Grace and St. George’s at St. Ansgar’s Lutheran Church, 22 July, 2007
Jesus Visits Martha and MaryNow as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘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.’
I had the pleasure of preaching this at St. Ansgar's Lutheran Church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) last Sunday. This is the second year that our parishes (St. Ansgar's and Grace/St. George's) have gotten together for worship in the summer in the spirit of the Waterloo Declaration.
One of the great pleasures of summertime is visiting friends, and what better way is there to visit with friends than to eat with them? I am sure that the reason we Anglicans are back with you today is because of the wonderful ice cream you treated us to after the service last year! Today I want to talk about our gospel lesson and what it says about hospitality, our relationships to one another, and our relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ. Our gospel confronts us with the question, do put God first in our lives, or do we put ourselves first?
The other night friends dropped over for desert, which we enjoyed in the warm breeze on our deck. Our friends had brought their trademark ice-cream bar desert with carmel sauce, much to the delight of my teenage daughter. We offered a jello with fresh strawberries that my wife Kay and I had picked at Heemans last month. And of course, coffee. We had a wonderful evening, and our friends insisted we keep the ice cream (no argument from my daughter) while we insisted they take the remaining strawberries (only a token argument on our friends' part). Part of the pleasure of this exchange was the knowledge of how the care that went into the preparation of the food. Would the visit have gone as well if our friend hadn't worked in her kitchen, if we hadn't made the trip out to Heemans and spent an hour in the field, if I hadn't tidied the deck and put out extra chairs, and if my daughter hadn't set the table? We might have sat around for two hours over an empty table and chatted, but the visit would have been lacking in warmth and hospitality.
Today's gospel, the visit of Jesus to the home of Martha and Mary, is often understood as a lesson urging us to be less busy and more quiet. The church has traditionally talked about business and quietness in terms of the Active Life, our normal lives in the world, and the Contemplative Life, which is chosen by monastics or by laypeople who chose to go on retreats or who try and find quiet times of prayer and meditation. Mary, who choses to spend time at Jesus' feet listening to his teaching, is often said to exemplify the Contemplative Life, while poor Martha who resents working alone in the kitchen, is said to embody the Active Life. This kind of reading ends with a simple moral, that we spend more quiet time in our prayer lives, like Mary, and less time with the matters of the world, like Martha.
The only problem with such a reading, I fear, is that it doesn't work, especially in churches. As I'm sure that Pastor Elina would agree with me, a successful church needs its Marthas. Our Marthas cater funeral lunches and organize choir practices and prepare bulletins and tend the church building and cook outreach dinners and do a hundred other things that allows a church's ministry to continue. Indeed, being a Martha is a valid ministry for many Christians. Without these people we pastors, who usually make very poor Marthas, would flounder. We depend on Marthas to make things happen and keep us organized.
By the same token, if my family and our guests had not acted as Marthas the other night, we would have had a pretty thin time of it. We might have gathered around an empty table for prayer and bible study, and no doubt the Holy Spirit would have come into our midst, but there would have been something lacking in our welcome and in our friendship. As you Lutherans know very well, God invented coffee and baking to get people to come to bible studies.
If we look at the first line of today's gospel I think we see it's theme stated quite clearly: "a woman named Martha welcomed [Jesus] into her home" (Lk 10:35). The word "welcome" is an important one in scripture, especially in Luke. You might remember that two weeks ago, we heard in Luke's gospel how Jesus sent out the seventy, and told them "Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you" (Lk 10:8). In such places and in such moments, Jesus tells his followers, "the kingdom of God has come near" (Lk 10:11). So clearly welcoming another person and caring for their needs is part of our relationship both to one another and to God. Many of our parishioners at Grace and St. George's learned the truth of this when we participated in the Out of the Cold meal program at St. John the Evangelist's church in London. So clearly we can't fault Martha for busying herself to welcome the Master.
