Luke 10:38-42; (Amos 8:1-12)
What Really Matters
James Sledge --- July 18, 2010
When I come into the office each morning, like a lot of folks I turn on the computer and check my email. Often I find something there that I need to deal with, but if not, there are usually other tasks. There’s a sermon to write, a bulletin or newsletter to work on, a meeting to prepare for or attend, a visit to the hospital, and so on. I actually like the fact that my days can be quite varied, with different things popping up from time to time. Sometimes it’s a little busy or hectic, yet it’s often rewarding work, so I’m not complaining. But sometimes I get to the end of a long day, and it dawns on me that the one thing that there was no time for in the day was God. Oh I might have worked on a sermon that had something to do with God, but I’ve not actually talked to God, been aware or God, or tried to find God.
If this happens to me as a pastor more often than I care to admit, I can only imagine how much more of a struggle it is for others. A business woman gets up early in the morning and gets ready for the day, all while dragging sleepy children from bed and out to school or day care. In this tough economy, her company seems to expect more and more work out of her with less and less staff to help her. Many days she eats lunch in her office as she catches up on some correspondence. And then she must still pick up children, do something about supper, attend a child’s softball game, and so on. She has a lot more reasons than I do not to have found an hour, or even a few minutes, to engage in some sort of significant spiritual discipline.
In some of the research done exploring why fewer and fewer Americans participate in the worship life of a congregation, a significant number of people cite the fact that Sunday morning is often the one time that they can really relax, can sleep late and catch up on their rest, can spend time with family.
I know that some of you live busy, harried lives. And it’s probably not because you want to be a captain of finance or get your name in Forbes magazine. You’re just trying to get by, to do what you have to do to pay bills, raise a family, cover the mortgage, put gas in the car.
I may have already been thinking about the busyness that gets in the way of my own spiritual life when I first looked at today’s Luke passage. Perhaps that explains why I saw it in a light that I hadn’t considered before. I’ve often viewed Jesus praising Mary for ignoring her domestic duties, for taking the “masculine” pose of a disciple, as something meant to empower women, to say that Jesus calls women just as surely as he does men.
I still think that is a significant piece to take away from this passage, but what to do with Martha. It’s been pointed out to me many times, often by a woman, that Jesus would have gotten nothing to eat that night and not had a clean bed to sleep in without Martha. Martha is the one who engages in biblical hospitality. This is much more than being kind and friendly. It is a hospitality that cares for the stranger, in this case welcoming a traveler named Jesus into her home. Of course once you welcome a guest into your home you have to find something for him to eat. And it’s not like Martha has a refrigerator or a microwave or any prepackaged meals. Welcoming Jesus into her home meant a lot of work. No wonder she needs a little help from Mary.
But because Jesus doesn’t back Martha up when she asks him to make Mary help, I think there is a tendency to label Martha as bad in some way. We’re a little uncomfortable with it, but Jesus does say, “Mary has chosen the better part.” And so Martha isn’t just hospitable and busy, she is worried and distracted. It says so right there in our Bibles. But the truth is, you don’t have to translate it that way. In fact, when I looked at the passage in the original Greek, I saw that our Bible uses “distracted” to translate two completely different words. And so I took a stab at a translation that didn’t want to label Martha as bad.
Here it is: But Martha was burdened by her many tasks, and so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are concerned and troubled by many things; but one thing is necessary.”
To my ear this translation sounds less like Jesus fussing at her because she’s prone to burn the candle at both ends, and more like Jesus inviting her to let go of a few cultural expectations and responsibilities. Jesus knows that she is doing precisely what her society says she should. And he is inviting her to find a new freedom, to let go of everything she had been taught about what was necessary and discover what truly is. Who knows, maybe Jesus even said, “You come and sit beside me, too. Later, we’ll all get dinner ready together.”
The last couple of years, I struggled a bit with my own spiritual life. And to be totally honest, at times I’ve gotten a little miffed at God, more precisely, at God’s silence. But lately I feel like I’ve been making some progress, and I think maybe today’s Scripture is some help to me, and perhaps to you as well.
It seems to me that both our readings have something to say about God’s silence, about why it is sometimes hard to find God. The reading from Amos rails against the rich who build and maintain their wealth at great cost to the poor. Amos threatens a great silence, a famine of hearing the word of God to those who come to church each week and drop their offerings in the plate, but who fail to care for the poor or order their daily lives as God desires.
But then Luke’s gospel introduces us to Martha, who also misses God’s word, not because she is doing something evil, but because she is trying to do what she thinks is good.
I suppose that both Amos and Luke have something to say to me, and perhaps you as well. Oh I would never actually cheat a poor person out of any money or take advantage them intentionally, but then again I don’t get too worked up about having a cheap, abundant supply of fresh food at Giant Eagle or Kroger thanks in large part to the hard work of often abused and always underpaid migrant workers. But if I’m not nearly as bad as those condemned by Amos, I am very much like Martha. And if Jesus, in his great compassion, is trying to invite her to discover what is truly necessary, what does that say to me, or to you?
Jesus clearly tells Martha, and me, that there are choices that must be made. Lots of things, even good things, can push God away. We all have to have money to live, we all need food, people have to work, but Jesus says that nothing is as essential, as necessary as sitting at his feet, which is a way of talking about being his disciple.
One of the core callings of all Christian disciples is to help those around us catch a glimpse of God’s coming Kingdom, God’s reign, God’s new day, whatever you want to call it. In this Kingdom, God’s will is fully done, the poor and the oppressed are lifted up, the peacemaker is exalted over the warrior, and people trust that God will provide enough for the day without worrying about tomorrow. I know almost no one who thinks this describes the world we live in. So how is it that I and so many other Christians seem so at home in this world?
We live in a consumer culture that preaches a full life if you accomplish enough and acquire enough. It demands endless striving and busyness from us. It produces endless anxiety about getting more and about hanging on to what we already have. Yet for the most part we Christians have embraced this culture as if it were fully compatible with our faith. Worse, we often view faith or spirituality as one more consumer item, another piece to be acquired in order for life to be full and good. But Jesus tells Martha, and me as well, that we won’t find much of God in such a faith. If we’re really looking for God, if we really want to hear God, if we really want to discover true life, we will have to realize what is truly necessary, what really matters. And then, oh then we will really have something to share with the world.