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Along the Way: The Better Part

16 Aug
"Christ in the House of Martha and Mary," by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

(a sermon for August 16, 2015, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on  Luke 10:38-42)

I went to figure it out this week, and counting the two I just performed during my recent vacation, I have now officiated at 247 marriage ceremonies!

Two hundred forty-seven (!); friends, no matter how you slice it, that’s a whole lot of wedding cake!  And trust me, that total includes ceremonies of just about every size, shape and variety; from huge mega-celebrations that actively seek to imitate a royal wedding, to small, intimate affairs that include only the bride and groom, a couple of witnesses and me!  There have been quite a few memorable moments over the years: there was the medieval-styled ceremony in which the groom wore an authentic suit of armor, and the groomsmen were all dressed as knights of the realm (although as I recall, one of the groomsman must not have gotten the joke, because he came dressed as a Jedi knight, complete with lightsaber!); then there was the time when butterflies – hundreds of butterflies (!) – were supposed to be released into the sky at the end of the ceremony, flying joyfully and romantically into the horizon and symbolizing the beginning of  a bright new future for the happy couple… but instead immediately fell to the ground, hundreds of butterfly wings flapping helplessly on the pavement beneath our feet!  (We could only hope it wasn’t an omen…)

Every wedding ends up being a little different from the other, and that’s part of the fun of it; that said, however, I can also tell you that there are some things that are always the same, and one of them is that there usually somebody in the midst of it all who is ever and always… busy.  Sometimes it’s the Maid/Matron of Honor or the Best Man; quite often, it’s the Mother of the Bride; in some situations, it might be some kind of Wedding Coordinator or Planner.  But there’s always that person who’s constantly running around, looking after the small details, perennially doing something before, during and after the wedding!   And sometimes, it’s even a group: at the wedding I did for Sarah’s friend out in Ohio a few weeks ago, about ten minutes before the service was to begin I was actually approached by a woman who said, “Now, as soon as you pronounce them husband and wife, don’t be offended because we’re all going to get up and leave!”  And sure enough, no sooner had I said, “You may now kiss the bride,” there are at least ten of them who were up and out!  And this was because these were… the Aunts; well known for having had a hand in planning, leading and executing every major gathering in the life of that family: weddings, funerals, baptisms, reunions, you name it; and now they were off to do the reception!

And what a job they did, friends!  The food was wonderful, and abundant; the sweets and hors d’oeuvres beautifully displayed, the decorations were perfect; in fact, everything was perfect, and for the next three hours or so, those aunts never stopped!  In fact, it got to the point where Lisa and I remarked to each other that it was almost too bad; that these women had been working so hard in making this wedding reception absolutely perfect for their niece and her new husband that they never had a chance to stop and enjoy the celebration themselves!  Surely, it would have been “the better part” for them to stop for even a few minutes to have something to eat, to visit with family or just to soak it all in; and yet, you also got the clear sense the “the aunts” reveled in what they were doing, and in truth, there was nothing wrong with that!  This is what they do, after all; they do it well, and bottom line, they aren’t about to leave it in another’s hands, no matter what the cost or sacrifice!

It’s actually the same kind of dynamic we find on display in our gospel reading for this morning, that wonderful story from Luke in which “along the way” in “a certain village” (probably Bethany) Jesus is welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha and her sister Mary.  I love what Thomas Long, professor of theology at Emory University, has written about this passage; he says that this seemingly innocent little story is “almost guaranteed to stir up an argument.”  Actually, the story is sort of predicated on an argument: on the one hand you’ve got Martha, who is doing everything she can to show hospitality to Jesus; cooking a nice meal, making sure Jesus is comfortable and has everything he needs, welcoming all the other guests (because this probably a dinner party, after all) and just seeing to it that everybody feels right at home.  She’s working hard at this – and understand, this is nothing unusual, since in this culture hospitality to a visitor was considered to be of utmost importance – but it’s to the point where, as Luke puts it, “Martha was distracted by her many tasks;” or, in modern parlance, she was now overwhelmed by everything that had to be done and was starting to “freak out.”

On the other hand there’s Martha’s sister, Mary.  Understand as well that in this ancient culture, it was customary for all the adult women in the household to have shared in the responsibility for showing hospitality to their guests (and by the way, elsewhere in the gospels we learn that there’s also a brother in this household named Lazarus; but we hear nothing about him in this story, and that tells you a lot!); but Mary’s not helping out with this at all, instead choosing to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet, listening intently to everything that Jesus is saying, in the same manner as would one of his disciples!

