Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sermon: Jesus Makes Space at His Feet

Date: July 18, 2010
Sermon Text: Luke 10:38-42

Last week, the Gospel passage ended with Jesus’ command, “Go and do likewise.”  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, I said that the lawyer (and we) should see ourselves, in the first instance, as the man beaten and left in the ditch to die, and I encouraged us to hold our hand open to let God rescue us.  I should say, now, that only the first foot dropped last week.  In the first instance, we are to recognize that we are in need of God’s rescue.  The second foot is what Jesus says at the end of the parable: “Go and do likewise.”  Go and rescue others from their ditches.  Go bring people back to Jesus and His Church.

Our Gospel passage today falls right on the heels of Jesus’ “Go and do likewise.”  St. Luke tells the story of someone who heard the “Go and do” and took it too seriously and too far.  This is Martha.

[Page 1]  Martha, our story says, is worried and distracted.  And, I think we can all agree, she has good reasons.  It’s very hard to blame her.  First of all, she is, at least while her brother Lazarus is away, the head of a household.  After Jesus’ run-in with the lawyer, he enters Martha’s village and enters her home.  As the head of her house, Martha is responsible for her famous guest.

The second reason she is worried and distracted is that, as the head of her house, she has a responsibility to be hospitable.  In the ancient Near-East, a woman’s reputation depended on it!  The famous Rabbi has finally arrived, and Martha wants to please him with the hospitality of her home.  All the best for our guest!  There is a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it.  Dinner-time is almost here, and there is bread to be baked and wine to be poured and time is running out.  No wonder she is worried and distracted.

Finally, her usual help is nowhere to be found, so she finds herself alone in the kitchen.  Sometime after Jesus’ arrival, when Martha has gotten very distracted with her tasks, she hears him start speaking in the front room.  Something tugs at her, but she knows her duty.  And with the blinkers of her worry firmly placed around her eyes, she works feverishly until, suddenly, she misses her sister Mary.  “Where is Mary?  Usually she helps me with this.”

Stepping out into the front room, she sees Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet.  Martha is upset.  Mary’s place is in the kitchen helping Martha prepare a meal for the famous Rabbi who has graced their home with his presence.  She blurts out, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus, interrupted in mid-sentence, sees the anger around Martha’s eyes.  Quietly he answers her, “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.”

“There is need of only one thing.”  Jesus does not rebuke Martha because she is working.  The work is good, and preparing a meal for the Rabbi is expected and part of what is right for her to do.  Jesus’ issue is that Martha’s work has become all that she can see.  It has blinkered her and shut her off from the rest of the world and caused her to be uncharitable to her sister.  When a guest comes over, it is right to make preparations.  But, when the rabbi comes over and begins to teach, it is appropriate to stop for a moment and hear the Word of God.  For a moment, however brief, Martha had allowed her reputation as a hostess to trump that one thing needful: hearing the voice of God.

[Page 2]  It would be tempting to see our passage today as a condemnation of work and an elevation of worship.  We know that some people in earlier eras of the Church saw it just that way.  They saw Martha as the prime example of how work is a dangerous distraction from God, and they saw Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, as the prime example of a life devoted to pure contemplation.  In contrast to what these our fathers and mothers thought, Jesus is not here saying we should all quit our jobs, withdraw from the world, and live in monasteries.  This would not only be against how we experience ourselves on a daily basis, it would also be against what God himself has revealed to us in His Holy Scripture.

We know from our own experience that we are all workers and that we work all the time.  One contemporary writer defined work as “anything you want to get done that you haven’t gotten done yet.”  According to this definition, everything we set about to do is work.  Our 9-5 is work.  Our nights at home are work.  Brushing our teeth is work.  Life is work.  And, when we see that all we do is work, he says, we can finally realize that our priorities are out of order.  If everything we want to do but haven’t done yet is work, then we need to learn how to treat job work like a game and life work like serious business.  Our “life” and our “job” are both equally work.

And this really is okay.  We know from the Bible that God created us to work.  Genesis 1-2 tells us the story of God placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to tend the garden.  Before humans fell into sin, we were intended to live simply and in harmony with the earth.  We were intended to tend the Garden and to extend it.  We were meant to be stewards, to be workers.  We were meant to make good things with our hands and to share those good things with the world.

