First Congregational Church
July 10, 2022
5th Sunday after Pentecost
“Why Is It Always So Difficult?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There is a man selling plane rides in his single prop show plane for $10 a person at the state fair. Sven looks to Martha and says, "Martha, I think I really should try that." Martha replies, "I know you want to Sven, but we have a lot of bills, and you know the money is tight, and $10 is $10." So Sven goes without.
Over the next few years they return, and it’s the same thing, Sven wants to ride, but Martha says no money. Finally, when Sven and Martha are both about 70 years old, Sven looks at Martha, and says, "Martha, I'm 70 now, and I don't know if I'll ever get the chance again, so I just have to have a ride in that there airplane." Martha replies in the same old fashion, and Sven just slumps down.
The pilot is standing near by and overhears the conversation. He pipes up, "Excuse me, folks, I couldn't help but hear your situation, and I have a deal for you. I'll take both of you up together, and if you can both make the entire trip without saying a word, or even making the slightest sound, I'll give you the ride for free. But if either of you makes a sound, it's $10 each."
Martha and Sven look at each other and agree to take the ride. The pilot takes them up, and starts to do loop de loops, twists, dives, climbs, and spins. No sound. The pilot lands the plane, looks back at Sven, and says, "Sir, I have to hand it to ya, you didn't make even the slightest sound and that was my best stuff." Sven looks back at the pilot and says, "Well, I was gonna say something when Martha fell out, but $10 is $10…"
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41 "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Thank you, Sonia. I don’t know about anyone else, but in regard to this relatively famous passage, I have questions. Why didn’t Jesus urge Mary to help Martha to get the necessary work done quickly, and then they both could sit down at Jesus’ feet? Everyone had to eat, regardless. Wishful thinking has Jesus telling everyone - men included - to help with supper after his teaching is done. Isn’t it interesting that this story seems to pit two sisters against each other while Jesus was mainly about bringing everyone into the circle?
Isn’t it intriguing that this is about the sisters of Lazarus, but he doesn’t even get a nod? And isn’t it interesting that this story messes with the “Protestant” work ethic that has been revered by so many? It certainly messes with gender-specific roles for women and men - Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet being a role traditionally held by males. And yet, some feminists are also disturbed at this passage because Martha is rebuked for her sharp tongue while Mary is praised for kneeling down at a man’s feet and keeping her mouth shut. It’s almost as if there’s no “win” to embracing this scene.
As mentioned last week, scriptures are intended to draw us in, even to the point of making us so uncomfortable, that we can’t help but discuss the issue with someone else. I don’t recall who said it, but someone in my research suggested that if you are not disturbed by this event, you’re probably not paying attention. Jesus wanted to get people to look at life differently, and sometimes, the only way to get out of old ways of thinking to begin new perspectives of the kingdom was/is to shock them.
Being such cultured 21st-century people of faith, we may miss the fact that this is a story - from the Bible - about two women - with names - who aren’t merely in the background, but front and center. Even after repeated readings of the passage, we might miss that mention of the house being Martha’s house - not a man’s house, but her house. The mention of her name and that house also indicates that she was the head of her household - without any apologies or explanations. In many respects, Martha is a gracious host to an important guest in her home, breaking the rules and the mold with a well-intentioned if not well-appointed table. Not what first century people would expect at all.
In her own quiet way, Mary displays her rule-breaking by sitting at Jesus’ feet - a place where women were absolutely not allowed to be. But she does it anyway. In different ways, the sisters are cultural rebels - Martha running her own home and Mary taking the disciple’s seat.
There’s one word that has been the steering wheel of this scenario for a long time - the word “but.” But Martha. You can almost hear the tsking. To compound that practice, Jesus scolds Martha with a back-handed compliment to Mary - she who has chosen what is better. All that said, there are two thoughts about this passage that may not get much press, but I do think they are important pieces for our spiritual lives.
The first thought is that we need to take a step back to remember the passage that comes right before this - the one about the Good Samaritan. When the writer of Luke was putting all the pieces together, deciding which story goes where, what passage follows the other, that person was deliberate in pasting the Samaritan story before the Mary and Martha story.
