Sermon Seeds: Word and Work
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 11
Amos 8:1-12 with Psalm 52 or
Genesis 18:1-10a with Psalm 15
Worship resources for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways
Additional reflection in story form by the Rev. Marja Coons-Torn
Word and Work
by Kathryn M. Matthews
Sometimes the most familiar and even beloved of stories from the Bible are the ones we struggle with most. Our passage from the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary and Martha, is a good example. It’s a short passage, but it provokes some disagreement among scholars, including those who see the situation of women in the early church (where the Gospels were written, a generation or so after the apostles) reflected in this story. What an interesting way to address the question of women in ministry: not through laws or “the way we’ve always done things,” but through a story.
Among the first followers of Jesus, there was already disagreement about the “the role of women,” a phrase that has helped to marginalize women and keep them from sharing their God-given gifts of leadership in the church, as if God intended roles based on gender. In my own lifetime, two thousand years later, women were not even permitted to study graduate theology in the church in which I was raised, and their voices are still excluded from the pulpit today. This regrettable tradition contradicts Jesus’ own example of including women and honoring their dignity, and the story of Mary and Martha invites us into that conversation and controversy.
Hearing and doing, word and work
One helpful way to read this Gospel text may be in relationship to the story that precedes it, about the “Good” Samaritan. Many scholars 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. Our weekly theme, “Word and Work,” might be another way to express “hearing and doing” – and both of them are central to the life of faith.
When he was asked, in last week’s passage, about “the bottom line” of faithfulness, about how one “inherits eternal life,” Jesus went 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 this week’s little story, we hear that sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening carefully is also important, right at the heart of things, too.
Who’s going to set the table?
We can also read this text with the Genesis 18:1-10a passage about Abraham offering hospitality to strangers by the oaks of Mamre, and to reflect on hospitality and the openness it requires, and the generosity of spirit that makes it both possible and authentic. (We can’t help but notice, however, that Sarah and the servants are the ones who do all the work.) 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 large family, “pitching in.” No wonder Jesus’ scolding of Martha provokes a bit of tension among many listeners.
Setting the scene for both stories
From last week’s story about the Good Samaritan, we recall that Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem, toward his suffering and death, when a Samaritan town refused to welcome him – not a good move in a culture that so highly valued hospitality. The Jewish people around him already hated the Samaritans. How ironic, how surprising, how challenging, then, when Jesus used a Samaritan, of all people, to tell a story about the meaning of compassion, of what it means to be a neighbor.
Jesus was responding to the question of a legal expert who wanted to know exactly what he has to “do” to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus answered the question with a question about what the Law says, and the man responded with what Marcus Borg, the great Jesus scholar, translates a bit differently: These are the two great “relationships”: to love God with your whole heart and soul and strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus says that is exactly right, do this and you will live.
So Jesus cares about our relationships – with God, and with one another. They’re at the heart of what it means to live faithful lives. And that is what Jesus is teaching, all the way to Jerusalem and his death: what it means to be faithful disciples.
Who will feed the hungry?
If we keep in mind that the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us what it means to love our neighbor, we can better understand the meaning of this week’s story about Mary and Martha. First, let’s think about all the wonderful people – not just women, either, but men, too – who work in the kitchens and fellowship halls of churches all across the land. We might wonder about the conversation during the clean-up time after coffee hour this Sunday and at Bible study on Wednesday! We might also ask, what if we heard this story told from the kitchen?
Think about what the church would do and be without these folks, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when they’re needed to be pouring the coffee and putting out the baked goods. What would happen to church potlucks and, by extension, the gathering of food items for food pantries, the work to combat hunger and feed the world? And what about our hospitality ministry, when we don’t go into church and pray until we have stood out there, by our door, and made sure that everyone has received a warm greeting and a welcome to our worship? Is that what this story of Mary and Martha means, that sitting and listening and praying and learning are more important, more valuable, more holy than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? I don’t think so.
