Sermon for July 17, 2016, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA.
Text: Luke 10:38-42
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
A somewhat familiar text, is it not?
I don’t mean familiar in terms of familiarity with this particular section of Luke’s gospel. I mean familiar in terms of the picture on the surface of sibling rivalry (not to mention a bit of triangulation, just to spice it up a bit).
Sibling rivalry is an age-old device of literature, a guaranteed way to establish conflict in a story, all the way back to Cain and Abel. Those of us of a certain age might recall that infamous Brady Bunch episode, where Jan is jealous of her older sister: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
You may have heard this story as Jesus chiding Martha for being too busy, or Jesus pitting Martha against Mary.
But these are distractions. They keep us from the one thing. This “one thing” is neither the contemplative life NOR the active life. It is something deeper.
I want to suggest that there is far more going on here. This story comes to us in the midst of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. We’ve had teachings the last few weeks on discipleship – both the gifts and the costs – and Jesus pauses here to examine another facet of discipleship.
The story immediately preceding this in Luke’s gospel is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which asks “Who is my neighbor?” It’s the parable of selfless service given by the one least expected to do so.
So in that vein, one might wonder: why would Jesus consider Martha’s service “less than”? Didn’t he himself come to serve? Hasn’t he been talking AT LENGTH about the importance of serving the neighbor? What gives, Jesus?
But if we turn these words over a few times, this is where we start to see that the story is layered. Jesus is saying far more than just the words translated to us on the page.
Last week when Jesus said “go and do likewise” he said it to the LAWYER. Not to those who might be expected to “do likewise.” Jesus has already begun to dismantle the gender roles and status quo that prevent people from living fully into who God has created them to be. With Mary and Martha, Jesus keeps going down this road. Instead of a word that compares – and therefore diminishes – Jesus brings a word that liberates and ultimately, completes.
Martha was the householder, and therefore the one according to Torah who was obligated to provide hospitality to the traveler. This was an integral part of how God’s people lived together. It’s hard to argue with that obligation; it’s a good way to operate. However, the role of server had come to be identified in the household by way of gender terms – relegated to women. The role of the student, the learner, on the other hand, was not just relegated, but RESTRICTED to men.
Now, in this story we aren’t entirely sure that welcoming Jesus meant welcoming all the disciples as well. But let’s imagine for a moment that it did – that Martha’s house is now full.
That Mary is sitting in the company of MEN at Jesus’ feet. That she is not doing what is expected of her. That she is out of bounds.
Martha, on the other hand, is keeping Torah and extending hospitality. She is doing precisely what is expected of her. She is in bounds.
But Jesus doesn’t work in boundary-defined ways.
Jesus did not tell the seventy, when he sent them out, that they could only say “the kingdom of God has come near to you” to the people who received them. NO.
That proclamation was for EVERYONE.
So here Jesus proclaims that sitting and listening at his feet is for everyone.
It’s a both/and dichotomy, both men AND women.
But make no mistake, when Jesus says all can sit at his feet, he is also saying that all can serve. All can help welcome the guest. All can set the table. All can replace the toilet paper roll (thankfully there is no mention of the endless debate about paper over or paper under). In short, ALL can participate FULLY in the kingdom. Both. And.
Both/and was a dream when I was younger. I remember the marches for civil rights. I remember organizing for women’s rights. I’m not that old (really I’m not!) but for perspective, the year I was born women had only had the right to vote for forty years.
Full inclusion and participation in our society by all people is still beyond us to a degree, laws notwithstanding.
But 2000 years ago, Jesus proclaimed full inclusion and participation. Not as a political agenda, but as a natural progression from the freeing word of the gospel.
Jesus holds this teaching together with the importance of being centered in the Word. The Greek is “logos” which really means living Word, personified and incarnate in Jesus the Christ.
This “centered in the Word” – this is the one thing. Centered in the living Word. Centered in this Jesus who proclaims when he unrolls the scroll in the synagogue that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…..to set the captives free…..to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Centered in the Word is what it means to be free. Centered in the liberating grace of God through Christ who sets us free. Free to listen. Free to act. Free to serve. Free to rest. Free to discern and ask questions. Free to break out of the restrictions that limit and oppress. Free to live fully as a child of God, and use our gifts in all the ways we feel called to do.
And free to make plenty of room for others to do likewise.
But this freedom seems far off sometimes.
Our world today is an out-of-control version of Martha’s state of being in this story.
Our world is indeed “distracted by many things.”
There isn’t much room being made for folks to be free.
We are “distracted by many things.” Things that obscure our vision. Impair our hearing. Impede our pathways.
Things that make us AFRAID of one another.
Dear sisters and brothers, I don’t need to reiterate the ever-growing list of these distractions. We are painfully reminded of it, every day. We KNOW what the “many things” are.
Yet in the midst of the distractions of this chaotic word, now as then, Jesus continues to remind us of the one thing that holds us together.
The one thing, the “better thing” that Jesus mentions isn’t a particular choice of action OR contemplation. Those are both legitimate choices at particular times, within a life that is centered in the risen Christ. Centered in and sent out from an encounter with the living God. This is the one thing.
When that is our center, then the idea that we are ALL freed to serve the neighbor strips away the gender roles, the societal expectations, the SHOULDS that keep us all from discerning deeply and faithfully what God would have us do.
In my training to become a diaconal minister – a deacon – action and contemplation are expected to be held together. They are complementary; one without the other is incomplete. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek diakonia, which means “service among others”. That service is incomplete without a centeredness in Christ. The action of service is paired with the reflection of contemplation and worship, so that each serves the other.
This is why, before we go out on Bethlehem Serves Day in August, we spend time in worship together. It’s also why we talk about the day and share pictures from it the week after. And this is the crux of my entire diaconal project: our worship of the Triune God, our time in contemplation together, forms and transforms us for service to the neighbor. For worship rendered as action in the world. One leads to the other, and back again – and they continue in cyclical fashion. Action, and reflection.
Jesus speaks a word this day that removes the “shoulds” from our lives, and envisions the “coulds.” Instead of comparison, Jesus points us to completion, to fullness.
This is a word that gives us space to be, and prompts us to make such space for all. A space that holds first the logos. The living Word.
On the days when the distractions are many and increasingly terrifying, let us be reminded of the one thing that is the essential element of discipleship: to be centered in Christ. To take a step back, and take time to rest.
To breathe deeply. To listen.
And then, from that center – go forth to serve.
Let it be so.