Rev. Katherine Todd
1 John 4:19
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered 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.”
1 John 4:19
We love because he first loved us.
I have heard this passage preached on so often, that I didn’t want to preach it. I feel I could preach on it in my sleep, and if you’re like me, you start to tune out the things you’ve heard too often. But on second thought I realized that this passage was appropriate for us because we have been very busy with many things.
Now I’d say most of what has occupied our time and energy, at least here, in this place, together, has been good things. And I imagine that much of what fills your day to day, are good things. But I imagine that you, like me, can loose sight of the important for the urgent. You, like me, are probably not immune to the voices clamoring about you, asking for your time and attention. And many of those voices are of those nearest and dearest to us, those we are charged to love and care for. Some of those voices are the voices of others in this body of faith, asking if you might step up and step into roles of service in our community of faith.
Service is important. Our Lord Jesus Christ served. He served even those he was encouraged and expected to ignore. Jesus’ life was service. But in looking at the life of Jesus we also notice his life was that of rest and eating, retreating and being quiet and alone. So many of the stories we hear of Jesus take place around a meal. Some of the most striking stories occur when Jesus wakes from sleep to help folks who are facing life and death. Or they occur when Jesus returns from leaving the disciples alone and finds them in a quandary or mess. Countless stories of Jesus tell of him leaving the crowds with the disciples to rest and retreat. And even more stories tell of Jesus retreating alone, and quite often to the top of a mountain.
Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, knew his earthly need for rest and repose, eating and sleeping, intimate time among friends and intimate time alone with God. JESUS needed these things. Therefore, how much more-so do WE need these things?
In the story we read today, two sisters, Mary and Martha, host Jesus as he passes through the village. Now as you might guess, hosting involves many things, not least of which is the preparing of food. This task fell to women pretty exclusively, and it consumed the largest portion of any day. So to invite others into the home meant doubling one’s work, at the very least.
Martha was probably the planner. She probably knew exactly what this invitation would entail for them that day. And she probably wanted to show as much honor and respect to the teacher as she could. It was a daunting task, especially when you factor in all the visitors who would have come to hear the teacher. She needed Mary’s help, but Mary, perhaps as flighty as I can be, was attuned to Jesus’ words. She was soaking them in. She did not think about all the work needing to be done. She was lost in thought and in this person through whom she felt more love and compassion than she’d ever known before…
And quite understandably, Martha complains to Jesus. She expects Jesus to put Mary in her place – to remind her that she too is a servant to the occasion and not the beneficiary of all Martha’s work – but Jesus does nothing of the sort. Jesus in fact defends Mary as having chosen the better thing.
How could Jesus? After Martha is serving him?! How could he look this gift-horse in the mouth?! How could he defy social expectation and give Mary a pass on the cooking and cleaning? How could he act as though he didn’t need to eat and drink – as though he didn’t need the services Martha was so diligently offering.
Well, I don’t know exactly how this played out. We do not know so many things – such as the breadth or scope of work Martha was attempting. She may have been trying to make the fanciest, most difficult dish she could – to show respect or possibly to show off… We don’t know. We don’t know if this was Mary’s usual behavior, or if this Teacher caught her so off guard that she completely forgot her usual duties… We do not know.
But once we move through the shock and perhaps the initial offense of Jesus’ words to Martha, I hear a deep compassion for Martha. Instead of a rebuke, I hear an invitation. Jesus reminds Martha that she has a choice in all this hustle and bustle. Jesus SEES how distracted and worried Martha is about so many things. And he points to Mary as an example of what is good and needful. Martha too can choose to stop and be, to listen and be present.
Now if I were Martha, I would feel enraged at this insinuation that my work was irrelevant or unnecessary. But Jesus wasn’t necessarily saying that. Perhaps they all would have chipped in to cook at some later point… We do not know. But if I were Martha, I would also find myself longing to stop and sit and be still. I would have been beside myself with jealousy at Mary, sitting at the Teacher’s feet like that, without a care in the world but to listen to each word he said.
Could I abandon my lists and tasks like that?!
Could I pause the hurry and bustle of my mind like that?
Could I step off the treadmill and sit and be?
And this is where I think of all of us. We take on many tasks in love and service to the Lord in this place. This place of sanctuary and community is living and effective because of YOU. Your passion and vision, your sweat and service, your diligence and expertise, your care and planning. YOU make this place overflow with love.
…But we cannot fill another’s cup, if our well is empty.
We cannot love, unless we have been loved.
We cannot serve, unless our needs have been served.
To say it another way, “We love because God first loved us.”
And so very logically, if we are not attentive to sit and be still, if we are not pausing to listen to God’s words, our wells will surely run dry. And when we run around trying to fill other’s wells while ours is dry, we usually end up spreading need and hurt more than plenty and love. We cannot give what we do not have. We need to be nourished by God’s word, sustained by God’s presence, held in God’s unfailing love…before we are made ready to go out and serve.
And so I remind us all, that even as you work and serve and labor in the love of the Lord, in this place, and in your own places of life and work… May you take refuge in God. May you return to God’s feet and open your mind and heart to hear God’s words to you. May you lay down the needs. May you lay down your worries. And may you bring it all to Christ’s feet.
Our Lord who fed 5000 from two loaves and five fish, can care for you.
Our Lord who made the lame man walk, can care for you.
Our Lord who raised Lazarus from the dead, can care for you.
Our Lord who created the earth and all stars, who formed the planets and the ladybug, can care for you.
Let us heed these words of Jesus, spoken to us now, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
May we, like Mary, choose the better part.