This is the sermon I preached this morning on the fantastic story of Martha and Mary found in Luke 10:38-42:
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Martha and Mary. Two of the Bible’s more famous siblings. I love this story. First of all, I have two brothers, so when Martha gets a little whiny about Mary just sitting there at Jesus’ feet, I totally hear the sibling rivalry coming through. In my head, it always sounds like, “Jesus, tell Mary to help!” I don’t know what Martha actually sounded like, but that’s what it sounds like in my head.
Second, this story is one that could easily fit into our day. Let’s see… Martha and Mary are at home and they receive a knock at the door – Jesus is here! If this story were taking place today, I’d imagine that Martha had been preparing on Pinterest, the social networking site for DIY projects, crafts, cooking, and saving and sharing all of your favorite things. No, I’m not addicted at all! Anyway, Martha, who had been busily pinning and saving all of the most amazing Mediterranean dishes she could find, is now busily whipping them up in the kitchen while Jesus is out in the living room talking with Mary.
Running back and forth, Martha catches sight of her sister just sitting there at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Martha stops in her tracks thinking, “oh not she’s not!” Her face begins to flush red and she hurries over to Jesus, eager for a righteous third party to play judge over this dispute. But she doesn’t get what she’s looking for and Mary ends up being praised for listening to Jesus.
Now at this point, if I were Martha, I’d be frustrated and angry that my work was under-appreciated and that I wasn’t going to get any help. I’d also be embarrassed that my esteemed guest had told me I was wrong in front of my sister.
We don’t know if Mary and Martha gave each other a hard time after this visit, but we do know a couple of things about these women. For starters, it is crucial that we don’t look at this text as denigrating service or action, because Martha was doing exactly what was expected of her. She opened up her home to Jesus and welcomed him in generously. And in a culture where hospitality of the stranger was expected and treasured, Martha’s welcome of Jesus and the way in which she sought to serve him was admirable.
Besides, the story immediately preceding this one in Luke’s Gospel is the story of the Good Samaritan – a person whose loving service is lifted up as an example. Jesus says at the end of that memorable story to “go and do likewise.” So what’s going on here?
This is where looking at the text is really helpful in understanding a bit better what was taking place. It’s not just that Martha was distracted by her serving and couldn’t really focus on her guest – the word used is even stronger than that. It actually says she was being “overburdened” or “being pulled” or “being dragged from all around.” She was being dragged away from the very one she was seeking to welcome and to graciously host in her home.
And when Jesus responds to her, he says that she’s continuing to be anxious or “unduly concerned” as well as “distracted” and “troubled.” I don’t know about you, but none of those words or phrases has a positive connotation for me! Martha is stressed out, overburdened, anxious, troubled, and being dragged away from Jesus.
My heart goes out to Martha. No, even more than that – I believe I have been Martha at various points in my life. Seeking to do all the right things and overextending myself in various activities, even “good” activities. Running around like a chicken with my head cut off, feeling exhausted and zapped of my creativity and energy. I hear Martha’s story and I completely get it.
And I don’t think I’m the only one. In a 2012 New York Times Opinion Column, Tim Kreider wrote about “The Busy Trap.” He writes: “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”
Now, those are some harsh words, but after I read that article last year, I began paying attention to how others answered the questions “how are you?” and “what are you up to?” More importantly, I started paying attention to my own answers to those questions, which were almost always some variation on “I’m good. Busy, but good!”
We live in a society that preaches, “time is money.” Our success is often gauged by overtime, productivity output, and how full our planners, Blackberries, iPhones or Google Calendars are. It’s so easy to feel like we have to be on the move, doing something in order to know that we are worth something – that we are busy, important people. In some ways, it feels good to be able to rattle off all of the many important tasks we have before us, or even better, that we just recently checked off of our to-do lists.
But I wonder if it’s not more than that. Are we afraid of not being busy? Are we afraid that sitting and resting, or reflecting or praying makes us unproductive members of society? Or are we afraid of what God might call us to do if we ever settled down enough to listen?
I sort through all of these questions and it seems like it is so hard to be still and to listen. And it is. But there is also amazing hope. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, in the role of a disciple, listening deeply, drinking in his words, and spending time with this guest to her home. While Martha is being dragged away and overburdened by all of her tasks, Mary literally “takes her place beside” Jesus. And Jesus says that this attentive time spent with him is the better part – the good portion. But he goes even further. He doesn’t just focus on Mary and leave Martha to run around, stress herself out or exhaust herself. Instead, he tenderly calls “Martha, Martha,” urging her to leave her frantic rushing about and graciously inviting her to spend time with God.
And just as he called to Martha, he continues to call to us today. Jesus calls us gently, “Come, sit at my feet. Spend time in my presence, listening deeply to my voice. Rest, learn and be refreshed. Come to the waters and remember you are forgiven. Come to my table and be strengthened by the food I offer. Come and hear my word. Come study it and let it take hold in your heart. And I will send you into the world alive and centered in me.”
I think that’s why we come back each Sunday. We need this every week – to be refreshed and strengthened in community. We need to be reminded of that one thing that is necessary, that is really and truly useful – spending time dwelling in the presence of Christ and letting his love for us work in our hearts that we might better love ourselves, each other and all of creation. We need to be reminded that God loves us and desires to spend time with us, not because we’re busy, important, or successful people, but because God is loving and faithful.
This story happens in Martha and Mary’s home. Jesus encountered these two sisters in the middle of normal life. And Jesus meets us in the midst of our everyday lives – breaking in and calling us to take time out of our busy schedules to spend in worship, thanksgiving and praise. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown worship service, but how can you practice hospitality and invite Christ into your everyday life? How could you make a space to encounter Christ and spend time in the presence of God?
Maybe you could pause for a few moments of quiet and prayer in your cubicle, office or even in the car as you commute – and please, keep your eyes open and on the road! Or you could read a brief devotion in the morning, over your lunch break or before bed. Maybe you love singing and hymnody, so taking time to sing a hymn that is near and dear to you could be a great way of making space. What about the arts or crafting? Perhaps your craft time is a place to invite God in and to listen for that still small voice?
The irony of this is that it takes some work to practice being still and listening. I know I have felt overburdened and dragged all around like Martha, feeling like there’s no way I can possibly squeeze in prayer or devotion on top of everything else. However, I have repeatedly been amazed at how much sitting in quiet prayer with God has refreshed me and brought things back into focus. It’s in those quiet times that I remember that life is a gift to be enjoyed, not worried about. I remember that it’s not about my never-ending to-do list, but about being attentive to what I am being called to do in that moment. How might making space to listen for the voice of God and to make God the goal bring all other things into focus in your life?
It’s not that service or action is a bad thing. Rather, it’s when that service obscures or takes the place of God that there is a problem. When we’re distracted from God and hearing God’s call in our lives because we’re so busy serving or being active, that’s when Jesus gently calls us back, reminding us that a life lived as disciples learning at Jesus’ feet is the better part – the part that will never be taken away from us. AMEN.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.