“Just One Thing” – July 21, 2013
“Just One Thing” – Sermon July 21, 2013
“Let the words of my mouth . . .”
One of the things that make’s the Gospel of Luke the favorite of so many people is how this writer is able to place us smack dab in the middle of real life situations with amazing realism. With just a few words, we feel like we are riding on the stormy sea in the boat with the disciples; or that we are sitting on the hillside with the shepherd’s on a nice pleasant evening, enjoying a warm cup of Chai as our sheep bleat softly in the distance when all of a sudden we get scared out of our wits when the sky lights up and angels start singing.
I think the words “and they were sore afraid” says it all, though I think in today’s vernacular, I might use a slightly different phrase. This morning’s story is no exception.
Here is the scene. As we have heard earlier, Jesus has “set his face to Jerusalem”. He knows that Jerusalem, and all that will happen there; the teaching, the betrayal, and his ultimate death, is his destiny. That is the destination. In the meantime, he is journeying from village to village with his disciples.
We heard last week how he was interrupted on this journey by a lawyer who wanted to check his theology or belief on how to get eternal life, to which Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself”. When asked, “who is my neighbor”, Jesus challenged us by pushing us “out of the box” with the story of the Good Samaritan. Leaving the lawyer behind to ponder his new revelation, Jesus and his disciples continue on their way and have now come to the house of Martha and Mary.
We find that Martha and Mary are being very faithful to the tradition of hospitality that we heard earlier in our Genesis reading with Abraham and Sarah. In that story, Abraham breaks out, not just any flour but the finest flour. He instructs his servants not to prepare just any meat, but rather to prepare the choice calf or veal for the guests. This was hospitality at its finest. I can imagine that Martha and Mary were preparing to do the same.
“Okay Mary, Jesus, the disciples, and several other guests will be here in 2 days. Let’s head to the market to get the ingredients for our best some of our best recipes. We will get our uncle to slaughter our best lamb. We will have hummus, beans, and lamb kebobs”. I can imagine if this scene took place today that she might would Google “lamb, rice, grape leaves, and olives” and come up with a dozen different ways to prepare them.
On the day of their arrival, I’m sure that there was plenty of last minute cleaning and scrubbing and table setting. Everything would need to be just right. And as the travelers get to the house we read that Martha “welcomes Jesus into her home”. But then an interesting thing happens. Mary stay’s out of the kitchen. Instead of helping her sister with the final cutting, chopping, boiling and serving, she is “sitting at the feet of Jesus”.
She stayed out and listened to Jesus talk with the other disciples and guests while Martha, juggled everything in the kitchen. I have visions of one of the chef’s on the Food Network show, “Chopped”, when the host announces 1 minute and the chefs have yet to plate a thing. Its last minute chaos with food flying everywhere!
At this point, I think Martha started to do a bit of banging with the pots and pans. “I can’t believe this”. “What is she doing”. (bang the pots). I’m sure Jesus and the disciples heard it and kept on talking. (bang a little louder). Finally, Martha has had enough and goes out to speak to Jesus. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand”.
Now, this is some classic triangulation. I don’t know if any of you did this with your siblings, I know I did. With my sister standing right beside me I would say, “Mom, tell her to stop doing this”. “Mom, tell her to go play with her own friends”. Sound familiar?
Jesus was not sucked in. From the Message translation, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it. It’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her”. Honestly, if I was in Martha’s shoes, I’m not sure how I would have taken this. I think I might have stormed back in the kitchen, thrown the serving towel to someone else, and said, “that’s it . . . they can feed themselves”!
We don’t get to hear “the rest of the story” and over the centuries, Bible scholars and theologians have agreed and disagreed on what to make of this story. Some have said that Luke had an agenda against women leadership in the new developing church. That he wanted women to model Mary and be quiet and passive. But this does not really match how Luke treats women in the rest of the Gospel where they are not passive and silent, but rather prominent, powerful, articulate, and celebrated. Remember, that it is Luke that gives us the parable about a poor widow who so strongly challenges a powerful male judge that eventually he caves in to her requests. Definitely not a model of passivity.
