Derek Starr Redwine
July 21, 2013

Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
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In last week’s sermon we looked at the interaction between Jesus and a lawyer, a lawyer who, like many of us, was searching for eternal life.

In answer to the man’s question about how one one inherits eternal life, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a story that makes it clear that if you want to have eternal life, you need to serve those in need.

Eternal life is not something we wait for, Jesus teaches; it is something we experience here and now, when we extend mercy to those who need it most.

            That was last week.

This week, in the passage you just heard from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to undermine his own teaching.

Martha is doing exactly what Jesus commands the lawyer to do. She is setting aside her own needs and extending hospitality to one in need. In many ways he is the man beaten, bruised, and left for dead on the side of road. Jesus, is after all, on his way to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die, and yet when Martha makes time to serve him, Jesus implies that what she is doing is ʻnot the better part.ʼ

It is Mary, who I’m guessing was the younger sister, who gets Jesus’ attention. It is Mary, who just sits there while Martha toils away in the kitchen who Jesus praises.

Let’s face it; most of us here, at this successful, hard-working church are Marthas. We are the ones work, and serve, and strive.  We set goals, make lists, and do what needs to be done, which means that when we hear this passage, we get a little annoyed, because Jesus seems to say that people who do less, have it right.

Well, that is not exactly what he is saying. 

Whenever you come across a passage of scripture that confuses you, whenever you read something that seems to contradict something that was said before, take a step back and look at its greater context.  Today’s passage does not stand alone. It is addendum or extension of the passage that comes right before.  This exchange between Jesus and Martha is a continuation of the answer to the lawyerʼs question of how one inherits eternal life.

In the second chapter of Markʼs Twainʼs The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom faces the daunting task of whitewashing Aunt Pollyʼs 810-square-foot-fence. With this unpleasant job lying before him, Twain writes, “Life to Tom seemed hollow, and existence a burden.”

But then Tom has as Twain puts it “nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration”.

When his friend Ben ambles by and mocks Tom for his sorry lot, Tom acts confused. “Slapping paint on a fence isnʼt a chore,” he says. “Itʼs a fantastic privilege.” The job is so captivating, in fact, that when Ben asks to try a few brushstrokes for himself, Tom refuses.

He doesn’t relent until Ben promises to give an apple in exchange for the opportunity to help Tom paint the fence. Soon more boys arrive and tumble into Tomʼs ruse,

and before they know it,

together they have whitewashed the fence several times over.

In todayʼs passage, Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t serve more than we already do.  We can and will do more for those in need. As he illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan, it is through our service that create the kingdom of God here on earth.  When the youth of this church toiled in the heat in New York, they were doing God’s good work.

Jesus is not critiquing Martha for what she is doing.  He is critiquing her for her attitude.  Somewhere along the way, she forgot what matter most.

 

His name was Aaron.  He was young and excited about the church. Aaron was the kind of new member churches drool over.  He hadn’t attended a church since high school, but having kids inspired him to look for a new church home, and when he found First Presbyterian, he was all in!

He loved the church and couldn’t wait to get involved.  When he shared his faith story with the Session, prior to joining, it was obvious that his faith was on fire. Aaron was eager and ready to follow Jesus.

Then it happened. Instead of reframing his expectations,

            instead of feeding his soul with the good news of gospel,

                        instead helping him deepen the commitments he already had,

                                    the church gave him things to do.

They put Aaron on the Properties committee.  He was after all an architect, and it was where his gifts lay. Aaron eagerly agreed to serve. If that was where he was needed, he would gladly do it. Within a year Aaron was chairing the committee…and you can probably guess the rest. Within three years after joining, Aaron was gone. 

He had served his way right out of the church.

We so easily forget it, because most of us here equate our value with our work, but Jesus did not come to give us more things to do. He came to give us a gift that we all desperately need.

As a parent of three young children, who are stubborn and strong, and the pastor of such a dynamic church as Fairmount  I have great interest in the best ways to motivate people to do what needs to be done. Fortunately, there is a lot of interesting research out there motivation, and in my studies, one common thread has emerged: expectations or obligations

that are placed upon us do more harm than good.

In fact, when we do something out of obligation, or duty, or to receive some reward, we lose something valuable in the process. We lose our joy.

At some point Aaron would have made a great committee member, but before he was asked to serve the church, he needed to receive the good news. He needed to be fed.  Instead of finding a place for him to serve, the church needed to help Aaron find a small group, or a Bible study, or and education class where he Gould learn about God’s grace. He needed to learn that his work, while important, had nothing to do with his receiving eternal life.

A few years ago a team of researchers contacted 23 professional artists who had produced both commissioned and non-commissioned works. The researchers then asked these artists to randomly select 10 of their commissioned works and 10 of their non-commissioned pieces.

The researchers then gave the art to a panel of accomplished artists and curators, who knew nothing about the study, instructing them to rate the pieces on two scales: creativity and technical skill.

The results were startling.

The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, even though the commissioned works scored no lower in technical quality.[1]  In other words, the commissioned pieces were technically good works of art, but in every instance the curators and artists could just tell that something was missing.

At its best the church is a place where people are given the space and time they need to discover God’s unconditional love for them….at its worst, the church is an institution that suffocates people’s faith through more and more obligations.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun! Martha had Jesus, the Son of the Living God, in her house, and she still wasn’t happy. She had seen and heard all Jesus had done, and she was still bitter that Mary seemed to be getting all the love.

As we discussed last week, heaven is not just a destination, it’s also a way of life, which means that the realities of heaven should be accessible to us here and now, and I’ve always imagined heaven being a place full of joy. In heaven, I imagine people are thankful, and appreciative, and grateful for everything.

You see, when Jesus senses Marthaʼs bitterness towards Mary, he is not angry at her. He’s sad for her

 

Martha is trying to earn her place at the table. She is trying to prove her worth.  She is working hard to claim her promise, and she canʼt do any of it.

We canʼt work ourselves into heaven. We can serve ourselves into eternal life. And we certainly can’t  manufacture joy.

Eugene Peterson in his paraphrasing of the New Testament, The Message, writes in his translation of today’s story that “Mary has chosen the main course. And it will not be taken from her.”

What we do matters,  but not as much as what God has done for us. If we forget that God’s love is a gift,

            and keep on keep on doing good work,

                                    we will grow bitter.

I’ve seen it happen time…and time again. Love, peace, and joy only come to us a gift, freely given, and until we accept that we will never be happy.

Indian priest Anthony de Mello tells the story of two fishermen. One is asleep on the beach while the other, a more prosperous fisherman, chides his friend.  “Why aren’t you out fishing?”

“I’ve caught what I need for the day.” the man replies.

“But you could catch more fish and sell them. Then you could buy bigger boats and hire other workers–and catch even more fish.”

“And then what?”

“Well, you could become rich and retire and do what you want–enjoy life.”

The first fisherman sighs. “What do you think I’m doing right now?”[2]

If youʼre feeling bitter about all the work you do for others, if your relationship with God means less to you the more you serve, if you’ve got little patience for people who seem happy in the work they do, get out of the kitchen and  trust that someone else will do the work that needs to be done.

If youʼre serving with a heavy heart,

            whether it be here at church, or at work, or at home,

                                    stop what you are doing and make time for Jesus.

Pray. Read. Meditate. Study. Exercise. Nap.

Make time for something that feeds your soul.

Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says, and it will not be taken from her. Do this, he teaches, and you will live.

Amen.


[1] Drive Daniel Pink, pp. 36.

[2]Told in “Raising Children, Raising Ourselves” by Dee Dee Risher in the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of Horizons Magazine

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