The Good Samaritan story is one of need, ignored by the religious leaders caught up in holy concerns - legitimately or illegitimately. The wounded man needed help because the leaders’ thoughts weren’t enough. So the Good Samaritan goes into Martha mode and actually does something.
It’s obvious that Martha is trying to “do” something, but so is Mary - by sitting and listening to what Jesus has to say. And being hospitable isn’t only about food and beverage, but also about attention and listening.
So rather than taking sides with one or the other sister, we do better by remembering that there is a balance to be found between the sisters, despite how any of us are wired.
We need time to reflect, to sit at Christ’s feet, to contemplate the Holy because sometimes the contemplative practice modeled by Mary leads to action and gives clarity to what we are called to do next. Perhaps in contemplation, Martha would be able to recognize that the issue wasn’t so much with her sister, but with her own feelings. The more precise point is not what has to be done, but what her “doing” is doing to her, and how it’s discombobulating her.
Jesus’ criticism isn’t about Martha, but her distractedness. The Greek translation of that word, distracted, suggests being jerked around or pulled in different directions, and who among us hasn’t felt that way from time to time? When the dust settles, and we’ve had a bit of rest for reflection, we can see that all the directions or pulling weren’t so much the issue as the inability to better focus on what needs to be done first, then second and so on.
We can easily get lost in the debate of whether service or study is better, but really, we need both. We need to pay bills, run errands, and buy and sort groceries, check through the fishing lures. When those needs get pushed together and cause us to feel stretched out of shape, that’s when we start to feel out of control. The balance is not Freedom from distractions, but finding the freedom for service and contemplation. William Willimon put it so well. “There’s no Sunday morning worship without Wednesday night choir practice.”
The second thought about this passage is a little different, and comes from a delightful pastor, Rev. Bri Desotell, who has a blog called “Grace with a Side of Ducks.” Her point is that this isn’t a story about whose way is better – but about who is welcome, in the household of God, and who is welcome at the table of Christ. Rev. Karoline Lewis asked the point as a question. “What if this story has nothing to do with who is better and everything to do with who matters?”
In full human nature, it is easy to tear someone down, criticize each other, and undermine one another in attempt to feel better about ourselves. Which circles back to the contemplation idea, of examining motivations for our behaviors.
But if we take another track, noticing that Jesus didn’t shoo either woman away, we get that even though families can be hard, even though the family of God can be hard, Jesus welcomes everyone to the table and that everyone has a role to play, even if those roles need to be played at different times.
To be sure, it’s a big, messy, beautiful table of Christ. And we will, by definition of human nature, sometimes forget the table and check worthiness cards at the doors - subjectively speaking. At times we forget about loving one another with the same generous and gracious spirit of our rabbi, who refuses to send anyone away.
And thank heavens for forgiveness and mercy and second chances - at least with God. With people, we’re not always so successful. But with God, there is always hospitality and compassion.
In a time when it seems there is so much division, when people who are afraid of losing their power - use their power to make us fear one another, we all need reminding that we all are welcome as we gather. Should the time be as carefree as when we were children, we need reminding that what seems to divide us is not reality, because we are all made in Christ’s image, so no one is more welcome than another.
When we are hearing so many differing messages from so many sources, we need this gathering that joins with all the other gatherings around the world, to know that we have a place, not because of what we look like or what we’ve done or where we’ve been, but because of God’s grace. We don’t have freedom from one thing for another, but freedom for balance in serving God’s people out of the overflowing gratitude to be included at such a precious and prestigious table. Which is a perfect table at which to pray.
Holy God, Three in One, we are grateful that our world needs Marys and Marthas and Bobs and Barneys and all those you created from the twinkle in your eye. When we forget such essential truth, forgive us and inspire us to rise above our failings. Thank you for giving us purpose - to offer hospitality and compassion, to work with dedication and persistence and to return to the well of grace, to drink deeply from the teachings and example of our Lord and our Savior – and then to return to the world, to offer hospitality and compassion all over again as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.