Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Better Part

The Better Part
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 21, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 10: 38-42

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.40 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."41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

This is one of those really familiar passages. Much like last week's Good Samaritan, which directly precedes this story, it's well known. There are tons of books written about this. If you go on Amazon you'll find books like, "Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World" or "31 days to clean: Having a Martha House in a Mary Way." Mary and Martha have come to represent two types of people and we find ourselves identifying somehow with one of the two types. It's almost like an Ancient Meyer's Briggs personality test, and maybe one of the oldest such distinctions in history. So the question comes down: Are you a Martha type or a Mary type? Traditionally the Martha type is the doer, is organized, is dutiful, is a worker, dependable, etc. and the Mary type is lazy, a dreamer, disorganized, but somehow more spiritually fulfilled and oriented. . . something like that. These are the two types and if you look at this passage it's the Mary character ,who at first glance, at least according to Jesus, has chosen what he calls the better part. A few years ago while I was an ministry intern in Hampton, I preached on this passage, and sent out that simple message, that people should look beyond the day to day duties of the world and try to find ways to add some of the spirituality to their lives, that the slower, stopping to smell the roses, contemplative Mary life is somehow more the right way to live. It's a dangerous message, and one that is a little bit too simplified and misses some of the nuances of the story.
Of course, I also remember being told all of this afterwards when a Martha type came up to me and let me know about it, unapologetically so, making me think twice about exactly what I said, how I read this passage, and how I should try to dig deeper, beyond the surface, especially when that surface message is comforting to me, but challenging to others. You see I'm naturally more of a Mary person, and so dug the excuse to be contemplative rather than overly dutiful, but I found that many of the people I was preaching to were Marthas, and I also realized just how important, and how much I was depending and would be depending on Marthas in my ministry. So let's dig a little deeper today, and try to see exactly what this "better part" is all about.
What first strikes us about this passage is the fact that it is very similar to another of Jesus' famous stories, the Prodigal Son, especially the role in that story of the older brother, who just won't come into the party to greet his newly welcomed home lost brother. So many people see eye to eye with that dutiful brother, much like Martha here, and are troubled by them being the forgotten one, or the "wrong" one. Is it wrong to be dutiful Jesus? Is it wrong to feel like a guest should be cared for and served? Is it wrong to do the necessary work? Why? You've probably been there before. You seem to be the one who does the grunt work because you are the one who seems to care more about it, and you wonder why it is. You seem to always be the one who steps up and does the dishes or else they'd sit there in the sink. You seem to always be the one who takes out the trash or it would pile up over the top of the can. You seem to be the only one who is working to complete the group work at school. You seem to be the only one who is following the rules and doing things the right way. You seem to be the only one who has a concept about how things can and should be done. You seem to always be the one who volunteers to clean the church, you seem to always be the one who brings fellowship treats, you seem to be the only one. . . and it all depends on you, and would come crashing down without you doing it, you say to yourself, am I the only one who cares. It seems so, and not only that, I have to read passages like this one or the Prodigal son, and have to now be told how that I'm wrong for doing so. The others who do nothing, according to Jesus, choose the "better part." Great, this is really fair. And the bitterness comes. We understand the older brother, we understand Martha. We understand their frustration. So now I get it Pete you're going to tell us now how Martha's should get over it, right, how our bitterness is destroying us, and how we just shouldn't think that way, that it is destroying our relationships, that we have to see it the other way, that we have to empathize and aspire to be more patient, and more spiritual, so that we can too, choose the better part, by taking it easy, not getting so stirred up, caring less. Is that right? Maybe.
I will say this. These two, Mary and Martha, and the Prodigal Son and his older brother are not the only sibling stories from the Bible. There are many and they are all troubling in an eerily similar way. Jacob and Esau is one or you can now just take a look around the nursery and start to remember these stories. Cain and Abel, Cain works hard, they both give offerings, but for some reason Cain's does not please God, broken relationship, to say the least, Cain stands over the bleeding dead Abel. Joseph sitting dreaming under a tree in the amazing Technicolor Dream Coat given only to him by his father, while his brothers in their anger plot to get rid of him. And this one is great because it really gets at the brokenness of the relationship. The text says that his brothers cannot speak peace to him. . . literally shalom. They could not even wish him good health, for the culture that is paramount to a total disowning, and certainly a precursor for their later treatment of him.
This is one of the marks of these stories isn't it, one of those little details that really ties them together. Joseph's brother's cannot speak peace to Joseph, the elder brother won't go into the party yes, but also in his language doesn't call him "my brother" but instead refers to him as "this son of yours" saying "This son of yours has squandered your money on prostitutes and you kill for him the fatted calf." Look at Martha here, instead of speaking to Mary directly, she talks to Jesus, she does call Mary her sister, but she talks about her to Jesus, with her still there at his feet, trying to use his authority over her to get what she wants. Again broken relationship. She says "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."
And now is when Jesus says, Martha Martha, repeating her name. At first you could say that this comes across as condescending. Like come on Martha get a hold of yourself. But then you realize the authority with which Jesus speaks, and you remember that Martha is not the first name repeated in such a fashion in the Biblical narrative, nor the last. God says, Abraham, Abraham, when he tells him not to sacrifice Isaac; God says, Moses, Moses, when speaking from the burning bush, calling him to service, likewise Jacob, Jacob, when calling him to go into Egypt, likewise Samuel, Samuel/ then later, Simon, Simon, when he wants Simon Peter to return to his service after his denial, and finally Saul, Saul, on the road to Damascus, calling him to service. Think about the club Jesus welcomes Martha into, a father of nations, the man chosen to lead the people out of bondage, the name sake of the nation of Israel, the king making priest, the rock on which the church is built, and the one chosen to bring Christianity to the Gentiles. Jesus honors Martha by calling her in this way. He is calling her to remember whom she serves, and why what she is doing matters. Only one thing.

