Sunday, July 21, 2019. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching
Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:15-25; Luke 10:38-42
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Our story today is a story about two women and Jesus. How cool is it that we have mostly women leading the service today! I’ve actually grown up loving this story because of its approachability. It’s pretty easy to identify with a character. At some point, I’m sure that we’ve all felt like Mary, learning and listening at the feet of Jesus. Maybe more of us feel like Martha — someone who works hard and gets frustrated when no one is stepping up to help. Someone who has worries and frustrations and distractions. Most people have heard this story before and it’s easy for us to fall into some easy traps while reading and applying this story.
As Luke tells the story, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and one day he stops in a certain village where two sisters live – Mary and Martha. Martha takes the initiative, welcomes Jesus into her home, and begins preparing for him a fancy a meal. There is nothing unusual about this – showing hospitality, welcoming guests, feeding them well – these were very important virtues in that culture, and Martha is doing her best to show hospitality to Jesus and to make him feel at home. But while she is busily working away on the food, her sister Mary does something unusual. Normally in the ancient world, all of the adult women would have shared in the responsibility for preparing a meal, but Mary chooses not to help out. Instead she sits quietly at Jesus’ feet, like a student or a disciple would, and listens intently to what Jesus is saying.
Well, finally Martha has had all of that she can stand. She is frankly tired of doing all the work while Mary sits, and she lets her feelings be known. Now, we might have expected her to hiss at Mary through clenched teeth, “Hey Sis, I could use a hand with this, you know.” But she doesn’t say anything at all to Mary. She instead softly reprimands Jesus and tries to get him to tell Mary to get to work. “Lord, don’t you care?” she protests. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
Jesus’ response is not what Martha or any of us are expecting. Jesus gently scolds Martha right back and takes Mary’s side in the dispute. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things, but there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen it; Mary has chosen the better part.”
In Bible Study this week, we talked about relating this story to the sermon theme of the summer, “bearing one another’s burdens.” Jesus’ response seems a bit problematic. At first glance, Jesus may be saying the opposite, “stop serving and being hospitable, and learn at my feet.” It’s almost the exact opposite of “bearing burdens.”
Now, if we are going to understand what this story is saying to us today, we have to grapple with this troublesome response by Jesus. People have been grappling with his response for centuries. Why does Jesus praise Mary over hardworking, worn out Martha? Why does he say that Mary, who simply sits and listens, has chosen a better part than Martha, who is sweating away preparing a meal and trying to provide some hospitality?
Some people wonder if the Gospel writer Luke has a hidden and not-so-healthy agenda. Some people suspect that Luke’s real agenda is that he is frankly bothered by women trying to exercise too much leadership in the early Christian community. So he tells this story in which Jesus criticizes Martha, who is active and doing and working and in charge, and he praises Mary, who is passive and silent. What Luke is trying to do, these folk charge, is to put women back in their quiet and obedient places. But this view doesn’t really hold any water. Not only does it not square with Jesus’ view of women, it doesn’t even square with the rest of Luke’s Gospel. Throughout Luke, women are not passive and silent; they are prominent, powerful, worthy, articulate, and celebrated. It is Luke, after all, who tells us Jesus’ parable about a poor widow who was so vigorous and aggressive in her demands for justice that she caused a powerful and haughty judge to cave in. This is not a story about resisting women’s leadership. In fact, Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet in this story, is actually pictured in the posture of a disciple, an important role normally reserved in that day only for men.
So back to the question: why, does Jesus praise Mary and defend her against Martha? Other people argue that what Jesus is doing is criticizing what we might call “busy work Christianity.” They think that Martha is so preoccupied with her little, trivial chores, cooking all those dishes, that she has missed the deeper spiritual point. She’s like so many religious people who spend all their time organizing the stewardship drive or making food for the church picnic or going to committee meetings – busy, busy, busy –but who lack a profound devotional life. In their view, Jesus says to Martha, “Stop being so busily religious and start being more spiritual, like Mary.”
When you stop to think about it, this view doesn’t hold much credence either. As Paul describes in Colossians 1 that we read today, Jesus dwelled among us and got involved in the messy details of everyday life. He taught, healed, touched, ate, gathered and died and rose in bodily form. The incarnation and the power of Jesus means that the place to find God is not in otherworldly thoughts, but in the earthy details. Martha cooking that meal that day was not trivial; hospitality is a form of worship and an important part of Christian life. This “busy work” is the form that love and faith takes.
