SERMON Pentecost 6C Luke 10 38 42
Are you a Mary or a Martha? Isn’t that usually how a sermon on this text begins? I have to say, Martha and I are cut from the same cloth. She is the one who does what is expected of her. Ever dutiful, ever efficient, Martha strives for excellence, for straight A’s. Martha takes pride in making her family proud. The scripture never says that she’s the eldest… but let’s be honest, all of us eldest children recognize our soul sister in Martha.
Martha took great pride in her expected work of sharing hospitality. I have to say, though times have surely changed, I too take great pride in hospitality. Over the 4th of July, Eva’s godparents and their 4 year old son visited us from Pittsburgh, and I spent the days ahead of their visit cleaning rearranging our home so that the 3 kids could sleep in the same room together, and so that Rhys’ room would be comfortable and restful for our pregnant guest. I planned our whole itinerary, all of the excursions we would take and things we would see and do and included backup plans in case it rained. I planned the menu –everything I would cook for them at home, and everything we would need to pack picnic lunches for our outings.
We had a delightful visit, but it was a lot of work on the front end, because I wanted everything to be PERFECT.
My heart goes out to Martha in this story. I know she too strives for perfection in hospitality. Nevermind Martha of Bethany, she tries to be Martha Stewart! And she’s constantly met with frustration when her plans for perfection don’t work out. She is anxious. Distracted by all of the logistics of singlehandedly playing host, chef, and butler.
Can you imagine having 13 very important guests drop by unexpectedly?! It’s one thing to make room at your table for 2 of Jesus’ disciples who are visiting town, but the whole crew of 13?! It’s one thing to have a week to prepare, it’s another thing entirely to have to put on a spur of the moment feast! What does she have in her fridge that she can use to make a spontaneous meal for 15? Does she have to run the dishwasher before dinner can be served because she doesn’t have enough plates and spoons? While she gets her oven set and ready to cook the main course, she’s probably trying to whip up the dessert at the same time so it has time to chill! All while making bread from scratch and hunting out enough wine glasses to go round. Don’t get me wrong, she LOVES hosting guests, she is HONORED that Jesus has come to dine in her home, she is blessed beyond measure that Jesus wants to eat the food that she will prepare for him… and that’s why it has to be PERFECT. She LOVES hosting guests, she’s HONORED, but there is just… so much WORK… to be done.
Meanwhile, her sister Mary has not stepped foot inside the kitchen since Jesus stepped foot inside their home! She’s seemingly abandoned her most important responsibility –to serve as Martha’s soux chef!
Perhaps an hour passed by, now Martha has worked herself up into a frenzy in the kitchen. The Greek suggests that perhaps Martha is on the verge of what we might think of as a panic attack when she comes out with a tray of beverages for her guests and sees Mary still sitting at Jesus’ feet. Martha can’t take it any more. She blows up and begs Jesus –the honored guest- to intervene on her behalf. As the one following appropriate cultural protocol, surely Jesus will agree that Martha is the victim and her sister has wronged her severely.
She says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
But Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen a good thing, which will not be taken away from her.”
So often, we hear in these words a chastisement of Martha, but Jesus isn’t really chastising Martha as much as he is lifting Mary up. The NRSV translates Jesus’ response as “Mary has chosen the better part” which seems to pit Mary and Martha against one another… Mary clearly seems to come out as the winner of this particular sibling rivalry… but the original Greek doesn’t indicate that Mary’s behavior was better, simply that it was equally good. Mary’s not being lazy or dishonorable or cruel to her sister.
Mary is loving Jesus.
Mary is serving as a disciple –one sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning right along with the men. Jesus is her teacher, and she his student. And Jesus names her discipleship a “good thing!” –an identity of value that won’t be taken away from her.
Martha is also loving Jesus. Service is an act of love – in fact, according to modern research it’s one of the 5 love languages! Based on how this word service (“diakonia”) is used elsewhere in the new testament- service is ministry! Martha is also living out her discipleship of Jesus as she refills water glasses and bakes bread and creates an atmosphere of warmth and welcome.
Jesus is not chastising Martha as he praises Mary in this passage. There are no winners or losers in this sisterly squabble, but two different models for following Jesus. Jesus does not chastise Martha, he sets Martha free! He doesn’t say she has to stop serving, he simply says she doesn’t have to worry or work herself up into a frenzy in order to show him her best love. Jesus doesn’t need her to be Martha Stewart. And truly, Martha doesn’t NEED to be Martha Stewart to share warm and welcoming hospitality with her guests!
In spite of our never ending “to do” lists and distractions, in spite of all the modern things we feel like we NEED to do (checking our phones, checking the sports score, wiping up every speck of dust before company comes over, stopping at the store for one more loaf of bread) Jesus says that there is NEED of only one thing. The only thing we NEED to do is spend time with Jesus. Whether you’re a Mary who loves to learn and study and discuss scripture, or a Martha who loves to roll up your sleeves in service to others –all of our discipleship must begin from a place of worship and prayer. The gifts we share with the world flow from the spiritual well that is inside each one of us –the well that is replenished and refreshed as we worship and pray and center our lives around Jesus and his teachings of love. Jesus doesn’t need our perfection, he simply wants our presence. Jesus doesn’t need us to work ourselves into a frenzy, worrying about whether or not we’re meeting expectations or following the rules, Jesus simply wants to dwell with us in love. This is the very best thing, the thing which melts our worries and distractions away as we set our eyes on Jesus and listen to him. Amen.