Choosing the Better Part

Christ at the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez (1618)

My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 10:38-42

Having people over is very enjoyable, but it can also be a lot of work. The apartment has to be cleaned, and depending how long people are staying, a guest room may have to be prepared, even if it is a make-shift room. food has to be planned and prepared, often more than one typically is used to preparing. Additionally, if you are anything like me, I much like to prepare better fare than I typically have. While I’m fine with rice and beans, I like my guests to have something a bit more exciting, tasty, a bit more intensive. While I am satisfied with spending an evening reading, having guests often means making plans. A lot of work, for sure, but important work, worthwhile work, hospitable work.

We see something similar in our reading today, but first, where are we in the story?

Jesus is traveling again. This passage comes right on the heels of the story that we read last week, when the lawyer asked Jesus exactly who is my neighbor, the one that he needed to love, and when Jesus told him, love even the person you grew up to hate, the person of a different ethnicity and religion, love the foreigner. Immediately after this, we have our story of Jesus visiting these two sisters, Martha and Mary.

We’re not sure if Jesus just showed up at their doorstep or if he told them in advance that he was coming. So Jesus came, and the Middle Eastern codes of hospitality required them to care for Jesus. We typically think that hospitality is offering coffee or tea and cookies or something. We see it as just being nice, but in first century Palestine it was a serious matter, life or death. Remember, this is largely a desert and if you don’t care for people who come to you, chances are they will die. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all put a large emphasis on the importance of hospitality, and this continues today.

So, Martha is busy making preparations for Jesus’ stay. We aren’t told exactly what she was preparing, but we can probably safely assume that it was a meal.

But Martha can’t just prepare any meal. Jesus is a well known and well respected (by some, greatly hated by others, of course) religious leader. In fact, here, Martha calls Jesus “Lord”, so the chance is great that she had an inkling at least that he was more than just that. So she can’t just make any meal. She likely wants to prepare the best meal. So she is working really hard to show the best hospitality to Jesus, but what is going on?  Her sister Mary is just sitting, listening to Jesus. Martha, overworked and underpaid, as the colloquialism goes, gets fed up with having to prepare the food, set the table, and make a nice and welcoming environment and in all her running around, she sees her sister, not helping. One thing leads to another, every time Martha passes the entrance to the room, she sees her sister sitting there while she continues to run around. Finally, she can’t take it anymore.

She slams down her utensils on the counter-top removes her apron and stomps out into the main room where Jesus and Mary sit.

“Lord,” she addresses Jesus respectfully, but we can sense a bit of impatience and frustration under her voice. “Don’t you care that my sister has abandoned all of this work to me alone? Tell her to come and help me!”

With Jesus’ reply, we can put two different inflections to it which give two different nuances to the words. We can see it as a chastisement, a reprimand, a rebuke. Or we can see it as an invitation. The best reading, I think, is to see it as an invitation.

Notice, what we have here with with Martha and Mary is not a contrast between good and bad. Martha didn’t really do anything wrong. She was being hospitable, something that Jesus certainly appreciated, after all, the importance of hospitality is plastered all over the pages of scripture from the very first book to the last.  No, Martha wasn’t doing anything particularly wrong, which is one of the reasons that I don’t think that this was a rebuke. No, she wasn’t doing anything particularly bad, she was doing most things right, she was just missing one piece.

Hospitality is not just about providing things for guests, which is important, but the foundation of hospitality is to care for those whom God brings to you. Therefore, an important piece that Martha was missing was not in her work, but rather in her neglect of paying attention to their guest, to Jesus.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t say anything about her being busy, he said that she was worried and distracted by many things. She was worried and distracted by many things. Jesus was not yelling at Martha, but rather offering an invitation and showing concern for Martha.

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “You are worried and distracted by many things.”

The issue here is not at all that Martha was doing anything wrong by making preparations for Jesus’ visit, it was that in her preparations, she seems to have forgotten what she was actually doing. She became so engrossed in what she was preparing, that she seemed to have forgotten who was sitting right there in her living room.

Some have used this to argue that a contemplative spirituality is superior to a working spirituality, that somehow sitting still at the feet of Jesus is superior to work, to being busy to getting things done. But this is not at all.  Nowhere does scripture ever downplay the importance of doing things. I mean, where would the church be without people who do things…without people who connect with God through service?

No, this is not at all, but it says something important. It says that while we work, regardless of what we are doing we need to do two things, first, we must listen to the voice of God, and second, we cannot lose focus of the fact that God is always here with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. Martha lost track of the fact that God was sitting in her living room while she frantically ran to and fro to get things ready, but in the process, she lost sight of who she was with, of the whole point of hospitality.

I wonder if any of you can resonate with this. Do you ever feel like you get so busy with things, that you forget about God? Do you ever get so worried and distracted by many things that you find that you didn’t pray, that you didn’t have a chance to read scripture, that you didn’t have the opportunity to, even for fifteen minutes, listen to what God might be saying to you?  Now, I don’t say this to make you feel bad. People who are busy don’t need lectures about how they need to pray more, or how they need to read the Bible more. While this is often accurate, guilting ourselves or each other into this is not the point.

Rather, see this as an invitation.

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite brother in France in who lived in in the middle of the 17th century. Brother Lawrence worked in the kitchen. He prepared food for the other brothers and he cleaned up afterwards. Day in and day out. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Day in and day out. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. What helps us remember Brother Lawrence, however, was not the food that he cooked or his ability to scrub pots until they shined. No, the reason that we remember Brother Lawrence, but throughout all of his mundane work, he developed the discipline to experience the deep and abiding presence of God even in the four walls of his kitchen with stoves burning, pots clanging, and dishwater smelling.

You see, Brother Lawrence grew in the ability to be both Martha and Mary at the same time. He kept his hands busy with important, albeit mundane, repetitive, and tedious work.

Brother Lawrence writes, “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him… It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

His work, his unspiritual and tedious work of preparing meals and scrubbing pots, but he always worked to always have a sense of God’s presence. He chose the better part.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence. It took him years to develop this. It didn’t bring him notoriety within his lifetime, it was his writings that brought him fame long after his death. But fame wasn’t what we was seeking, he simply wanted to be able to pay attention to God while he prepared things for God’s people, while he did his work, he simply wanted to be able to choose the better part in his work.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence, and it likely won’t be easy for us either. It is not easy, but it is important, it is worthwhile, it is the better part.

Be aware of God’s presence where you are. Listen for God’s voice among the clamour of your daily life. Work is good, and there is nothing wrong with being busy, but remember that God is right with you, and we cannot ignore this fact. Perhaps the story here of Martha and Mary isn’t to present us with an either/or, perhaps it is a both/and.

I want to close with a prayer generally attributed to Brother Lawrence. Whether it was actually written by him, I do not know, and it does not matter, because I think that it describes well what we all strive for:

O Lord of pots and pans and things,
Since I have no time to be
a great saint by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming Heaven’s gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
Forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food
in room, or by the sea,
Accept the service that I do-
I do it unto Thee.

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