But, once human beings made the choice against God, things changed.  From Genesis 3 on, humanity’s work bears the marks of the curse.  Instead of being a wonderful expression of love towards God, our work took on the ability to express our brokenness, our weakness, our pain.  So, we work now in all kinds of bad ways.  Our work can become an expression of our selfishness.  Enron, we can think of.  Maybe BP.  And, when our work gets tied up with who we think we are – with our identities, it can become all-consuming, taking on a life of its own, and enveloping us in worry, just like Martha, as we get distracted from our call to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our work often drives us to worry and distraction, just to the place it drove Martha.

[Page 3]  So, what about Mary?  Should we see her as the good guy in the story and Martha as the bad guy?  Should we just say that busyness that leads to worry and distraction is bad and rest and quiet are good?  No, we shouldn’t.  Instead, we should see both Mary and Martha in relationship to Jesus.  Jesus is still the hero of this story.  Jesus is the one who makes space at his feet.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he comes to the house of Mary and Martha.  He greets them and proclaims peace on their house.  They welcome him in.  Martha runs off to the kitchen to start preparing for her guest, but Mary stays behind.  Jesus walks into the home, followed by the Twelve disciples and Mary, and he takes a seat to teach.  Just like they would in the synagogue, the men gather around Jesus, and they sit.  Quite unlike the synagogue, where women were put off to one side, Mary does something unexpected.  She sits as well.

We can only imagine how uncomfortable this makes the disciples.  In those days, men often thought of women in the same class as children.  It was thought that women just didn’t have the mental apparatus to deal with the heady teaching of the Law of God.  Just like having a six year old sitting in a University philosophy classroom, it might be cute for a while but, with each passing minute, there would be the growing worry that the person would jump in and ask a silly or ignorant question.  In those days, it was assumed that those types of questions would embarrass the students and insult the teacher.

Given this dynamic, there must have been something pass between the disciples and Jesus.  As Mary sits, their faces and bodies tighten, and they look to Jesus.  He nods.  “She may sit with you,” his face says.  “She is one of my disciples, just like you.”  Jesus makes space at his feet for Mary.

When Martha bursts out of the kitchen, exasperated, worried, and distracted, she sees the scene.  A woman among the men!  She has to assume that Jesus and the disciples are embarrassed but are too nice to say anything.  So, in her worry and distraction, she says to Jesus (I’m paraphrasing now, of course), “Look, Jesus.  I know where I am supposed to be, and I have stayed there, getting things ready for you.  My sister has abandoned her responsibility.  Tell her to help me.”  Again paraphrasing, Jesus responds, “Martha, your sister Mary has seen an opportunity to hear the Word of God and has taken it.  I have made a place for her at my feet, so this honor will not be taken away from her.  If you would just sit down, you would have a place here as well.  Maybe then, you would lose some of your worry and distraction.  Maybe then, you would see that when I am here, there is nothing more needful than to sit at my feet.”

[Page 4]  From this often told and often heard story of Mary and Martha, we can learn three things.  First, Jesus makes space for us at his feet.  In a world where information can be measured in terabytes and the speed of email approaches the speed of light, it is good news to know that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, carves out space for us.  He calls us to participate in the rest he earned through his cross and resurrection.  As the ascended Lord, he sits at the right hand of the Father now and sends his Holy Spirit so that you and I can have a place at his feet.  A place away.  A place of solace and rest.

Second, since Jesus has made this space for us, we need to learn to keep first things first.  God created us to be workers, and that is good.  But our work now has the potential to be used to separate us from ourselves, our loved ones, and God, especially when we let it consume us to the point of worry and distraction.  Jesus told Martha that there was just one thing needed – to sit at his feet and to hear the Word of God.  How do we keep our work in its proper place?  We have to learn to keep first things first.  Our work, our whole lives, fall under Jesus’ claim to be the Lord of heaven and earth.  He is the first thing.  We have to keep him first.

Third, we keep Jesus first by heeding his call to sit at his feet.  The first and most obvious way to do this is to come to church on Sunday mornings, where we hear God’s most holy Word and ask for those good things that are needful both for the body and for the soul.  Coming to church is like sitting on the mountain when Jesus preached to the crowd.  We are surrounded by fellow disciples, and we hear God’s Word proclaimed.  But, to really heed Jesus’ call to sit at his feet, we must seek smaller places, smaller groups.  Just as Mary and Martha’s living room only held a handful of people, we need to seek small groups with a handful of fellow disciples not only to hear God’s Word proclaimed but to interact with it, just like Jesus’ disciples did when they got him away from the crowd.  Brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to sit at his feet.  Let us heed his call and learn, finally, the ability to keep first things first, the ability to keep our work in its proper place, and the ability to find the true rest and joy that comes from being one of Jesus’ disciples.

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