And upon seeing this, Martha’s had more than enough and she lets her feeling be known.  What’s interesting, though, is she doesn’t say this to Mary, but she says it to Jesus, her guest (!), and moreover, it’s pretty much a reprimand, one that you have to imagine is spoken in the irritated tone of a slow burn! “Lord, do you not care,” she says, “that my sister has left me to all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”

This, according to Thomas Long, is where all the arguments start!  Because Jesus responds, as Jesus always seems to do, by saying something unexpected; he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that these words probably did not at all calm Martha’s nerves!  To begin with, I’m not sure that beginning by saying, “Martha, Martha” (or as The Message translates it, “Martha, dear Martha!”) was going to go over well (!), and moreover, it almost sounds as though Jesus’s words are intended to reprimand Martha right back!  And besides, the fact is that Martha wasn’t wrong!  Not so much in terms of whether Mary should have been helping or not, but rather in terms of the importance of what Martha was doing!  As I said earlier, the act of showing hospitality amounted to far more than mere etiquette; hospitality, as far as Martha was concerned (or for that matter, as far as any truly faithful person of that time was concerned) was sacred duty!  And, by the way, wasn’t Jesus himself always talking about sending out “laborers in the harvest?” (Luke 10:2)  It can’t be mere coincidence that just prior to this story in Luke’s gospel is Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the truly “good” neighbor is the one who shows mercy over and above what’s required?  In Martha’s mind, what she was doing was no different; this for her was an act of faith!  So for Jesus to somehow suggest that she simply not worry about it; well, that would be like somebody coming up to the Aunts and saying, “Don’t worry about this reception; just leave it, and whatever happens, happens!”  It just wasn’t going to happen!

And yet, here’s Jesus, saying to Martha – and by extension, to any of us who are out there working hard and diligently to do, by faith, what is good and right and loving – that Mary’s chosen the better part! Honestly, friends, for those of us like to think of our very lives as needing to be an overarching act of faith, who believe that on some level all that we know about God and Christ and the Kingdom of heaven has to touch everything we say and do in this life, what Jesus says here just seems to undercut everything!

Or… does it?

In the end, I suppose, I’d compare it to how it is when you’ve got young children around.  You know, when our kids were little, it seemed to me that Lisa and I were always on the move!  I mean, especially after Zach was born, because then there were three of them and Lisa and I were suddenly outnumbered (!); and every day was this race to get them up, to get them fed and dressed, and often out the door to whatever it was they had going that day, and then at night was the same thing in reverse!  And the thing is, not only was Lisa at home with the kids at that point in their lives, but we also weren’t big on overscheduling them and signing them up for everything that came along… but still!  As I recall those days, it was a relentless whirlwind of activity; and it was exhausting and overwhelming, but it was also good, and it was necessary, and it was valuable in shaping them to be the adults they are today.  And yet, what I think I remember the most were those moments along the way when all they wanted to do was climb up in our laps and cuddle; and suddenly, all our plans and schedules and good intentions for the day had to be tossed to the four winds because this, what was happening at that moment, this time of love and nurture between a parent and a child, was much more important.  This was the better part.

It is good, you see, that our faith in God in Jesus Christ become intertwined with everything else in our lives; it is just like the Good Samaritan story in that loving God and loving neighbor go together, just as praying for peace has to connect with working for a just world, and our being blessed inevitably moves us toward our being a blessing for others.  Doing the work of the kingdom, as God directs, is good; and it’s necessary; and it’s not only valuable, but also essential in shaping both our lives and our very spirit; and, might I add, in building up the church of Jesus Christ

But even in the best and the most holy of tasks, there are many distractions; and as Jesus pointed out to Martha, those distractions will risk drawing our attention from the one thing that is truly important.  And, to quote Thomas Long once again, “if we try to do this kind of service apart from the life-giving Word of the gospel, apart from the vision that comes only from God, it will distract us and finally wear us down.”  That’s where Mary had it right, beloved; Mary chose “the better part,” which was first to listen to the Word; to hear the teaching of our Lord; to let his Spirit move in and through her, inspiring her and girding her for what lay ahead.  “If she is going to love God and love neighbor,” writes Long, “if she is going to show hospitality to the stranger and care for the lost, then everything depends on hearing and trusting that word.”

So… let me ask you:  are you a Mary or are you a Martha?

Actually, I hope and pray that your answer is… YES (!); that in truth of fact and faith, you’re both a Mary and Martha, because beloved, the world needs both.  We need to be both.  As Jesus reminds us again and again, the kingdom is drawing near; and there is much of love’s work yet to be done: for our neighbor, for the community, for the church, for the world.  But in order for us to do that work, first we have to stop… to focus… and to listen.  There are many distractions; so many things that we deem as being necessary… but ultimately there is need of only one thing.

May we have the wisdom and the grace to choose the better part; because whatever happens, that can never be taken from us.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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