The year our daughter Victoria made her Confirmation, Hurricane Floyd arrived just ahead of the company we were expecting, three days before the worship service and family celebration to mark this milestone in her faith life.
As with every milestone in the lives of our children, friends and family had been invited to the house the help us celebrate. That meant that I was already in prep mode to offer hospitality not only to those who would join us for dinner on Sunday, but also for those who were traveling from out of state to stay with us for a few days.
The hurricane arrived full-strength on Thursday. Our power went out sometime Wednesday night, and by Saturday morning, it was still out. Those who had traveled to see us were getting to know each other real well, since no power also meant no running water.
Finally, early Saturday afternoon I made the decision that there was no way, even if the power came back on in the next hour or two, that I could be ready to entertain the next day.
It was not possible to have the house cleaned, shopping done (we had lost a lot of our food from refrigerators and freezers which would now need to be cleaned out), food prep completed, etc. – especially since we were expected at the church in a couple of hours for rehearsal and dinner.
Fortunately, a local restaurant was able to accommodate us, and we were just moved our party there for the next day. That allowed me to put off the mad cleaning that would take place once the power came back, on which it finally did that night. It also released me from the burden of shopping, food prep and serving, and that led to the greatest gift of all: I was able to visit with our guests and enjoy them in a way that I couldn’t have done if I’d been kept busy with all the usual hostessing duties the day of Victoria’s Confirmation. I think some of you can probably understand what a relief that was, and how that new learning has influenced my party prep. I still go a little crazy preparing for entertaining, but I am also determined to be able to it in such a way that I am allowed the ability to spend more time with guest than I have before.
Something like that – the frenzy – happens when Jesus comes to visit in the home of some friends, sisters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. While Jesus hangs out in the living room discussing the weighty matters of life in the kingdom of God, Martha slaves away – possibly for hours.
Hospitality is a big thing in the region of Palestine Jesus and his friends called home. Martha is worried about getting everything just right, to honor her guests and to bring honor to her home. So, she worries:
· Will the meat burn if she can’t watch it while at the same time peeling the vegetables and steaming the rice?
· Has the wine breathed sufficiently?
· Since extra people tend to follow where Jesus goes and some of those might be tempted to just “drop in” for dinner, is there enough food?
· Are all the food groups covered?
Martha’s anxiety over getting every detail right causes her to get a little snappish. After all, she has been left alone to tend to all these things, while there are perfectly good hands attached to that sister of hers who should be helping her with these things. They always prep and serve the food together when there are guests at their dinner table.
Finally, her patience worn thin, Martha appeals not to her brother, who is “the man of the house”, and not even directly to her sister, who is sitting right there. No. She goes straight to Jesus, who she knows to be compassionate and caring and always watching out for the underdog. And today in her estimation, she is definitely the underdog. So, she complains to him. Since those are his calling cards, she figures he’ll stand up for her, and make her sister help her out.
Well, Jesus doesn’t follow the expected script (when does Jesus ever)? He doesn’t take the underdog’s side, he doesn’t chastise Mary, nor does he whisper in her ear, “it’s alright, go help your sister now. There will be time to talk later.”
Instead, Jesus seems to ignore the fact that Mary’s ability to sit freely at his feet has disadvantaged her sister.
Instead, he seems to indicate the real problem lies in Martha’s behavior and not Mary’s. While Martha’s burdensome sense of obligation actually had deeply ingrained cultural roots that she did not ask for, Jesus didn’t confront the larger society as part of the problem either. So, what gives?
Perhaps it is choice. For, each and ever day, every hour of the day, we all have a million choices to make regarding how we spend our time, what we focus our energies on, and so many other things. Martha allows her sense of obligation and the burdens she has accepted, to control her choice to miss time with Jesus as opposed to focusing on what are daily obligations.
Now to be fair, of course, we should acknowledge that the systems and structures of culture and society surely created expectations, thrust on Martha. It is those that cause Martha excessive distraction and worry when truly, the most important thing in that moment is that Jesus is in her house! Jesus is there with them, and what a gift that is!
Jesus points out that Martha’s bondage to all those expectations has kept her from benefi
ting from the one true thing in the world that is life-giving.
Responding to those demands is a choice, and, Jesus says, Mary has chosen a different and better way.
