up where we never knew it could.
Sometimes I wish this story about Martha and Mary didn’t feel quite so much like an either/or proposition, but in truth there are choices that have to be made. There is no way to spend time in prayer without not doing something else we could be doing. There is no way to be a parish full of people without deciding that people are meant to live their whole lives in the full light of the glory of God.
And heaven knows that the world needs our action but it also desperately needs our capacity to pay attention with ardent love. Heaven knows the capacity to show God reverence is related to the capacity to have respect for, let’s say, asylum seekers. We need to know how to drop our agendas and turn to God when God calls us.
I’m not good at making those choices, putting God first, and maybe you aren’t either. Maybe we all have agendas that don’t include God. But I know that I want to hear Jesus say of me and of you what he says about Mary: she has chosen well and it shall not be taken from her.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
21 July 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia