For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Deborah Jacoby-Twigg. My wife Mia and I have been active parishioners at St. John’s for 10 years. We live in Highland Mills where we are raising our sons Noah, who will soon start first grade, and Nate, who will soon start Kindergarten.
Today’s scriptures are about hosting God and what that means for our lives.
Abraham is 99 years old. The scriptures preceding today’s Old Testament reading suggest that Abraham might still be healing from a recent circumcision, a painful and life-threatening surgery for a man his age, living in his era of primitive medical practices.
We find Abraham resting, possibly recuperating, in the shade of some oak trees at the entrance to his tent during the hottest time of the day in what is now the Palestinian West Bank. Imagine recovering from an operation in the coolest place you can find: outside, no air conditioning, and it’s 96 degrees in the shade.
In these circumstances, Abraham looks up and sees three men standing near him: two angels and God God-self, in human form. Despite his physical condition, his age, and the intense heat, Abraham “ran” and “bowed” to his guests and “hastened” and “ran” some more. He got his elderly wife Sarah busy baking and set a servant in motion cooking fresh meat. Meanwhile, Abraham gathered up curds and milk and “stood” by his guests while they ate under the trees.
Abraham really knocked himself out to host these guests, when he probably wasn’t feeling up to it.
Then the visitor, who we understand to be God, gave something to Abraham. God gave Abraham a promise. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a baby. That made Sarah laugh pretty hard since she was decades past her child bearing years.
“Why is she laughing?” God asked Abraham. “Why is she questioning me? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? I’ll be back when the time is right and Sarah will have a son.”
Ten years ago, around the time we started coming to St. John’s, I attended a Cursillo weekend retreat. Sponsored by our Diocese, as some of you know, Cursillo is a Christian faith renewal pilgrimage which some people experience as a refreshing, reflective break from their regular routine and others experience as a life-changing, mountain top event. My Cursillo was a very intense weekend. I had a deeply emotional experience in which I felt that God was personally visiting me, calling me to…have children.
Although Mia was supportive when I told her about my experience, this was still a crazy idea by any human measure. We were both 43 years old at the time. (Add 10 years and yeah: we’re 53 now.) I had never wanted children of my own. Mia had wanted children but had given up on the idea. Neither biology nor conventional financial wisdom nor our legal system favored our becoming parents.
I shared about my Cursillo experience with a friend who happened to be a seminary graduate, ending my litany of questions and concerns with the comment, “We are really too old to have children.” My friend said, “You know Deb. This wouldn’t be the first time God has done something like this.”
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
Many of you know the rest of our story. Many of you were present when the boys were baptized here at St. John’s.
When we play host to God, it’s serious business. We might not always feel up to it. Maybe God’s timing is not our timing. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to our human understanding. Maybe it’s just too darn hot.
But God doesn’t hit and run. When God visits, God leaves us with something. Maybe a promise. Maybe a baby. Whatever it is that God offers, it will change our lives. Our job is to be a good host and take our Guest seriously.
In our New Testament reading, Mary and Martha host Jesus. In contrast to Mary who sits quietly with Jesus, Martha is a whirl of activity. She knocks herself out making drinks and appetizers and a full meal and setting the table and arranging the flowers. Sweat runs down her face as she bustles back and forth from the kitchen to living space, carrying trays. At one point, exasperated, she blurts out, “I could use a little help here!”
It upsets our sensibilities when we read that Jesus chides Martha for all her efforts and, praises Mary, who’s been sitting on her duff, saying Mary has “chosen the better part.” Is Jesus suggesting that contemplative people are superior to people of action and service? Or that being with Jesus is better than working for Jesus? That’s what we get when we read this story from our perspective.
What if we read this story from Jesus’ perspective? At this point in Jesus’ life, He has already set his face toward Jerusalem, which is to say, he is journeying to the cross. He is exhausted from travel, from the crowds pressing in on him, from the burden of his final destiny ahead. He just wants a break from the pressure with his friends in their home.
Have you ever had a friend call you and ask if they can come over because they’ve been going through something difficult and they just need to talk? You are their special friend, someone they trust, someone with whom they can let their hair down. They don’t expect you to solve their problems. They just need a little tea and sympathy. Whether you are contemplative by nature or a person of action, it’s not really that hard. You give your friend what they need.
“Only one thing is needed,” Jesus says to Mary and Martha. Perhaps he’s trying to say, “Please don’t fuss. Don’t put on a big spread. A glass of wine will do. Just be with me.” Mary hears Jesus—really hears Him— and responds accordingly.
Martha gives the wrong kind of kindness for the situation. She gives the type of kindness she wants to give, not the type of kindness that He has requested. Perhaps, with every bang and clang coming from the kitchen, Jesus feels sadder and sadder. Martha hasn’t chosen a bad part. She means well and Jesus knows this. Mary has simply chosen the better part.
What neither woman fully appreciates—and Jesus does—is how short the time is. Jesus is going to die soon. This is probably their last time together this way. Had Martha realized that, she might have seized the day and hosted Jesus very differently.
Paul wrote to the Colossians, ‘You who were once estranged and hostile…(Christ) has now reconciled…(and)…the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations has now been revealed to (you). To (you), God chose to make known how great are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.’
Christ in us. When Christ is IN US, we are simultaneously hosting and dwelling with Him and vice versa. By His grace.
Here we are in church. We may live Martha lives in a very Martha world but right here, right now, for this tiny, precious nugget of time, we are Mary being with Jesus. We are Abraham hosting God. And vice versa.
Today is a new day, a new opportunity, another chance to say yes to the One who’s been patiently waiting through all our banging and clanging–and let God dwell in us and us in God.
“Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?” the Psalmist asks in our Psalm this morning. “Who may abide upon your holy hill?” The answer: “Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from their heart.”
When Christ dwells in us, when we host or dwell with God, it means we change for the better. Not out of compulsion, but out of love.
In the 1997 movie “As Good As It Gets,” Melvin, a character played by Jack Nicholson, falls in love with Carol, a character played by Helen Hunt. Melvin is a pretty messed up, dysfunctional guy but he’s crazy about Carol and one evening over dinner he tells her he wants to pay her a compliment.
He rambles for a few minutes explaining how he has an ailment, a condition, for which a psychiatrist once prescribed a medication. But it’s a pill. And he hates pills. He hates pills in the deepest meaning of the word ‘hate.’ So he never took the medicine.
But, after he realized how deeply and thoroughly Carol had captured his heart, he started taking his pills. Melvin stops talking and gazes at Carol, waiting for her reaction. After a moment, Carol says, “I don’t quite get how that’s a compliment.”
Realizing that he needs to make his point more clearly, Melvin takes a deep breath, leans forward, and says in that straight-on way that only Jack Nicholson can deliver: “You make me want to be a better man.”
That’s how it is when we host and dwell with God, when Christ captures our hearts and lives in us.
How are we hosting God?
Are we listening, paying attention to what our Guest is saying to us?
Are we experiencing the mystery of “Christ in us” and the hope of glory?
Can we seize this day to draw nearer to God?
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?