I got to preach at the Eucharist at the College of Transfiguration yesterday. The text was Luke 10:38-42, the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. It’s a gift of the lectionary that this text came up in this time when students feel extra busy with final papers and teachers with grading. Here is the sermon:
I remember the first time someone said it to me, when I was in Seminary, our version of Theological College. They said, “It must be so peaceful to be in theological school with nothing to do but study the word of our Lord.” The person meant well, so I thought, but did not say, “You have got to be joking. I have to read one hundred pages by tomorrow. I have exams coming up and three papers due next week and I haven’t even chosen my topics yet. Every lecturer thinks their class is the most important and that I should focus on the mountain of work they’ve given me to do. I have to be at my parish placement all day on Sunday. I haven’t got a full night’s sleep since the term started and if I don’t do laundry soon, no one will sit near me. Peaceful? It’s not like I get to just hang out at the feet of Jesus.”
I kept a straight face though, did not even roll my eyes, and so the person continued, “and the people there must all be so sweet and kind.” “What?” I wanted to say, “Actually, it’s super competitive. Some students can sometimes be quite mean and try to build themselves up at the expense of others. We are so different from one another we may as well be from different planets and some people don’t even try to understand where you’re coming from, let alone try to help. And if you think it’s easy living with a whole group of people who think they’re in seminary because God has especially chosen them to be there, well, let me tell you, it’s not.”
Those comments, “It must be so peaceful, so harmonious, so tranquil . . .” of course continue after ordination and in the parish. “Oh, you’re a priest. That must be so calm and serene, just getting to read the Bible and think of goodness and light all day.” “Well,” I want to say, “actually, I’ve got three meetings before the lunch I will gulp down at my desk, and hospital visits, and a Bible study to prepare, and a stewardship program to design, and the plumbing isn’t working, and our children’s ministry leader just quit, and, in case you haven’t noticed, the world is falling apart and I’m supposed to respond, so, no, it’s not peaceful at all.” They picture Mary; I feel like Martha.
But isn’t all that doing—reading, writing, discussing, responding, caring, visiting, serving–actually good? Isn’t all that busyness, as a student, a lecturer, a priest what we’re supposed to do?
In our Gospel lesson we meet a woman who is doing and doing and doing—and all to exercise that important virtue of showing hospitality. Isn’t all her doing to serve the Lord something for which she should be praised? Doesn’t Martha deserve 100%–an A with distinction–for all her efforts?
Here’s what happened: Jesus, and perhaps some of his disciples, have come to visit Martha and Mary. I imagine Martha rolling up her sleeves and going to work preparing the dinner. She’s gone to the market, purchased fruits and vegetables, and had a nice lamb butchered. She’s cleaned the house, shaken out the rugs, chopped the vegetables, set the bread dough out to rise, made the salad, and changed her mind three times about the table decorations. She’s put the soup on to cook, but she isn’t sure the seasoning is quite right. She calls Mary in to give it a taste, but Mary shows little interest in helping. Martha knows the lamb could get tough if she puts it in the oven too soon, and she doesn’t want to burn the bread. Perhaps it was a mistake to try a new recipe on such an important guest, but since Mary wouldn’t help her decide on the menu, she decided to try it and hope for the best. She wants everything to be perfect for Jesus. There is just so much to do.
Martha pokes her head into the living room, hoping to get Mary’s attention, but Mary’s still just sitting and listening to Jesus. Martha goes back to stir the soup, which has started to simmer. So has Martha started to simmer with anger.
This story can really irk us. We can get really annoyed with Mary for not helping, or Martha, because we know that’s supposed to be the right answer, right? Choose Mary, not Martha? It seems so natural for the story to turn into an exercise in choosing between the two sisters. Mary or Martha? Which of the sisters are we most like? Who is more important? More faithful? More valuable? It is so tempting to launch into an enthusiastic defense of Martha, especially with all the Martha’s around us, in the college and in the church. Where would we be without the Martha’s–those who act and give and plan and do and volunteer to be on the committee and organize and set up and scrape the wax off of candlesticks and make sure the numbers on the hymn board are correct and that there is enough wine for communion and explain things one more time to the priest from the United States so she won’t confuse everyone–so that the rest of us can be like Mary and sit and listen at the feet of Jesus. Our common life depends on the activity of people willing to roll up their sleeves and get things done.