Loving neighbor, loving God
Rather, we might think of these passages as a two-part story that Luke tells us about the heart of faithfulness, about how to inherit eternal life. The story about the Good Samaritan taught us about loving our neighbor, and scholars say that this week’s story – this is so simple that it’s beautiful – is about loving God. Part of the irony here is that the lawyer asked what he needed to “do” to “inherit eternal life,” but in this little story about two women, both of whom loved Jesus, Jesus says that all our efforts and deeds are to be balanced and even nourished by times of doing absolutely nothing but sitting and being with God.
Does busyness equal importance?
If that was a shocking thing for Jesus to say to a woman who was trying to meet the expectations her society had set for her, not to mention the radically counter-cultural message that a woman could sit at the feet of the master and learn from him just as any male disciple could, can we begin to imagine how disconcerting such a idea is for us, in our culture today? We live in a multi-tasking world that seems to equate busyness with importance; a long to-do list, especially when it’s finally completed, gives us a sense of satisfaction and even security…at least, until we start on a new list of tasks to be completed.
(For many people, the days are packed, one after another, with many things, and minds full and overflowing, worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things. Of course, we might also consider how a story about sitting quiet and still is heard by those who have nothing to do all day, who are lonely, perhaps, or longing for both companionship and meaning, an opportunity to share their gifts or simply be in community.)
What would quiet be like?
Can you imagine what life would be like, even for a little while, without all of the things that keep us busy? Several years ago, when the northeast United States had a massive power failure, the people in our neighborhood did something extraordinary: we sat on our porches and front steps, and we walked up and down the streets and talked to one another, about the power failure, about what folks needed; we checked on one another and we got to know one another better. We made room and time for community.
Can you imagine time for our internal lives, hours spent in being with God, abiding with God, in tending our relationship with God, listening to the quiet voice of God speaking to us, deep within our hearts? In our congregation, visitors were sometimes surprised when we pastors waited for several minutes, just a few minutes, actually, in silence before saying the pastoral prayer. One woman (one who often worked very hard in our kitchen, coincidentally) said to me, “That is my favorite time in the service; it’s the only quiet time I get all week, and I wish it would last even longer.”
Henri Nouwen once wrote that our lives, while full, are often unfulfilled. “Our occupations and preoccupations,” he said, “fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives.” Making room for the Spirit of God to breathe freely in us, it is true, renews our own spirits, and our lives as well, when we walk out the door of our church. (This is a particularly striking claim for a newly retired person. Is it really okay to just “sit and be with God”?)
When (and how) can we hear the voice of God?
We do so much talking in our churches – we focus, after all, on “the Word” – but we can’t hear God speaking in our hearts if we don’t regularly (not sometimes, but often) stop and just sit and listen, like Mary at the feet of Jesus. How indeed can the Stillspeaking God get a word in edgewise over the beepers, smart phones, texts and tweets, social media and even old-fashioned television and radio messages that bombard us 24/7? (“24/7”: there’s an expression worth contemplating!) How can we tend to our internal lives like careful gardeners who spend time nurturing new growth, pulling weeds when necessary, and gently showering the thirsty green plants with refreshing water?
I like to think about what Jesus may have been saying to Mary there in the living room, while Martha banged around in the kitchen, annoyed at her sister for not helping her. Maybe he was reciting one of the psalms of their people, our ancestors in faith, like Psalm 131, which quiets our souls so that we are like children on a loving parent’s knee, our minds clear of distraction and worry, our hearts still, resting in God’s love. Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book, An Altar in the World, includes a chapter on “waking up to God,” among other everyday spiritual practices that you can do wherever you are, but really, every chapter in her book feels like a lesson in listening for God.
The most unlikely of teachers
It seems, then, that Jesus has once again chosen two most unlikely teachers for us, one a hated Samaritan and the other a “lowly woman” – not a respected Pharisee or lawyer, not an authoritative expert or a great prophet. No, an outsider and someone on the margins teach us that hearing and doing go together. Again, the point of these two stories, one after the other as the earliest Christians would have heard them, is that it’s not hearing OR doing, it’s hearing AND doing the Word of God that makes us faithful disciples.
