Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11C] - July 21, 2013 (Luke 10:38-42)

As a pastor, I occasionally find myself on the receiving end of anger about things that are written in the Bible. I’m sure I’m not alone here; I suppose everyone who identifies themselves as a Christian these days must periodically answer people’s questions about what’s in the Bible, especially the controversial parts. I am used to hearing people express frustration, for example, about some of the more violent scenes in the Old Testament books and what that supposedly says about God’s nature. Several women, understandably irritated by some of the passages in Paul’s epistles, have me asked me to explain why some parts of the Bible seem to value women less than men. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac, in Genesis causes problems for a lot of folks, for they wonder how a loving God could even ask a follower to do something so brutal. I admit: the Bible is chock-full of some pretty provocative stories and passages that I have come to expect will rankle just about any thinking person.

It may surprise you, however, to hear that one of the angriest reactions and most intense lines of questioning I’ve ever dealt with when it comes to Bible stories was over this story about Mary and Martha. It came from Doris, one of the members in the first parish I served in Pittsburgh. Doris was a lifelong churchgoer. She sang in the choir. She volunteered in the office whenever help was needed. Now approaching 80, she had served on church Council several times, and at every church function Doris could be found in the kitchen preparing the food and staying late to clean the dishes. Doris was a workhorse, just like any number of dedicated volunteers that you can find in every congregation across the earth. In small congregations, they are often the backbone of just about everything, jacks-of-all-trades that silently and somewhat happily get stuff done.

"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha," Jan Vermeer (1655)
In any case, Doris was not pleased with this story where Martha is the one doing all the work and Mary is being lazy listening to Jesus. If that’s not bad enough, when Martha gently brings this to Jesus’ attention, by golly, he chastises her for it! Nope, that didn’t sit well with Doris. In fact, she told me once when it came up in a Bible study that she didn’t understand why God would let those words come from the mouth of her Lord Jesus, as that far as she was concerned that story could be left out of the Bible and we’d all be better for it.

Safe to say, I think Doris identified with Martha. Doris knows what it’s like to be abandoned in the church kitchen while everyone else enjoys the church program in the fellowship hall. I wonder how many of us do, too, in our own way. There are so many tasks to be done, especially in and around the church, and, all too often, it seems to get done by many of the same corps of Dorises, over and over again. There they are, running the old dishwasher, or folding the newsletters, or mowing the church lawn, or crunching the budget numbers, but it’s carefree Mary, raising nary a finger to help, who gets the nod of Jesus’ approval.

What’s more, in Jesus’ day, Martha would have been seen as performing the necessary tasks of hospitality, the sign that you valued your guest’s time and well-being above your own. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, taking care of houseguests and meeting their needs was the foremost indication of godliness. We think of hosting and waiting on guests in our as a something novelty, an out-of-the-ordinary event that might involve a trek to Williams-Sonoma if we have the time. But in an environment that was ultimately inhospitable, like theirs—desert-like and often war-torn, the roads patrolled by bandits and criminals—peoples’ homes were typically the only oasis of rest and safety. Hospitality to the stranger was a way of life that weaved culture together. Martha was simply doing what was required of her, tending carefully to the needs of her guest, who, after all, was God.

One important key, of course, to understanding just why Jesus favors Mary’s choice of sitting at his feet is that Martha, we are told, is distracted by her duties. She’s not just performing them, she is preoccupied with them. I’m not sure Doris was ever preoccupied with her many tasks of keeping the church running, but I suppose it could happen to any of us. The tasks of faith can become overwhelming, and pretty soon they become like busy-work, or, what’s worse, they become our identity. We end up doing a whole lot of running around, distracted by the amount of good that needs to be done in the world and not enough sitting still and listening to the word of God.

