Monday, July 19, 2010

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11C] - July 18, 2010 (Luke 10:38-42)

Any parent or grandparent or babysitter who has been faced with the task of equally dividing a remaining cookie, or piece of cake, a set of chores, between two (or more) siblings knows first-hand what a challenge it can be. I remember that my sister and I, as youngsters, could argue over any discrepancy in fairness that we perceived, however trivial. And, oh, how we would protest if my sister, for example, thought that I had received a larger portion of the last slice, or if I thought the piece she got contained more chocolate chips than mine did, or if we thought the list of chores was unevenly distributed. And to this day, I’m fairly certain my English-major sister, who always had the upper hand in argumentation skills would claim I got the better portion in most situations. As wise as King Solomon, and no doubt weary of our bellyaching (as she called it), my mother pretty quickly developed an ingenious method for splitting tasks or pizza, come what may. In her plan, one of us would be entrusted with dividing whatever portion or object we were fighting over, and the other one would get to choose. This tricky little system put the onus on the person entrusted with dividing the portions to make them as equal as possible so that the chooser had no one to blame but themselves for the portion they ended up with.

My point is we don’t know if Mary and Martha, the famous sister act of the New Testament, had a similar ingenious system for dividing their tasks and chores, but we catch a glimpse of a little tension in the lesson today. When Jesus comes to visit, Martha does all the work. Mary, on the other hand, sits around. Martha ostensibly makes him feel “at home,” busying herself with the domestic tasks of providing a fresh basin of water for washing, as well as food and drink. Mary pays no heed to what he might need. Martha chooses to tend to the many duties of good hospitality, working in the kitchen and the hearth, engaged with the expectations of decorum and service and protocol. Mary, meanwhile, chooses simply to listen to whatever their guest says, engaged in little more than conversation. And, after all this, after all Martha’s huffing and puffing, after all her hard work and dedication—after all her bellyaching—Jesus explains that Mary has chosen the better part.

I don’t know about you, but when Jesus utters something like a value judgment, my ears perk up a little bit, my back straightens a little more against the pew. I don’t know why that is. I suppose I expect Jesus to be supremely fair, bipartisan and impartial. I half expect him, the Prince of Peace, to stay out of such matters as choosing sides, and, if he must, I usually expect him to spin out a parable that completely disorients my take on the situation. But here, in this case, Jesus clearly sides with Mary. No matter how Martha looks at it, Jesus has stated that Mary’s choice of sitting and listening—and therefore all but ignoring the typical obligations of hospitality—is the slice of the pie that really is better. Not only that, but Mary’s choice of task reflects an attention to a necessary thing, a devotion to one particular thing that matters above anything that Martha is doing.

In the ancient Middle East, hospitality might have been considered the highest virtue. Its importance was tied partially to the unforgiving nature of the desert environment and the need—which everyone collectively comprehended—to tend to the fragility of human life. Hospitality was tied to honor, as well as the understanding that God and God’s messengers often masquerade as strangers in need of shelter and food.

In this case, Martha is simply enacting exactly what the best mores of her culture—indeed, her religious faith—would dictate. She is serving as hostess with the mostess, taking the proper steps to make sure that their guest is comfortable And it has nothing at all to do with gender roles. Notice that in the Old Testament lesson from Genesis that Abraham and Sarah both undertake the obligations of welcoming strangers into their camp. The event of someone entering your home was a chance to make that guest feel safe, well-fed, and honored. So what is so wrong with this part Martha has chosen? After all, doesn’t even Jesus himself says at one point, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”?

Although Mary does seem to shirk her responsibility of showing good hospitality, she does display the attitude of a faithful disciple, one who listens attentively to the words of Jesus. Mary, in choosing to hear what her distinguished guest has to say, in letting the dishes and pans wait until later, exhibits undivided devotion to the kingdom of God. It’s not that Jesus slams housework, per se, or taking care of others’ needs, but when Martha emphasizes service and caretaking to the point that it becomes hers and everyone else’s priority—notice how she demands that Jesus get after Mary—Jesus must gently remind her that discipleship is not all about doing. In fact, the better part of discipleship, the one thing that is truly necessary, does not really involve doing anything at all, but, rather, being near enough to Jesus’ word that it can be heard. Martha’s error is not that she tends to these tasks of service, but that she has let them distract her from that one thing Mary chooses.

