July 17, 2016
Many years ago, I heard a sermon by a preacher and teacher from California. He pastored a church in a low-income neighborhood where poverty and homelessness lived on the church's doorstep. The church provided several outreach ministries to their neighbors; one of those ministries was a weekly meal. Most of the folks who came to the meal ate and left. But one man took a liking to the people, the minister and the church. He started attending regularly. His name was Jim, and he was homeless. As we well know, when you're homeless showering and washing your clothes are luxuries. Dirt and grime clung to Jim -- to his skin and hair and clothing. He never smelled very good. But the people in the congregation welcomed him. They never reacted to how badly he smelled or the dirt and filth on his clothes. They never shied away from shaking his hand or sitting next to him in worship. Jim sensed their genuine welcome, and became a joyful and faithful part of their lives. He sang off key, loudly. He made sure to shake every hand during the passing of the peace. And Jim always wanted to engage the minister, the one telling this story, in long conversations about God and grace and salvation. Not only did Jim attend church faithfully on Sunday's, he would also drop by at different times during the week to say, "hello," to anyone who happened to be in. The people who were there, the secretary, the janitor, and the pastor, would always take the time to chat with him.
But one day the pastor had gone into his office and closed the door. It had been a stressful week. He had more work to do than usual, and he was behind. So he was trying to finish up reports, outline his sermon and get ready for his next meeting when there was a knock at his door. Before he could say, "come in," the door opened. It was Jim. The pastor admitted that his heart sank at the sight of Jim standing in the doorway. He was too busy. He had too much going on. He didn't have time for a long, drawn out conversation with Jim that day.
He opened his mouth to tell Jim that, but Jim spoke first.
"Pastor, I just wanted to come by and pray with you."
The pastor sighed and agreed, although he was frustrated by this interruption. He and Jim sat and bowed their heads, and Jim began to pray. He thanked God for this kind man who did so much for him and for the all the people that he led. He thanked him for always taking the time to listen and to care for the people who came to him in need. Jim thanked God for the ways the pastor taught him to be more faithful and more prayerful. As Jim prayed, tears filled the pastor's eyes. He didn't feel like an adequate teacher when it came to being faithful and prayerful. He realized that this was the first time he had prayed all day. It was the first time he had prayed more than just a quick grace before eating in several days. If anyone was being an example of faithfulness, it was Jim. Jim was teaching him, not the other way around. The pastor had been so distracted by all of his duties, that he had forgotten to pray. Prayer should have been the foundation on which every other responsibility was grounded. Instead he had let it become an afterthought. He was worried and distracted by many things, but there was need of only one thing. Jim had chosen the better part.
This pastor was distracted. So was Martha. What I am about to say I say every time we encounter this passage in our lectionary: the court of public opinion on this story gives Martha a raw deal. Marthas are necessary in this world, and they are definitely necessary in the church. If every Martha in a congregation were to sit down, the church would stop running. One of the last worship services I attended when I was at the CREDO retreat three years ago was led by two of the faculty members who were not ordained ministers. The woman who preached gave one of the best sermons on this passage that I have ever heard. Standing in front of the communion table, she looked out at this room full of ministers and said, "In your churches, all of you preside over the meal that we share at this table, but do you ever think about the person who sets the table before you get there?" I have presided over the Lord's Supper in several churches, and I guarantee you that every table in every church was set by a Martha.
So I reiterate. Martha gets the short end of the stick. I've also said this before: Martha was doing what was expected of her. She was supposed to serve. Welcoming Jesus into her home and giving him an honored place at the table was not Martha's way of vying for the Emily Post etiquette award. Martha was obeying the Law of Hospitality. She was doing what she was supposed to do - serving.
What was the problem then? Luke puts great emphasis on service and serving. Last week's story about the Samaritan was an example of that. The Samaritan served. The Samaritan did. Jesus ended his parable with the words, "Go and do likewise." What was the difference between that and Martha? The difference, as I see it, lies in Martha' s distraction. There was no joy in her service. She was worried. She was anxious. She was probably thinking about twenty different things at once. She was distracted. She was so distracted by her service that she put her guest of honor on the spot.
"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."
Asking your guest to confront your sister does not embody hospitality, does it? But that's where Martha's distraction and anxiety over serving took her. In trying so hard to be hospitable, she did something greatly inhospitable. Preachers often interpret Jesus' response to her as a reproach, as scolding. But as someone who has had to both calm an anxious person and also been that anxious person, I don't think Jesus was scolding her as much as he was trying to get her attention.
"Martha, Martha, listen to me. Look at me. You're worried and distracted by way too many things. Only one thing is really important. Mary's recognized that one thing and she is paying attention to it. I'm not going to stop her or take that away from her."
Contrary to the popular understanding of these sisters, I don't think Jesus was saying that Mary was the good one and Martha was the bad one. You see this even in the art inspired by this passage. Martha is standing off to the side, bowl in hand, staring sullenly at Jesus and Mary, while Mary is sitting at Jesus feet with her head illumined by a halo. However, Jesus was not comparing sister to sister, as though they were in some competition and Martha was the loser. It seems to me that Jesus was trying to refocus Martha on what was necessary in that moment.
What was necessary? Jesus said that Mary had made the right choice. She was sitting at Jesus' feet, listening to him, learning from him, being with him. Jesus was in their home, and she took advantage of that opportunity to really be in his presence. There's a part of me that thinks had Mary gotten up and helped her sister do what was required, they both could have had the chance to really be in his presence, but I may be missing the larger point. That is that sometimes we just need to be in the presence of the Lord. But here's the thing, we also need to do. We are also called to serve. Last week's story about the Samaritan and this week's story about Martha and Mary are side by side for a reason. They complement each other. The Samaritan is about the doing. Mary is about the being. Do. Be. Do. Be. Do be do be do. (I couldn't help myself.)
Yet I think there's another connection in these two stories that can be easily missed. Both the Samaritan and Mary chose the thing that was necessary and needed. A man was robbed and beaten and left half-dead by the side of the road. That would not have been the time for the Samaritan or anyone else to choose to sit and be in the presence of Jesus. On the other side of that coin, if Jesus is present in your home, sitting at your table, speaking of the kingdom of God, there is no detail of the dinner that is more important than being with him.
We who seek to follow Jesus need to do both. We need to be in his presence. We need to serve others. The question is what distracts us from doing one or both? What are we distracted by in this congregation? Are our worries about the building, membership, the future pushing us to follow God more closely or are they distracting us from doing just that?
The concerns about our building and our declining membership and our future are legitimate. There is no dispute about that. We will continue to address those concerns and wrestle with them and pray for discernment for our future together. But at the same time we cannot let them distract us from being the church, from being people who seek to be in God's presence and who seek to serve God's children. Those are the things that are needed and necessary. This broken, hurting world needs us. This broken, hurting world needs us. So may we be like Mary and may we do as the Samaritan, free from distraction.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"