Homily: Work and Work

Luke tells us that Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha.  They welcome him into their home and Martha gets busy doing the many things a good hostess does: preparing food, setting the table, straightening the room, picking up the newspapers that have piled up, and on and on.

Meanwhile sister Mary sits in front of Jesus listening to what he has to say.  Martha, understandably frustrated says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister just sits there while I do all the work?  Tell her to get up and help!”  Jesus replies, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part …”

Sometimes the most familiar and even beloved of stories from the Bible are the most difficult ones to preach. Today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary and Martha, is a good example. It’s a short passage, but it provokes a great deal of awkwardness and disagreement.

There are all sorts of risks in preaching this text, not the least of which is the possibility of offending the women (and men) who do the hands-on work of ministry, especially, but not only, in the kitchen! Twenty years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops, in a footnote to the first draft of their pastoral letter on women, pointed out that eighty-five per cent of the work of the church was done by women, none of them, of course, ordained. Even today, in a time when women are ordained in many Protestant churches, the kitchen work is still most often done, or led, by women, and they might wonder about the meaning of this story and the message it delivers about the value of their efforts. One might wonder about the conversation about today’s Gospel story during the clean-up time next week after our St James Day social.

But the most helpful way to read the text may be in relationship to the story that precedes it, last week’s Gospel story about the “Good” Samaritan. Many commentaries point out the importance of ‘hearing and doing’ in the Gospel of Luke. The happy placement of these two stories illustrates that it’s “hearing AND doing,” not “hearing OR doing” that matters. When asked about “the bottom line” of what it means to be saved, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter by telling a story about love in action on the part of a stranger (and a hated one at that) toward his most unexpected neighbor. In today’s little story, we hear that sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening carefully is right at the heart of things, too.

Another way to approach the text is to read it with the Genesis passage, and to reflect on hospitality and the openness it implies, and the generosity of spirit that makes it both possible and authentic. Hospitality is, of course, a core value of the Bible, and Abraham’s welcome to his three visitors leads to all sorts of blessings for him and for us as his descendants in faith. On the other hand, in the Gospel reading, Martha’s task-oriented approach to hospitality distracts her from the actual person she is welcoming, while Mary’s focus on Jesus is single-minded. The problem is that, in both stories, someone had to tend to the physical needs of the guests, and neither Abraham nor Mary is, as we used to say in my family, “pitching in.” Perhaps this might provide a moment of humor to lighten the tension over Jesus’ scolding of Martha.

Who are the people “behind-the-scenes” in our church, who make so much of its ministry, including its hospitality, possible? What would these stories sound like if they were told by them, if they were told from “underneath,” by those who are mostly silent but whose action often drives the story of our churches? How does the Gospel reading, then, especially when paired with last week’s passage about the deeds of the “good” Samaritan, reconcile the argument between two sisters over household chores? What does it teach us about our lives as disciples, and our life together in the church?  What would need to change to bring a sharing of ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’ across lines that have often been drawn when assigning ‘roles’ in the life of the faith community?   (© Kate Huey)

 A few years ago several hundred priests and ministers from around the country representing various church traditions were asked to name what they considered the major obstacles to our church members’ growth as disciples.  Without a close second, the top response of the number one problem keeping parishioners from growing in Christ was their church members’ busy-ness.

 C.S. Lewis, in his delightful yet thought-provoking little book ‘Screwtape Letters’, about a seasoned devil corresponding with his young apprentice nephew on earth named Wormwood to help him ’learn the trade’ of tempting humans, says that one of the best strategies a devil can use to accomplish his deadly purposes is diversion.  A young devil will do almost anything to keep us diverted from noticing what they’re really doing as well as diverting us from really knowing God. Entertainment and busy-ness are two primary ways we are diverted and distracted.  We become too busy to notice or care about anything beyond our daily routines, and therefore we become more fully captive to their powers.

And if this is true of distracting or entertaining activity it is also especially true of church activity, especially of ministry itself.   Our busy-ness in ‘doing ministry’ keeps us distracted from really knowing God and from recognizing the presence of Jesus within us and listening to what he is sharing with us, and from truly knowing Him intimately.

Eugene Peterson said that although we all go through periods when we’re busier than at other times, overall, our lives should have an integrity about them; integrated in such a way that we are not running frenetically all of the time.

We are too busy, he says, because we are vain.  We want to appear important, — significant.  And the crowded schedule and the heavy demands on our time are proof that we are important.  We live in a society that says busy-ness is proof of importance so that’s we do — become infinitely busy.

So who are we and what are we to do?  Jesus says that Mary knew the one thing most needful as she sat at his feet and listened to him.  Jesus did not say we’re not to work; after all, Luke just told us the Parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”  But with his face turned to Jerusalem and his upcoming suffering, Jesus is acutely aware of the central importance of who he is and what he has to say, as well as how distractions keep us from hearing him and following him.

There is that powerful scene in Herman Melvilles’ ‘Moby Dick’ in which a whaleboat is being rowed through rough seas and wind and salt spray chasing the great white whale. Sailors are laboring fiercely, rowing the oars, everyone in the boat is intently focused on the task of catching and harpooning the Great White, Moby Dick. This larger than life conflict between Good and Evil, sea monster versus the morally outraged Captain Ahab, as the captain shouts encouragement to his men to row faster and faster, finally threatening them and berating them to the task. Yet, in the front of the boat is one man who does nothing. No shouting, in fact he is completely silent with all of the crashing and cursing around him. This man is the harpooner, quiet, poised waiting. And Melville writes this sentence, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.”

Psalm 46 says: “Be still and know that I am God.” The prophet Isaiah says: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” There is an absolute necessity and connection in knowing and spending focused restful time with Christ and in Christ and our ability to ‘go and do likewise’. Without the one thing most needful in Jesus, we not only become frenetically busy, but worse, we become distracted from paying serious attention to the powers that exploit and oppress not only the poor, but ourselves.   (© Kyle Childress)

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