Summit Presbyterian Church
July 18, 2010
Luke 10: 38-42
It's hard to throw a dinner party - even a small one - that's completely fair. No matter how much you and your spouse, partner, roomate, sister, or parent, may divvy up the chores and plan in advance, it always seems like someone has more fun and someone has more work. Someone is cavalier about their tasks, and someone makes sure things get done. Someone holds court in the living room while someone makes sure the crudite is restocked. Someone gets to watch the game while someone takes the hot pockets out of the oven. Now I've been to some good parties at Summit so some of you may have hosting down to a science, or take turns being the worker bees. Sometimes it's more fun to be busy in the kitchen - depending on the guest list - and some of us like being the martyr. But more often then not, dinner parties aren't fair, which is why this scripture is so powerful - and infuriating - two thousand years after Martha laid the table.
The story begins well. Jesus has entered a certain village, and Martha welcomes him into her home. We - the readers of Luke's gospel - know Martha is doing exactly what she should. Not long before he came to the village, Jesus had sent out 70 disciples to cure the sick and exorcise demons in various towns and places. He had told them to carry no purse or bag; for when they entered a house, if anyone there shared the peace, the disciples were to stay, eating and drinking whatever was provided. "The laborer," Jesus said, "deserves to be paid." So Martha is doing the right thing -- and when she gets no help from her sister, we can appreciate her frustration. Granted, she shouldn't have triangulated Jesus into this sibling conflict. She should have asked to speak with Mary privately in the kitchen. But still, when Jesus says that Mary has chosen "the better part" that doesn't seem fair. If everyone chose to sit at his feet, who would care for Jesus and his disciples, when they entered their houses with no purse and no bag? Mary's already having the fun -- why does she get the praise, too?
But this is not an ordinary dinner party and Jesus is not an ordinary guest. Unlike our friends, it's unlikely Jesus would have been talking about the Phillies, gossiping about neighbors, or sharing the latest jokes. We don't know what he did say to Mary -- we can only speculate - but if the Biblical record is any indication, it wasn't light conversation. Perhaps he was repeating some of what he said in his sermon on the plain, since Mary probably missed that. Perhaps he was telling her about the woe coming to those who were full (as Martha bustled in the kitchen) for they would be hungry, or the woe coming to those laughing now, for they would mourn and weep. Perhaps he was instructing Mary to love her enemies or turn the other cheek. Perhaps he telling her that nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed. He may have told the parable of the sower or the good samaritan, or he may have been telling her that he was going to be betrayed into human hands. Of course, he may have told a funny story or talked about the weather. Whatever he said would have been relevant for Mary, and it would have been good news. But it was doubtless challenging, like all those other words of Jesus that Luke has recorded in his gospel. Mary might have been uncomfortable. For all we know, she may have been dying for an excuse to go back into the kitchen -- but afraid of offending such a great teacher and important guest. She may have chosen the better part -- but it doesn't mean she was having more fun.
And so we have to listen carefully to what Jesus is saying when he tells Martha that there is need of only one thing, and that Mary has chosen it. He isn't saying (I don't think) that practical hospitality is unimportant -- after all, he's accepting it, and he and his disciples depend on it to travel and spread the good news. But he's observed that Martha is distracted by many things -- whereas Mary is focused, focused on him and on his teaching. He's noticed that Martha is worried, but Mary, we may hope -- even if she's feeling challenged - is not. Jesus's words to Martha sound like a rebuke, but they're also an invitation: an invitation to let go of the worry, to stop thinking about all those different things that are distracting her, and to focus on the one thing that is needful: listening to the Word. Sitting at this feet. Martha may join them - but Jesus won't let this be taken away from Mary.
Now we may be tempted to stop here. To draw the conclusion that listening to the Word -- Bible study, worship and prayer -- is the one needful thing, that all those tasks we cross off our to-do list are ultimately not as important. Historically, this scripture has been used to lift up the contemplative life, to argue for it's superiority over a life of action. But there's a problem with this: nearly all the words of Jesus that have been handed down to us, in all the gospels, are full of action items. From feeding the hungry and visiting those in prison, from helping people on the side of the road to loving our enemies, from healing those who are sick to making disciples of all nations, Jesus calls us to "do," not just to listen. You may remember the parable we read just a few weeks ago, of the man who built his house on rock and the man who built his house without a firm foundation. The man who built his house on rock was like one who hears the words of Jesus and acts on them; when a flood arises his house stands. But the one who hears but does not act is like the one who built his house on the ground without a firm foundation, and when the floods came great was its ruin. Jesus is not telling us to listen like Mary and to stop acting like Martha: Jesus calls us to do both. At the same time.
That's our challenge. To act, but to listen first and to keep listening, so that everything we do may be grounded in God's Word. This holds for our church life as well as our individual lives, and it ain't easy. The demands of running the church: recruiting for Sunday School and Coffee Hour, balancing the budget, renting the offices, planning the Barbeque and setting up the sound system can easily become unmoored from God's word, worrisome distractions rather than joyful tasks. They gain a life of their own, and we either forget how they witness to Christ, or perhaps they no longer do but we just can't see it because we're too busy. On the other hand, Worship, Bible Study and Prayer can become times where we only seek personal peace. They become an oasis from the demands of the world rather that a place where we also hear God's call to enter into it. We become hearers only of the Word, not doers. [Just to editorialize: as a church, like most churches, I think we're more inclined to the first rather than the second].
It's a challenge. But the Holy Spirit is there to help us, and together we can do what we couldn't do alone. Through prayer: for the church and for each other. Through coming together in worship and Bible study so that our work is in service to the Word, always guided by Christ. And, also - through taking turns in the kitchen, and the Sunday School and the Board Room and the garden -- because, when all is said and done, Martha did have a point. In this dinner party that we are giving in Christ's name, we want to be as fair as we can. For then we will welcome people with joy, reflecting the joy and love of our Lord Jesus Christ, who welcome all to the feast that he has prepared.
This sermon is indebted to the commentary by the Rev. Cynthia Jarvis in Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 264).