Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Luke 10:38-42
Okay, right from the get go, I must say that from my perspective, Martha in today’s gospel story has gotten a bad rap from most preachers and teachers throughout the centuries. So too does the priest and the Levite from last week’s Good Samaritan story.
Martha was in the kitchen preparing dinner for their guest and it wasn’t just any guest. It was Jesus Christ! She was getting absolutely no help from her sister, Mary, who was acting more like a guest than the hostess that she was…sitting in the living room with Jesus just visiting away. And yet Jesus said, when Martha finally could stand it no longer and complained to him, that Mary was doing the better thing. We read this story and we think, “Well, someone has to chop the vegetables. Someone has to boil the water, set the table, be sure the wine is chilled just right. Dinner doesn’t just magically appear on the table.”
And the priest and the Levite from last week’s gospel story? What about them? They came down the road at separate times, saw the man lying there, and passed by on the other side. How do we know they didn’t think he was just a traveler taking a nap or someone they were afraid could ambush them? How do we know they weren’t rushing back to the temple to tend to their own emergency or a wedding was about to start or a big meeting of the Sanhedrin?
Sure, it was great that the Samaritan stopped to help, was selfless in his compassion, but we don’t really talk about this story from the perspective of the priest or Levite. We don’t really talk about today’s gospel from Martha’s perspective.
I can sympathize with Martha because I’ve been in her situation in my life. I can think of plenty of times growing up with five siblings when I felt I was doing more of my share of the chores than any of the others. I’m sure we all can. “Mom, Randy’s taking more ice cream than I got!” “Dad, how come I’m in here all alone doing the dishes and Ann’s outside playing?” And even as adults, we murmur to ourselves, “Why can’t she do more around here?” “How come administration doesn’t communicate with us as they do with each other?” And on and on the murmuring goes.
I can sympathize with the priest and Levite because I too have passed by on the other side of the street when seeing someone lying there. We all have I’m sure.
However, when I can…when we can step outside our own perspectives it doesn’t take long to see that Jesus wasn’t chiding Martha for working in the kitchen. Jesus would have supported Martha’s service. It was that Martha succumbed to worrying about the fact that she was “all alone doing all the work.” What started out as hospitality from Martha turned into anxiety and worry. She lost her focus that her Lord was abiding with them…was right there. This story is not so simplistic that it’s telling us to behave like Mary and not like Martha. Jesus knows our hearts, knows our intentions. In anything we do it’s our intention that counts. If we’re worrying and fretting and complaining and murmuring (and I do it too, I admit that) we aren’t allowing the love of God to rise up and guide our way. We’re not taking the time to listen to the Word of God, to allow ourselves to be transformed into new ways of being and doing greater things than we could ever ask or imagine.
If we do look at these stories from only our perspectives, as we’re wont to do as human beings, we think of Mary sitting so peacefully at the feet of Jesus or the Good Samaritan helping the guy on the side of the road and wonder if we could ever be that way. Seriously. Yet if we look at these stories told for us from the perspective of Jesus Christ who believes in us, loves us, wants only to heal us, maybe we can get a little free therapy and truly be transformed. I use the term ‘therapy’ deliberately because long before it was something done by a psychologist or psychiatrist, therapeia was a biblical term that meant healing in the deepest and fullest sense (Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, p. 191–192). Luke had used it in the chapter before today’s lesson to describe the ministry of Jesus. When the crowds found out [that Jesus was in Bethsaida] they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed therapeia…deep and full healing (Luke 9:11).
So what’s the free therapy here? How do we shift our self-absorbed perspective to hear this dynamic Word of God? How do we follow what we read in James, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). Sometimes what it takes for me to break out of my own little pity party is to go help someone, and the peace of God is the result. Sometimes what it takes to find joy is listening to a word of Scripture, praying with it, coming to church, and then when it’s time for work we can do so in joy and not in bitterness.