That, after all, is what Mary is doing. She is on the floor, his dusty feet a few inches from her face, eagerly receiving everything her rabbi says. When Jesus compares the part of listening to the part of doing, he is not saying that the duties of hospitality and service are not important. Rather, Jesus is making the point that, in the life of faith. these things are somehow secondary to hearing and receiving the words of the Lord. As good as those tasks are, constant attention to them can unwittingly pull us away from the one thing that we truly need, for it is in the Lord’s words and in his words only where we learn who and whose we are. The most important thing we can do as followers of Christ is remember what we’re supposed to be. I think that’s what’s happening between Mary and her Lord.

Some of you here may remember the song that the youth praise band sang in worship during last year’s Youth Sunday. They chose the song, “Remind Me Who I Am,” by the contemporary songwriter Jason Gray. The song is actually a hymn, a song with prayer-like words that is clearly directed to God. The simple refrain of the song goes like this:

“Tell me, once again, who I am to you.
Tell me, lest I forget who I am to you, that I belong to you.”

When the youth group was practicing the song, some of the seniors had the idea to take the video for the song and adapt it for a worship setting. To do so, they had members of the youth group take large pieces of roughly-torn cardboard and write down a word on one side that describes how they often feel when they’re labeled by the world. Some of the words that were written down were “lonely,” “lost,” “inadequate,” “rejected,” “left out,” and so on. As the song was performed, members of the youth group walked out into the congregation carrying their cardboard labels. When they were summoned back by a Jesus figure, they slowly began turning those labels around to reveal their true identity: on the opposite side, in the same black marker, they had written the word “BELOVED.” This is an identity that each of us only learns when we spend time at the foot of Jesus: no matter what the world says about us or what name we give ourselves, we are beloved. In fact, Jesus dies in order to impart this identity to us.

This is the reason why Jesus says Mary has chosen the better part. We can work ourselves silly with the good works of faith, we can show the world all the good we do in service to the kingdom, we can impress others with our selfless ways of life, but we can and will be reminded of our identity only at the foot of the one who dies for us. We will only remember who and whose we really are when we spend time listening to his words, when we spend time letting his dusty feet get near our ears.

It’s still amazing to me that, despite all of this, the life of the church in this day and age can take on such a Martha feeling. In all the church’s fretting to be relevant, our running around trying to be cool, to be seen and heard as “applicable” and “important” in a post-modern world, we run the danger in the long run of just being pre-occupied. We find ourselves being pre-occupied with trendy social justice issues, pre-occupied with “making a difference” in our neighborhoods and communities.

I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read by now that say the way to attract young adults to the church is through service projects and hands-on faith-in-action activities. But that’s what Martha was doing. She was faith-in-action, constantly moving about, wanting to be the hands of God’s work. But before we can be effective hands for God, we need to have an ear to God. Taking a cue from Mary, perhaps the best thing the church could do in the midst of the world’s busy-ness is to be seen sitting down at the feet of the Risen One who has come to visit us—to be seen listening to what he has to say about us. We can then let our service and our good works flow from there.

I remember one time in seminary when I was waiting tables as a side job I went out with a bunch of my co-workers after hours. Most of the group had gone up to the bar, I think, to order more drinks, busy, I suppose you could say, with the night’s activities. I was left at the table with this one young woman in her twenties who knew I was studying to become a pastor. I don’t know whether it was out of a sense of guilt or just the only way she knew to make small talk with me, but she shared that she had grown up going to a Lutheran church but hadn’t really returned much since she’d gotten confirmed. There’s so much to do on the weekends, she said, “help give me the motivation to go back to worship.”

Her question, there in the midst of the smoky barroom, caught me off-guard. I am positive that my response was mush-mouthed and no help at all. I was probably worried about sounding judgmental or too churchy in my response. I might have tried to convince her of all the cool service things the church does for the world, but that would have seemed to sell it short. Looking back, there is any number of things I could have said, I guess, that would have wooed or coerced her back to worship.

But now, I think of a better response: If I could have, in that moment I would have simply introduced her to Doris and said, “Because you might turn out like this woman. Selfless, compassionate, willing to work, but also willing to listen. Doris, even in the rush of her service, knew that being with the other disciples at his feet gave her the opportunity to listen, the opportunity to savor the better part…and there and only there will anyone ever be reminded who they really are: BELOVED.”



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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