Sheepscott Community Church July 18, 2010
Genesis 18: 1-15
Colossians 1: 15-19
Luke 10: 38-42
Only One Thing Is Needed...
What is that one thing that is needed which Jesus speaks of to Martha and which is what Mary has chosen? It is not only in today’s gospel, but in the gospel or good news of our every day lives as we are living them right now. Maybe by the end of this sermon you can come up with your own answer. What is that one thing that Mary has chosen?
Jon had a teacher when he was in secondary school who touted to the boys the virtues of the dictionary, “Fellas,” he’d say, “there’s a whale of a lot in the dictionary. A whale of a lot, fellas.” Well, I’m going to appropriate his figure for today's’ gospel and say, Folks, there’s a whale of a lot in the gospel today––and the other two readings as well, a whale of a lot. Maybe a smorgasbord is a better figure because the gospel did put me in mind of a groaning board of a meal that was put on for me in the home of my mother’s cousin, when I was visiting in Finland in 1994.
Aino Kuhala, my mother’s first cousin, prepared uncountable dishes for perhaps a dozen family members when I visited that day. What I remember best is the cloudberry pudding because I had never heard of cloudberries nor eaten them before that day. I noticed that Aino didn’t sit down to eat with us. She stood in the doorway in her apron, waiting to see if anything was needed and simply enjoying the people enjoying the food. I asked her son Veikko why she didn’t sit with us, and he explained that she would eat later. That’s just the way it was done.
Well, huh, I thought. Tradition. Both the incident with Abraham and Sarah and the aspects of God under the form of three angels in the reading from Genesis, and Martha’s interaction with Jesus in today’s gospel made me think of that dinner with Aino in Finland.
We assume Sarah prepared the bread, as Abraham told her to do, to feed the guests. After they had eaten the bread, the tender young calf and the milk curds that Abraham put before them, the Lord––under the guise of three angels––said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Sarah, who was eavesdropping, chuckled because she was way past childbearing age. One way to hear her chuckle is as, “Yeah, right!” The point I want to make is that Sarah was listening to this conversation from the entrance to the tent, which was behind the divine speaker. Like Aino leaning in the doorway and watching the others eat, Sarah was not at that point physically with Abraham and the guests, directly involved in the conversation, although the conversation was about her. A woman and her life as currency.
Fast forward now to the gospel story. We can read it as a change in dispensation, viz., a change in the order or administration of things or systems; in this case a change in the religious order or system, with regard to the place of women, conceived as a stage in progressive revelation. Let’s set the narrative table, so to speak. This dinner which Martha was all het up about was taking place six days before Jesus’s last Passover, and it followed the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We find this out in John 12, where we also find out that this dinner is in Jesus’s honor. It may have been a celebration of the raising of Lazarus as well. If we put the two stories from Luke and John together, it would seem that when Jesus arrived, before the dinner, he was teaching. Mary was sitting at his feet listening with all of her being focused on what her Lord was saying. Martha was in the kitchen getting hotter and hotter under the collar, even as the stove was heating up for the cooking. Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer––Haven’t some of us experienced this?––and she went into the room where Jesus was reclining at table with Lazarus, his disciples, and some others who had come to see this man who had raised Lazarus, and most significantly Mary. What was she doing in the front room with all these men? Her place was in the kitchen. Martha spoke in what sounds like an indignant manner to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” she demands.
Is Jesus moved by her vehemence? Not at all. “Martha, Martha,” he replies, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”
In John’s account we get none of this verbal exchange. It simply says, “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at table with him.” The story can be read as another example of a woman––Cousin Aino, Abraham’s wife Sarah, and now Martha––eavesdropping on the more important world, at that time, of the doings and decisions of men. What Martha does, in a scene-stopping moment, however, is to burst into the front room with her wounded self-righteousness and sense of offended justice and demand of Jesus that he tell her sister Mary to assume her rightful place back in the kitchen beside Martha, helping her with this dinner.
