Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing, Luke 10:38-42
First United Methodist Church, July 21, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
As we read through the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we get caught up in this flurry of activity as Jesus travels and teaches. As the chapter begins, Jesus commissions and sends 72 disciples on ahead of him to prepare the way for his visits and has instructed them on how to respond to the hospitality they’re offered—or not offered. These disciples return to Jesus with good reports, telling him “even the demons submit to us in your name.”
Next Jesus teaches what it means to be a neighbor, telling the story of the Good Samaritan that you talked about last week, where his disciples—and we—are reminded of what’s written in the law: about loving God and our neighbor as we love ourselves.
There has been a lot of doing: going, sending, receiving. A lot of action. And then, in the midst of their travels, their activities, Jesus enters a village where a woman named Martha invites him (and most likely his traveling companions, as well), into her home, for a bit of a break. Perhaps a deep breath moment. For Jesus and his companions, at least.
Now especially because Martha has a sister named Mary, I’ve always thought these two women are the Mary and Martha who along with their brother Lazarus are long time friends of Jesus, but apparently not everyone agrees with that. Martha and Mary and brother Lazarus live in Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem, which is maybe 100 miles as the crow flies away from Galilee where Jesus and his disciples are right now. Whomever this Martha and Mary might be, it would seem that Martha is presented as a leader of a house church and so she is carrying out her role as a leader in that community by welcoming this traveling missionary group into her home. Mary then, is either Martha’s biological sister, or perhaps her new sister in faith, in this reign of God household, in the same way that I would call you my brothers and sisters in Christ. While Martha is carrying out the role of host, Mary is carrying out the role of disciple, listening to the word that Jesus has for them, in the same way the other disciples do, who gather to listen to him as he travels about the countryside teaching.
The roles portrayed by these two women in our story have challenged readers since the first century for several reasons. First of all, there’s the gender “thing:” What’s the role of women in the church, particularly in leadership? Martha is a challenge for a couple of reasons, each taking us to opposite ends of the spectrum. First, Martha is hosting Jesus and the others in her home (where’s her man and why isn’t he taking the lead?), and secondly, which perhaps softens the challenge a bit, is that at least she’s been busy in the kitchen making sure the meal is being made, because that’s what women are supposed to do, right? Plan and prepare the meals, making sure everything is just right for guests—particularly this guest and his companions, who she and others hold in such high regard? This is what women should do.
And then—still related to the gender “thing”—there’s Mary. She’s sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him, which puts her in the role of disciple. Over the centuries, the question has been asked: can women really be disciples? Is that appropriate? To be taught the faith, in the same way that a man is taught?
A second challenge presented by Mary and Martha for readers to fuss about is the “doing” and “listening” thing. As followers of Jesus Christ, are we called to “do” as Martha has been doing—taking care of all the details and making sure there’s food on the table for her guests, that the beds have clean sheets on them and the towels are laid out? Or is the better thing, to not worry about those details and to focus on one’s guest, to listen and learn from him? Surely someone can order some chicken and all the fixings from Martin’s Deli and all will be right in the world. Guests will be fed. Don’t worry. Be happy. Just go with the flow.
This challenge goes beyond gender and outside the kitchen. The question is whether women and men who follow Jesus ought concentrate primarily on listening and learning and contemplating his Word, or responding through acts of service.
A third challenge: Martha, whose focus it would seem to this point, is making Jesus comfortable, suddenly puts him in the uncomfortable position of settling a dispute between she and her sister. Martha is annoyed because she’s doing all the work while Mary sits care-free at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus responds with words that provide ammunition for any contemplative over the years who would prefer keeping their hands clean and callous-free: “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.”
The problem I would think, is that I don’t believe there was a Martin’s Deli in Galilee. Before too long, those gathered will miss Martha’s efforts of providing a meal and other hospitality for them.
So here are the three challenges faced by the church over the years: First, the role of women in the church and as disciples of Jesus Christ. Second, which is better, doing and serving, or listening and learning? And Third, let’s arm wrestle with our brothers and sisters who feel called to serve Jesus in a way different from how we call feel called to serve. Let’s fuss at them and let them know they’re doing it wrong. Let’s let them know that the way we do it is the best way.
Intellectually, I’d say we’ve dealt with each of these challenges, and when we’re our best selves, we understand how our various gifts and graces, strengths and super-powers balance each other out and make our church and our mission more effective. We understand and appreciate and are thankful for the role of women in the church, and still sometimes we need to be reminded that women can serve very effectively on Finance and on the Board of Trustees, in the same way that men can serve very effectively on children’s ministry and other caring teams, and our leadership teams ought reflect that fact. Each of our unique perspectives is needed to be our best selves.
When it comes to listening and learning and doing and serving, I think we’d agree that each is important, though we sometimes need reminders to stop doing so much of one and to take a breath and do the other.
A piece of what Martha was dealing with in today’s story is that she is overwhelmed and frustrated with what she’s doing. Even though we may be called to a certain role, that doesn’t mean that we have to do it by ourselves, or forever and ever, amen. That can drain the joy that serving can offer.
In the church it’s so important to balance our study and our service. Both are important. Attending to the word of God reminds us of our purpose, gives us hope for ourselves and others, and keeps us focused on our mission. Serving moves us beyond ourselves, challenges us to step out of our comfort zones and into the world, broadening our horizons, and helping us to see all of God’s people and how we might be a part of what God is doing to bless the lives of others. Our prayer, our study, our thoughtfulness empowers our service and gives it meaning.
