a sermon on Luke 10:38-42
preached on July 28, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I know lots of people like Mary and Martha. You know, those people who get along great in normal times but whose personalities simply clash when things get crazy. Stress rarely brings out the best in us, and even those who thrive under pressure end up having to deal with people who aren’t quite so composed when things get complicated.
Now we don’t know much about Mary and Martha’s relationship beyond what we hear in these five verses, but for me at least it’s incredibly easy to fill in all the gaps about both of them with the details that we are given. Martha is clearly the consummate hostess, always with fresh bread to share with guests, a clean house ready to welcome anyone who might stop by, and an industrious spirit that is focused on making sure all the work gets done. Her sister Mary is the more laid-back one, the one always reading a book or sharing a story with a friend, ready to talk to her sister’s guests and hang on their every word.
Even when we know just these few things, our reading from Luke this morning sets up Mary and Martha for trouble one day when Jesus stopped by. Martha had invited him into her home, surely intrigued by his new message about God’s love and justice, though I suspect she also was glad to have the honor of showing off her hospitality to a local celebrity. Like any guest, hosting Jesus would have required a great deal of preparation and care, for offering hospitality was a very important gesture in the Roman world and a big part of what this teacher was talking about as he journeyed through the countryside. Plus, this teacher had quite an entourage: even if his twelve core disciples provided for themselves—highly unlikely—the hostess would still need to offer them a welcome to her home, and there were surely others who were looking to spend more time with him, too, and might try to force their way in for dinner.
The way Luke tells the story, Martha was clearly counting on her sister Mary to help her out with all the hospitality and arrangements, but they each had a different idea of how they should be interacting with the guests, and based on this story, I bet they didn’t host parties together very often. Martha spent her time in the kitchen, preparing the food, offering all the guests something to drink, and making sure that everything was in order and all the guests were comfortable. Now while Martha was working in the kitchen, Mary spent her time mingling with the guests, finally stopping to listen to Jesus for a while and to hear for herself his teachings that were causing such an uproar in the countryside. The scene seems easy to imagine even in our own time: Martha, darting in and out of the kitchen, worried about how to make her guests feel comfortable and welcome; and Mary, sitting over in the corner at Jesus’ feet, schmoozing with the guest of honor and hanging on his every word.
Martha was understandably frustrated. Mary, her most important helper and sister, disappeared from her side at the moment she needed her the most, leaving her with all the work to be done while Mary just sat and listened. Martha could not just abandon all the things to be done—Jesus had come to visit, and his miraculous powers weren’t terribly effective with matters of cleaning the house and serving dinner! However, the text says something more about Martha. She wasn’t just busy, focused on offering hospitality to Jesus and her other guests. Luke tells us that she “was distracted by her many tasks.” While Mary sat and listened to what Jesus had to say, Martha was worried: about how the flowers looked, how the food tasted, and how the whole evening was going. She ended up ignoring the guest of honor even as she sought to provide for him. She let her tasks get in the way of the purpose of the visit.
So Martha was swamped, and Mary wasn’t helping her any. I suspect that we all have moment when we need some help and look to our closest friends only to find them outside playing, at home watching TV, or out and about doing things for themselves rather than being there for us when we need them to help out or just to be with us. As I think about moments like these in my life, I see three options for Martha. First, she could do all the work herself, grumbling a bit along the way in hopes that Mary would get the hint. Or she could directly ask Mary for help. She could even ask Jesus to help. None of these are perfect solutions, but they all seem perfectly reasonable.
However, Martha finds a fourth option: ask Jesus—her guest!—to reprimand her sister for not helping. What a strange request! I doubt that anyone would respond well to this sort of request to intervene in a family dispute. Listen again to what she asked Jesus to do:
Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.
Maybe Martha had asked Mary over and over again for help, but still, why would she ask Jesus to intervene in this way?
Jesus knew better than to respond as Martha requested. Instead, he turned to Martha and offered a different sort of advice:
Martha, Martha, calm down!
He never attacked the work that Martha was doing. He never said that her work didn’t need to be done. He simply said that Mary’s work of listening was equally important. Martha was doing important things, but her attitude toward them was distracting her from the bigger picture, keeping her from truly appreciating her guest for who he was and what he could offer his hosts. Through his actions here, Jesus calls Martha—and us too—to look at our work in a different way, not to leave it behind, approach it with little real concern, or grumble about it along the way. Instead Jesus calls us to approach our work an attitude that recognizes the bigger purposes behind it all and gives us the time and space to stop and appreciate the moment as we journey through it.
You see, it’s easy to be Martha. It’s easy to become so engrossed in the things that we do that we forget why we started doing them in the first place. It’s easy to go through the motions of the day, approaching all the small tasks in front of us with a frustrated spirit and being constantly distracted by the demands put us by others or ourselves. It’s easy to go and help people in the world during the week while forgetting what we do on Sunday that drives us to do that work. In our life here, I know that it seems to be so much easier to talk about and do the practical things—to maintain the building, figure out the budget, and sort out the administrative details—than to get a grasp on the spiritual side of things. I think we have trouble in our world approaching life as Mary did, staying focused on the center, constantly connected to the source of all, the Holy One, even as we move and work and live in our daily lives. While Martha’s work is clearly important—if we didn’t have people like her in our world and our church, we’d be in a lot of trouble!—Jesus makes it clear in this story that we have to spiritually center ourselves for all these practical tasks so that we can be more faithful about all the work that we do.
Exactly a year ago today, I arrived on the Island of Iona, along the western coast of Scotland. This beautiful and remote island has been a center of Christian community for over a millennium, and my experiences there showed me something new about the balance between the experience of Mary and Martha. The guests at both of the centers operated on Iona by the Iona Community are expected to fully participate in both the practical and spiritual work of the community. When we arrived, we were put into groups with specific responsibilities to assist with serving meals and helping with the daily tasks that keep the Abbey running, like peeling vegetables, cleaning the bathrooms, or sweeping the hallways. We had about an hour assigned every morning for these tasks—but it was made clear from the beginning that in no way were our chores to be done during the service of morning prayer. Just as everyone was expected to help keep the Abbey running, everyone was also expected to attend morning prayer, where the community made it clear that our day was grounded both in our practical tasks and in our prayer and worship.
This is ultimately the challenge for all of us in the story of Mary and Martha, to find the quiet center that grounds us and helps us to hear the voice of Jesus so that everything we do—even the most practical things!—is built upon the spiritual life that we find in and through Jesus Christ. So may we not be like Martha, distracted by the many tasks of our lives, but instead find the center of hope and new life in Jesus for all that way say and do as we follow him in our daily tasks until he comes again. Lord, come quickly! Amen.