Lectionary Texts: Luke 10: 38-42
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, July 17, 2016
- If Jesus Were Coming to Dinner
OK, be honest, what would you do if you knew that Jesus was coming to your house for dinner? Now, truth be told, if I knew that Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, the Son of God and Son of Humanity, the Savior of the World was coming to dinner, I do think that at least some of my Martha would need to kick in. I would make sure there were fresh flowers and the table would be set with Aunt Doll’s Wedgwood china and Grandmother’s silver. I would probably pull out all the stops and make Caramel Macchiato Cheesecake with the homemade caramel sauce that takes so long. And, of course, Maynard the Wonder Dog would have a new bow tie to don. I would make sure that things were tidy and clean and that the yard was freshly mowed and a new hanging basket was hanging on the porch (and right now in my life, I would have to do some major box-emptying). And, I have to confess, that if I ran out of time and didn’t get everything put away, I would probably hide it in the dryer. After all, this is Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, Son of God and Son of Humanity, the Savior of the World! Isn’t that worth a little bit of extra effort?
- A Little Hard on Martha
This passage that we read is short, but it probably holds enough to make us a bit uncomfortable. We are forced to think about all the things that we “do” (or don’t “do”) for God. We are forced to look at our busy and too-full lives into which we try to cram as much “good” stuff as we can. And, sadly, many of us experience the same realization that I had: “Oh shoot! I think I’m the sister!”
I personally think Martha gets a bad rap. I mean, after all, she was the one trying to make everyone comfortable, offering “radical” hospitality, so to speak. And on some level, her sister just let her do all the work and went and sat down and listened to Jesus. But the point is, Mary LISTENED. She didn’t do for Jesus what she thought he wanted or give to Jesus what she thought he needed. She actually spent time sitting and listening. She opened herself to Jesus and whatever he was offering her at the moment. And, if Jesus had asked her to go and get him something to drink, I’m sure she would have done that. But the writer is assuming that the most important response is to receive Jesus rather than to somehow prove something by “doing” what we think we need to do.
Now this is probably not meant to be an attack on the “normal” role of hosting guests, just the preoccupation with it, the notion where someone becomes so engrossed in hospitality for hospitality’s sake or for making oneself look good, that perspective is lost. But there’s another side to this. Remember that Martha was acting in the role that society had assigned her. This, too, should be a wake-up call to us. Are there others that we’ve relegated to roles that leave them out of truly being a part of Jesus’ word? Are there others that through our societal or church constructs, we haven’t allowed to enter the conversation? Do we leave room for everyone to live the life that God calls them to live or do we just put them in the roles that we assume they should have?
I do so want to be Mary. I want to sit at Jesus feet and listen to his words. I want to bask in his presence and be a part of who he is. And I want others to feel like they can do the same. But what, pray tell, do we do with all those dirty dishes?
III. The Distractions of Life
Truth be told, I really do probably have more “Martha” in me than I care to admit. I want things to be done right. And sometimes, I have to confess that I fall into a little pity party of my own, sort of a martyr for making sure that things are the way they are supposed to be at the expense of what really gives me life. But, as we all know, it’s hard. Those everyday distractions that we know have to be done sometimes drag us down, sometimes begin to sort of cloud our judgment, and sometimes they take the precious time that we would like to spend sitting at the feet of the Master.
I mean, really, shouldn’t we be presenting our best? Surely it’s not appropriate to invite the Savior of the World to your house for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and put him to work folding laundry to get it off your dining room table (or in my case, unpacking boxes!) so that we can eat! I DO think that what we do is important. After all, all work is holy if it has the right perspective, the right focus, the right motivator.
But, then, after all the preparations were done, I would hope that I could sit and listen and immerse myself in this Holy Presence. I would hope that somehow I could take all the distractions that come to mind and make them holy too. Maybe that’s the whole point—it’s not that what Mary was doing was good and what Martha was doing was bad but rather that somehow, Martha had lost perspective, burying herself begrudgingly in the enslavement of what was then considered “women’s work” while her flighty sister hob-knobbed with Jesus and the rest of the guests. What if her preparations were instead focused on creating a feast for a king? What if in her divine work, the presence of God was truly revealed? What if she realized that she was preparing a holy meal? What if all of those menial jobs that she was doing became acts of worship, acts of praise?
- Finding God in All of Life
The truth is, this call to discipleship is not about developing some sort of holy resume’ that shows what we’ve done to deserve God. God is already here, inviting us to participate in Creation in whatever way we are called. So what if we’ve read this Scripture wrong? What if the intent was not to place each of us at the feet of Jesus while others slaved behind us but rather to gather each of us into this holy work? After all, what IS the “better part”? What would it mean to look upon everything we do—not just prayer, not just worship as we are doing here, not just meditation or contemplation, and not just sitting at the feet of Jesus, but EVERYTHING as God’s work, as a way to live our lives to the glory of God?
