Be About the Work: St. Martha and Mission

Anyone who worked in the Hospitality industry, for however short a time, can tell you the importance of the dishwasher. Not the appliance, but the person.

A dishwasher in the weeds means a restaurant in the weeds. Everyone- servers, bartenders, and chefs alike depend on a steady flow in and out of this person’s hands, and they’re typically the lowest paid and least respected person on staff. They are seen as replaceable (they’re not) people doing low-skilled (it isn’t) work that makes up the base of the cursus honorum of the kitchen. But every night I walked into the restaurant to start a shift I could predict the flow of the night with near certainty based on who was in the dish-pit. The labor that is so often valued least, is the labor that makes or breaks the whole enterprise.

The impulse to undervalue essential labor is a sinfully universal impulse, and its one that effects the Church as much as anyone else.

There is a consistent refrain among missional circles that needs to stop— The refrain that maintenance is not important. That we over-encumber ourselves in keeping house, and because of that, miss the chance at making connections and growing the Church.

It’s not that this refrain is wrong— It just misses the point that no connection happens in a vacuum. With the same sinful blindness to the grunt work of hospitality, it ignores the fact that someone has to do the pre-work of creating space for the encounter to happen. Or it doesn’t happen at all.

If we make connections out in the community (as we should be doing) we have to acknowledge that the only thing we have done is to have contracted the work of spacemaking to someone else.

If we meet in a coffeeshop, do we see and value the barista?

If we meet in a bar, do we see and value the busser?

If we meet in a library, do we see and value the custodian?

(And if you are going out into the community and not over-tipping tipped workers, then may God have mercy on your immortal soul, because you have missed the entire point.)

If we’re going into places where people work, and not connecting with them as people, regardless of their role, if we’re not seeing the holiness of their labor, then we’re not going to see the Spirit in them.

This isn’t entirely our fault. There is very little in our Culture or our Church that has prepared us to see this way. Today’s the Feast of Saints Mary and Martha, whose story lays plain the ways that our tradition has taught us to undervalue spacemaking.

“Are you a Mary or a Martha?” is a ubiquitous question. Are you spiritual, or are you a busybody?

As catastrophically wrong as that question is, and many of us see how it is problematic, we can’t shake that impulse. To be near Christ we can’t be in the kitchen. (To say nothing of the way in which this undervalues labor traditionally coded as feminine…)

If you remove Martha from that story, you remove Mary’s encounter.

Martha made the meal that the meeting centered on.

Martha is the one that sends word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick.

Martha is the one that meets Jesus on the road.

Martha is the one that rolls away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb.

Martha cooks Lazarus’ first meal back from the dead.

These actions are essential, and not just the action, but the person. To think that anyone could have replaced Martha in these roles is to disregard the way that God works in our lives and to buy into the lie that the labor we produce is inherently alienated from who we are. That St. Martha is somehow interchangeable with any other ancient Palestinian woman. That St. Martha’s house is interchangeable with any other location.

That kind of thinking is foreign to the Gospel, and should be foreign to us. No one, regardless of the labor they produce, is a one-for-one replacement for anyone else. No space is a one-for-one replacement of another. No matter what franchisers would have you believe.

We can absolutely take a critical look at what kinds of maintenance we’re doing, and what kind of spaces are worth preserving, but we cannot ignore making space, which means we can’t ignore the people that make the spaces that make encounter possible. We can talk about whether systems or parishes are sustainable, but once that conversation has been had, then we need to be about the work of making spaces that are warm and hospitable, clean and functional, bright and beautiful.

Hospitality is not just extending welcome. Its about creating welcome. And that means being about the (good and holy) work.

Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany: Open our hearts to love you, our ears to hear you, and our hands to welcome and serve you in others, through Jesus Christ our risen Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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