Today, we’re looking at the gospel according to Luke – jumping straight into the middle to observe a story that will be familiar to many of us. This particular chunk of Luke is placed in an interesting spot: right after the parable of the Good Samaritan, which encourages and even demands that we welcome strangers and serve one another in love.
This story is ultimately about two kinds of hospitality: Martha’s and Jesus’.
Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
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.’
Over the last week or two, I’ve been reading a book by Priya Parker called ‘The Art of Gathering.’ Her expertise is not in décor or color palettes, but in conflict resolution and facilitating connection between people. (I highly recommend the book, by the way.)
In her guide to creating memorable and useful gatherings, the first rule is that the host must know the ultimate purpose of the gathering. This doesn’t necessarily apply to inviting your best friend over at the last minute for pizza, but it does apply to larger gatherings – everything from birthday celebrations to international conferences.
The reason is simple: in order to plan well, to know who to invite and what kind of gathering you’re planning, you need to know why it is you’re gathering. You need an answer to the question: “why are these people here?”
In our story, Martha is exercising the sort of hospitality that was expected of her – it was absolutely normal, if you saw a stranger wandering around town, to make sure they had someplace to eat and a place to sleep. So she’s focused on the details of feeding Jesus and his disciples – do we have enough seats, did I bake enough bread, feeding twelve men is going to take a whole lot of stew. There’s no evidence that she knew Jesus at this point, though she might have heard some stories, so she’s engrossed in the details of her own brand of hospitality. The text literally says “she was anxious about a whole lot of things.” For her, these tasks were the most important things in that moment: her sole purpose was to throw a great dinner party and impress her guests.
For Mary, on the other hand, the purpose of this time is to interact with Jesus as much as possible. She is sitting at his feet, listening to his stories, probably asking more questions than Peter.
Those competing purposes eventually come to a head when Martha gets a little passive-aggressive and tells Jesus to dismiss her sister to help her.
But in a stunning turn of events, Jesus asks her to give up the role of hostess with the mostest and let him be the host – the one who guides the evening – because food is great, but in this particular moment, sitting with Jesus is more important than dinner.
For Martha, this is a question of priorities.
For us, this story invites us to ask a deeper question: is it possible that we sometimes overdo things a bit to the detriment of our own relationships with Jesus?
Particularly in smaller congregations like ours, it’s easy to get caught up in the endless to-do lists. Believe me, they are endless. Whether it’s renovating the storage room at the end of the ramp, scraping and painting the railings, preparing for VBS, planning ahead for Sunday School or making sure the bills get paid on time – all of that (all of which has taken place in the last two weeks, by the way) takes someone who will step up and get things done. It takes a Martha.
So I want to take a moment to say: thank you. If it weren’t for you, the church would be in shambles. Literally.
But each of those Marthas also needs a space to reflect, to learn, to just enjoy the presence of God – a space where we won’t miss the moment in front of us because we’re absorbed in our email or our spreadsheets. We need some space to be Mary, for the sake of our own souls.
Making this space is also good practice for the days when that productivity might not come as easily – when your body isn’t cooperating, when your brain chemistry gets knocked out of alignment, when, for whatever reason, you just can’t ‘do.’
Because if the only way you’re connected to God and to your church family is through doing – and doing and doing and doing some more – when those moments come, how will you connect differently? How will your relationships change?
Sheryl Sandberg, a corporate executive in the technology industry, wrote a book about grief called ‘Option B.’ In it, she tells the story of a young woman who had the life she always dreamed of—a husband, a house, a group of friends, and one good friend in particular who she often went out to dinner or shows or concerts with. But when her husband died suddenly and that world came crashing down, that same friend dropped off the face of the earth and ghosted her completely: no calls, no texts, no invitations. A year went by before the woman called her friend and asked for an explanation. The friend responded: “I thought I would wait until you felt better.”
This friend not only misunderstood the nature of grief, but the purpose of their friendship – not just to go out and have fun, but to support one another, to share experiences together, and to learn from one another.
In the same way, we do ourselves a disservice when we depend entirely on our ability to go and do to sustain our relationships – both our relationship with God, and with our church family.
The point here is not that we should never vacuum again, as great as that sounds, but that we set aside the time to sit at the feet of Jesus often enough that we can build a faith that lasts even through the times when we’re not okay.
Friends, you are loved and valuable; you are worthy and you belong even when you’re not being ‘productive.’
And if that statement makes you uncomfortable, then consider this an invitation to practice being Mary for a while.
Let yourself be welcomed into the presence of Jesus – where we all show up empty-handed, sometimes limping, and God smiles on us anyway.
To use a completely different analogy, I often like to think of a healthy spiritual life somewhat like making chicken noodle soup from scratch. You put in the effort to chop the vegetables, make (or at least measure) the noodles, cook the chicken, measure out the spices, and put it all together – but that doesn’t mean it’s done. You have to let it simmer for a while, to soften the carrots, cook the noodles, let the spices permeate every corner of the pot and let the flavors all mix together.
Only once you’ve simmered do you actually have soup. It takes time. Even the new Instant Pot takes at least a few minutes – and there’s nothing you can do to speed it up.
It takes both work and waiting. As we await Christ’s kingdom, we are somehow both host and guest.
Through it all, our Lord Jesus, through whom all things came into being, calls to us – to each of us – saying: “come to be, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”