Thompson’s sermon from July 18, 2010

July 21, 2010

How Not To Act
Luke 10:38-42

8Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Last week we read and pondered the story Jesus told that has become known as the story of the Good Samaritan. If we were to rename the players in this story to reflect current prejudices we might well call that the story of the Good Undocumented Worker . This isn’t very poetic, but I think that gets at some of the animosity that existed between the Jews and the Samaritans. And you could say the whole point of telling that story was to provide a lesson on how to act if you want to abide in the Kingdom of God.

Which is quite different from today’s story — that might well be called a lesson on how not to act if you want to abide there. Last week’s story emphasized the need for us to spring into action at the right moment. This week’s story reveals the need to know when it’s time to sit down and do nothing but pay attention. This business of following Christ is tricky. Just when you think you know the most important thing to do you find out there is something more important than that.

And frankly I think this passage is more threatening to the way we normally function than the thought of extending grace to someone we generally find to be objectionable. The fact that Jesus reprimanded Martha instead of Mary is somewhat unsettling to the way we operate. We love being busy and distracted.

It’s interesting to me that we have as many people named Martha’s as we do in our country because as we can all see, she is not the hero of this story. It’s almost like we understand where Martha was coming from so well we appreciate her in spite of the reaction she got from Jesus. We understand what Jesus was saying, but most of us sympathize with Martha. I think most of us identify with the Martha in this story more than we do the Mary.

My mother was a Martha in a very literal sense, (that was her name) and there is a kitchen named after her in the 1st United Methodist Church in Wynne. Actually they named the entire new fellowship Hall after her, but during the planning process my father committed to making a significant contribution to the church if they would name the kitchen after her – which seemed very appropriate because she was not unfamiliar with serving food at church.

We were really honored when they decided to name the whole new building after her. I mean I can’t really tell you how big a deal it is for our family that there is this really nice building called The Martha Murray Hall, but they didn’t name that building after her because she sat around pondering the meaning of life.

So there’s this tension we are all familiar with. We recognize the value of people who spend hours in the kitchen making sure things are going well at the table. We understand the essential nature of people who are committed to doing that work, and we recognize the spiritual discipline that is involved in making sure people get fed. I’m sure that’s why people continue to name their children Martha, and we would be in bad shape if we didn’t have these Marthas around who know how to get things done and are willing to do it.

And one thing we shouldn’t do with this story is to belittle the value of kitchen work or to think that the most essential conversations occur outside of the kitchen. It’s still very common in our society to find women in the kitchen and men in the den, but we all know that some of the most important conversations occur in the kitchen. I mean if you want in depth analysis of the Razorback’s offensive line you might need to stay in the den, but if you want to know what’s going on people’s lives you need to listen up in the kitchen. Clearly this is an oversimplification, but we have a different set of traditions and expectations that need to be examined and questioned.

And being a hard working person in the kitchen or anywhere else is not the problem Jesus was addressing. There was an attitude that accompanied Martha’s work that seems to have been the problem.
It’s not easy to separate the work Martha was doing from the attitude she was harboring, but I think the problem was more with what Martha was expecting than what she was doing.

Who hasn’t experienced the situation where one member of a family decides what another member needs to be doing, and applying all available forms of pressure to carry out the agenda. This never was a problem for my sister and I when I was growing up. I simply did as I was told – at least this is the way I remember it. There was a little bit of confusion when I got married and began doing everything my wife told me to do, but now everything is clear.

That may not be everyone’s opinion of that situation. The truth is that sometimes Sharla has to remind me what to do. Clearly I’m just kidding about that. I always know what Sharla wants before she has to say anything. Right.

I think we all understand how those dynamics play out in unfortunate ways within families, but this doesn’t just play out among people who are related. There isn’t anything unusual about unrelated people deciding what other people need to be doing. Some people to think they know what other people need to be doing and they get really agitated when their agenda’s aren’t met.

Expectations are always dangerous. I know that some of the most awkward situations I’ve found myself in are due to misguided expectations, and misguided expectations are easy to formulate. I don’t do a lot of counseling with people before they get married. It’s not that people don’t need counseling prior to marriage, but it isn’t what I do best. I try to warn people about how hard it is, and I always let people know what generally gets me in trouble, which is the tendency to harbor expectations without exercising any communication. But I’m guessing most people learn about this in same way I did – which is through the suffering of consequences from harboring expectations without bothering to engage in communication.

It seems to me that this is what was going on between Martha and Mary and Jesus. Although it may be that Martha was operating with a set of expectations that had been very clearly communicated for centuries as to what a woman’s role was to be when a man came to the house and Mary recognized that something had changed when Jesus came into the house. Jesus didn’t operate by the expectations of their society, and many people found this to be pretty unsettling.

In some ways, our agendas generally reflect our understanding of God, and for that reason it’s easy to think that our agendas are inspired by God. For people who actively seek to serve God, there is the desire to create the same order on earth as we sense it to be in heaven. This isn’t a bad agenda, but I think we need to maintain an equal amount of distrust of our patterns of behavior as we do our diligence in maintaining those patterns.

Mary was a person who’s vocation in life wasn’t dictated by the voice of society, but she was a person who sought to hear the voice of God. She chose to listen to Jesus, and to do this was to defy the agenda of society – and of her sister. This was a bold and heroic act on her part.

I once heard someone say that half of the task of a person who seeks to serve God is to try to establish an image of God, and the other half of the task is to let go of that image. There is something essential about trying to exercise faith in this world. It’s clearly necessary to try to connect our hands and our feet with our hearts and our minds, but this can’t be done well without the exercise of simply trying to listen to the voice of God as well. And this doesn’t mean we only listen to what our neighbors or our sisters or our brothers are saying about God. We all need to spend some quality time on our own in the presence of our Lord.

The practice of Christianity is the practice of listening to Jesus, and it seems to me that to listen to Jesus is to engage in the practice of seeking to serve God and our neighbors in very concrete ways without becoming set in our ways. Which is a difficult task.

Our high calling is to do as Mary did — to defy the pressure of powerful agendas and to listen for the authentic words of Jesus. Now I don’t want anyone to think I’m suggesting anyone needs to get out of the kitchen around here. In fact I’m sure the heat of our kitchen is a wonderful place to hear what Jesus is thinking. I’m sure there is a difference between being busy and being distracted, and this is something we all have to measure.

It’s not an easy thing to separate the expectations of others from the claim of God on our lives, but it is only by living in response to the authentic word of God that we will find ourselves in the right company at the right time, and exercising what Jesus would call the better part.


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