But Jesus surprises Martha, perhaps Mary, and certainly us, who still live under a mantle of expected gendered behaviors and roles, at least to some degree. He kindly dismisses and defuses her fit of pique. Can’t you see him smiling gently and shaking his head? He is so patient with our impatience. He doesn’t give one inch of ground, even as he is being kind and patient. No, he won’t tell Mary to do that because she has chosen the better part and it won’t be taken from her. Apparently Martha accepts this, probably not without a few choice words under her breath, as there is no further exchange between them; at least nothing is recorded in scripture. She goes back to the kitchen to resume taking care of the details of hospitality.
It may simply be a story that teaches the importance of balance. Both things, both kinds of activity are needed in this particular story, the serving dimension for hospitality, to feed the needs of the body, and the listening dimension that in this case feeds the needs of a human soul. As I have demonstrated before, Jesus never missed an opportunity to capitalize on whatever the situation or surroundings were, in order to teach. Familiar as he was with the homely details of everyday life, he being a man of the people, he employed the metaphors of that everyday life to speak about the life of God in order to make it accessible to the people who listened.
A dinner being put on for a lot of people following hot on the heels of the host’s having been raised from the dead by the guest of honor; two sisters, one hardheaded and practical, used to getting her hands dirty, and the other a dreamer, more inclined to listen to a teacher, especially this extraordinary teacher and to think about his words, than to wash the dishes or peel the potatoes. These are the elements of a good story with its inherent conflict and they prove out.
I think all of us who entertain with any regularity are very sympathetic with Martha and need to hear what Jesus is saying. Let the dishes stay in the sink. If there’s important talk going on at the table, sit down. Listen. You may learn something, something you didn’t know before, and for all you know, your life might change because of it. Is that idea threatening? That your life might change? There will always be more dishes to do, but there won’t always be the opportunity to hear what this particular person is talking about in this particular place at this particular time. Sometimes we can overhear, but we might miss key parts if we’re not seated, as Mary was, at Jesus’s feet.
I said earlier that this story can be read as a change in dispensation, a change in the order of things. Jesus is teaching a new dispensation that breaks down artificailly constructed barriers and roles, in this case, that would put Mary back in the kitchen. Even in our time––and I do know there are exceptions––ordinarily at a holiday dinner the women will be in the kitchen cleaning up after the meal, and the men will retire to the front room easy chairs if not with brandy and cigars to talk politics, then with Budweiser and a bag of Doritos and the football or baseball or basketball game, depending on the season of the year. That front room is a NO GIRLS ALLOWED kind of clubhouse, and while in fact, that’s usually the way the girls prefer it because they have their own interests and conversation, I think Jesus would break that sign over his knee and call everybody in from the kitchen, turn off the television, and proceed to teach. Whatever he has to say is “the better part” and it will not be taken away from any of us. But we have to want it, don’t we? We have to go after it.
Do you think of Paul’s letter to the Galatians here? I do. “There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That is the new dispensation. Nobody is consigned to the kitchen against her will in Jesus’s book of roles and life lived. Everyone has a say-so and is responsible to make decisions for his or her own life, but because women were chattel––and still are in some parts of the world––whose lives were decided by the men in those historic or geographic worlds, I am focusing on them toda in relation to the gospel.
That scene in Bethany six days before Passover, the Passover that would change the history of the world, is a kind of snapshot of what we are as church. We all set down the dishes and dish cloth, come in from the kitchen, so to speak, and listen to Jesus. How does he speak to us? In the stories we read in scripture; in the stories of our lives that we share with one another; in the births and deaths and marriages; the agreements and disagreements, the arguments, the music and laughter and dance, through all of this human experience––this is how he speaks to us. In our own prayer he speaks to us. Listen and learn, and it will not be taken from you. There is a whale of a lot in that gospel, isn’t there? Amen.