That’s the twist in these two stories from the Gospel of Luke. Just as the lawyer asked Jesus about eternal life, it’s easy for us to think of doing whatever we need to do to “earn” our salvation so we can go to heaven after we die. (So much for amazing grace!) But Jesus understood that the fulfillment of the promises of God has already begun, and that we can taste and feel those promises in our own lives, even here, even now. Life abundant: full of word and work, hearing and doing, and resting in the presence of God.
Questions for reflection
Who are the people behind-the-scenes in your church, who make much of its ministry, including its hospitality, possible? How would these stories sound if they were told by them, if they were told from “downstairs,” by those who are mostly quiet 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? How would you respond to the claim of Bette Davis (below) that “only work satisfies”?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”
Bertrand Russell, 19th century
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
Bette Davis, 20th century
“It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.”
George Eliot, 19th century
“If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of the roar which is the other side of silence.”
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“Every creature is a word of God.”
Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 19th century
“A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is visible labor and there is invisible labor.”
Walt Whitman, 19th century
“Seeing, hearing, and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.”
Additional reflection in story form by the Rev. Marja Coons-Torn, retired Conference Minister of the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ
“She Has Made the Right Choice”
Mary was a strange child growing up. There were a lot of days when she nearly drove her mother crazy with the questions she would ask.
“Mother, if God made the world, and if God is good, why are there bad people?”
And another time, “Mother, why can’t girls grow up to serve in the temple? Aren’t we descended from the priestly line, too?”
Still another time, “How should we serve God, mother? How should young women and men, but especially women, serve God?”
Almost invariably, her mother gave Mary the same answer. “Don’t worry your head about it, Mary. If God wants you to know all these things, God will send someone to teach you.”
Mary thought her mother wasn’t quite serious about that. She had heard that line enough times that she knew it was really just her mother’s way of getting rid of her when she was being a pest. She knew it because other times her mother would say, “Couldn’t you be just a little bit more like your sister Martha, dear? I never have to tell Martha twice to come set the table, or not to dawdle when she’s bringing me water from the well. You’re a dreamer, Mary. You’ll never be able to run an efficient household when you grow up unless you learn to pay attention now.”
Still, Mary couldn’t help asking questions. That was her nature as a child. That was her nature as a youth. That was her nature as a woman. She wanted to know not only who she was, but why she was, and why others were they way they were. Yet, that was not all that fueled Mary and kept her burning with the desire to know.
Mary had a great love for God. Where did it come from? Mary didn’t know. She only knew that it had been there since she was a small child. It was there in her questions. It was there in her love for nature and her desire to be continually out of doors in God’s world. It was there in the little prayers that kept popping into her head. It was just there. Everything that Mary did, was informed directly or indirectly by her love for God.
She also believed that God loved her. Oh, it wasn’t that her life had been perfect. Far from it. Mary’s mother had died when Mary was barely out of childhood. She and her sister Martha had remained at home to care for their father and their brother Lazarus. So Mary had never married, never had children of her own. But Mary knew that God loved her, and she wore that love like a coat of many colors.
Because God’s love was so visible in Mary, people, especially children, tended to flock around her. Actually, it wasn’t true that Mary had no children. If you wanted the truth, she had the hearts of every child in the village of Bethany in her own heart.
The major disappointment of Mary’s life was not her childlessness, or not having a husband, or even the burden of tedious daily chores, but rather the fact that she could not study the Scriptures, or sit in the temple courtyard as the scribes and the pharisees discussed the questions of what it meant to be faithful to God in present-day Palestine, at the crossroads of the world, with Roman governors, and military people on every corner.
Mary wanted to study with a rabbi. But she had never found a rabbi who would talk to her. She had never found a rabbi who would take seriously the questions that she as a woman wanted to raise. As a child and a youth, as a young woman, she had not found that rabbi to talk to and listen to – until three years ago.
What a remarkable day it was, the day that Mary met Jesus. She had heard the rumors in her village that there was a different kind of teacher up north in the region of Galilee. The Galileans, when they came south to Jerusalem for the religious festivals, passed right through Bethany.
