“Worried and Distracted by Many Things”
Once in a while we have people over to our house for dinner, or maybe for a BBQ on the deck. I must say that it doesn’t happen very often because our lives are so busy that our house is likely to be in a state of chaos, and the thought of cleaning it all up in order to entertain visitors can be a bit daunting.
But I do know some of the challenges of being a good host. Certainly, you want the food to be ready at about the right time… not the moment the guests arrive, but if dinner won’t be served for a while, some kind of appetizer and some drinks is a good idea in the meantime. And you want to have plenty of everything… You don’t want to run out of wine like they did at that wedding that Jesus’ attended in Cana, and you want your guests to feel free to take good-sized portions, or to come back for seconds of their favourite dishes.
Good cooks don’t have too much trouble with that part. They know how much to make, and they know how to time everything so that the meal can be served in a timely, and not too rushed manner. But then there’s the challenge of actually being present with your guests to visit and get to know them.
Have you ever been at a dinner party where the host spent the whole time in the kitchen? She would come out once in a while to bring you wonderful food and fill up your glasses, but she might as well have been a servant or a caterer hired to prepare a fancy meal for you.
When Nick and I have people over, we tend to take turns. While one of us is going to the kitchen to stir a pot, or get something out of the oven, or put on the coffee, the other one is visiting with our guests. As long as we don’t make the meal too complicated, that usually works pretty well.
But more often than not, when we’re at a dinner party it’s likely at someone else’s house. In fact, we have one friend who likes to host dinner parties fairly often, and we really like the way he does it. Instead of being the host and doing all the work, he invites all his guests to be a part of the process. Some people do pot luck suppers, and that can be good too. But our friend plans a menu and makes sure he has all the ingredients, and then he invites his guests to help him prepare the meal. Everyone gets a little job to do… chopping veggies, preparing a sauce, putting out cheese and crackers, or cooking the meat on the BBQ… and as we work, we talk, we visit, we laugh, and enjoy each other’s company. And we usually prepare a pretty wonderful meal at the same time.
The story of Martha and Mary is an interesting one because it’s so real. The argument we see these sisters having may remind us of similar ones we’ve had with our siblings or our spouses or our roommates. On one level, it’s a conflict related to everyone doing their fair share in the household. Martha feels taken-advantage-of because her sister isn’t helping. Like so many family conflicts, we can imagine that it could have been averted by a little better communication.
But on another level, it raises the question of what Jesus thinks is most important. Is it serving him? Or is it studying his Word and worshipping him? A pretty standard interpretation of this text invites us to consider how we live out our faith.
Is our relationship with God mostly lived out through serving like Martha – whether it’s on committees of the church, or service groups in the community, or literally by serving others at church functions and funeral teas? Or is our relationship with God mostly lived out through devotional activities like Mary – coming to worship, participating in bible studies, reading the bible ourselves, exploring theological books, and going on retreats?
Although Jesus clearly says that Mary has chosen the better part, most commentators don’t accept the idea that Jesus is saying that the devotional religious life is better than a life of service. They notice that such a conclusion doesn’t match up with what Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels.
For example, Jesus refers to himself as a servant – one who came not to be served, but to serve. And one of the most poignant moments in his ministry was experienced on the night that he gathered with his disciples on the eve of his arrest. On that evening, he got down on his knees and washed the feet of his friends. And he told them that they should do the same for each other, that they should wash one another’s feet and serve one another in humility and love.
Most of the commentators agree that Jesus can’t be rejecting the importance of serving one another. He can’t be saying that Mary’s choice to spend time listening to Jesus’ words is better than Martha’s choice to spend time preparing a wonderful meal for Jesus to enjoy. I think what Jesus is rejecting is not Martha’s service, but her anxious, distracted, resentful service.
Once or twice, I’ve heard a mother talk about the privilege of caring for her husband and children by doing the practical work of taking care of the household. In each case, it was a mother with a career who put it on hold for a few years to raise her children. I remember one woman saying that she actually found that she could take pleasure in the mundane act of cleaning the bathroom when she thought of it as an act of service for the care of her family.