Neither, I think, can we fault Mary, "who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying" (Lk 10:39), despite what her sister might say. What's interesting about this passage is not the description of what Jesus was saying (indeed, Luke does not report a single word of Jesus' teaching) but rather Luke's description of how Mary listens to it. As others have noted, Mary's posture is submissive in the best sense of the word, putting Jesus and his teaching above all else going on around her. Again, if we look back to Luke 10, Mary embodies the kind of faithful obedience that Jesus tells the seventy to look for. Jesus' instructions "say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you'" (Lk 10:9). Jesus knows that the kingdom of heaven can only come near when there are ears that want to hear and hearts that want to be changed. Hospitality, making someone welcome in the Lord’s name, thus come to stand for an openness to God's word and a willingness to place one's self entirely under the direction of God.
Meanwhile, we can imagine Martha banging her pots and stomping around in the kitchen, as angry cooks do, until she finally loses it to storm out and confront Jesus. Luke describers her as being "distracted by her many tasks". What does this mean? I know by some experience that when my wife is cooking she does not welcome being distracted. Typically she is concentrating on juggling three or four things at once so everything can finish cooking together. When I come in to the kitchen and say something inconsequential to distract her, she does not take it kindly! Somehow I don't think this is the kind of distraction that is bothering Martha. Martha lacks the submission to Christ, both physical and spiritual, that her sister is showing.
Have you ever heard the expression, "It's all about me?" Look at Martha's words to Jesus and you'll see that attitude on display. Look at how often she uses the first person pronoun: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself ? Tell her then to help me" (Lk 10:40). Martha's words reveal her basic self-centeredness. She may call Jesus Lord but clearly her plans and her place in the house are more important than finding out what Jesus' plans and her place in his kingdom might be. There is a place for the first-person in prayer, but it should always be balanced with an awareness of God, as in the beloved prayer of St. Francis, “make me a channel of your peace”.
When our Lectionary works, it can work very well. Take a minute to think back to our second reading, from Colossians. What does Colossians say about this visitor who has come to dwell under the humble roof of Martha and Mary? St. Paul says this:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20)
This is truly a portrait of Christ as the Alpha and Omega. How can Mary, or how can any of us, put ourselves first and still call ourselves followers of He who has “first place in everything” (Luke 10:18). And when we try, as best we can, to understand this incredible cosmic power that has come together as a human visitor, we have to wonder in gratitude at how gently he corrects Martha and opens her eyes to her “Me First” attitude.
“There is need of only one thing”, Jesus says. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." What does Jesus mean by this? Let me return to St. Paul to answer this question. In Colossians Paul writes that Jesus has come to “reconcile all things” and “make peace” by rescuing us “ who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col 1:21). There are all sorts of “evil deeds” and some of them seem quite innocuous. Martha, angrily banging pots and pans in the kitchen, is a warning to all of us who put our own importance and our own just deserts ahead of what we owe to God. Jesus’ words to Martha are an act of reconciliation, drawing Martha out of her hostility and drawing her into the peace and presence of God.
We in our ordinary churches and in our humble homes are incredibly privileged to share these spaces with Jesus Christ, the Lord of Creation. He who has “first place in everything”, comes under our roofs, graciously wishing to know us and dwell with us. How will we know him and welcome him? It is not a question of praying more and working less. A church whose members wear out their knees in prayer but never bothers with hospitality and fellowship would be sadly lacking in its relationship with God because we would never experience God in life as it is meant to be lived, including laughter, friendship and rich deserts! At the same time, a church that delighted in social events, but whose members never bothered with prayer and bible study, also fails because it would be like a body without a head, never knowing the one in whose name it gathers. There is a time or us to be Marthas, and a time for us to be Marys, but always, always, we must ask ourselves, do we invite our Lord Jesus Christ to have first place in everything we do? May we always be churches that put God first, may we always be churches were our Lord is “pleased to dwell”.
©Michael Peterson+ 2007