Text: Luke 10:38-42
First off, a warning this morning. I usually don’t start with a warning, but I’m trying to be helpful – I’m looking out for you here. The sermon today is in one way or another about distractions. And I have noticed that some of you tend to get distracted as you sit in the pew on a Sunday morning. So I would appreciate it if you would please – please - try and pay attention.
Somebody gets up and moves around, somebody drops a pencil or a hymnal, there is a siren in the distance, it starts to rain, a car drives through the parking lot, a baby cries, 101 things can happen, we’ve even had a chipmunk in the sanctuary, and it is easy to get distracted. On a typical Sunday morning, probably everybody gets distracted at least a time or two. We think about what is happening later today or what’s for lunch and our mind drifts off.
You know, today, we’re having Jimmy John’s sandwiches for lunch. At our house we tend to have Jimmy John’s more than Subway because Zoe really likes Jimmy John’s but she’s kind of – meh – on Subway. But we moved Zoe in at UNI on Friday, so she’s not here for Jimmy John’s today but maybe the bigger news is that it is easier for Susan and I to have Subway during the school year. Um… what were we talking about? Yeah, distractions. There can be external distractions – some car hot rods down Lynn Avenue – but we don’t have to wait for an external distraction; our mind can just get distracted all by itself. As we all know.
So – pay attention. Our text today involves two sisters, Mary and Martha. We read the story about their little disagreement over how they should prepare for Jesus’ visit and how they should go about hosting him in their home, but it’s when you start to read between the lines that it gets really interesting.
Mary and Martha were sisters. And they were definitely different from one another. Martha was known as the busy one. At school, she was in marching band, orchestra, the science club, track, tennis, volleyball, the school newspaper. Plus the Quidditch Club and the Underwater Philosophy Society. Martha was always on the go, always involved with something.
Mary, the younger sister, was the studious one. She was more quiet and reflective. She was a deep thinker. If you had a problem and wanted somebody to listen, wanted good advice, you went to Mary. She was on the honor roll. If you want to stereotype – and who doesn’t like stereotyping - Martha was the doer, Mary was the thinker.
The two sisters and their brother Lazarus were good friends of Jesus. He was coming to visit and Martha was intent on everything being just right. The house needed to be perfect. The meal needed to be exceptional. And so she worked and worked and worked. Maybe you have been there, done that. Things that never get cleaned are cleaned. The globes on the ceiling lights are dusted. The floors are scrubbed. Everything is bright and shining for the big visit.
Jesus arrives at their home, and Martha is still working. By now she is working on dinner and it is going to be some kind of dinner. But she is working in the hot kitchen, she has been working all day, and she really could use some help. She looks out and is angered to see her sister Mary with the men, sitting and listening to Jesus.
Martha is understandably upset. She has worked hard and the expectation is that Mary should work hard and do her part too. I tend to side with Martha on this one. If I’m doing all the work while somebody else is having a good time visiting with friends, it’s going to tick me off.
I think most of us naturally identify with Martha. In general, we value activity. “Get ‘er done,” we say. We measure value by productivity and accomplishment. There is this bumper sticker out there that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”
We value busyness and we value doing our fair share, which makes it easy to identify with Martha.
But Mary wants no part of the kitchen. She has chosen to be with Jesus. I mean, that’s why he is here – to see his friends, to spend time with them. Mary wants to be with Jesus, wants to listen to him and learn from him.
In doing this, Mary had broken social norms by listening to Jesus with the men. In that day, a woman’s place really was in the kitchen. Martha might have been aghast at the social faux pas of her sister.
She might have been—except that Martha too had broken social norms. If you read the passage carefully, you find that Martha invited Jesus into their home. This was not done in that day. It was the prerogative of a man to invite a man to dinner. It was scandalous for a woman to do so. In their love for Jesus, Mary and Martha had both gone beyond the bounds of what their culture approved.
It may be tough for us to accept, but both sisters loved Jesus, and both honored him--Mary by making loving preparation for the visit and the meal; Mary by spending time with him and learning from him. They were just different.
Martha complains to Jesus, as many of us might. “It just isn’t fair. It just isn’t right. Tell her to help me!”
What does Jesus say to her? “You are worried and frustrated by many things.” Some translations have this as “you are worried and distracted by many things.” Then Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken from her.”
Jesus refuses to send Mary to the kitchen. It doesn’t matter that she is a woman, she can be a disciple, a learner. He mildly rebukes Martha. “Martha, Martha,” he says-- but it is not because she has chosen kitchen work. He doesn’t criticize her for preparing the meal, but more because of her attitude towards Mary’s choice.
It can be pretty easy for us to disparage choices that other people make. Martha and Mary have come to represent two different ways of living out the faith. Martha represents activity and service while Mary represents reflection and worship. Jesus wasn’t necessarily holding up worship and study above loving service. But for Mary, being with Jesus is what she needed--she had chosen the better part.
Churches absolutely could not function without either Marthas or Marys. We need both. If Jesus had told Martha to get out of the kitchen, that such work was unimportant, they never would have had a meal. Without the Marthas of this world, nothing would ever get done.
