Sunday, July 21, 2013

Choosing the Better Part (Luke 10:38-42)

While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest.  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message.  By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal.  So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself?  Tell her to help me.”
The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It won’t be taken away from her.”

Imagine it is a warm summer afternoon.  You have been busy all day doing the usual chores at your house.  The yard is mowed, the laundry is done, and the house is, at least relatively, clean.  You go out to the back deck and sit down with a cold beverage, ready to relax for an hour or so until it’s time to fix dinner for your family.  You have just kicked your shoes off and the dog has just laid down beside your chair when you hear the front doorbell.

Some important person is standing on your doorstep – it’s your imagination, so make it whoever you want.  Some powerful political figure, a celebrity, some VIP – maybe even someone really important, like your pastor!  This person happens to be passing through town and has chosen you and your house as the place and people with whom to have dinner.  Lucky you!  You will have the honor (and it really is an honor) of preparing dinner for this important guest – and the twelve other guys traveling with him.

With this scenario in mind, you may have a slight taste of how Martha felt when Jesus showed up, unannounced, at her home.  May we pray.

Everyone took their seats at the dinner party.  The hostess, ever gracious, turned to her four-year-old son, the youngest person at the table, and said, “Sweetie, would you like to say grace?  Would you like to talk to God before we eat?”  He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and said, “I don’t know what to say.”  She smiled and said, “Just say what you hear Mommy say.”

Heads were bowed and eyes were closed around the table, and he spoke into the silence: “Dear God, why did I invite all these people over for dinner?”

Hospitality – the art of welcoming outsiders and treating them like honored guests – is a consistent theme that has always been important to people of faith.  Hospitality is still an important function in the church today – it is vitally important that we are an invitational and welcoming, more concerned with the needs of outsiders than ourselves, making a place for strangers and newcomers and doing whatever it takes to make them feel at home.

Hospitality matters most when we go out of our way to make another feel welcome.  Here’s an example of something that happened just last week.  We had a couple who came to visit for the first time.  They were arriving in time for the 10:55 service, and met, in the parking lot, another couple who had attended the 9 o’clock service and Sunday School and were on their way to their car.  The new couple asked “Where should we go in?” and rather than just point toward the door, they were escorted, personally, by their new friends to the sanctuary.  That made an impression on the visiting couple, and I won’t be surprised if we see them again soon.

The more we do in the church with a focus on outsiders, trying to see things from their perspective, leads us to be more and more hospitable.  Everything, from our signage directing people around the building to where we park can be seen as important practices of hospitality.  Did you ever think of parking as an act of hospitality?  I do.  On Sunday mornings, I park off-site, over at the Brookhaven School, as an act of hospitality.  I am here early, I could park anywhere I want.   I intentionally park far away and save better spots for someone else, hopefully someone new.  I park off-site as a gesture of hospitality, and every time I take that slightly longer walk in, I am thinking and praying for the person for whom I have just made room.  I invite those of you who believe in the importance of making room for others – particularly those of you who are here a little early and are physically able, to join me: take a spot that’s less convenient for you, but makes room for someone else.

The story of Martha and Mary centers around the practice of hospitality.  When Jesus and his entourage showed up on Martha’s doorstep, she took it all in stride.  Being a good, 1st-Century Jewish woman, she took her hospitality seriously.  She remembered all the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about the importance of welcoming strangers and providing for their needs, how serving them was a way of serving God.  Hospitality was itself an act of worship.

No one was a more gracious practitioner of hospitality than Martha.  She paid exacting attention to every little detail and personally ensured that everything – from the seating arrangement to the flowers to the wine selection was, in two words coined by another Martha, a “good thing.”  But even Martha Stewart had nothing on the Bible’s Martha in terms of throwing the perfect party.  Her dinner parties were legendary, and when it came to entertaining, Martha was all that and a bag of artisan home-baked pita chips, enfused with notes of saffron and lightly-dusted with sea salt.

With someone as important as Jesus in her home, she had the opportunity to throw the dinner party to end all dinner parties, forever sealing her reputation as the hostess with the mostest.  And yet, it was Martha’s commitment to gracious hospitality that sets the table for the rather ungracious encounter that stands at the center of this story.  Martha is frustrated that while she is slaving away in a hot kitchen, getting the dining room set with the good china, and cutting fresh flowers for the centerpiece, her sister Mary is in the living room with Jesus and the menfolk – laughing, listening, and hanging on every word out of Jesus’ mouth.

Martha has come through the room several times and made some suggestion – first subtle and increasingly not-so-subtle – that Mary get off her backside and come help in the kitchen where she belongs.  She has finally hit her breaking point, and comes storming into the room with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand and barks an order at Jesus, telling him to order Mary to do what everyone knows she is supposed to do: go help with the preparations.

But, the surprise is on Martha.  Jesus responds in an unexpected way – as he has a tendency to do – and says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It won’t be taken away from her.”