Now most people would say that I’m just making this way too difficult. They remind me that this Mary-Martha story comes in Luke immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which Pastor Scott preached on last week. They argue that Luke is just trying to illustrate the theme that we should love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates love of neighbor –that’s what the Samaritan did for the man beaten by the robbers – and the story of Mary and Martha illustrates love of God – that’s what Mary is doing sitting at Jesus’ feet. Good Samaritan – love of neighbor. Mary and Martha – love of God. Simple.
The problem with this is that you cannot so neatly separate the two. In our lives, loving God and loving your neighbor are so intertwined and mixed together; you can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins. When I went with our middle schoolers last week to the Massanetta Springs Youth Conference, our key note speaker asked us to choose between loving God and loving our neighbor. We all had a difficult time deciding which to choose because it’s like you can’t have one without the other. We show our love of God by loving our neighbor, and the true love of neighbor grows out of our love of God.
And that, I think, may get us close to the real heart of this Mary and Martha story. There is nothing wrong in and of itself with Martha’s fixing the food. This is the way people show love and welcome and hospitality and care. There is nothing wrong; in fact, there is something absolutely essential, about showing one’s love of God and neighbor by baking bread and cutting up food, by putting out supplies for Sunday School and nail gunning pieces of wood together to make walls for Habitat for Humanity. Martha, preparing that meal of hospitality, is doing a good and necessary thing. It’s an act of service. But when we try to do this kind of service apart from the life-giving Word of the gospel, apart from the vision that comes only from God, it will distract us and finally wear us down. Mary has chosen to listen to the Word. Jesus, the living Word, is present, right in her house, and if she is going to love God and love neighbor, if she is going to show hospitality to the stranger and care for the lost, then everything depends on hearing and trusting that Word of God.
I’ve been flying in a lot of planes recently. Everyone who has ever flown in a plane knows that before you take off, you are required to listen to the important safety procedures. While the procedures may vary from plane to plane, one procedure always stays the same. If the cabin suddenly loses air pressure and the air masks drop down from the ceiling, they always instruct you to put your own mask on before helping others. In order to help and save others, you need to give yourself oxygen first.
In our story, Martha is trying hard to provide hospitality for Jesus and her community. But she is worried and distracted by many things. She needs the Good news that Jesus offers her, the vision that Jesus has for our world, before she can help others. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his Word, listens to that vision. Without that Word, we cannot go on, like Martha, preparing meals of hospitality for the world. It will finally worry us, distract us, anger us, exhaust us, and beat us down. With that Word, though, we can prepare meals for the hungry, care tenderly for the sick, show hospitality to the stranger and keep on loving and living in the name of Christ.
What we hear from Jesus is that our lives are gathered into God’s life, that God is out there in the world healing and feeding and restoring, and carrying the burdens of others. What we do for others counts, and we can trust God and hope for God’s new creation. Carrying each other’s burdens is a beautiful thing that we are called to do. But we can only effectively do it if we take care of ourselves first; if we take a moment to reflect on what or who is at the center of our actions.
When Jesus scolded Martha that day, it wasn’t for her focus on hospitality, it was for her distractions and worry and her lack of focus on what’s at the center of her actions. I think that if we look closely, many of us can feel similar to Martha. We are constantly distracted by our phones, sports, school, work, and stresses of everyday life. When we find ourselves getting distracted and worried, we just need to take a step back and remember, why we actually do the things we do. The center of our actions should always be Jesus and furthering Jesus’ mission in the world. When we remember that this is at the heart of our call to bear one another’s burdens, we will be refreshed and able to help those in front of us. Amen.
You have taught us, O God, that the way to life is to love you with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But we are often so overwhelmed by the swirling demands of life that we cannot truly do either one. But then, in your mercy, there is Jesus, come to visit in our home, come to speak to us in the midst of life. Let us, like Mary, sit at his feet and listen to his Word that gives life. Then, having heard that Word, let us, like Martha, get up to serve others in Jesus’ name. Amen.