It’s hard. We somehow convince ourselves that being with God is quiet and reverent, that it is somehow doing something to prove our worth or putting ourselves into a place where we can find the Holy and the Sacred. Have you ever thought that the message was not that you have to put your work aside to find God but that God is found in all that we do?
Kathleen Norris wrote a fascinating little book called “The Quotidian Mysteries”. Quotidian means ordinary or commonplace. It refers to those daily and often repetitive things that are just part of life. Norris talks about something as menial as doing dishes and the notion that rather than looking upon this as repetitive, and even boring work, the act instead became for us holy and sacred, part of God’s ordering of life? She suggests that doing dishes might be God’s invitation to play and to remember. After all, what if washing every plate became a way of praying for those who had eaten from them? What if cleaning the glasses from which people have drunk became a way of remembering the sacrament? And what if plunging your hands into the waters became a way of remembering your baptism, when the waters poured over you and the heavens opened and you became someone new?
So, think about it, what if weeding your garden became a holy act of clearing the soil for life? What if doing laundry became the preparation for presenting your best self to God? And what if, like Martha, cooking a meal and setting the table with the finest dishes, and arranging the flowers became not a necessity but the preparing of a feast for a king?
Soren Kierkegaard said that, ‘Repetition is reality, and is the seriousness of life…repetition is the daily bread which is satisfied with benediction.’ Repetition is both as ordinary and necessary as bread and the very stuff of ecstasy…Both laundry and worship are repetitive activities with a potential for tedium, and I hate to admit it, but laundry often seems like the more useful of the tasks. But both are the work that God has given us to do…To convert all our work into prayer and praise is admittedly an ideal, but the contemplative of the world’s religions might agree that it is something to strive for.”[i]
- The Cathedral
You’ve probably heard the story of the workers that built the great early and middle-age cathedrals. They did not have a capital campaign and then experience displacement for a year or 18 months while they built those beautiful structures. The cathedrals took years. In fact, they took generations. The ones that began the work never saw the finished product and the ones that worshipped in the nave on that first glorious Sunday never saw what went into the work. The story tells of a wise one who stopped three of the workers and asked them what they were doing. The first one replied, “I am nailing bricks into place.” That was true. The second one replied, “I am making a living for my family.” That was true. The third one responded: “I am building a cathedral.” It’s all in your perspective; it’s all in how you see your work; it’s all in how you see God acting in your life. It has to do with choosing the better part, whatever that may be.
- Beyond Distractions
Yeah, I’m often Martha. Thanks be to God! And sometimes, I have a joyous Mary movement as I sit as the feet of the Master. That, too, fills me with gratitude and thanksgiving. The truth is, I don’t think that this Scripture is a commentary on either one; I think it is a calling to be both—the Mary and the Martha, the worker and the contemplative, the theologian and the questioner, the prophet and the priest, the distracted ones and the ones who are paying attention. I think that it may be a reminder that all of life is of God, that everything we do is worship if we open our eyes and our minds to the sacred and the holy. In fact, perhaps those distractions ARE God’s way of getting our attention. Or maybe they are the every presence of God.
Kathleen Norris says that “the Bible is full of evidence that God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a Great Cosmic Cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us—loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here and now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is “renewed in the morning”…Seen in this light, what strikes most modern readers is that the ludicrous attention to detail in the Book of Leviticus, involving God in the minutiae of daily life—all the cooking and cleaning of a people’s domestic life—might be revisioned as the very love of God–a God who cares so much so as to desire to be present to us in everything we do.”[ii]
So hopefully there’s a little bit of Mary and Martha in us all. Maybe that’s the point—we are called to do and to be. We are called to balance our lives between serving and growing, between mission and prayer. We are called to live so that our outward self and our inward self are one, both with a singleness of focus toward God. So, that’s who we are called to be as a church—everything. We can’t reach out in mission if we do not have a life of prayer and we cannot pray if we are not willing to serve others. Both are who we are. We just have to pay attention. Diana Eck says that just being awake, alert, attentive is no easy matter. I think it is the greatest spiritual challenge that we face.
It is all about God’s love—Isn’t that what we all desire? The truth is that it is here—here in the garden, here in the laundry, here in the dishwater, here as we prepare for a feast. It is in our prayers and our meditation, in our service and our outreach. It is in all those places where we expect it to be and all those places that we never thought it would be and even in those places where we are so distracted that we neglect to sense the sacred and the holy that permeates everything there is. THAT’S the message—not that that we have to do a certain thing to earn God’s love but that we just have to be, to be what God calls us to be. Because being what God call us to be is the way that we find the sacred and the holy in all that we do.
So, when Jesus comes to dinner, what do you do? Do you prepare a feast fit for a king or do you sit at the feet of the master? Yes…the answer is yes. It’s a balance. We are a doing and a listening people, a preparing and an accepting people, a serving and a praying people. We are Martha and Mary. We have chosen the better part.
In the Name of the One who calls us to be in all that we are and all that we do and all that ever hope to be. Amen.
[i]Quoted in The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work, by Kathleen Norris, p. 28, 29, 83
[ii] Ibid, p. 21-22.