One day, right before Succoth, three years ago, she had been at the well in the square when she had heard about this rabbi. They said he was a prophet. He spoke with authority. There was more.
They said he was also a healer. She heard there was a woman who had been sick for twelve years, who had been healed just by touching the rabbi’s robe. There was more.
They said he flouted the law. He ate with sinners, he healed on the Sabbath, he had tax-collectors among his followers. There was more.
They said he talked to women.
They said he talked to women. Mary had drawn up the bucket and filled a large jug with water, when she saw another group coming into Bethany on the dusty road. She lingered by the well, hoping that they would pass near her, and she might be able to hear more stories about he the Galilean rabbi.
When they were no further than a stone’s throw away from her, Mary found herself looking into the most penetrating eyes she had ever encountered. She felt like she was rooted to the spot where she stood. She knew without asking that this was the rabbi.
“You are Mary, and you have many questions you have been waiting a long time to ask. Shall we go to your home?” Mary was so speechless that all she could manage was to motion with her hand for him to follow her. With him came two of his disciples. She found out later that their names were James and John. They were Galileans, sometimes know as Sons of Thunder, for their hearty manner and their great booming laughter.
When water had been provided to them for refreshing themselves, and the meal was on the stove (thanks primarily to Martha), Mary sat down at the feet of the teacher and began to ask him all of the questions she had stored up since her childhood.
“Can children know God in the way we do, Master?”
“That is so, Mary. And not only that, but all of you must learn from the children, for they can teach us how to trust God and how to turn over every part of your life God’s care.”
Mary listened and asked questions until the sun was getting very low. After supper they gave him and his disciples a place to sleep and good thick straw mattresses to sleep on.
Jesus stayed many more days with Mary and her family. Martha and their brother Lazarus began to listen to Jesus, too, and they all soon became followers of his way. It was good teaching. It made a great deal of sense. But most importantly, it was filled with the kind of love that Mary knew had to come from God.
There was only one small fly in the ointment, as the saying goes. Mary became so engrossed in learning about God from the teacher that she began to neglect her household duties. The broom stayed in the corner. She forgot to go to the market. The water jars were only half filled as Mary hurried back from the town well so she could listen some more.
One evening, when Mary had hardly moved from the teacher’s side all day, Martha finally lost her temper.
“Master, don’t you see what is happening? I’m doing all of the serving while Mary just sits here like a lady of leisure.”
“Martha, come here and sit down for a moment.”
“But the dinner, Master.”
“Leave the dinner and come here.”
So Martha left the dinner and sat down with the others.
“Martha, all her life Mary has been waiting to learn about God. I am only here for a very short time. I must tell what I know to be true about God to those who will tell others. It is important – very important – that there be witnesses and that they understand and remember what I tell them. I am grateful that you have served us, Martha. But you are distracted by planning and preparing, cooking and serving meals. You are thinking about what condition the house is in. You are wondering if you have enough meat to go around.
“Mary has chosen to give her full attention to this mission I am giving you. She had made the right choice and it will not be taken away from her. I must feed you, just as you feed me.”
Well, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, too, had many more encounters with Jesus, but none was more important than this seemingly insignificant incident. For all over the world, when Christian are distracted by the house-keeping chores of our churches, or our lives, we remind each other with the story of Mary and Martha, that Jesus himself invited us to learn about God, to experience God, and to serve God. Let those who have two good ears hear.”
This is what the Lord GOD showed me – a basket of summer fruit.
He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.
Why do you boast, O mighty one,
of mischief done against the godly?
All day long
you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor,
you worker of treachery.
You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue.
But God will break you down forever;
and will snatch and tear you from your tent;
God will uproot you
from the land of the living.
The righteous will see, and fear,
and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
“See the one who would not take refuge in God,
but trusted in abundant riches,
and sought refuge in wealth!”
But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
forever and ever.
I will thank you forever,
because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful
I will proclaim your name,
for it is good.
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.
He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
O God, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly,
and do what is right,
and speak the truth
from their heart;
who do not slander
with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear God;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him – provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”