So, Mary and Martha are sisters, living in community with each other, a system in which cooperation is essential. And Jesus isn’t messing with that. Nor is he taking sides.
He is not favoring word over deed, worship over service or study over hospitality. Because the thing is, life together requires all these things.
But here is the thing that Jesus is pointing out to Martha – and to us – today; there is one thing that is the best thing that amidst all of the other things we are called to or are responsible for, cannot be let go, shoved aside not forgotten. And the story is about choosing that one thing, the best thing, and forsaking everything else for its sake.
The story is an endorsement by Jesus to be single-minded about that one thing; to be passionate and focused on that one thing – focus on Jesus.
Pastor Debie Thomas points out that the best thing is the single, mind-blowing treasure that Jesus offers us. “Jesus’ most evocative parables,” Thomas writes. “…..all point in this same direction. The pearl of great price. The buried treasure in the field. The lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. Christianity is not about balance; it is about extravagance. It’s not about being reasonable; it’s about being wildly, madly, and deeply in love with Jesus.”
I wonder if you’ve ever been in love, totally head-over-heels in love with another person? If so, perhaps you remember the burning desire to spend every moment with that person; to talk to him or her incessantly; to hear that voice that fills your heart with joy.
Perhaps you remember or imagine, that when you were so deeply, passionately in love, nothing else really mattered as much as that person and your relationship with her or him.
If you have never been in that kind of relationship perhaps you have dreamt about it – perhaps you still do. That kind of passion and devotion is a costly thing. It is all-encompassing. It messes with your routines, your assumptions about life, and the priorities that make up your life.
Devotion to Jesus creates the same need for change, and for focus on Jesus.
Like many of us, Martha perhaps assumed she could invite Jesus into her life, but then carry on life as usual. Perhaps she assumed she could maintain control and the status quo over all the other things in her life, compartmentalizing them.
Perhaps she thought she could love Jesus but keep everything else the same, but then Jesus comes along and – snap! All her expectations are turned upside down too, and Jesus teaches her something about the cost of discipleship.
Mary, on the other hand, recognized that Jesus’ presence in her house required a radical shift. A wholehearted surrender was necessary, where every thought, action, decision and priority was rearranged according to this passion, this love, this relationship, because Jesus was no ordinary friend, no ordinary guest.
The work will always be there, but Jesus insists that every good thing must begin with him. It must begin with us at the feet of Jesus eagerly and earnestly seeking his teaching, his wisdom, his strength, and his blessing.
Jesus names Martha’s problem not as her devotion to her chores, but the fact that she was worried and distracted by many things. Those words – worried and distracted – indicate the ways we become fragmented and torn when we focus on things not of Jesus.
In her distraction, Martha couldn’t appreciate Jesus’ presence or learn from him, she couldn’t be fed with his wisdom and love. All she could do was question his compassion and care for her, “Lord, don’t you care?”
When we are unable to focus on Jesus, we become just as fragmented and torn. Other things in our lives take on a magnitude of meaning that is unhealthy, and impossible when we focus on Jesus.
Jesus knows that we, like Martha, like Mary, long to be whole. We long to delight in Jesus words, to sit at his feet and soak him in. We long for the healing and wholeness that comes from him yet all too often, distracted and worried by the other things we have to do and the other things in our live, we fail to truly focus and devote our attention on him. We make the choice to turn away; we choose the distractions.
Jesus invites us to sit at his feet, to seek passionate embrace with him - the “better thing” that he offers us – himself. Jesus invites us and he invited Martha to accept him as soothing balm, as the source of transforming peace, mercy, and love.
Jesus offers us so much and we need to passionately connect with Jesus; to be so attuned to him that it is his company and his presence that we seek in the quiet. Jesus offers himself as balm for healing, as bread for the journey, as wine for vigorously living in his discipleship.
Jesus invites us to immerse ourselves in the better thing as well. What will our answer be? Please pray with me.
O Lord Jesus, we long to sit at your feet and learn from you, yet we often get confused, distracted and worried over the many other voices and things that call for our attention. Help us to seek, follow, and cling to the “better way” – passionate life in and through you. Bless us in the work you call us to, so that we might find it a balm for communion with you, the bread of life. Grant us blessed awareness of your presence in life.