On a warm July day, a Methodist pastor sat down for dinner in the apartment of two Coptic Christians. The pastor's name was Harley, and his hosts were Youssef and Sofia. They were a husband and wife who operated a jewelry store in the town of Occoquan, Virginia. As they sat down, Youssef offered a prayer. "Be with us, Lord Jesus, as you were with your first followers in the breaking of the bread. Bless this food to our use and ourselves to your service. Amen."
Sofia passed Harley a plate of lentils and rice with tomato sauce. She followed with stuffed grape leaves. "This food is delicious," said Harley. "Thank you very much. It all seems very healthy."
"Food is important to us," Sofia said. "Think of the many times that Jesus sat down to eat with people - even tax collectors and sinners. Christian hospitality is very important to Youssef and to me."
"I do appreciate it," Harley added. "Think of how much better the world would be if people actually sat down and ate with each other."
Over the course of the meal, their conversation turned to news of an Islamic State attack, an attack on a group of Coptic Christians in Egypt, where Youssef and Sofia had grown up. A suicide bomber had attacked a cathedral, killing more than two dozen worshippers, including a 10-year-old girl.
"It was horrible," Sofia said, shaking her head. "The worst attack on Copts in years."
"How did the Copts respond?" asked Harley.
"With increased security, of course," said Youssef. "But also, with prayer - prayers for the victims and for their attackers." Harley was impressed that the Coptic community could respond with prayer for such evildoers.
"I heard that when the funeral was held for that ten-year-old," said Sofia, "her mother asked everyone to wear white."
"In my church, white is the color of resurrection," noted Harley.
"That should always be the color for a funeral," Sofia agreed. "When a person has died, we should always celebrate the resurrection. They have new life in Christ."
For Harley, the conversation began to feel a bit otherworldly, like a waking dream. He found himself entering a state described by psychologists as "flow," when a person becomes energized, focused, and fully involved in an activity. Talking with Sofia and Youssef, Harley felt a deep bond to them and to their Christian convictions, a link that he wanted to maintain for as long as he could. As they talked, everything became perfectly clear and deeply connected. Perhaps Youssef's dinner prayer had been answered, and the risen Christ was truly present in the room. Harley was experiencing "Christian flow."
Now, I have a confession to make. Harley, Youssef and Sofia are not real people. They are fictional characters from my novel City of Peace, but their experience of Christian flow is not fake at all - it can happen any time that people break bread together and experience the presence of Jesus Christ. In fact, it happened in the town of Bethany, when Jesus entered the home of two women named Martha and Mary.
This story is well-known, although it appears only in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus and his disciples entered Bethany, Martha welcomed them. She was determined to practice hospitality, so she put out a spread as delicious as the meal provided by Sofia and Youssef.
Luke tells us that Martha "had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying" (v 39). Mary was focused on the presence of Jesus, not on the serving of a meal, and she was eager to have her own experience of Christian flow.
Martha, on the other hand, was distracted by many tasks, and she became frustrated. "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?" she asked Jesus. "Tell her then to help me." But Jesus answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (vv 40-42).
This story of Martha and Mary is a tough one. According to my colleague Meg Peery McLaughlin, the co-pastor of Burke of Presbyterian Church in Virginia, the story "is one that people get riled up about." We get riled up because we know what home and chores and hospitality are like, and we don't necessarily appreciate the fact that Jesus gives Mary credit for making the choice she did. "What, Jesus, you think this laundry is going to clean itself? Dinner is going to put itself on the table?" Jesus says that "There is need of only one thing," but we know that a good meal is always very complicated. "One thing?! Are you kidding me? There are a million things."
But Meg offers a great insight into this story, one that requires us to notice that Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan right before he visited with Martha and Mary. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught us what it looks like to love our neighbors. In the story of Martha and Mary, Jesus taught us what it looks like to love God.
Put the two together, and what do you get? The Great Commandment of Jesus: "You shall love the Lord your God . . . and your neighbor as yourself" (v 27). Love of God, combined with love of neighbor. Hospitable Martha was doing a great job of loving her neighbor as herself, putting out a delicious meal for Jesus, but Mary was showing us how to love the Lord with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, with all of our strength. Both are essential. Both are faithful. Both are at the core of the Great Commandment.
So, what we have here are three parables: The parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of Martha and Mary, and the parable of Sofia, Youssef and Harley. Sofia and Youssef performed the Martha part very well, offering Christian hospitality to their friend, but then they made room for the Mary part as well, in a conversation that turned into an experience of Christian flow.
"I feel as though God has been talking to me through dreams," Harley said this to them over dinner, confessing something that he had not revealed to anyone else.
"Really?" asked Sofia. "There is a long history of that in the Bible."
"I'd be interested in hearing about your dreams," said Youssef. "Such communication has always been fascinating to me."
So, Harley told them about a dream he had in which an angel told him that his friend Leah was pregnant. He was shocked by this news, since Leah was single and was not involved with anyone. Then the angel said, "Harley, do not be afraid to take Leah as your wife."
"Ah," said Youssef, "the same message that the angel gave Joseph before Jesus was born."
"I was stunned," Harley continued. "I couldn't understand why this message was being given to me. I wanted Leah to be held accountable for her unplanned pregnancy, but not do anything to embarrass her."
"That was Joseph's struggle as well, wasn't it?" said Youssef. "The tension between judgement and compassion. He chose compassion, and look what a difference it made."
"So, what is it that God is saying to me?" Harley wondered.
"What I am hearing is this," said Youssef. "God is asking you to make a choice between justice and love. You can judge the people around you, or you can show them compassion."
Sofia suggested, "Step out in faith and show the compassion that Joseph showed to Mary."
"You won't regret it," added Youssef. Harley sat for a moment, struggling with how to respond, and as he did, he felt the feeling of Christian flow dissipate. The presence of Jesus, which had felt so real, was no longer something he could perceive.
But Harley realized that there was an offer of compassion that he had to make to one particular person. Getting up, he said, "I really want to thank you for the meal and the conversation. You have shown amazing hospitality, and you have helped me figure some things out."
Christian hospitality. Christian flow. We learn about one from Martha and about the other from Mary. And in our own lives we are challenged to make room for both, as we break bread with friends and open ourselves to the presence of Christ in honest conversations.
Both flow and hospitality are central to the Christian life, as we seek to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can trust that Jesus will be with us as we do this, helping everything to become perfectly clear and deeply connected. Amen.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, be with us today as you were with your first followers in the breaking of the bread. Help us to show Christian hospitality and to love our neighbors as ourselves. But inspire us also to sit at your feet and to learn how to love the Lord, our God, with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength. As we do so, may everything become perfectly clear and deeply connected. In your holy name we pray, amen.
Henry G. Brinton, City of Peace (Virginia Beach: Köehler Books, 2018), 147-154.
Meg Peery McLaughlin, "Home: Where It Starts," Sermons at Burke Presbyterian Church, September 10, 2017.