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
Word and Work
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Sometimes the most familiar and even beloved of stories from the Bible are the most difficult ones to preach. 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 a great deal of disagreement among scholars, including those who see the situation in the early church (where the Gospels were written) reflected in this 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. (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.) 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.
And of course 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 never-published pastoral letter on women, acknowledged that 85 percent of the work of the church was done by women, none of them, in that church, 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 and dignity of their efforts. One might wonder about the conversation during the clean-up time after coffee hour on a Sunday when this passage is read.
However, the most helpful way to read the text may be in relationship to the story that precedes it, 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 this week’s story, we hear that sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening carefully is also important, right at the heart of things, too.
Another way to approach the text is to read it with the passage from Genesis, and to reflect on hospitality and the openness it implies as well as 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.
From last week’s story about the Good Samaritan (the passage immediately before this one in Luke), 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 cared so deeply about hospitality. The Jewish people around him already hated the Samaritans. How ironic, how surprising, then, when Jesus used a Samaritan, of all people, when he wanted to tell a story that would teach the meaning of compassion, of what it means to be a neighbor.
Of course, 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 his 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.
If we recall that the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us what it means to love our neighbor, then we can better understand the meaning of our story today, about Mary and Martha. Why might this text be an uncomfortable one for preachers? Think about all the wonderful people – not just women, either, some men, too – who work in the kitchens and fellowship halls of churches all across the land. Think about what we would do without them, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when we need them to be pouring the coffee and putting out the baked goods. What would happen to church potlucks and, by extension, our gathering of food items for the Community Harvest Food Pantry, our work to combat hunger and feed the world? And what about our hospitality ministry, when we stand outside our churches, or just inside our sanctuaries, and make 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 than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? No pastor in her or his right mind would suggest such a thing, and I don’t believe it’s what Jesus is saying, either.
We might think of today’s passage as part two of Luke’s story about Jesus teaching 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 today’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 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.
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 like any male disciple and learn from him, 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. Our days are full, one after another, of many things, and our minds are full and overflowing, worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things.
Can you imagine what life would be like, even for a llittle while, without all of the things that keep us busy? Several years ago, we had a massive power failure in the northeast, and 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. Can you imagine time for our internal lives, hours spent in being with God, abiding with God, in tending our relationships with God, listening to the quiet voice of God still speaking to us, deep within our hearts? At our church, people were often surprised when we pastors paused for several minutes, just a few minutes, in silence before offering the pastoral prayer. But I remember one woman saying 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.” Making room for the Spirit of God to breathe freely in us, and thus renewing our lives, even for just a few quiet moments each week.
We do so much talking in our churches – I know, we’re very big on “the Word” – but it seems to me that we can’t hear God still speaking if we don’t stop not just sometimes but regularly – and just sit and listen, like Mary at the feet of Jesus. How 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 not helping her. Maybe he was reciting one of the psalms of his 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.
It seems that Jesus, as usual, has chosen 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. The point of these two stories, back-to-back 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. If we are so busy doing that we can’t stop regularly and long enough to listen for God, well, then our lives, as Henri Nouwen once said, will remain full but unfulfilled. And that to me seems like quite the opposite of “inheriting eternal life.”
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 when we die. (So much for amazing grace!) But Jesus understood that the fulfillment of the promises of God has already begun, and we can taste and feel those promises in our own lives, even here, even now.
Who are the people “behind the scenes” in your church, who make 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 ” (and usually downstairs, quite literally), 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?
Note: In response to this reflection, the Rev. Larry Pray has written of the experience of those who have survived injury to the brain; with his permission, I share part of his message for our own further reflection:
“Your question, ‘What would life be like without all the things we do?’ hit home, not just for me, I’m quite sure, but for thousands of us. We know what it is like when brain damage limits not our imagination, but our capacity to respond, or to even make sense of life the way we did just a day or so before. We face an utterly new creation. To an astonishing degree, we become isolated. To be blunt, we become a ‘problem.’
“If we are clergy we find we are no longer wanted, as we can no longer be useful. It is an exceedingly lonely struggle….In our churches there are thousands of us who find ourselves stranded, not from life, but from “regular” activity.”
For further reflection on the experience of those who have survived injury to the brain, see Larry’s website at larrypray.com. There is also information there on his book, Thresholds: Connecting Body and Soul after Brain Injury.
For further reflection:
Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Take more time, cover less ground.”
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.”
Walt Whitman, 19th century
“Seeing, hearing, and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.”
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 on 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 for ever;
God will snatch and tear you from your tent
and 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 your name 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,
Who speak the truth from their heart;
and do not slander with their tongue,
Who 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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.