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Sermons

“Jesus Is ‘The Better Part’”

July 17, 2022 Sixth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Luke 10:38-42.

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38 Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

A central theme in the Genesis reading this morning and in Luke’s gospel is hospitality; the manner in which it was practiced in the era of Abraham and continued into the Israel of Jesus’ time.  In fact, this tradition of providing for one’s guests remains fundamental in Middle Eastern culture today.  And if I were to speak at length regarding the actions of Abraham and Sarah as they were entertaining angels, it might make for an appropriate sermon topic. Conversely, Martha’s desire to provide hospitality to Jesus would serve as the subject of a lengthy homily on this topic of welcome and provision.  While I don’t think that a sermon completely focused on hospitality is appropriate at this point, I will come back to this subject as it is practiced by Mary’s sister, Martha a bit later.

But first I thought we might take a look at one of the often-overlooked themes in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ interaction with the two sisters; Martha is a “tattle-tale”!  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”   This is how Luke reports Martha’s complaint about her sister, Mary to Jesus.  In the more modern language of the bible translation, The Message, Martha says to Jesus, “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”  Now, in both of these versions when the preacher reads them out loud, it is generally spoken in a rather bland tone of voice; such as I used just now.  But I can’t help think that Martha, overwhelmed by the amount of work she had to do, might have been a bit more whiny in her plea to Jesus; after all, she was preparing a meal for him and an unknown number of his disciples.  Luke doesn’t tell us how many, but all twelve of them may have been sitting in the living room as Martha was scampering about trying to feed all of them.  So, I imagine her tattling on her sibling might have sounded a bit more like, “Jesus, I’m doing all the work here and my lazy sister won’t even get up from sitting at your feet to give me any help!  You’re Jesus, make her do something useful!”  Sounds a bit like every time one sibling complained to a parent about the other one, doesn’t it?

Yet another cultural norm in Jesus’ time was that teaching and learning were reserved for the men; women simply weren’t expected to be educated.  It would have been even more unthinkable that women would be invited to hear the words of someone like Jesus and his radical teachings about God, cultural and religious norms, and the coming of the kingdom.  Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to label Jesus as a feminist as we understand the term today, but he certainly went against the accepted cultural understanding of the roles of women and men in his time.  The fact that Mary was listening at the feet of Jesus among the disciples says a great deal about his intention to bring the gospel message to everyone.  Just a few weeks ago we read that Paul declared there was “no longer male and female”; all are equal in the eyes of God.  Jesus demonstrates this by including Mary among his listeners, in opposition to the custom of the time.

One last point, regarding the way Luke refers to the house in which Jesus and the disciples are welcomed; Martha is the one named as their host.  And this also seems to go against the norms of the time.  You will recall that Martha and Mary are the sisters of Lazarus; it may be assumed that all three are unmarried, and that they live together, and that their parents have apparently passed.  And, again in keeping with the accepted custom of the time, the house would have passed to Lazarus, the son.  Yet, Luke tells us that Martha was the one who provided that hospitality we referred to earlier.

And, now seems like it might be a good time to come back to that theme, the one I initially said wouldn’t be the actual topic this morning; but it is in fact integral to Jesus’ reaction to Martha’s complaint about Mary.  He surely wasn’t castigating Martha for being engaged in the work she was doing; this notion of hospitality to guests was a given.  It seems that Jesus was more concerned that she was allowing herself to be too “caught up” in her labors.  Luke writes that Jesus told her she was worried, and most importantly, distracted by what she was doing.  Martha was doing her best to provide for her guests, but this preoccupation caused her to miss the opportunity to be in the presence of God, in the person of Christ Jesus.  And more importantly, her scurrying about meant that she wasn’t taking the time to just be still and hear God’s Word.

What about us, are we trying too hard to be “Marthas”?  Are we allowing ourselves to be distracted, to be drawn away from God?  Finding that we are too busy “doing” that we don’t remember to just try “being”?  Do we ensure we take the time to sit and rest in God’s presence, to hear his words of grace, and mercy, and truth; to know that we are loved and valued as children of God, to be renewed in faith?  This renewal of spirit is what empowers us and strengthens us for service to others; for servanthood, for hospitality.  By being more like Mary, taking the time to listen to God’s Word, we become more effective as Martha, in putting our faith into action.       

It is true that much of our distraction arises from the best of intentions. We want to provide for our families, to give our children every opportunity to enrich their lives; we want to serve our neighbors, and yes, we want to serve our God.  

But, if all our toiling causes us to divert our attention from the Lord’s presence and the hearing of God’s Word, we are likely to end up anxious and worried, and yes, distracted, just like Martha. Both listening and doing; receiving God’s Word and serving others, are vital to the Christian life; just as inhaling and exhaling are essential to breathing. Yet how often do we forget to breathe in deeply, to simply take a few breaths while focusing our minds on the goodness of God?  Even in the midst of community worship, taking a brief moment to allow ourselves to be fully present with God is a helpful exercise.

Let’s try it this morning; you are invited to close your eyes, inhale deeply and hold that breath for a few seconds, while just opening yourself up to feeling God’s presence.  Exhale fully.  One more time inhale and hold the breath; this time reflect for a moment on your relationship with Jesus.  And let the breath out.  Last one; inhale and hold the breath as you ask God to remain present with you those times when you may feel distracted and separated from his presence.  Open your eyes when you’re ready.  Spending quiet moments like this, listening for God’s small still voice, expressed through the presence of the Holy Spirit can serve as the reminder that our distractions don’t have to keep us apart from God.  And, in devoting time to this practice we become more like Mary.  And like her, renewed by the hearing of the Lord’s Word, we become strengthened when we then find ourselves serving others like Martha.  The important part is that we achieve the proper balance between Martha and Mary, and the best way to do that is to not let our distractions win, over our intention to place our relationship with God above all else.

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, we confess that we are often distracted by our labors and that we fail to draw near to your Word.  Help us to prioritize our time so that we don’t always behave like Martha; and that we act more like Mary, sitting at the feet of our risen Lord, immersed in the Gospel.  And we pray these things I the name of Jesus Christ, the One who invites us to choose the “better part”.

Amen.

God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good.

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