That leads us to the arm-wrestling with one another. A difference of opinions is a part of every human relationship. But we know we aren’t all called to the same thing: there’s a whole lot that would get left undone while the airlines would be full of missionaries heading to Guatemala or some such place. God calls us to serve in different ways in different places and that’s a good thing. We need Martha in the kitchen and we need Mary getting inspired by sitting at the feet of Jesus. Her turn will come later.
I’m kind of curious how many of us are Martha’s and how many are Mary’s. (Or Marty’s and Marvin’s…I don’t know)
I have 2 confessions to share with you this morning. I’m a Martha. I scurry around like she did in my kitchen when we’re planning for guests, and I’m still in the kitchen when they arrive. I enjoy cooking, I want things to be just right, and I show my love for my guests by doing my best to make sure they have what they need. But I also know I need to take a breath and sit down and look my guests in the eye, to listen to their stories, and to offer a story or two of my own, so at the end of the day we all feel good, and not exhausted.
It seems that busyness is a drug that too many of us are addicted to. We have our “to-do” lists and it feels good to check things off our list, but sometimes we get so caught up in our “to-do’s” that we forget what’s really important.
Here’s my second confession: As I was preparing for my surgeries this past April, I experienced more fear and apprehension than I expected. Something about the surgical team working around all those vital things in my neck, I wondered if something might go wrong and I might not wake up, or if I’d be paralyzed. Yes, I prayed, yes I had (and have) faith in God and in my surgeon, but I also know that the unexpected happens and good and faithful people die because of unexpected circumstances.
I knew canceling the surgery was an option. I could just change my mind, though I knew this was something that would eventually need to be done. I’m pretty healthy; no better time than the present. I did feel more peaceful as time went on, but it also seemed that the possibility of losing it all made a whole lot of the pieces of my life seem even sweeter. I enjoyed the beauty of the sunset…the laughter of my grandchildren…the refreshing taste of Diet Coke…my sweet Gabby (my dog)…my husband’s quiet presence. I wanted to see and to hear and to experience as much as I could…not so much the big and awesome things, but the everyday things that make my life here and now so good. To do that, I had to slow down a bit. I had to take a breath. I had to intentionally work on becoming a little more of a Mary. I’m working to hold onto her.
You and I are distracted by so many things. Our to do lists. Our phones (yes, me, too). But Jesus calls us to relationship. With him. With one another. These are the better portion.
Phyllis Williams Kumorowski writes a possible ending to this morning’s scripture:
The house was beginning to quiet down. Jesus and just a few of his disciples remained up on the roof, talking beneath the evening’s starlight. Beneath them, inside the house, two sisters met, somewhat shyly, to make amends. As usual, it was Martha, the older of the two, who spoke first.
“Mary,” she blurted out, “I feel so bad about what happened this afternoon. Of course you wanted to hear Jesus, and I know we had agreed that you could go be with him first, but I wanted to hear him, too, and it looked like there was so much that needed to be done that I would never get my chance. Please forgive me.”
Her younger sister breathed a little sigh of thanks. It was always so hard for her to find the right words to say, and so she often just remained silent. She had worried all afternoon about what she would say when she finally was alone with the sister she adored.
“Martha, I’m sorry, too. I was so wrapped up in hearing him, that I paid no attention to how late it was getting. Did you hear what he said, though? We were so worried about whether he would allow us to learn, to sit at his feet and listen to his words! It was almost as if he understood our concerns when he said that while there were many ways women could serve, this was not only acceptable, but could sometimes be the better way! I couldn’t believe how he accepted us equally with his other followers! I’ve never met anyone like him before!”
She and Martha embraced. They never had been able to be at odds with each other for very long. The two sisters had always been close; their newfound faith had drawn them even closer.
Martha thoughtfully patted her sister’s shoulder. “You know,” she said at last, “it bothered me a little when he said that what you were doing was better. It was like every other time I’ve had to hear a man express the feeling that “women’s” work is insignificant compared to what they do—namely sit and talk. It hurt to think that, after all he’s said, Jesus was, after all, just echoing what we’ve heard all our lives.”
“Oh, no, Martha! That’s not what I heard at all! I think the reason it sounded something like a scolding is because you were complaining about what you were doing. Your heart wasn’t in it and you made it very clear. You know what he’s taught us about that. It’s not what we do in his name, it’s how we do it—with conviction and joy. Otherwise, it’s not ministry, just a duty.”
Martha smiled lovingly at her earnest younger sister. “I know. I was so distracted by all the demands I felt were being placed on me, I forgot why I was serving—I forgot whom I was serving. How basic can you get? No wonder he sounded so parental; how many times have we heard him say we should devote all our attention to the Lord and everything else will follow?”
“Oh, Martha.” Now it was Mary who was being parental. “Don’t berate yourself so much. I got so involved in hearing him that that’s all I did—just sit there. And I haven’t done much else since. You might have been complaining, but at least you were doing something. He’s also mentioned more than a few times that our faith is to be a living, growing thing. How many times have we heard him remind us that we were blessed to be a blessing? All I did was sit there like a rock in the road.”
Martha took her hand. “So do it now, little sister. Go out in his name and start serving.” (If I was writing the story, I’d say—your turn! You can clean up the kitchen!)
Mary responded by taking Martha’s other hand into her own. “And now you go out there and sit at his feet.”
Martha squeezed her hand as they headed for the doorway. “It seems so clear when you look at it, doesn’t it? Does everyone take this long to understand him, or is it just us?”
“I don’t know, dear one. I just know that I want to serve him in any way I can, and no matter what shape that service takes, I know he’ll receive it. That’s good enough for me.”
“Me, too.” (The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible Volume 13: New Testament Women. Dennis E. Smith and Michael E. Williams, editors)
It’s about a relationship. With him. With one another.
That’s keeping the main thing the main thing.