What has commonly been taught is that Jesus is down on Martha for her work, but commends Mary for being more “spiritual.”  Shame on you if you’re a worker like Martha, blessed are you if you’re spiritual like Mary; Martha = bad, Mary = good.

That’s a very interesting and common interpretation of this story.  It’s also wrong, or it at least misses what Jesus is really after here.  It almost sets up the story like a rigged game show, where contestants chose between two categories: “Are you more like Martha, or more like Mary?”  Everyone knows the answer, it’s Mary, yet contestant after contestant says, “I’m more like Martha.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!  The answer we were looking for was Mary.  Martha is the wrong answer!  Thanks for playing, and better luck next time!”

Rather than beating up on Martha for being the busy, bossy woman who ignored Jesus, while lifting up Mary as the gold standard of pious devotion, it is far better to realize that both the Marthas and the Marys of the world are beloved children of God, and that both have their place in God’s kingdom and their work to do to fulfill it.

Indeed, where would the church be without our Marthas (and Martins, too, just so you realize this sermon is for the guys, too!)?  Where would we be without faithful workers who perform the tasks and function and yes, work, of hospitality and service that are critical to helping the church better reflect the kingdom of God?  Where would we be without those who serve and give sacrificially of their time, talent, and treasure in order to further God’s will around the corner and around the world?

I cannot imagine Jesus, who told us that when we care for the least of these we are caring for him, I cannot imagine Jesus telling Christians who are emptying bed pans in AIDS clinics or baking biscuits for the shelter or working to build and repair homes, schools, hospitals, and clinics – I cannot for one second imagine Jesus saying, “You people are pre-occupied with busy work.  Leave the children, leave the poor, the sick, the lonely behind.  Come, sit and meditate for awhile – don’t you know that’s the better part?”

The life of work and service is not something entirely different from the life of prayer and devotion – rather, they are like two sides of the same coin.  It is not that we choose between a life of prayer and a life of work, for we are called to be people of both work and prayer.  Figuring out what is ultimately important and putting that first – that’s the challenge of the Gospel.  And nothing is more important than receiving the Kingdom of God, wherever you are, when it comes near.  Sometimes when we discern that it is near, the faithful thing is to drop everything and sit still and listen – like Mary.

Other times when we discern its presence, the faithful thing to do is to get busy about some important task – like Martha.  But if we were to ask Jesus which of these two things we need more of – Mary’s prayerful listening or Martha’s determined doing, he would say, “Yes.”

Both listening and doing, loving God through worship and loving others through service, are as vital to the Christian life as inhaling and exhaling are vital to breathing.  The rub comes that when all our activities leave us with no time to be still in the Lord’s presence and hear God’s Word, we are likely to end up anxious and troubled, or as Martha was, distracted by our many tasks.

The problem for Martha in in the story is not that she is a worker, but that she is distracted.  The Greek word there means “pulled in many directions,” and that’s the real issue here.  It’s that she is so busy, so distracted, so frazzled in trying to show good hospitality, that she forgets the most important aspect of hospitality: careful and gracious attention to the guest.  Martha is pulled in many directions with all she wants to accomplish for Jesus that she ends up committing a major party foul, by simultaneously trying to embarrass her sister and pulling Jesus into a family squabble.

Now, I have two older sisters; my mom was one of four sisters; my grandmother is one of seven sisters: I know, from personal experience, that if sisters start to fight, the smartest thing you can do is not get in the middle of it!

Jesus doesn’t really take sides here; he simply expresses his disappointment in Martha for stooping to something so low as airing the family’s dirty table linens in front of company.  It’s as if he’s saying, “Martha, you’re better than this!”

John Calvin, the church reformer, wrote “Work is good, but if we work all the time, work becomes a curse, not a blessing.”  The story of Martha and Mary is a reminder that if our many tasks have left us so frazzled that we lack the love and grace befitting God’s people, then it’s time to let a few things slide off our plate, and sit at the feet of Jesus to listen for awhile.

Frankly, that’s what church is supposed to be: a time to stop amid all our important doing and listen to Jesus, a time to put away our to-do list and hear the one thing needed: that we are God’s children; we are defined, ultimately, by God’s mercy, grace, and love.

If you are a Mary, that’s great.  If you are a Martha, that’s great, too.  It’s who God created you to be, so you go ahead and own it!  Being a Martha is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it’s nothing to apologize for.  It’s OK to be a do-er, but it’s not OK to do so much that you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing, or that you do it without grace, or that you miss Jesus in all the doing.

I hear Jesus’ words to workaholic Martha not as a rebuke, but as a reminder that our identity and worth are not found on a to-do list.  We are valued and loved not because of what we do, but because of who we are: beloved and even treasured for all time, created in God’s image, receivers of God’s grace – there is nothing we can do that would earn God’s love, and nothing we can do to lose it. 

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