Sermon from 18 July.

Colossians 1:15-18, 24-28

Luke 10:38-42

I know someone who hasn’t washed dishes in years. He uses paper plates and cups, he eats out frequently, and only the metal silverware gets washed at home. He decided when he retired that he only had so much more time in his life, and he didn’t want to spend it on a chore he didn’t like, so he quit doing it. That’s bad ecology, of course, but it’s pretty good knowledge of priorities. He chose to focus on spending time with family, friends, and other important activities, so he gave up that unnecessary chore.

Martha seems tied up in unnecessary chores, doesn’t she? Jesus himself is visiting her house and all she does is make and serve lunch? Part of me wants to give up making lunch, put down my apron and dishcloth, and go to Village Inn so we can all enjoy Jesus’ company together. It’s like the counterpoint to the Good Samaritan: we talked about loving our neighbor last week, now it’s time to love God. Focus on Jesus, not on your worldly cares. Jesus offers a great new freedom, that even the women, who were traditionally sent to the kitchen, get to listen at Jesus’ feet. Women get to be disciples, not just kitchen help!

Did the church take that seriously? We’ve gone 2,000 years without coffee, potlucks, ice cream socials, and dinner after church, right? The Marthas here know better. You know that the church has always lived on the sweat of women in its kitchens and fellowship halls. Our Vacation Bible School kitchen ladies fed and served the kids all week while I prayed and played with them, and I can’t give them enough thanks for their work. There is never enough thank for the service teams, community kitchen volunteers, and committee members (men and women in all these roles) who work so hard. I live on the tip of the church iceberg, but 90% of our church is made of your invisible work.

You who do this work, you know that Martha’s complaint is valid. Mary is not pulling her weight. There is work to be done. Going out is not an option either, and not just because it costs money. If we went out, then someone else would have to do the work. The work itself doesn’t just go away, and there was a lot of work to do when Jesus and his 72 closest friends dropped by for lunch. There was food to prepare, there were drinks to pour, there were dishes to be washed. There was no such thing as “make yourself at home” in the Ancient Near East. Guests were received with great fanfare, and the fanfare was provided by the servants and/or the women.

But Jesus hears something deeper in Martha’s question, “Don’t you care? There’s so much to do and she’s ignoring me!” Jesus responds to this conflict like he usually does, by going deeper into it. He acknowledges that Martha is “worried and troubled over so many things,” but it’s not right that she should take that out on Mary. At the same time, notice that Jesus doesn’t say just to buck up and deal with it. Instead, he invites Martha to become untroubled. “You’re upset and distracted, mired in unnecessary details, while just one thing is needed. Focus on it.”

Right, focus. When so many things need doing?! There’s lunch to serve, there are snacks to prepare, there are veggies to chop! There’s a building to repair, outreach programs to be run, Vacation Bible School to lead, worship to write! There’s a child to teach, animals to feed, dependent parents to care for! I have schoolwork, sports, clubs, friends, and parents all asking for a part of my time! When any of you get life down to one task, let me know.

I don’t think Jesus actually means that Martha should give up her tasks to sit with Mary. Mary is called to that kind of listening, but we’re not all called that way. We don’t have to choose between service to our neighbor and attention to God – this isn’t the anti-Good Samaritan story. Actually, it’s the Good Samaritan Part Two. The love of God drives our love of neighbor (and vice versa). The first story was what, and this is why. Jesus’ priorities are pretty wonky for us in this world, but he valued good hospitality, and he knew that work was important.

But I suspect that Martha’s hospitality work became “important” more than “needed.” It became “important” in the sense of being a burden, something that had to be done. It was “important,” not in the sense that it mattered deeply to Martha, but in the sense of a religious and social obligation, a chore to be divided fairly. Jesus is not interested in receiving hospitality as an obligation; he wants it as a free gift. He wants us to welcome our guests as if they were God (which of course Jesus is!). Martha’s anxiety from a loss of perspective. She’s lost sight of the idea that hospitality is holy work, most especially for Christ (who is “the image of the invisible God”).

There’s a long Christian tradition of practicing hospitality “as if receiving Christ.” Because we proclaim that Christ is hidden within us all (straight from Colossians), we are to receive each other with holy joy. But as Jesus knew, even holy joy takes work. Kathleen Norris tells that a monk who had practiced for years receiving people as Christ said, “Sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’” (Dakota, p. 191) Maybe Benedictines even roll their eyes with openness to Christ, but for me, the groan points to a loss of vision, a loss of love. Jesus emphasizes that doing good matters, but love matters more. Hospitality matters, but seeing Christ matters more.

Important work can stop revealing Christ. Your work isn’t revealing Christ when it wears you out in that particular way. Of course, good work wears you out too, but it leaves you feeling filled up with a deep joy, because you can see Christ more clearly through it. That work is like the old woman whom Martin Luther King spoke to during the Montgomery bus boycott. He offered her a break from walking to work, suggested she get back on the bus and let others handle the boycott. She said to him, no: “my feets is tired, but my soul is rested” (Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested, p. 61). Burdensome work isn’t like that. It doesn’t rest your soul, it wearies it. You feel yourself losing steam. Rest doesn’t replenish you as it used to. When your soul’s weariness comes out in anxiety or resentment, that’s the time to pause, refocus, and find what’s truly needful.

But, but, but! The building is falling down, people are starving, deadlines are coming! Yes, Martha, it is. Everything is important, and if something’s on fire, you’ll know it. By all means, don’t sit in reflection at the scene of a car accident. But life has fewer emergencies than it seems, and most things that are needed today will still be needed tomorrow. The difference is, you’ll be able to see it. The one necessary thing will show through, Christ’s likeness in each person you meet. The Samaritan last week saw holiness in his neighbor because he was focused enough to see it. The priest and the Levite were probably not evil, just busy.

Focusing on Christ’s presence may never make you less busy, just clearer about what you work for. You’ll be busy, but maybe not frantic. That matters, especially if we want to be fair to those who do work very hard – single parents, the working poor, etc. Some work never feels rewarding in self. Sometimes, people have to wait tables or assemble tools so their families can eat. One of my teachers, Bob Orsi, tells the story of his father leaving for a factory job each day with the hope that this work would free Bob from a life of manual labor (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2010, p. 30-31). There’s no warm and fuzzy image of Christ in this, but service with a purpose gives the soul extraordinary endurance.

Most of the rest of us are lucky, or blessed, in that the stakes are not that high. We have the luxury of asking if our job is meaningful, if we enjoy our leisure activities. We may stop and ask those questions. We can come up for air. The world doesn’t end if we stop and refocus, if we find the truth that Christ is in us. I invite you to seek that deepest truth and feel free to let go of what doesn’t flow from that truth. And then do let go. Resign from that committee, cancel that subscription, decide not to vacuum for a while, whatever it is. Do this seriously and reflectively, not just as an excuse not to care, but quit if you genuinely don’t care. You’re not admitting defeat, you’re not even repenting of poor decisions. You’re just acknowledging that you’re not led to this activity by Christ anymore. Then, as you let go, you’ll start to see what that One Thing is leading to. You’ll see your better part and enjoy it to its fullest.