Still others have said that this is a good critique against Martha and what has been called “busy work Christianity”. Here we have the ones who are characterized by being so busy baking pies, cleaning the church, serving on committees, that they have no spiritual life. The argument would be to stop being so busy being religious and start being more spiritual like Mary. Don’t spend your time in all this busy work, but rather spend it in quiet contemplation. Develop your spiritual self. But is Jesus really criticizing Martha for her busyness?
Here these words again. “Martha, you are worried and distracted about many things”. Literally, “she is distracted by her many tasks” or even more literally, “she is with much serving”. The word used for service is the word where we get “deacon” (one who serves). Jesus was not criticizing Martha for her service; for her generous hospitality; for what we might say, “being a good deacon”. No, Jesus was reminding her that she needed to be present. Present in the act of serving.
Because she was not present in the moment, Martha issued value judgments on what Mary and Jesus were doing. “Mary should be helping me; Jesus should tell her to help me”. Hospitality that is not present in the moment becomes distracted service. It becomes service to yourself and not service to the other. How often have we done that? I know that I am guilty. We see what we think the other person needs and we go about working and hammering and fixing when maybe all the other person REALLY wanted was some of our time for a heart-felt conversation. “But wait, didn’t I just make you a great dinner. Didn’t I just do all of your laundry and clean out your attic”. “Yes, but I just wanted you to sit here with me and talk”.
We love to be busy. I would say that we are probably addicted to busyness. Just listen to our conversations. “Hey, how you been”? “Busy”. “How’s work going these days”? “Oh, it’s been really busy”. We seem to think that it’s a badge of honor to be so busy. Martha was busy. Busy doing good stuff, I mean, heck, she was cooking dinner for Jesus!
But what did Jesus tell her? “Martha, Martha, you are so distracted that you are not present to what is really going on here, right this minute. All you need is this one thing that Mary has chosen. What is this one thing”? Being present to the Words of Jesus.
As was noted earlier, this story follows immediately after Jesus tells the lawyer that the way to life eternal is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might, and Love your Neighbor has yourself. We learned about our neighbor with the story of the Good Samaritan. Today, we are learning about loving God and the challenge is to see that it is more than just doing service.
Jesus was not trying to put Mary and Martha against each other as if we have to make a choice, be busy or be contemplative, with contemplation being the better choice. No, he was reminding Martha, and us, that the service we do comes out of hearing and being present to God’s word. They are not opposite but rather two sides of the same coin.
Bible scholar Eugene Peterson reminds us of a scene from Herman Melville’s classic tale, Moby Dick, in which a whaleboat is being rowed though rough seas while chasing the great white whale. Sailors are rowing with all their might, with everyone in the boat intent on catching and harpooning Moby Dick. Captain Ahab shouts encouragement to his men to row faster and faster; then he berates them to get them to row faster and faster.
Yet, all the while, in the midst of all this chaos, there is one man who does nothing. He is just sitting there. No shouting. No rowing. Just sitting. This man is the harpooner, quiet, poised, waiting. Melville writes, “to insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil”. Sitting makes all the other activity possible.
Remember the words of the Psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God”. Be still. To be still is to be present to God and to yourself. And in being present with God we get to know God and what God would have us to do. There was nothing wrong with Martha fixing the food. This is a way people show love and welcome and hospitality and care. In fact, it’s in our acts of service that we show a love of God and of our neighbor.
But our faith is more than being the perfect host or the perfect servant; it’s about being open to relationship. Relationship to God and relationship to others. It’s about being willing to listen and be changed by that relationship. This is the one thing that is needed. To be present.
Present with God so that we can then be present with others, not caught up in busyness for busyness sake, distracted by everything around us, but being present . . . present to the true needs of others. That is genuine hospitality.
So did Martha run out of the kitchen? I don’t think so. I think that Jesus put his arm around her and said, “Martha, this has been awesome. I have never tasted such delicious food. Next time though, just do one dish. Come, come sit with us for awhile.”
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray:
Gracious God, open our hearts and minds to hear your Word. Help us to understand that hearing your Word is not enough. Sharing your word is what you truly desire. Help us to be present so that we might share your Word with the world in our words and in our service. Amen.