Sermon from 05-16-10: “Relatively Speaking, Part 2: Mary and Martha”

Sermon Text: Luke 10:38-42

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The following is my original manuscript.

This happens every time my kids are made to clean their rooms… An argument inevitably breaks out between at least my two boys, who share a room, over the question of who is actually cleaning. Townshend will say, “Ian, cle-e-e-e-e-e-e-a-n!” And Ian will say, “I am cleaning,” and much crying and yelling ensues. They will cycle through this argument about five or six times before the room is actually clean. What’s at stake here is the question of fairness: no one in my family wants to have to do more cleaning than anyone else. As Lisa would gladly tell you, there’s really no danger of that with me! But for my kids, yeah…

Fairness. One of you told me that the first complete sentence your child learned to say was, “That’s not fair!” And they say it with such great authority. “That’s not fair”—as if they’ve found the hidden trump card that wins every argument, that settles every dispute. “It’s not fair that I can’t have ice cream for breakfast!” a four-year-old says. And the parent responds, “Oh, well… in that case, strawberry or rocky road?” What our kids don’t understand is that we parents don’t really care about fairness—I mean, not really. What we really care about more than anything else is peace and quiet! Right? I am not nearly as interested in the question of fairness as my children want me to be.

The question of fairness is at the heart of the dispute between Martha and her sister Mary as they play host to Jesus and his disciples. They have invited Jesus and his disciples into their home. Martha feels put out because while she’s doing all the work associated with hospitality—cooking, cleaning, and serving—her sister is sitting at the feet of Jesus alongside the other disciples, listening to him teach. It’s not fair!

Mary is a great hero here. Just as Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their nets and fishing boats when Jesus called them, so Mary leaves behind her good and respectable and important work, at least temporarily, in order to listen to her master and teacher. Jesus is her top priority. And following Jesus is so important to her that she even does something bold and risky—something women were not supposed to do in her day: sit alongside men to hear Jesus teach.

Mary’s example inspires and challenges me. Most of us don’t have to drop everything we’re doing, abandon our livelihoods, leave behind the comfort and security of home in order to follow Jesus. I went into full-time ministry but only after I made sure I could find a way to support my family and pay for school, etc. It was a pretty safe decision. But all of us can and should be a little like Mary. In the midst of the busy-ness of our routines and schedules, our family and work and school obligations, we must set aside life’s pressing demands in order to make time for Jesus. And it might mean tuning out the little Martha on our shoulder whispering, “You don’t have time to pray this morning or read the Bible or go on this mission trip or volunteer for Vacation Bible School or take a Disciple class… Are you crazy? Do you know how much work you have to do?”

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t a one-time decision. Well-meaning Christians sometimes say, “I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord”—as if it’s something in the past tense. Now, making that initial decision of faith is very important, but it’s just the beginning, not the end. We spend our lifetimes learning to make Jesus Savior and Lord. We take up our cross daily. We make a decision to leave our nets and our boats behind at least for a little while every day! We answer the call of Jesus every day. And we do so believing that every day, Jesus has something to teach us; every day, Jesus is strengthening us through his Spirit; every day, Jesus is giving us the grace that we need to meet that day’s challenges.

That’s the example of Mary. How do we compare to her?

So… Mary answers Jesus’ call, but Martha doesn’t. But not so fast! Let’s not judge Martha too harshly. We can’t spend all of our time living the contemplative life; we can’t spend all of our time in prayer; we can’t spend all of our time reading God’s word—even monks in monasteries have to do chores. We have work to do! Good, important, and valuable work! After all, in another context, Jesus calls what Martha is doing—providing hospitality—the work of God’s kingdom. It’s a mark of what it means to be a disciple.

So… What is she doing wrong?

I better answer that question for myself. I’m a pastor, after all. Isn’t all the work that I do for God’s kingdom. Is it possible that even my good work can get twisted around and become a sin? Based on today’s scripture, Jesus would say “yes.” So how do we know the difference? How do we know when we’re serving Jesus in the right way, versus serving Jesus in the wrong way?

