July 21, 2019, The 6th Sunday after Pentecost Year C, Luke 10:38-42
When I was growing up we had a chart that was hung on the side of the refrigerator with magnets. The chart, neatly typed on my sister’s electric typewriter, listed all the relevant dinnertime chores in our household and divided them between my sister and me for each day of the week. Set the table, clear the table, wash the dishes, dry the dishes, fill the dishwasher, empty the dishwasher. It even included the “chore” of who was responsible for saying the prayer over our evening meal. It was very thorough, thanks to my older sister, who like me, is very type A. It was also very fair as we both wanted to make sure that the other was carrying her equal share of the workload.
Reading our gospel for today I imagine that if Mary and Martha had been around in the time of typewriters or computers, Martha might have created a similar chart for her and Mary. Because it is clear that Martha was a stickler for the equal division of household chores much like my sister and I were. I’m sure those of us who grew up with siblings or who have more than one child of your own know, equal division of work is very important in a household! I’m still amazed at how often, even at ages 18 and 21, I hear my niece and nephew fighting over who’s turn it is to feed the dog. “I did it last night, it’s your turn tonight!” “No, I did it for two straight nights before that, so it’s your turn again!” As human beings we seem programmed for some sort of equal justice and division of household chores!
Except when Martha complains to Jesus about Mary failing to live up to her share of chores in the household, he doesn’t do what she probably thinks he will and chastise Mary for shirking her household responsibilities. Instead, Jesus, this one who is always speaking up for justice for the downtrodden and oppressed – a category Martha probably puts herself in at this point because of how she views her sister as mistreating her – seems to chastise Martha instead. Martha, who views herself as many of us probably do as well, as the innocent victim of her sister’s laziness here, is the one whose behavior Jesus tries to correct as he says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
I see many interpretations of this reading say that Jesus is telling us here that the contemplative side of life – prayer and studying God’s Word – is more important than the active side of life of serving others and working for justice. Except, while Jesus calls Mary out for being worried and distracted by many things, he doesn’t condemn the work she is doing of providing hospitality for himself and his disciples. After all, such hospitality was vitally important in Jesus’ day as hotels and airbnbs weren’t the travel options they are for us in today’s world. Also, the reading in Luke’s gospel right before this was our gospel reading from last week, the parable of the Good Samaritan, that calls us to the radical and inclusive hospitality, welcome, and care of all others as our neighbor.
Therefore, it doesn’t seem as if Jesus is ranking the importance of one over the other here. He isn’t condemning Martha’s work itself – that was a clear necessity in their culture and in what Jesus called his followers to in caring for one another. Instead, what Jesus seems to be condemning is how Martha went about it. How she is so worried and distracted by the work of hospitality that she forgets about the one she is welcoming – Jesus. She gets so bogged down with the many tasks she knows need to be done to provide the hospitality that she felt was expected of her as a hostess, that she loses sight of why she is doing all this to begin with – to welcome her Lord and the Word of life he has to offer for her and others.
We tend to get busy and distracted in our world as well. And I think with all the technology and social media that is available today there is probably a lot more to worry and distract us from Jesus as the one thing that is most important and necessary in our lives. As we walk from one activity to the next we do so with our heads down focused on reading what’s on our phones or with our thumbs in rapid motion as we text one another. And when we do this behind the wheel of a car – which we do so much that most states have laws against it because of the danger it causes to ourselves and others – we have a name for it that it seems Jesus might have had a hand in – distracted driving. Or as we walk around with our blue tooth ear buds in, so focused on speaking to the person on the other end of the phone that we fail to see or pay attention to the people who are actually physically surrounding us. Or as we find ourselves with all this technology more worried and distracted with all the busyness, AKA “convenience”, it adds to our lives as it is virtually impossible to be disconnected from work and life in general, even on vacation.
But it isn’t just technology that makes us anxious and distracted by many things today. Still today even with technology streamlining much of life, we have many tasks to do, even in the church, that take our attention away from Jesus. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as there has been so much to do as we continue on the journey to merging into one congregation. I think the poor vestry council dreads my monthly emails with our meeting agendas as they seem to get longer and longer every time as we deal with the legalities of selling properties and doing all that needs to be done as part of that – Title 5 inspections, oil tank replacements, moving a memorial garden, donating considerable amounts of Food Friends and Fun kitchen equipment to area feeding ministries in need. Then there’s the moving of items from Highland Avenue to Main Street or swapping items at Main Street with those at Highland Avenue – organs, baptismal fonts, and dishwashers, oh my! Or as we clean out both buildings and decide what needs to be kept from our histories, going through records and paperwork that are outdated and need to be shredded, and deciding what we need to throw out because it is beyond repair or its usefulness. And then in the midst of all that just to add to the excitement, we’re doing a major property project with replacing our parking lot here at Main Street at the end of this month.
We are in the midst of a lot of busyness, a lot of work of the church that can cause us worry and distraction. And then this week as I felt all that chaos swirling around us as a community of faith, Joanne LaPlante, Karin Johnson, and I sat down with the Rev. Canon Pam Mott to discuss where we are headed next as a congregation as a follow up to our work with the College for Congregational Development – those weekend classes we have been attending in Rochester, NY. Ugh, one more thing to do! Yet, as we talked about all the tasks that are keeping us busy at this time, Pam pointed us to why we are doing this work. She said she heard in the long list of tasks that we rattled off, a making way for the new thing God is calling us to as one congregation. She said she heard in all the talk of cleaning and clearing and moving, the building of a foundation for this new community God is making us into.
Hearing Pam say that I think helped the three of us – Joanne, Karin, and me – reframe our current situation that has at times felt a bit overwhelming to those busy with the work of it. Pam’s words helped us remember why we are doing all this and of our need to ground ourselves in God’s Word and in worship so that foundation that we are so frantically busy building for the future of this community, is grounded in and built on the One who calls us to it – Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Tom Long in a sermon on this text offers a similar insight to Pam as he says, “If you don’t have some vision of what God is doing, it finally beats you down. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his Word, listens to that vision, and without that Word, we cannot go on, like Martha, preparing meals of hospitality for the world. It will finally worry us, distract us, anger us, exhaust us, and beat us down. With that Word, though, we can prepare meals for the hungry, care tenderly for the sick, show hospitality to the stranger and keep on loving and living in the name of Christ.” People of Christ the King-Epiphany, when we gather here for worship, when we sit together on Thursdays at noon to read and study God’s Word together in bible study, when we do our personal prayer and devotions, or when we have conversations with one another about our faith and what God is up to in our lives, we encounter God’s grace, the grace we need for the work of being Christ’s Body in the world. There we encounter the Word of life that nourishes and sustains us for the love of God and neighbor we are called to.
The worry and distraction caused by the busyness of the world, and even of the church at times, will always tempt us to think we don’t have time to spend with God. However, it is precisely the worry and distraction of the busyness that are why we need this time with Jesus – meeting him in God’s Word and the meal at God’s Table – so that we have all we need for what we will encounter in the work he calls us to in his name. In fact, Martin Luther has wisdom to share on this subject as the story goes that upon being asked one time by a friend what his plans were for the following day, Luther replied, “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” While three hours might feel to us like it is adding to our busyness, Luther’s example reminds us just how important it is to follow Jesus’ call to prioritize and focus on the better part like Mary, so that we will find there the one thing we need which will never be taken away from us – the Word of life of Jesus Christ our Lord without which we can accomplish nothing. Amen.