But the passage says that she is distracted by many things, and then Jesus adds to distracted that she also is worried about many things. I don't think that it is the work she is doing that has her distracted, it's not what she is doing that is the problem, it's what she is thinking. She has gotten to that point of bitterness and broken relationship. She is not wrong to be doing all of those things, duty is not wrong, but what she's lost is love. She's lost the purpose for doing it in the first place. Think of our lament from earlier. . . Am I the only one who cares? The question then becomes what do you care about? Is it the order and the rightness, or is it the person, the guest, the people around you? How easy it is to get distracted by the process and forget the purpose. Love is that purpose, and must be that purpose, the one thing. . .

1 Corinthians 13: "If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

Now what about Mary. . . Shouldn't she be helping? Shouldn't she be loving Martha, showing her love by helping out, sharing the duties, being concerned and caring for what her sister cares about? Yes, I think so. She should be, you'd think her love should manifest itself in some action, but it is action that Jesus cannot force and have it still be love. . . that is the ancient primordial dilemma, look at what Jesus says, She has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her. . . I will not take from her choice, for in that choice is love, which is the better part. Love cannot exist without that choice. It cannot exist in a triangular authoritarian guilt fest. It is built on the submission of the cross not the authority of the sword. Again the cause of the action for the universe is more important than the action itself. Just like duty is empty without love, so too is any compelled action. Jesus will not tell her to help because she has chosen not too, even if it is the wrong choice.
The sad thing is we do not know the rest of the story. The chapter ends here and moves on to the next thing. Chapter 11 opens up in a different place with Jesus talking about prayer, giving the words to Luke's version of the Lord's prayer, so we don't know what happens after this moment, but we do know what takes place before it, and it is Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Being there, being neighborly helping someone in need. If Mary, seated at the foot of Jesus, completely idle is the picture of Christian goodness, and the better part, then there is a pretty large contradiction in this chapter. Jesus asks the pharisee after telling the Good Samaritan parable, which one of these is the neighbor? What if we asked it about Martha and Mary? It's a good question? Is Martha a better neighbor? Or is Mary? Based on this story, if I'm lying in a ditch I'm hoping that Martha is first to walk by. And I'm hoping that in this story Jesus and Mary join Martha in her duties, so that they can all grow in relationship and love together, undistracted, but completely concerned. Love is deep wide and infinite enough for dishes.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 Sometimes seemingly alone. . .  And since it is all of those things, it is the better part and the only part that matters. It is the part that doesn't leave Abel in the dust, and reconciles Jacob and Esau, and then again Joseph and his brothers, welcomes home the prodigal son and goes outside to invite the older brother in as well, cares enough about Martha, to call her to the higher service that love demands, and allows the freedom of choice to not love, the hard seemingly alone part that eats away at us as it does our Maker.  May we be so blessed to be likewise called from our own distractions into love's higher service.
I was blessed to see such service at work last weekend. . .