Fortunately, this text gives us some clues: Do we, like Martha, ever feel worried and distracted by many tasks? Of course we do! We understand what it means to be stressed out! But being stressed out is not the way disciples of Jesus Christ are supposed to feel. It’s not Christian. In fact, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not worry”—about anything. Don’t fret. Don’t panic. Don’t be stressed out. Easier said than done, right?

Martha asks the question, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this question reminds us of that time in the gospels when the disciples are on the boat on the Sea of Galilee, and there’s a terrible storm, and they’re worried that their lives are in danger, and they’re bailing water, desperately trying to keep the ship afloat… And what’s Jesus doing? He’s sleeping in the stern of the boat. And they wake him up, and, like Martha, they ask him: “Lord, do you not care…?”

How does Jesus sleep in the midst of a terrible and life-threatening storm? Jesus can sleep because he trusts that his heavenly Father is in control. We need to learn in times of stress to pray the “serenity prayer,” which has brought strength to so many people in AA and other 12-step programs: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Think of all the things that get you stressed out in your life. Chances are, you’re not stressed because of the things that you can control. You’re stressed because of what you can’t control—what other people are responsible for, for example. The wisdom that this prayer speaks of is the wisdom that says, “I can’t control the weather; this stormy sea is above my pay grade. But I can put this in God’s hands and trust that he’ll take care of me.”

Listen, I can honestly say that no matter what storms I’ve faced in my life the Lord has never let me drown. I have no complaints. What about you? We’re all still here because of God’s grace. I believe that God has proven himself true.

Richard Foster is an evangelical Quaker writer who has written extensively about prayer. He says that many of us feel distracted when we pray. Our minds wander; we can’t help but think about the day ahead—that deadline we’re facing at work, that final exam that’s hanging over our heads, that report from the doctor, that bill that we don’t know how we’re going to pay. These distractions are a sign that we need to pray. He recommends that we write down the thing that’s distracting us; and then ask the Lord to help us deal with each of these things.

Similarly, when you’re feeling stressed, write down what we’re stressed about. Identify those things that are beyond your control and pray, “Lord, I can’t control this. I can do this, this, and this. But I can’t control that. But I know that you can. I know that you love me, that you always care for me, and that you’re always working for my good. So I’m giving this stressful thing to you. It’s in your hands.”

This scripture also challenges us to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing. Martha was serving Jesus, to be sure. Her actions may have been perfectly correct, but why does she feel put-upon? Why does she feel as if she’s being taken advantage of? Why does she feel resentment toward her sister—and probably toward Jesus for not taking her side?

Martha feels this way because she wants something in return. Do you get the feeling she wants to feel appreciated? She wants to be recognized for her good work? She wants that pat on the back? Probably.

And who can blame her? We often want those things too. Don’t we? In our own families, how often do we feel resentment and hold grudges toward our brothers and sisters because we don’t get what we need, what we think is fair, what we think we deserve? I’m totally sympathetic with Martha, but make no mistake: that’s not love.

Loving in order to be loved in return is not the kind of love that Christ demonstrated. Jesus emptied himself on the cross in the most selfless act of love ever—in Christ, God gave everything for us, and he didn’t need or expect anything in return. That’s true love. And only this kind of love satisfies us.

Martha was looking to other people to satisfy a need that no person can satisfy—including ourselves. Do you imagine that if you could only lose that 15 lbs. then—then—you could really be happy. Do you imagine that if you just had a better career then—then—you could be really happy. Do you imagine that if you could just meet the right person then—then—you could really be happy. It’s a lie! You’ll be the same person with the same problems. The point is, left to our own sinful selves, we can never get enough love, money, praise, popularity, gratitude, or recognition to satisfy us. The one thing that we really need—the life-changing love of God—comes through Christ alone.

Mary understands this—and that’s why she chooses that “one thing that’s needed,” which will “not be taken away from her.”

What will you choose?

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