Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sibling Revelry: Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

Another July lectionary sermon, preached this morning...


There’s something about Mary—and Martha—that makes me want to break out in an old Rosemary Clooney song. You know the one:

Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters.
Never had to have a chaperone, no sir!
I’m here to keep my eye on her!

The fun thing about the song, and the reason it comes to mind, is this: it presents, on the surface, a picture of siblings who are as perfectly in sync as the harmonies they are singing. “Those who’ve seen us know that not a thing can come between us!” But anyone who’s ever heard it performed knows that there is a nod and a wink behind the song. “Two different faces! But in tight places, we think and we act as one!” they sing. And then they say, “Uh huh.” Which, roughly translated, is something along the lines of, “Yeah, right.” In other words, the sibling relationship is a complicated one. In our passage today we have stumbled upon a fairly intimate if tense family moment, in which that relationship is complicated by conflicting understandings of something rather straightforward. Let’s paraphrase the issue as this: Jesus comes to dinner. Then what?

It seems like Jesus is always coming to dinner in the gospel of Luke. While he certainly does eat in the other gospels, no gospel portrays Jesus at table so often as Luke’s gospel does—I counted Jesus partaking in at least nine different meals there, and talking about eating in parables and teachings besides. It seems that, in Luke’s gospel, there is something very important about the act of eating. There is something we are supposed to notice about the simple and common action of sitting down at table, in the company of whomever God has placed in our path, and sustaining our bodies with the bounties of God’s world.

Jesus comes to dinner, and—it stands to reason that someone has to provide the dinner, no? In our passage Jesus enters Martha’s home. There’s something remarkable about that statement. In Jesus’ day, it was rare to hear a home described as belonging to a woman. It was virtually unheard of. Yet, Luke mentions it almost casually—Jesus enters Martha’s home, Martha, head of the household. We learn quickly that Martha has a sister named Mary, and if this sounds at all familiar to us, we can remind ourselves that we’ve met this family before, in another gospel. Jesus is close to this family, their home is a place he feels at home. This is the home of Martha, and her sister Mary, and their brother Lazarus.

Lazarus makes no appearance in our story today. But we know enough about Jesus from our reading of the gospel to know that this is a rare moment indeed. Jesus does come to dinner a lot in Luke’s gospel, but it usually goes more like this: Jesus dines in the homes of disreputable people, like tax collectors and sinners; or, on the other hand, Jesus dines in the homes of the Pharisees and the religious elites, where he catches flak about the dinners with the disreputable people. In other words, most of Jesus’ dinners are working dinners—he could expense them, if God had seen fit to provide him with an expense account. Which, God did not.

So here is Jesus. And here is a rare moment when he is with, not the “in” crowd or the “out” crowd or the “up with Jesus” crowd or the “down with Jesus” crowd. Instead, he is, simply, with his friends, his peeps (as the young people like to say). Jesus can unwind. If his hair is up, he can let it down. If his shoulders are full of tension, he can let them unknot (or maybe even ask someone for a backrub). He is, purely and simply, at home, for a meal.

Jesus comes to dinner; then what? Tensions ensue. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to what he has to say. Now, as rare as it is for a home to be described as a woman’s home, it is just as rare, in the New Testament era, for a woman to be seen sitting at a man’s feet and learning. To sit at someone’s feet is to take on the role of a disciple. To sit at someone’s feet is to be someone who has committed himself (it’s always a “himself” and never a “herself”) to taking on the yoke, that is, the teaching, of that person. So—let’s pause for a refreshing moment here. One stereotype—that is, the typical role of “woman” in the ancient Middle East—smashed, twice over. First, by having a woman as head of the household. Second, by having a woman as the disciple of a rabbi. Hallelujah!

And yet, and yet, tensions ensue. “But 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’” [Luke 10:40b]. That word “distracted” really calls to me. I know what that feels like. As I type this sentence I have just returned from a phone call which distracted me from another phone call which distracted me from Facebook which distracted me from writing the previous sentence. I know distracted. The word in Greek is perispaomai, which means, literally, “pulled in all directions.” [1] Can anyone relate to the experience of being pulled in all directions? My heart goes out to Martha.

