Join us for the Third Sunday of Lent, as we continue our series Busy: Reconnecting with an Unhurried God.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But 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.” But the Lord answered 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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Where would Jesus be without Martha? He would not have had someone to invite him to a comfortable, cleaned, and orderly home. He would not have had a nice meal prepared for him; and there would not have been a fresh baked pie with ice cream for dessert. He would not have had someone do the dishes after the meal. He would not have had clean clothes to change into if he needed them. He would not have had fresh cut flowers on the table. In every church family, there has to be lots of Marthas, thank God. We praise and honor and encourage people to be Marthas. There would not be coffee hours after worship without Marthas, no cookies armies, no volunteers engaged in service opportunities with our partner agencies to Break the Cycles of Poverty. Where would the church be without Marthas serving as Elders and Deacons, without Marthas singing in the choir, without Marthas teaching and ushering?
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Martha complained to Jesus. Martha wasn’t complaining because there was so much work to do. Martha complained to Jesus about her sister, Mary, who did not lift a finger to help her with the housework. Not everyone can study; the dishes will pile up. Not everyone can be confined to the kitchen; the rage will pile up. Martha is the wife and mother and grandmother and great-grandmother, slaving away in the kitchen AFTER a full day’s work in the sewing factory, cleaning homes, making beds, doing the laundry while her children are glued to their iPads or texting on their smart phones and her husband is sipping scotch and watching the evening news on television. So, Martha pleaded with Jesus to do something about this. “Talk to Mary, set her straight, tell her that her sister needs help.” And here is how Jesus answered Martha: “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!” If I was Martha, I would’ve taken off my apron and stormed out of the house, leaving Jesus to get his own dinner! What a put-down and talk about no appreciation for everything Martha had done for him to make him feel welcomed and comfortable and cared for in her home.
On one level, Jesus had a point. We can become so PRE-occupied with preparations that we are not present for our guests. My mother was typical of every Chinese mother who rarely sat down with the family to enjoy the meal which she had worked so hard to prepare. In a Chinese meal, you want to serve every dish hot off the stove. And by the time my mother brought the last dish to the table and was finally ready to sit down to join the family, we were almost done eating and the food had started to turn cold. In my culture, we so highly prize Martha that it is captured even in the way we greet one another. Our greeting is not “Hi…or how are you”; we say, “Have you eaten”? Responding to Martha, Jesus doesn’t mince words; he calls her by name not just once, but twice in a manner that sounds more like a parent than a friend. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…” Slow down, step forward and listen. We understand Martha’s predicament well. It isn’t only matters of hospitality that distracts us and pulls us in many directions. It’s the unrelenting nature of our schedules and life style. Today’s Martha could be working at a computer, checking text messages or talking on a cell phone while driving and eating lunch. She could be on a treadmill while making appointments for the next day. She could be grading papers, her phone held between cheek and shoulder, checking in with family about coming home late. She could be trying to have a business meeting in the middle of a crowded airplane while juggling a cup of coffee. She could have a baby on one hip and a textbook for night class on the other. She could be receiving chemotherapy on her lunch hour and trying like crazy to save her job. She could be over-scheduled, overbooked, overwhelmed. The pace could make her snap. The urgent demands of life collide with the urgent demands of the gospel—and anyone’s trigger can be tripped. Martha, dear Martha, we know you well. Distractions and worries abound. Jesus calls us to stop. Stop what we are doing and listen. There is need of only one thing. This good news is for you. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, gay or straight, old or young, red or blue. Whether you are working in the kitchen or sitting on the floor, this good news is for you. You. There is need of only one thing.
In this 21st century, women are compensated far less than their male counterparts doing the same work that require the same level of education and skill. In 2015, the US Women’s World Soccer Team won the World Cup and was compensated $2 million; that same year the US Men’s Team lost in round 16 and earned $9 million. The German Men’s team that won the cup that year took home $35 million. The Southern Baptist Church has this statement in their by-laws: “The wife is to respond to her husband’s loving headship with honor and respect…wives were created to be “helpers” to their husbands. A wife’s submission to her husband does not decrease her worth but rather enhances her value to her husband and to The Lord”. In this 21st century, this statement actually reflects the prevailing attitude of the church in the FIRST century where the role of women was exclusively to be a Martha ONLY! What Mary did at the time of Jesus was outrageous. It was a radical departure and violation of the role and place of women in society. What Jesus did was radical, breaking through the social barriers of his time. Jesus is received as a guest in the home of women. And Jesus teaches a woman. Rabbis did not allow women to sit at their feet, and yet Mary is clearly pictured here as a disciple. Jesus practiced Affirmation Action. What Jesus said about Mary was as offensive to the male-dominated society of his day as Affirmative Action is to those today who are blind to their privilege and have the financial means to cheat their way into elite universities. Jesus leveled the playing field for women. Jesus opened doors to places where women previously were not allowed to enter and to opportunities where women previously did not have. The BETTER PART which will not be taken away are all the opportunities that women and people of color will NOT be denied because of gender, race, class, privilege, or sexual orientation.
And yet, this is not an either/or story that favors Mary and puts down Martha. Jesus’ response is less about shaming or devaluing Martha than it is about affirming Mary. This is a both/and story of balance. Both Mary and Martha are needed in the church. The Mary and Martha story follows immediately the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ injunction to “Go and do likewise”! In this morning’s story, Jesus affirms and blesses not going and doing, but sitting still and listening. Side by side, Luke has placed occasions on which Jesus called for active engagement with human need and being still, listening, and learning. The Samaritan loves his neighbor, and Mary loves Jesus—and to be a disciple requires that one love both. Luke is not making a choice between them, nor is he asking us to accept one and reject the other. Both the Samaritan and Mary are examples, and both are to be emulated. Where would we be without the Marthas in our church? We would be in sad shape. Nothing would ever get done. Where would we be without the Marys in our church? We would be forever stuck in the past and empty of vision and prophetic courage.
Our Calvary Mission Statement captures both Mary and Martha: Our mission is to “nurture and inspire” our faith community in order that we may be the hands and feet “to transform lives for Christ.” Martha’s hospitality prepares a welcoming space for encounters with God’s word. It’s not that God’s word cannot be heard in barren, inhospitable places or circumstances. God is not so limited, but we are. God can and does speak in any situation; but we cannot always hear. In this Lenten season, we slow down, we step back and away from our busy-ness, and engage in hospitable spiritual practices like our Lenten studies, in order to hear God’s word, preparing us for re-engagement with the world.
Much of our conversation in this story has been about Martha and Mary. But the dinner party is not about the attendees, not about their roles and responsibilities, but about the guest of honor. And the guest of honor demands our full attention. When we think of God’s word as the “main course” in the feast of life, the issue is not whether listening is better than doing or vice versa. Rather, it places these activities in balance. The main course is God’s word. Jesus is the host, not Martha or Mary or any one of us. Jesus spreads the word like a banquet to nourish and strengthen us. The word has within it commands both to sit and listen, and to go and do.
Here at Calvary, we have a visual reminder of today’s story and lesson. From my vantage point, when I look up to the balcony, I am able to enjoy the stain glass window of Jesus-Mary-and Martha. I invite you, when you sit in this place of welcome each week to encounter God’s word, that as you leave, you give a nod to both Mary and Martha in that window, who remind us that we enter to pray and we depart to serve.