Post Author: Sarah Kinney Gaventa
But in the midst of all that spiritual work, the everyday work of dusting, scrubbing and organizing real rooms doesn’t go away. This month, we bring you a sermon that reminds how this, too, is a spiritual pursuit.
I have a secret.
I have a very long term, very intense, shameful love/hate relationship with housework. I love the idea of housework. Years ago I bought the Cheryl Mendelson’s book Home Comforts. Mendelson is a lawyer, who grew up in a farm in Pennsylvania, and her passion is housekeeping. She loves to sort and clean and cook. Her book is so beautifully written that it seduces you into the idea that housekeeping is an art. She writes:
What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping. Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home. Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.
(Sigh) Isn’t that lovely? I’ll read that paragraph and swear to myself that I will become a capital H Housekeeper. My house will be airy and light, dust free, with clutter put into its rightful place. The sink will sparkle. No crumb will mar my hygienic kitchen counters. My home will be a place of peace and beauty.
I come from a long line of people unable to deal with clutter. Both my grandmothers had decade’s worth of bills and papers piled on their useless dining room tables. My father’s favorite home video is a really boring one he took when I was about eleven. The video is an inventory of the house he did for insurance purposes—the camera slowly sweeps across our home recording our few valuables. My dad loves this video because as the camera recorded our life together, it also recorded the fact that every flat surface was covered with clutter. If a ledge dared to just out more than an inch and a half, we would put something on it.
So, I live in the tension of deeply desiring a clean home, with a seeming inability to maintain one. Housekeeping has alternated between feeling virtuous and oppressive throughout my life, but now that I’m married it takes on a whole other component. Poor, poor husband. Three Fridays ago, I decided while he was at work, I would clean the house. My intentions started out as true. Out of my love for him, I would create a welcoming, clean home. After about four hours and six loads of laundry, though, resentment began creeping in like the insidious beast that it is. When I called him about six and learned he was having a beer with co-workers, I lost it. When he came home, he found a sniveling, weepy, housewife. When he asked what he could do, I whimpered, “I need to leave the house. Take me out to dinner.” He did, and all ended well.
So, all this to say: I get Martha. Martha and I would have been pals. When she told me her story, I would have shaken my head at Mary’s abandonment of her and felt her deep pain at Jesus’ rebuke. I would have taken Martha out for a drink, and patted her hand, and said, “Men. They just don’t get it.”
Imagine the scene. Luke tells us that Martha was the one who welcomed Jesus into her home. She probably loved to entertain and was so excited about hosting this special person. She had probably scrubbed the floor, dusted the furniture, cut some flowers and put them in a vase. . .but anyone who has entertained knows that is not the end of the story. When your guest is in your house, you’re cooking and refilling his glass, and doing everything you can to make sure he’s comfortable. When Martha extended the offer to Jesus, she was being hospitable. She also probably thought she could count on her sister’s help. But instead, Martha works her tail off, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him teach. When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to get up off her butt, he is NOT receptive.
Jesus may have rebuked Martha here, but he has certainly been the recipient of housekeeping throughout his ministry. The New Testament is filled with stories of him going to other people’s houses to eat. At one point in the 12th chapter of Luke he tells his followers, “And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things.” And that’s all well and good, but SOMEONE was going to be preparing all these mysteriously provided meals.
At least Jesus knows a bit of what he speaks. He did, after all, provide food for 5000 with only a few loaves and fish. You think having to throw that kind of dinner party, he’d have a little sympathy for Martha’s dilemma.
We know from the Gospel of John that Mary, Martha, their brother Lazarus, and Jesus were all really good friends. Not only disciples—but friends. That helps me when I read this passage. Jesus’ rebuke is somehow easier to hear if it comes from a frustrated friend rather than Jesus as an authority figure. I wish we knew what happened next. I really hope that Martha said, “Well, fine. I’ll just sit and listen, too. You can make your own darn sandwiches. For that matter, you can clean the dishes, too.”
Now, this is the point in most sermons about Mary and Martha, where the preacher does a reversal and talks about how sometimes our ministry is to sit still and “be” and bask in Jesus’ presence, etc. And all of that is true, but for this sermon, I’m going to continue to support Martha. And here’s why.
In our translation, we read that Martha was distracted by her many tasks. Tasks is also sometimes translated as preparations. But the Greek word that is translated as tasks is actually diakonia—a word that everywhere else in the New Testament is described as service or ministry. So if a man in the New Testament is participating in diakonia, he is participating in ministry. When Martha is participating in diakonia, it is “distracting tasks.” That doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Martha was not just a fussbudget; she was a woman who ministered through her housekeeping. Her conflict with Mary and Jesus was about different ways of ministering to Jesus, not about housework versus ministry.
So, despite my own love/hate relationship with housework, today I preach for housework as ministry. Today we commiserate and celebrate with Martha and all women (and maybe in 2007 a healthy number of men, too!) who lug a vacuum, wash endless piles of laundry, haul recycling, wash off the mud, empty the dishwasher, make the bed, feed the dog, and cook dinner.
Our culture tells us we are not whole human beings unless we are working hard outside the home. I cannot tell you how many women I have heard tell me that they don’t do anything important—they just work at home and raise children. That belief could not be farther from the truth!
This work, this drudgery, is not just a never ending cycle of chores the gods have invented to torture us. This work is ministry—the ministry of hospitality. I would argue that hospitality is one of the most important ministries of the church. Hospitality is what draws people to church and to Jesus. When we open our church or our homes to others, we tell them they are valuable and precious to us. When we clean and cook for our families or guests we are helping them to be in, as Cheryl Mendelson says, “the place where [they] can be more [themselves] than they can be anywhere else.” In this kind of home they can experience their full humanity and also experience the love of Christ for them.
And yes, there are times we need to lay down the broom to attend to something Christ may have to teach us. Frankly, I would happily lay down my broom. Sometimes in the middle of mopping I put my hand to my ear and say, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you’d have me do, Jesus?” But in the meantime, until we get that other call, when we are getting out grass stains and polishing the silver, we can know we are doing holy work—the work of ministry.
Sarah Kinney Gaventa is the Associate Rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia. One would never guess, upon meeting her, that she has trouble keeping her house clean.
Image by: congerdesign
Used with permission