I’m reminded of a situation in which the rector of a church had become exasperated after only one year of ministry in a new parish. This same situation can be imagined in any place where people work together or gather together on a regular basis: offices, schools, committees, businesses. In this priest’s church, made up of people like you and me, several key volunteers and a few staff people had gotten into the toxic habit of constantly complaining. A few were greeters, one was an usher, two worked as Sunday school teachers, another with a soup kitchen. Finally after prayer and study this wise priest had an idea and preached about it. He was excited when he announced that every volunteer and staff person would be given a gift: the gift of choice. He actually said, “If you are a greeter, then be sure you like to smile, be sure you like to greet people, make them feel welcome even if they don’t seem too happy, even if they don’t greet you back. If you are on the altar guild, be sure you really want to care for our fine linens and silver without reward. If you teach Sunday School or work with our acolytes, make sure you love kids. If you’re in the choir, make sure you love to sing…and that you can! If you are in a volunteer or staff position,” he told them, “and you aren’t loving your work, then please come to me with your ideas, your solutions, or give your notice because that task, that job is not what God would have you do.” It would have sounded like a condescending lecture except that he said all of this in joy and modeled this way of being. He knew he was truly giving them the greatest gift—the knowledge of the presence of Jesus Christ right with them always, available to give them a new perspective—the greatest message that he could give them. He said, “God is working in your life! Notice. Use your talents. If it’s hard but you still want to serve in that way, pray and then ask for help or propose a new efficiency or look at the task in a new way!” He was so enthusiastic about being a cheerful giver that by the end of his sermon people were actually smiling. And do you know what? Slowly but surely it worked. He just kept giving them the gift of choice, insisting on Sabbath time, and guiding them to discover their vocations.
One of my daughter’s best friends, Christine, discovered this perspective the hard way. Just after they graduated from college, Christine got a great job in New York City in the finance industry. She worked 18–20 hour days on Wall Street making more and more money, coming home and falling into bed, and, when she had the energy, called her parents or friends and would grumble. She finally got so sick she had to take time off, and during that time she realized that working in that way was not what she really wanted. She began to pray, took up yoga, eventually quit her job, and went to work for Doctors without Borders in the Sudan, the Congo, and in Haiti. Her yoga keeps her balanced, so she teaches it to the locals and her co-workers wherever she goes. She’s learned the ongoing importance of doing what she loves and taking care of herself in the midst of heart-wrenching exhausting work.
A great piece of advice a counselor once told me and now I use especially in my pre-marital counseling is the acronym HALT. If we feel like complaining, like grumbling, see if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, or any combination of these. And, if so, H-A-L-T. Have a good meal. Get some sleep. Find out why you’re angry. Express why you’re lonely or for what you are grieving (and this isn’t only about grieving after the death of someone but grieving any loss: a job, a situation, a crisis that changes our hopes). We’re usually not upset for the reason we think we are.
One of my best friends who gives and gives and gives to others found that her patience was wearing thin, tears were coming easily. Having recently experienced great personal loss she realized the importance of going to a counselor herself and scheduled a few days off for a retreat. She is profoundly effective in her life because she is balanced in the humble realization that she just cannot do it alone, that she must sit at the feet of Christ on a regular basis and listen for his word and can then be alive in and through the power of God in action.
I find it rather humorous that the task for the preacher today is to speak of the importance of listening to the Word of God, to learn the importance of abiding with Christ. I find it humorous because this is exactly what I need to be practicing. We already know this therapeia works. I would venture to say that many of us could tell personal stories of how prayer and Scripture has changed us, molded us, brought us to our knees and when we rose found that we were strengthened to go on. Somehow we not only read the passage, or heard the parable, or sang the psalm, or prayed the verse, but something changed within us, was healed. That’s how it works.
In our listening, my sisters and brothers, we consent to be hospitable to an ever present God, and then in our doing we consent to God’s perspective in the activity of our lives and we are never the same again.