Text: Luke 10:38-42
Preached at Algonquin Provincial Park on July 21, 2013 & at Riverside Glen on July 28, 2013
This familiar story of Jesus visiting the sisters Martha and Mary comes up every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary. Despite coming up in the middle of summer, it's a very familiar story to most of us
here today, I'm sure.
With well-known stories like this, that have many layers, and with limited time to preach a sermon, often the message just stays on the surface. For this particular story, here's the condensed version:
Martha is the "traditional housewife" character. With Jesus here for a visit, she immediately sets out to show her hospitality by cleaning the house and cooking a delicious meal, in short, doing those things that women have done since forever to welcome a guest.
Mary assumes the more traditionally "male" role, sitting at Jesus' feet, listening to him teach.
Martha is upset that she's doing all the work, and she complains to Jesus, asking him to tell Mary to get up off her rear end and help her.
Far from siding with poor, beleaguered Martha, he rebukes her, saying that “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”
And preachers before this have said, as I have said before this, that sitting with your guest and paying attention to her is more important than providing a spotless home and an elaborate meal.
We preach that because it’s true. The key component of hospitality is attention to the guest. If you’ve ever been a guest at the home of a Martha, and spent your before dinner and after dinner and even during dinner time wishing that she would just SIT DOWN and stop fussing about things that either don’t matter or could be done later, you’ll know the truth of this.
But the lessons from this short passage go deeper than this, as the Marthas amongst us might suspect.
Do not those of you who naturally tend to show your hospitality by providing food and comfort feel somewhat slighted by Jesus’ words? Perhaps even a bit angry?
Our churches benefit greatly from the efforts of Martha—the men and women who cook, serve and clean up the many meals that are part of church life. The women and men who raise money for missions and local church support, who paint and repair and sometimes even construct our buildings. The number of Marthas in our congregations often exceeds by a large margin those who prefer to attend bible studies and prayer groups, those who are the Marys, learning at the feet of Jesus.
Is all that work unnecessary busy work? Should we, as some churches do in this day and age, dispense with the meals and the rituals and the buildings, and just sit together and learn?
My own experience suggests that the Marthas of our churches do some critically important work, and my reading of scripture suggests this. Churches that rely only on study and worship seldom, in my experience, grow beyond the house church stage, nor do they tend to have very long lives. The Marthas who feed and house the church play a vital role in both the temporal and spiritual growth of the church.
Nor does scripture advocate a life of ascetic contemplation and learning. We have the letter from James exhorting us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Work without faith is often empty busy work, but faith without works is dead.
And there is the story that comes just prior to this one in the Gospel of Luke, the story of the “Good” Samaritan.
The priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side were well versed in the laws and customs and scriptures of the Jewish people. But they are not the heroes of this story. Instead, it is the outcast Samaritan, who puts his faith into action, binding wounds, transporting the injured, providing clothing and food and housing for the man until such time as he should recover by donating his hard-earned money who is the one Jesus holds up as an example of faithfulness to scripture.
So I don’t think Jesus was rebuking Martha for her doing, but for her being “worried and distracted.” For her complaining.
In my own life, I’m somewhat of a Mary by nature. I’d much rather read and study and learn than clean the house or cook a meal, and over a period of about fifteen years, my house and my body had fallen into a somewhat shocking state of chaos. It didn’t help matters that I was brought up by a Martha who constantly complained that he (yes, Martha can be male!) was the only one who did all the work and if he stopped cranking the world would stop turning, whilst simultaneously complaining that any effort we made to help out wasn’t good enough if it wasn’t absolutely perfect. And it was never perfect. I learned to hate the very idea of housework. I couldn’t cook, didn’t clean, and well, you get the picture.
A year and a half ago, a friend referred me to FLYLady dot net.
The FLYLady, Marla Cilley, is a woman whose mission (and being Christian, she does consider it a mission) is to bring peace to homes around the world, one step and fifteen minutes at a time. She has a whole bunch of baby steps that, taken one at a time, will allow anyone who follows them to gradually gain control over their physical environment.
She has two over-riding principles: commandments, if you will, that, if followed, can change your attitude and thereby your life.
The first is: DON’T BE A MARTYR.
You are doing this because YOU signed up, so don’t nag or complain to your husband, wife, kid, roommate, dog, cat, gerbil, or hapless furnace repairperson.
Just do what you need to do, without bitching or complaining.
And the second is like unto the first: BE A BLESSING.
You are not just making a bed or folding laundry or cooking a meal or decluttering the living room. You are blessing your home, your family, your world, and yourself. You are blessing your God.
What difference would it have made if Martha, instead of self-talk that must have included curses for Mary’s “laziness” and lack of action, could have said to herself, “I am blessing Jesus and Mary and myself by preparing this delicious meal. Mary has her time with Jesus now, but when we sit down to eat, he’ll be grateful for this food, I’m sure.”
What difference might it have made if she’d realized that perhaps the sweeping up and washing dishes and making the bed weren’t important enough tasks to take her away from her guest, and she left them for later, instead taking time to sit and listen to Jesus?
We live in a world that can daze and confuse us if we let it. There are, at any given time, so many tasks we could be doing, so many things we could be buying, so many experiences we could be having, and of course, we then need to work longer hours to pay for all this extra amusement.
We are busy and distracted by many things, when there is need of only one thing.
Perhaps that “one thing” may take the form of listening to and learning from another human being, or it may take the form of preparing a meal to nourish the body of oneself or others. Perhaps that one thing might be doing the laundry, so that your child has clean clothes to wear. Or perhaps that one thing is stopping by the road to help a dying or lost stranger.
It’s all summed up by that one phrase, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Be a blessing, and bless the world in your own way. Accept the uniqueness of others, and accept that there is more than one way to show love and hospitality, and that not everyone will do it your way. Realize that you don’t have to do it all, that you can’t do it all, and concentrate on that “one thing” that’s most important to you at this particular moment. Take joy in the fact that whether what you’re doing is noticed or not, that whether others or helping you or you’re going it alone, what you do matters.