February 16, 2016
Luke 10: 38-42
I’d like to put in a good word for Martha today, and to do that I’d like to begin by telling you about my Instagram account. If you’re a college president you have to be really careful about what you say and do and where you say it and do it. For that reason I’m not on Facebook, and, although I apparently have a Twitter account, I’ve never used it. Rather than spending a bunch of my time, or someone else’s, managing a social media presence, I just avoid those platforms.
Instagram is the exception to this rule. My account is called David’s Plate, and it consists entirely of pictures of food — food that I have cooked myself and food made by others that is memorable for some reason. (By the way, I only recently reached the double digits in followers — twenty-seven to be exact — which apparently is pretty lame in Instagram world, so if you have an appetite, so to speak, for pictures of food, I invite you to follow me.)
Why pictures of food? I won’t lie to you: I really do appreciate good eating. Not what I call “Big Plate Little Food” cooking, where you get a quail’s egg and a couple of shavings of carrot on a tiny smear of mashed potatoes and that’s called dinner, but rather a meal that was thoughtfully conceived, prepared with care and imagination, that smells delicious, and that’s served with love and laughter, one that nourishes your body and your soul. And, by the way, I have rules about this: such a meal has to be served on a plate, at a table, with silverware and a napkin, and it has to be eaten sitting down, and it has to last a minimum of half an hour.
Another reason why pictures of food: I love to cook. I do most of the cooking at our house. It’s a great discipline. You have to have a plan, you have to have hunted and gathered in light of the plan so that you have all of the ingredients, you have to strategize how to have all of the components of the meal ready at the right time, and you have to make it effortless so that you don’t sit down so flustered and red-faced from getting everything on the table that you can’t enjoy what you’ve made and you’re no fun to talk to. It has to be delicious and good for you and look great on the plate. Most of all, though, it has to say to the person you made it for how much you care about them. It’s your gift to their well-being; it’s meant to bring pleasure — real, physical, gustatory pleasure — into their lives.
“David’s Plate” has turned out to be much more than I thought it would be when I first started posting pictures on Instagram. It’s actually not about the food. It’s about the place where you ate it, the reason you were there, who you were with, what you were feeling at the time, what the occasion represented, and how you remember it. My academic discipline is literature, and when I think of narratives I tend to think of them as verbal constructs, but no doubt there are other, non-verbal, ways to tell stories: for example, pictures of food.
So here’s what you’d see if you were to visit David’s Plate now and look at my last few posts. (And by the way, by “now” I mean after chapel, because you shouldn’t be looking at your cellphones during chapel.) You’d see a plate of Turkey a la King and mixed vegetables that I had for lunch Saturday at an assisted living facility on a family visit. The important part about that picture isn’t the Turkey a la King, though it was pretty yummy, but rather that it memorializes an important visit to people I love. You’d see a martini glass filled with fresh fruit and the caption, “Not a Martini.” This was at a hotel where I was at a meeting. I like fresh fruit as much as the next guy, and to be fair it was at breakfast, but what the picture really captures is that little pang of disappointment you feel when you see a martini glass that doesn’t have gin in it. You’d see a picture of a Hebrew National hot dog, with ketchup and mustard, and a bag of Nacho cheese Doritos with the caption, “The glamorous part of the job.” I was on a train from Washington D.C. to New York to hear our band play at Carnegie Hall, which was a marvelous evening that we should all be proud of, and that was the best thing the Amtrak “Bistro” had to offer. And you’d see some of my cooking: oven roasted chicken thighs stuffed with house-made tapenade that I made for my wife, Priscilla; a really good paella made for one of my treasured St. Olaf professors, with whom I studied the modern British novel during Interim forty-six years ago, who came for dinner; and my specialty, the dish our kids always ask for when they come home to visit, Bolognese sauce over pasta.
Perhaps you’re wondering, “Is he ever going to talk about Martha?” I’m making that pivot now.
Poor Martha takes a beating in the commentaries on the text for today. She’s a bad example. Her sister Mary gets props for being a bold feminist who sits at the feet of the teacher, a place typically reserved for men during this time. Mary gets props for being focused on “the better part,” which is being fully in the moment with Jesus. But poor Martha gets criticized for being distracted by the busyness of life — in this case, by cooking for her guests — and failing to attend to Jesus or his teaching. She’s criticized for trying to start a fight with her sister and for trying to draw Jesus into the dispute, for implicitly criticizing Jesus for not noticing that Mary’s not being helpful in the kitchen, and for being just plain bad-tempered. Over and over again, the commentators exhort us to, like Mary, to choose “the better part, which will not be taken away” rather than being like Martha, “distracted by [our] many tasks.”
In fairness to Martha, I would like to point out that it’s hard to listen with both ears when you’re hungry. I’d also like to point out that Jesus had a powerful impulse towards hospitality.Think about the story in Matthew about feeding the five thousand. Jesus has withdrawn to “a deserted place by himself” after hearing of the beheading of John the Baptist. But crowds follow him, and at dinnertime the disciples urge him to send the crowds back to town so that they can buy food for themselves. But Jesus recognizes that the crowds are both hungry for his message and just plain hungry. He says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” And then he performs the miracle with the loaves and fishes that feeds the hungry five thousand.
It’s not just food: it’s drink, too. Think of the wedding at Cana. Jesus is at a wedding, the hosts run out of wine, and Jesus, in our Lord’s first miracle, turns six stone jars of water into wine. Not just any wine, either: wine so good that the steward exclaims that while normally at weddings you serve the good wine first and the cheap wine when the guests have become drunk, at this wedding they saved the good wine for last. Jesus acknowledges the appetites of the body, and he doesn’t put them in opposition to the appetites of the mind and soul, as commentators on the story of Mary and Martha always seem to want to do. It’s a righteous act to nourish both body and soul, for that’s how we humans are made. We need both kinds of nourishment, and I think you can make a good case that satisfying the needs of the body opens the mind and heart for nourishment of the soul.
Our souls are nourished through God’s hospitality — both the heavenly hospitality represented by God reaching out to humankind with God’s message of love and grace, and what I’ll call the “domestic” hospitality with which we are invited to the communion table to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. Eating and drinking are profoundly human acts. Preparing and sharing food makes us human and keeps us human. There are fewer bonds more powerful than those formed by, through, and over food.
As Christians we, too, can nourish ourselves and others through acts of hospitality. Inviting a person sitting alone in the caf to join you and your friends for dinner is an act of hospitality. But hospitality doesn’t have to involve food. Hospitality means welcoming into your circle of friends someone in your residence hall who doesn’t seem to fit in. So is welcoming into dialogue someone in a class whose views clash with your own. So is welcoming someone from another faith tradition into the community of faithful people at St. Olaf.
So let’s don’t demonize poor Martha. She was performing an act of hospitality, welcoming hungry guests to her home and providing the sustenance that was the precondition of their receiving nourishment from the teaching of Jesus. If her Hollandaise sauce was curdling, and that made her ornery and caused her to snap at her sister, let’s just agree that her instincts were the right ones, and that together Mary and Martha exemplify two compatible Christian virtues, the impulse towards hospitality and the impulse towards the Divine. Let’s bless them both and pray that in our own lives we exhibit both impulses as we live in community as Christians and grow in faith together.