21 July 2019
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 11C (RCL)
Oh, we don’t like the story of Mary and Martha. Someone has to wash the dishes, right? If Martha doesn’t bang those pots and pans, Jesus will not be welcomed as necessary in her house, right? But Jesus doesn’t seem to give her a pass by honoring the work she is doing.
We certainly encounter this dilemma in parish life all the time. Who’s gonna do the work? Someone’s got to change the light bulbs. Someone’s got to do the dishes. Like with Martha, a lot of resentment builds up around these tasks. Why don’t other people step in to help? It’s the same crowd always working at the Christmas bazaar.
The vocabulary in this passage of Luke’s Gospel is a little unusual. What Martha is doing is “deaconing.” That word appears several times in the passage. In a passage we’ll read in a few weeks, when the master returns from the marriage feast and finds the servants at the ready, the master will invite them in to dine, and the master will ‘deacon’ at the table. So Luke is not disparage servant ministry overall — just as regards Martha.
Our translation reads, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” A better translation would be, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and in an uproar about many things.” The word for distracted is the same word as used of a city in a riot. And Martha is triangulating. Rather than asking Mary to help, she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help.
Jesus responds that there is one thing needful, and Mary has chosen the better part. I find it interesting that Luke has chosen to female protagonists. James and John ask Jesus which is to be the greater. Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her. But Mary, also a woman, is sitting at the feet of Jesus. This is the posture of a disciple to a teacher. She is learning from the teacher a way to live. Jesus is exploding the cultural expectations of hospitality which Martha embodies.
One thing is needful: focus on Jesus. In a parish, we tend to forget that the ‘tasks’ exist for a purpose beyond themselves. The reason to change the light bulbs is so that we can see when we worship God. We could worship God in the dark if we had to, and the world wouldn’t end. Our existence as a church would end if we stopped worshiping God, light bulbs or no. Mary has chosen the better part.
A few years ago, at Advent, we had a retreat leader help us develop a rule of life. He identified three levels of membership. The outer circle he called visitors and friends, the next level, regular attenders, and the inner circle, the heart. It is the heart that keeps the place going. They are the ones who show up on work days, who cook the meals and clean the dishes. That is their vocation. That insight struck like thunder. Resentment evaporated. The heart cared that the place stay here for its main purpose – to worship God. Others could come and go as needed, to find a place to be healed, to worship God, to sit at Jesus’ feet. We were committed to making that possible.
We didn’t hear, “Other people need to step up and help” nearly so often. We also began to wonder if the closeness of that group at the heart of the parish made it hard for others to step in to that role. How could we make it easier for others to help do the dishes? Martha has a genuine complaint, but Jesus calls her to refocus on the why she is doing what she is doing. What Mary has chosen won’t be taken from her. Presumably Martha can choose that part too, and Jesus won’t be offended that no one is waiting on him. Do the light bulbs need changed right now? Or can it wait? And why do they need changed? Let’s get together after the meal is over and work on that together, shall we?