Sermon on 6 Pentecost C: Luke 10:38-42, Genesis 18:1-15
Preached at Bethany, Escanaba on July 13, 2019 by Pr. David Van Kley
Being and Doing
Today’s gospel lesson is a domestic scene featuring sisters Martha and Mary, hosting their friend Jesus, visiting in their home.
Which is, of course, something we all do: we visit and are visited. Almost every month, Arlene and I exchange dinner invitations with another couple. When we go to the Broadway’s for dinner, as we will tonight, we know exactly what to expect. Michael and Jenny will meet us at the door, both wearing aprons. Michael will show us to seats in the living room and after offering us something to drink, Jenny will disappear into the kitchen, while the three of us I catch up on a month’s worth of news. Jenny may pop in for a few minutes now and then, but it will be awhile before she calls us to the dinner table, where we will spend the next couple hours together. Conversation never seems to lag. It is so great to be with friends!
It was like that when Jesus visited the sisters. Martha readied the house for his stay, while Mary kept him company, sitting beside him, listening to his stories.
Of the three principals in the story, who catches your eye? For me it’s Martha. I can just imagine her crossing items off of the mental “to do list” she carries in her heart. Draw water for Jesus’ feet. Check. Get dinner started. Check. Make sure the guest room is ready. Check. Probably she felt unprepared for this visit: Jesus couldn’t send a text to say: see you in an hour or even, a couple of days!
Martha had her work cut out for her. When things needed doing, she did them. Martha was a do-er!
There are so many things that need doing in life, and not only when hosting friends or family. Go to work, try in vain not to bring it home with you. Get the kids into the car and bring them to soccer or baseball practice. Pay the bills. Buy groceries. Cut the grass. Clean the garage. Oh, yes, be sure to confirm your doctor or dental appointment. Shuffle through the mail. Better not forget to check Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and email and voicemail… When was the last time you called your Mom? And did you get that article written that was due for the newsletter yesterday? And. And. And it never ends.
Which is a problem. That mental to do list never shrinks. We think we can keep life under control by completing all our tasks, but they end up taking control of us. We become worried and distracted and frustrated and exhausted.
And then we may become resentful. Why do I have so much to do? We look around at others: he’s not doing his part. He should be doing more. I’m not getting paid what she’s getting. They’re getting more credit than they deserve. I’m getting the short end of the stick! It’s not fair.
Like Martha, we look for someone else to blame for our unhappiness, including the people closest to us.
Most of the time, we don’t say it out loud, of course. Martha, bless her, is quite transparent. She just lays it out there: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Not Martha’s best moment! Yet, I am drawn to her, because I think I know just how she felt. From experience.
Martha’s words earn a rebuke from Jesus: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted about many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”
Our first reaction may be: Mary is the good person, the saint, who knows what is best. And Martha is the self-righteous sinner. But things are not that simple.
I don’t think Jesus is rebuking Martha for attending to the details of hospitality. Hospitality was necessary in an ancient world without Comfort Inns and Quality Inns or restaurants like the Stonehouse. Hospitality was deeply rooted in the Jewish faith! So, when Abraham and Sarah show hospitality to three travelers in today’s reading from Genesis, they end up receiving God in disguise, who makes the promise upon which the covenant with Israel depends: against all odds, Sarah will have a baby!
Jesus also promised that when his disciples receive strangers and care for people in need, we shall receive him! Hospitality is at the heart of our Christian identity. It remains very important in our polarized world. How do we receive strangers who enter this place? How do we treat, not only our friends, but those who are different from us? Wherever we land on the political spectrum around immigration policy—and there are many legitimate places to land—how do we receive the desperate people who show up at our borders?
If Martha’s concern for hospitality was not her problem, what was it? Her worry, her anxiety, the underlying cause of which was her belief that somehow it was her job to control everything. Which in turn led her to start comparing herself to her seemingly deadbeat sister.
When Jesus rebukes Martha, I hear tenderness. I hear a word of forgiveness and an invitation. Jesus seeks to re-frame the way Martha sees the world. “Martha, Martha, you are distracted and worried about many things.” You see a forest of tasks, not the trees of relationship. You act as if you are in charge, not God. Martha, dear Martha! Stop. Your sister is right about this. Later, we can do those other things. But now: let the tension cease. Just: Be.
How much we need those words! Stop. Stop worrying. Stop trying to carry the world on your shoulders. Stop trying to manage everyone around you. Listen to Jesus. Be with Jesus.
As for Mary, I am drawn to her, too, but not because I’m like her. Opposites attract and I wish I could be more like Mary. But here’s the thing, I don’t have the Mary gene. I don’t think, at 65, I will ever become like her. Which is OK, too: because there is a need in this world both for people like Mary and people like Martha.
And surely there are times when people like Mary also earn a loving rebuke from Jesus. Times when sitting and do nothing is not what is needed. When someone bullies another person, it’s not time to be silent. When the baby needs feeding and changing and comforting, it’s not time to hide in a book. When it’s 8 in the morning and the alarm sounds to get you up for a 9 o’clock appointment, it’s not time to hit the snooze button. When you know something in your life must change, it’s not time to say, “There’s always tomorrow.”
Mary, too, had flaws—for she was human. Mary and Martha were sinners and saints, at the same time. As are we all.
Maybe the point is that a healthy and whole life is a balanced life, in which both being and doing have their place. And maybe living is like walking on a balance beam. Jesus loves us as we are and, when we fall off the beam, picks us up and puts us right back up there. Take one step at a time. Trust me to be your spotter. Keep the faith. Keep being and listening and doing and serving together until that day when being and doing will dissolve into one kingdom of God.
That’s why he came into the world, why he died for us and was raised for us. Jesus came to give us life and life abundantly.
Invitation: Ask yourself: am I more like Mary or Martha? What are the pitfalls you face in trying to live a healthy and balanced life? Where does Christ Jesus meet you in your struggle? How can we support each other as we live together in community?