And although I couldn’t personally relate to that feeling, I could see that it was much more positive than my attitude when cleaning the bathroom which is often more along the lines of… Darn, I hate cleaning toilets! Why am I always the one that has to do this job?
Whether it’s in our personal or family lives, or in our life together in the church, it seems to me that finding a balance is important. The parent who only serves the children (cooking for them, driving them around, cleaning the house, paying for their schooling and activities), but never spends time actually talking with them, getting to know them, and playing with them loses out on the fullness of relationship with them.
In a similar way, the congregation that plans a lot of activities, and organizes a lot of projects, and has a lot of meetings to plan all the details of these things, but spends very little time studying God’s Word together, praying together, and listening together for God’s guidance and direction loses out on the fullness of relationship with God and one another.
A friend was telling me the other day about her son’s wedding which is coming up next month, and she told me about all the things the bride is doing to get ready for the big day. There are centre pieces being made, little gifts for all the guests, and decorations to be planned and made. Beyond the usual list of wedding details, this bride is rushing to finish making the flower girls’ dresses. Yes, she’s making the flower girls’ dresses herself!
Whenever I meet with couples about their wedding plans, I encourage them to keep it simple. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. You don’t have to do everything that you’ve seen happen at other people’s weddings. Try to keep it simple, and do what seems meaningful and significant to you and your community. On the day of your wedding, you don’t want to be anxious, worried, and distracted by all the details. You don’t want to be worrying about something going wrong because you have planned such a terribly elaborate and detailed celebration.
Something will likely not go as planned. That’s to be expected. But the worst thing that can go wrong is that the bride (or the bride and groom) are so distracted by the details that they can’t relax and be in the moment as they declare their commitment, and make their vows, and begin their lives together as wife and husband.
In the midst of our busy lives today, I hope that the summer is a time when we all get to slow down enough to consider the pace and the priorities of our lives. Certainly, it is good for us to serve one another – to care for and serve our families, to contribute to our neighbourhoods and schools and service clubs by offering our gifts, to serve the church’s mission through our work on committees and groups related to the congregation. But if our commitments become too onerous, and if we find ourselves rushing madly off in all directions, feeling anxious, worried, tired, and resentful, we should heed Jesus’ words to Martha.
And please don’t take that to mean that you should drop church for a while until your life gets a little less busy! But do take it to mean that you don’t have to DO everything. You don’t have to volunteer for every job (either in the church or in the community). But do take it to mean that you should devote some time to being in God’s presence and listening for God’s voice. Come to worship. Take some time to read the bible, and talk to God about what’s going on in your life. And just listen. Listen for God’s voice.
We have to think about this lesson as it applies to our congregation too. We have to make decisions about what to do and what not to do, how to serve one another and our community, and what activities and programs will be our priority in the years ahead.
Cynthia Jarvis, reflecting on this scripture passage, says this about how it applies to congregations: “A community that is hospitable to Christ is a community marked by the attention the community gives to God’s word. A church that has been led to be ‘worried and distracted by many things’ inevitably will be a community that dwells in the shallows of frantic pot lucks, anxious stewardship campaigns, and events designed simply to perpetuate the institution. Decisions will be made in meetings without a hint of God’s reign. Food and drinks will appear at table without Christ being recognized in the breaking of bread. Social issues may be addressed, but the gospel is missed in acts that partake of politics as usual…
“On the other hand, when a congregation is led to position itself at Christ’s feet – reading Scripture together and asking after its meaning, listening to substantive sermons and wrestling like Jacob for God’s blessing, studying and nurturing a faith that seeks understanding – then even the details of the common life begin to resound with good news.”
Following worship today, we’re going to have “Lemonade on the Lawn.” Some will serve, and others will enjoy the lemonade and the time of fellowship together. We thought we would keep it simple because there’s no need for anything elaborate. But I do hope that many of you will stay… spend some time together on the lawn… spend time talking, and sharing, and getting to know one another. Maybe you even want to continue the conversation about Martha and Mary, and about the ways that our congregation is called to be devoted to Jesus Christ and to serve in his name. May Christ’s presence among us be evident in our worship, in our fellowship, and in all that we do together. Amen.