It is a dilemma that all people of faith struggle with, this pastor especially. Our culture has become far too preoccupied with being preoccupied. The demands on our schedules these days are intense. And when we’re not rushing off to one event, or preparing ourselves for the next show or practice, we are plugged into a cellphone or an iPod or an email, as noble as some of those causes may be. I wonder how much of this attitude has even infected our Sunday worship of God, where we think things must get done in a prescribed amount of time so that we can get on with the next item on our agendas. We run the risk of expecting to be preoccupied during worship, distracted into thinking that worship is somehow supposed to move us, that it should always be entertaining or uplifting or mentally provoking.

However, truth be told, we come to this gathering with a different motivation than to be preoccupied or distracted. Christians come to worship because we discover that God is in our midst, and therefore deserves undivided attention and praise. The focus, as Mary illutrates, is not on us or our tasks, but on Jesus.

Mark Allan Powell, a professor at one of our ELCA seminaries, tells the story in one of his books about once meeting a young man he describes as a Christian rock fan. Powell explains how he envied this young man, for his faith seemed to be so centered on the joy of living in Jesus. When Powell asks the young man where he goes to church, he almost brushes him off, explaining that he couldn’t find a church where he fit in. The young man then complains that the church where he’s a member is “like something out of an old black-and-white T.V. show.” The young man goes on to explain that everyone gets dressed up fancy, and that the music doesn’t sound like anything on the radio and the preacher never preaches anything exciting. “I don’t know,” he says, “it’s just…boring.”

Powell then goes on to ask the young man, “do you love Jesus?”

“Yes, I do,” responds the young man. “I love him with all my heart.”

“Would you die for him?” Powell inquires.

“Yes, I would,” replied the young man, after some reflection.

“You would die for him, but you won’t be bored for him?” countered Powell. Powell goes on to say that “we can waste our time in worship, and know that it was time well-spent.” Why? Because we have spent time like Mary, giving our unreserved attention to the things of God. Powell ends up encouraging the young man to go to church the next Sunday and be bored and see what happens (Loving Jesus. Mark Allan Powell, Augsburg Fortress, chapter 14).

I’m sure that, to a certain degree, Mary does sits at Jesus’ feet in order to receive wisdom, to be fed by what he says, but I reckon she largely pays close attention to him simply because he is there. Jesus has come into her midst, into her home, and that is reason enough to drop the distracting tasks and pay him attention, to focus on his words. In a day and age when we feel the weight of so many distractions, when we can easily come to equate faithfulness and devotion to how busy and preoccupied we are, the challenge for the disciple is always to remember that our faith and our truest life is grounded in what we hear about God and about ourselves. And that, my friends, starts with listening, first and foremost, to what Jesus says to us. Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha is not a moralism about slowing things down. Yet, as it turns out, there are some basic things we can learn only by listening to God.

I have a cousin who has spent the last four months of her life, more or less, waiting at the side of a hospital bed as her close friend fights for his life against a debilitating disease. He is in intensive care, unable to move because of all the machines and tubes that are hooked up to him. For the majority of these last few months, he has been under the clouding influence of heavy sedation and coma-inducing drugs so that his body can heal enough to start taking the medicine. My cousin, meanwhile, sits patiently at his side, with little responsibility other than to be there if he wakes up and remind him of where he is and what is happening and, foremost, that his loved ones are near. He wakes in such fits, fighting at the IV line and yanking at the ventilator tubes, and my cousin and this young man’s other relatives jump into action and say, “John, you’re in the hospital.” “John, you’re OK.” “John, settle down.”

It occurs to me that, in this hospital vigil scene, John is a lot like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, my cousin, Amanda. You see, it is only when we’re in the presence of our Lord, that we can properly hear who we are, that we’re fine, that we’re loved. Because, let’s be honest, we’re all fighting for our lives, and we can all get distracted by so many things—the IV lines and ventilator tubes of our careers, our passions, the clouding effect of our diversions, our duties, our relationships with others. When we sit at the foot of Jesus and come-to…when we hear his word…when we take the bread and pass the cup…we are reminded who and, more importantly, whose we are. We come to know our Lord, once again, and our identity as his child forever is brought into focus again.

In the end, this is the one thing we really need.

In the end, this is God’s intensive care, and we are provided with grace to steady us for the tasks ahead. And yes, at the foot of Jesus is where we are prepared for service.

May we all, at long last, quit our bellyaching and come to see that this is the better part and that, no matter what, it will never be taken from us.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

painting: "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" Jan Vermeer, 1654-55
photograph of church by Meredith Sizemore Photography:

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