Without Marthas, who would teach the children? Who would pay the bills? Who would play the piano? Who would work on the bathroom project?
If it weren’t for the Marthas, we would have no potluck suppers, no choir, no music camp, no fellowship times. Marthas are needed.
But we can’t be in the activity mode all the time. If all we ever do is do, we can lose sight of our purpose. We can be absorbed with all kinds of activity, but to what end?
Too much activity without spiritual grounding--without prayer and worship--can become just plain old activity. There is a T-shirt that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” Sometimes our activity is just busy-ness.
There is a condition known as “compassion fatigue” that can affect those in the helping professions, and anyone who makes it a practice to care for others and give of oneself on a regular basis. When a person gives and gives and gives without filling up his or her own tank--without receiving spiritual nourishment--burnout is the result. All of our activity can lose meaning.
We all need to pray and worship and think and reflect and take time to be still and connect with God. And we also all need to act, we all need to serve. The two go together. We all need both worship and service.
Now, just as Mary and Martha may have has a sibling rivalry going, we can make worship and service into a kind of sibling rivalry, with some feeling like faith is mostly about what we do and others feeling faith is mostly about worship and prayer. But the thing is, it’s not really either/or. It’s both.
For us, there is a time to be like Martha and there is a time to be like Mary. If we are always on one side of the equation, there are problems. When we always are doing, we can lose sight of who we are and what we are about. If we are always studying and praying and reflecting and focusing on our personal, individual relationship with Jesus, our faith becomes ingrown and irrelevant. There is that expression “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”
The problem was not that Martha has chosen activity. The problem here was that her meal preparations had distracted Martha from what really mattered in that moment.
Now the fact is, Martha and Mary are not as one-dimensional as we make them out to be. We may be enamored with stereotypes because it makes us think we understand a person, but stereotypes are often wrong. And they can even be dangerous.
The gospel of John reports that Martha is the one who made the great confession: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” So Martha was not only a doer; she was a thinker, and she took time to connect with God. And Mary was not only a listener and thinker; she was the one who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. It wasn’t all worship and reflection with Mary, she also engaged in loving service.
We could pile up scriptures on either side of the service vs. worship equation. James says true religion is helping widows and orphans. On the other hand, the Psalmist says, “be still and know that I am God.” In Acts, Luke reports that the early Christians “devoted themselves to prayer.” And perhaps the best example is Jesus himself– who both demonstrated his faith very actively through healing and teaching and preaching, but who also went away frequently to a quiet place where he could simply be with God.
Ralph Milton says, “the Mary's do some of their best thinking while doing physical stuff - while they are being Marthas. And the Martha's are out there doing active, physical stuff, but that doesn't mean they are not thinking.”
In Luke’s gospel, this passage comes immediately after the Good Samaritan. And the two passages fit together. A lawyer asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. The answer is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and souls and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” What does that look like? It looks like the Good Samaritan, helping a stranger in need. It looks like Martha--preparing for Jesus’ visit. And it looks like Mary--being with Jesus, sitting at his feet. Martha’s problem was that she was so focused on her way of loving her neighbor--Jesus--that she lost sight of the fact that loving her neighbor was what she was doing in the first place.
Perhaps Martha thought Mary was Doing It Wrong because Mary wasn’t doing what Martha was doing. It wouldn’t be the first time. It happens all the time in families, in churches, at work, in communities, in society in general.
We all know about the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This story is perhaps a good argument for what is called “The Platinum Rule.”
With credit cards, there are Gold Cards, that come with certain services and privileges, and then there are Platinum Cards that offer a little more – better frequent flier miles, or collision damage coverage on rental cars. The Platinum Rule goes a step beyond the Golden Rule, or perhaps makes it a bit more explicit, by saying “Do unto others as they would want you to do unto them.”
Martha had followed the Golden Rule. After traveling a long journey, she would appreciate arriving and finding a beautiful meal prepared for her. This was her way of honoring Jesus.
But Mary may have sensed that what Jesus needed more in that moment was not a fancy meal, but time with friends. He had much on his heart and what he really needed was a place where he could simply be. In this moment, what was most important was time with Jesus. Maybe the point here is that we need to help people in the way that they want to be helped, not necessarily in the way that we want to help them.
We have these two sisters, representing two ways of loving Jesus. But the good news is, we don’t have to choose between Martha and Mary. In fact, we very much need both. We need balance. On the one hand, we can devote our lives to service and ignore our spiritual development. On the other, we can devote our lives to prayer and fail to put our faith into action. Either way, we become like a tire out of balance that doesn’t give a smooth ride and wears down before its time. In fact, it might do us all good to take stock of our own lives and do a little spiritual tire rotation, if you will.
Where in your life do you need balance? Do you need to spend more time at Jesus’ feet? Do you need to give more attention to prayer, to reflection, to listening to God and listening to your life? Or perhaps, do you need to get off the sidelines and put your faith into action? Do you need to find a way to get involved in living out your faith?
Jesus calls us to love God with our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. Worship and service – they are two sides of the same coin. Amen.