Another interesting couple of words in our translation are “many tasks.” This translates the Greek word diakonia, which may sound familiar to you, something like “deacon.” It means, literally, “table service,” but it’s used in the New Testament, primarily, to mean the work of ministry—the caring, serving, loving, helping hands and hearts of the community of faith.[2]

So Martha, God bless her, is pulled in all directions by her service. And now, we need to pause for a moment of silence for any member of any faith community who has felt pulled in all directions by her service. Or his service. Because that is what is happening to Martha. You have heard of the 80/20 rule? In any organization, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people? This is the bind Martha finds herself in. Head of household or no, she is overwhelmed by what it takes to do the things she knows she has to do. And the stress of it all is coming out sideways, at her sister, through Jesus.

I wonder how most women, especially women who are what have been called the “Martha’s” of the church, hear Jesus’ response? I believe there is a possibility that it can be heard in a way that really feels bad. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” [Luke 10:41b-42]. I can imagine being one of those who have spent a lifetime in service, especially “table service”—preparing the coffee hour, cooking the chili for chili night, baking the cookies for our night at Arnold Park, whipping up the Harvest Dinner or the Meal with the Master—I can imagine hearing this response and thinking, Well, Jesus. Thanks for that. I can imagine hearing this response and feeling, What I do has been devalued, trashed. And it feels really bad.

And worse, I can imagine hearing in Jesus’ words something that seems to pit women against one another, as in those trumped up debates of a couple of years ago about whether mothers who work outside the home are worse parents than those whose work is exclusively in the home. Some crazy notion that—hey, this is a zero sum game, some are winners and some are losers. And this time, Mary’s the winner and Martha’s the loser.

All I have to say about that is, if that’s our take-away from this passage we all lose. If we hear these words as devaluing any kind of service, we all lose. If we hear this sentence as being said to Martha with anything other than love, we all lose. If we hear Jesus scolding, or belittling Martha, or telling her that Mary is somehow a better person, more saved, more loved—we all lose. That is not what is going on here.

What is going on here is about wholeheartedness, about truly being where you are. Jesus comes to dinner, then what? Enjoy him. That’s all. Enjoy him. The first question of the Westminster Catechism: “What is the chief end of man [human beings]?” And the answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” To glorify God, and to enjoy God. That, according to the wise tradition of our church, is our purpose in life. You find yourself in the presence of God, of Jesus, the living body of Christ, the Holy Spirit? Enjoy. Revel in it. Drink it in.

Is this gospel passage telling us that service is not important? Absolutely not. If you will recall the passage we read just two weeks ago, the story of the Good Samaritan, service of those in need is pretty much a hallmark of anyone who is seeking to find a closer walk with God. It is not either/or. It is both/and. Our problem as a culture, and it appears it’s a pretty ancient problem, is that “doing” almost always wins out over “being.” We are called to both of these—serving God’s people and loving and enjoying God. And each of them reinforces and deepens and makes sweeter the other.

I’ve begun meeting with a small group of UPC friends who are reading a wonderful book about growing spiritually. One of the chapters talks about prayer, and we all own up to how hard it can feel to develop the discipline for a meaningful prayer life. But one of our group discovered, in this book, the simplest description of one kind of prayer, we were all so encouraged by it:

Let God’s presence fill your consciousness, and simply rest in the presence—just as you might with someone you love dearly and feel no need to speak to, just be with. [3]

This is the prayer of enjoyment—simply enjoying being in God’s presence. It requires no technique other than quiet. It requires no skill other than openness. It requires nothing except a desire to be with the beloved—much like you would be quiet in the presence of someone with whom you need no words—like a spouse. Or a brother. Or a sister.

Jesus comes into our lives—then what? We find ourselves gathered at tables in the presence of the body of Christ, God’s people all around us. People we love and trust and fight with and make up with. People we serve and who serve us. People we care for and who care for us. There is need of only one thing: to glorify and enjoy God forever. We do that when we serve and enjoy all God’s people, whether sisters or strangers, brothers or drifters, loved ones or outsiders. The call is the same. Only one thing is needed. Love and enjoy God. Love and enjoy one another. Not easy. But very, very simple. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Brian Stoffregen, “Luke 10:38-42, Proper 11, Year C,” at Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 50.

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