All Martha wants is a little help. Is that so wrong? “Lord,” she says, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
We might wish that Jesus had said, “You are absolutely right, Martha. Let’s just all come into the kitchen and help with the dishes. Let’s visit while we put the plates away. Many hands make light work!”
But he doesn’t. Instead he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” She is described in the NRSV as “distracted by her many tasks.” More literally, it would be “she is distracted with much serving;” even more literally, much “deaconing.” Jesus says, “You are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing.”
We understand. Martha is not just busy. She is not just multitasking. She is not just overbooked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. She is distracted with much serving. Distracted. Distracted by too much. There is need of only one thing. But some days it is so hard to remember what that one thing is.
What if the point of the story is not to further divide Martha from Mary and Mary from Martha, not to pit the sisters against each other, not to choose either of them, but to choose Jesus? What if this is not a story about choosing between studying the Bible and marching for justice, between making time for prayer and hands-on service to others? What if it’s not a story asking us to choose between beingMary and being Martha, but of keeping our focus on Jesus, choosing Jesus, choosing just one thing he’s asking of us, or offering to us, now?
But what is the one thing?
Just before he visits Mary and Martha, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan as an answer to the lawyer who wants to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,” the lawyer says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law?” In Luke’s Gospel it’s the lawyer, not Jesus as in Matthew and Mark, who gives this summary of the law, this all-encompassing picture of whom and how, and how big to love. The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ”And Jesus says to him, 100%. A with distinction. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
“Do this,” Jesus says, as if it’s a simple thing—a whole slew of words that mean all encompassing devotion and commitment—all boiled down to one little word: “this.” But Jesus himself seems to play fast and loose with the math when he answers the question put to him in Matthew, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” “This one,” says Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What’s the one thing? This—and this.
Do this one thing: love the Lord your God completely, and your neighbor as yourself. The story of the Good Samaritan shows how one loves one’s neighbor with actions of compassion and mercy, going and doing, love shown in verbs: the Samaritan sees, goes, pours, bandages, lifts, takes, gives, pays, promises. Then Jesus goes to visit Mary and Martha and we see Mary loving God without distraction, without worry, being present and listening. Do this one thing: choose Jesus, through compassionate action, through single-hearted, focused listening. In this one thing—going and doing and stopping and listening, you will choose Jesus, and love your neighbor as yourself.
But wait, we say. That’s more than one! How will I know which one really? How will I know when it’s time to do and when to sit? When to listen and when to act? When will I meet Jesus in serving the wounded stranger and when in quiet contemplation and prayer?
Do this and you will live. Jesus does not spell it all out for us, does not give us all the details. But listen one more time to how he helps Martha, or tries to.
Community is important in this story. In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha does the right thing first. She invites Jesus into her home. But then she doesn’t spend time with Jesus, or with Mary. And, rather than speak with Mary directly and ask Mary directly for help, Martha does something not helpful for the well-being of community. She goes around Mary instead of to Mary. She goes to Jesus and talks about Mary, tries to make Mary Jesus’ problem. “Jesus, make Mary help me.” We call this “triangulation.” It’s a divisive move.
In asking Martha to choose the one needful thing, Jesus invites Martha back into community. He does not command. He does not shame. He invites. He gives a choice. Come into the living room, Martha, he says. I want to be with you. Will you choose me? In choosing me, you will also gain back your sister. In choosing me, you may see your way clear to loving yourself, as well as your neighbor. In her frantic rush, in her being distracted by much serving, Martha is showing love neither to Jesus, nor to Mary, nor to herself. Put down the lamb shank, stop worrying about the soup, Martha, and come join us by the fire. There is nothing you need to do to earn God’s love, or impress God, or prove anything to God. Nothing. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any less or any more than God already does. Jesus looks upon you with compassion. What if you see yourself through the same compassionate eyes? What if you gaze on yourself and on your sisters and brothers with the same love Jesus has for you?
This is such an important time, in such an important place. We are not here in this place just so you can prepare to meet Jesus someday, to love God and neighbor someday, to help others love and live someday. What if we use this time, now, to give Jesus our undivided attention so we can see him give us his? Jesus meets us here, in a community of people meant to be here with you, for you, and you for them, so together we can all choose Jesus, through studying and serving, giving and receiving.
Do this, and you will live.