“How Do We Serve?”
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Guest Sermon by Jenna Zullo
15 November, 2020
It’s hard to believe, especially after that warmth of this past week, but the holiday season is just about here. That is if the tv commercials and the tree stands out at Lull Farm are to be believed.
In my family, holidays are usually a big to do. Each year my parents host around 20 family members for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Not to mention the countless small dinner parties and gatherings of friends they invite into their home on a regular basis.
My parents have always demonstrated to me what it means to be a good host. Every event starts at least a day in advance, when my mom puts us all to work cleaning and rearranging all of the furniture in the house to make sure it is as comfortable and functional as possible for that particular celebration. They go out of their way to make every single gathering a special event. They find the perfect music, design an interesting menu, or think up some cute decoration or other that always show all extra thought for their guests.
These are all wonderful things, and I strive to emulate them. I get a lot of personal satisfaction and enjoyment out of planning this way. I like to make others feel special and important, just like my parents do.
I mention all of this because when I first read the passage for this morning, I felt the familiarity of Martha’s response to her sister’s unhelpfulness. When Jesus praises Mary and chides Martha, I felt a bit indignant on Martha’s behalf. Martha was doing her best to be the good host, and she became understandably frustrated that she was doing it on her own when Mary was right there and able to help her. Why should Jesus be upset with Martha needing a little help, or with her wanting to make sure he is comfortable and well taken care of?
At first, I could not make out what to think of this interaction. Was Jesus saying Martha should not bother with preparing a meal, or making her home more comfortable, or whatever other presumably important task she was working on? Was he discounting the importance of these aspects of good hospitality? Doesn’t every host need to make sure the food is prepared, and the kitchen is cleaned up afterwards? These questions bothered me and made me feel a bit wary about having to discuss the merits of today’s scripture reading.
After some research on the subject I discovered I am not the only one who has felt this way after reading this story. Apparently, the meaning of this particular passage is bit controversial among biblical scholars! After feeling relief that I am not the only one who was a bit wary of the meaning behind Jesus’ response to Martha, I was able to dig deeper and find some comforting messages in what Jesus said.
I do not believe that Jesus’s goal in this interaction was to indicate that that job of hosting is unimportant. Instead, I see two significant lessons we can learn from this brief conversation.
The first is a reminder to us all not to get caught up in unimportant details. It is a warning against the risk of getting so lost in the minutia involved in preparing to serve, that we forget the reason for the service itself. The people.
I find I am often guilty of this myself. As a bit of a perfectionist I tend to get caught up in wanting every little thing I do to be just right. This has been particularly challenging as I plan my wedding. If you ask me how the planning is going I almost always responds by saying something like, “Our wedding is about three things, #1 getting married, #2 celebrating all the people that have and will continue to support us through our relationship, and #3 everyone having fun.” This may sound philosophical and ever so evolved, but really it is my way of reminding myself of what’s really important, lest I turn into a bridezilla who loses sleep over whether the table linens should be eggshell white or off-white! It would be so so easy to obsess over these details that literally no one but me will notice or remember.
At the end of the day the people we are serving are going to care a lot less about the napkins we used than about the conversations we had. Or, as the saying goes, “people may forget what you said, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.” Sometimes the best service we can provide to others is as simple and as hard as giving them our undivided attention.
The second lesson I believe this passage is trying to teach us is the importance of caring for ourselves in order to better serve. Mary was not distracted by tasks or meeting societal expectations of hosting in just the right way. Instead Mary recognized the importance of what Jesus had to say, she understood that she had much to learn from him and she took the time to just sit and listen. I don’t know about you, but that sounds nearly impossible for me on an average day. My mind is constantly wandering to the next task on my to do list. I am rarely at peace enough to pay attention to anyone else.
If we are always busy running about, striving to complete each little task we believe we “should” do, we eventually run ourselves ragged, we wear out, and we have nothing left in us to provide service to anyone. We despise peace and quiet. Our society encourages multitasking and staying busy. These things have their place, but they can also burn us out and prevent us from really serving one another. How can we fully serve others when we do not take the time to breath, be at peace, and absorb God’s message. Even Jesus took time away from his busy schedule to go off on his own and pray. Mary teaches us the importance of being still, letting the dishes go unwashed for a brief time, and focusing on the message Jesus is trying to share with us. When we do this we will be refreshed, better prepared to get those dishes washed later, and ready to really serve those around us.