The story of Jesus' afternoon at the home of Mary and Martha is a difficult one for many people. It is a difficult one for me, too because I am very much a Martha. I can sit and do nothing for maybe two-hours before I get antsy. Eventually, the need to “do” something takes over and I'm up and moving; doing the dishes or picking up the baby's toys, anything to be “doing” rather than sitting. Beach vacations are the worst. Sitting all day in the hot sun reading a book is like the worst punishment I could be given. I might rather die.
So when I hear Jesus say to Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, I get uncomfortable. And I imagine many of you do as well. How many of you associate yourselves with Martha in this story? The Church is full of Marthas. It is how anything gets done. Marthas set the altar. Marthas cook breakfast. Marthas serve the liturgy. Marthas tend the buildings. Marthas volunteer in the community. Marthas are everywhere. And so, every three years when the story of Mary and Martha shows up in the lectionary we get our feathers up because Marthas make Church happen.
The problem, as I see it, is that we read this story completely out of context. We pull it away from the surrounding narrative and then give it the status of a Aesop's Fable so that all we seek is one universal moral truth. “Sit at the feet of Jesus” is all we can hear, and when we know we can't do that, we get angry and quit listening.
But this encounter between Jesus, Mary and Martha did not happen in isolation. This story is part of Luke's much larger narrative of Jesus and his journey toward Jerusalem. As Jesus prepared for his journey he sent out seventy disciples to every city and place that he intended to go. Do you remember his instructions to them? For the road, Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” This is an urgent journey, and one of great import. There isn't time to stop and make idle chatter, there isn't time to be slowed with extra luggage. Jesus goes on to describe what they should do when they arrive at their destination, “Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.”
“Peace to this house!” The peace that Jesus is talking about here is the Jewish concept of Shalom, the deep peace of God. It is the peace of God's dream for his kingdom. The peace that surpasses all understanding. The peace of wholeness, restoration, and healing. Jesus instructs the 70 to offer that peace to the people of the homes they would enter. If anyone shares in peace, it will rest on that person. If not, it will return to them. Either way, Jesus says, stay in that house, eat what they give you, cure the sick, and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near.
Jesus enters the home of Martha and Mary and most certainly offers the shalom of God to them. “Peace to this house!” Mary receives that peace. She accepts it wholly and is comfortable just sitting at the feet of Jesus as he teaches in her living room. Martha, on the other hand, does not receive the peace that Jesus offers. Luke says she is distracted by her many tasks, which is true. But Luke can only see Martha from the outside. Jesus, however, sees Martha from the inside. Martha comes to Jesus complaining of her sisters laziness, “Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” Sounds a lot more like two siblings of about eight or nine, rather than two adult women with a home of their own. But, Jesus sees what lies beneath the surface, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
Worried and distracted. Luke actually uses three different words for the various descriptions of Mary. As Luke describes her from the outside, he says she is distracted. As Jesus describes what is going on inside, he says she is worried and troubled. Worried and troubled. Sounds like the exact opposite of peace to me.
For those of us who are Marthas this is good news. This story, properly understood, doesn't tell us that you can't do for the glory of God. Martha's activities readying dinner for Jesus and his crew are to commended, as Jesus told the seventy, the laborer deserves his wages. Or as Jesus told the lawyer in last week's story, “do this and you will live.” What you can't do is worry for the glory of God. When you worry, when you are troubled, you have left God's presence. Faith has gone out the window and the adversary has taken control. Worry not only distracts us, but it subsumes our self-esteem. Worry tells us we are not worthy. Worry tells us that our best efforts are lacking. Worry tells us that we are weak. Worry keeps us from embracing the gift of God's grace and love. Worry kills. As Jay Warthen from Foley First Pres put it, “do this and your gonna die.”
Now, I want you to know that I am not standing here pontificating against worry from the high pedestal of ease. Here again, I self identify as a Martha. I am a top-notch worrier. When I'm not distracted by my many tasks, I'm usually worrying about how I will get them done. The first week of every semester in college and seminary were worry-fests as I looked of the various syllabi for my classes and thought to myself, “there is no possible way I can get all of this done in the next 13 weeks.” In fact, I'm such a good worrier that my body has figured out ways to relieve stress without me by way of an eye-twitch that can last weeks on end.
As I preparing to complete my last semester of college I was engaged to be married, I was contemplating a call to ordained ministry, I was getting ready to graduate with the whole world ahead of me, and I didn't have a sniff at a job. One morning, as I was taking a shower I noticed a sore spot in my left bicep. Just under the surface of my skin was a lump about the size of a dime. It had seemingly appeared from nowhere. After a week or so, when it still had not gone away, I scheduled an appointment with my family physician. He referred me to a specialist who did some crazy sort of torturous electro-shock testing on my arm to test for muscle reaction and nerve damage. After a while I returned to my family doctor, fully convinced I had a tumor or something, and he diagnosed me as being stressed about the upcoming life changes. I needed to quit worrying and the knot in my arm would go away. I was 22 years old. I am a worrier-extraordinaire.
Worry is the adversary's way in to our lives. The devil tells us we can't do it. He tells us we are not worthy of God's love. He tell us that we haven't done enough. And so we turn into Marthas and do, do, do. Not for the glory of God but to try to dig ourselves out of the hole we ourselves have created. And I know Martha and I are not alone in this reaction. One of the most common questions I hear in ministry is “How do I hand this over to God? How do I stop worrying?”
Worry is one of the great universals. It is something we all experience and something that very few of us is really good at battling. Corrie Ten Boom described this universal experience well, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” We know this. We want to get rid of the worry, but how? The answer so often given is “hand it over to God,” but what does that look like practically?
Here I return to Jesus' response to Martha. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” The way out of worry is choice. Choose to accept God's peace, and when it feels like that peace is slipping away, choose to take the time to get it back. So often we can feel ourselves slipping into worry, but are too proud or too lazy or too busy to stop the slide. By the time we've made room to pray we are so anxious that the climb out of worry seems almost impossible. The key, I think, is to not let worry have that power. Don't let the adversary the time and the space to work. When you feel that first twinge of worry coming on, stop immediately, and pray. Pray for the shalom of God. Pray for wholeness and restoration. Pray that God will make his presence known to you in the midst of your crisis and that his grace will be complete in you.
Grace is the antidote to worry. Worry says “you are not worthy.” Grace says “I make you worthy.” Grace forgives paper plates and plastic cups. Grace forgives a paper that maybe isn't perfect but at least it is done. Grace forgives all those things, big and little, that we allow to eat us up with worry.
Worry kills my friends. It is a poison that lives within us causing us to be distracted and troubled and pulls us away from God's grace. Don't let it have that power. Whether you are an active Martha or a contemplative Mary, worry will creep its way in. Choose the one thing that can not be taken away from you. Choose grace. Choose the shalom of God. Choose life. Amen.