“The Better Part”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 21, 2019
Psalm 46:1-3, 7-11
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations God has brought on the earth.
The Lord makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
God burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Now as Jesus and his disciples 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.’
Y’all, Bible study was juicy this week. There was so much to chew on, to marinate on, so many different perspectives and questions and reactions – and all with such a short text! Only seven sentences!
So let’s dive in. Jesus comes to the house of Martha, the consummate host who immediately gets busy with hospitality. The text says she is literally “drawn away by” her many tasks, the service she is doing to take care of her guest. Meanwhile her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, in the archetypical pose of discipleship, soaking up everything Jesus has to say. Martha is not okay with this shirking of duty; “Lord,” she complains, “don’t you care that my sister has abandoned me in the kitchen? Tell her to come do her share of the work.”
We joked at Bible study that if Jesus just showed up and rang your doorbell, of course you would drop everything to spend time with him, no matter what important other things you were doing. But Martha doesn’t have our hindsight; especially in the Gospel of Luke, where the author is all about keeping Jesus’ identity secret, she wouldn’t necessarily recognized him as the Messiah. Not to mention that to a woman in such a hospitality culture, serving Jesus was honoring him; she could listen to this wandering rabbi’s wise insights after she had shown him respect by fulfilling her duties as host.
From that point of view – giving Martha the benefit of the doubt – we can all identify a little better with her complaint. Who among us hasn’t grumbled under our breaths – or maybe, as Betty said at Bible study, slammed the pots and pans a little louder than strictly necessary – making dinner or cleaning up a mess while everyone else enjoys themselves? I know I’ve sometimes felt frustrated to be working in the kitchen while my husband Chris is playing in the other room with the kids. Sure, that sounds like fun, I’ll think – but who’s going to clean this up? It’s just going to be here in the morning if I don’t take care of it now. (To avoid throwing Chris under the bus, I’d like to point out that he cleans the kitchen about as much as I do – I just tend to do it sooner.)
But Jesus isn’t fooled by Martha’s righteous indignation, or ours; he sees underneath her frustration and expertly diagnoses what’s getting in the way of our dropping the to-do list in order to choose the better part (because really, who wouldn’t rather be playing with kids rather than cleaning dishes?): “Martha, Martha,” he says with affection, “you are anxious and troubled about many things.”
“You are anxious and troubled about many things.” Ahhh. It feels better just to name it, doesn’t it? Jesus knows that’s what’s really going on here: it’s not so much that Mary has left Martha hanging as that Martha can’t let go of all that is weighing her down, and she resents her sister who apparently can.
We’ve all been where Martha is: anxious and troubled, whether by the responsibilities of caring for guests or for family members, by deadlines or headlines, by the fast pace of keeping up with our lives or the feeling that it all might fall apart at any moment. It often feels like we will never be able to complete our to-do lists, never be able to unburden ourselves from the heavy mantle of our obligations.
Yet there is Jesus, gently pointing us to something else: “the better part” or “portion.” What Martha is doing isn’t bad; in fact, depending on the way you translate it, Jesus may be acknowledging that some of it is even needed: “a few of the things you are doing are necessary.” Guests do, after all, have to eat dinner; dishes do, at some point, need to be washed. But Martha has chosen anxiety and a troubled spirit; she’s chosen to keep working in the kitchen to make everything perfect, holding up the societal ideal of an industrious, capable host when her guest has already been adequately served. It’s time now to sit and to learn; to sit and just be, with God. It’s time to choose the better part.
I noticed awhile back that I feel considerably less stressed when the house is relatively clean. When our home is tidy, there aren’t a million little messes vying for my attention, taking up mental space until they’re cleared up. I know we could easily have friends over at a moment’s notice. My kids seem less frenzied, more calm. So I do my best to keep things put away.
But the other week, I noticed I had begun to feel a bit manic about the house – it was as if I couldn’t rest if I knew there was anything out of place; I couldn’t happily ignore a mess to sit down with my spouse or enjoy a cup of tea. And I started to resent the rest of my family, even though they do participate in cleaning up, for leaving anything out of place – “more work for me!” I would grumble internally. I had stopped praying while cleaning and started ranting.
Luckily, only a few days passed before God reminded me how absurd this attitude was. We had a good laugh about it – the idea that my primary purpose in my home was to keep everything neat instead of spending time with my family or with God, or enjoying a rest in between the busyness of work and caring for small children.
It’s not that laundry doesn’t need to be put away, I remembered; it’s that folding every stitch of laundry perfectly and doing it right this minute is not worth the peace and joy that comes from connecting with God, peace and joy that is hard to access when we’re busy ranting, resenting, or stressing about how we aren’t ticking through our to-do lists.
Did you notice that this passage ends rather abruptly? Jesus drops a wisdom bomb on Martha and then we immediately cut to him off praying by himself somewhere else. It feels awkward, but what if it’s intentional? What if it’s to invite us to imagine what might happen next? There’s room left at the end of the passage, as with so many scriptural scenes, for us to place ourselves in the text. It’s a “choose your own adventure”: if you were Martha, how would you respond to Jesus’ countercultural revelation that you’ve already done more than enough and it’s time to sit down and pass an apparently idle hour at the master’s feet?
I’d like to invite you to get comfortable in your pew, close your eyes if you like, and imagine yourself in Martha’s shoes. You’re puttering around in the kitchen, maybe banging those pots and pans while your good-for-nothing sister is just sitting there, in the other room, at Jesus’ feet. You go into complain to Jesus – “Lord, tell my sister to help me!” – and he turns and looks at you, with warmth and tenderness in his eyes, and tells you that although you’re anxious and troubled about many things, only one thing is necessary. What does he tell you that one thing is?
When you’ve spent some time marinating in that, come back to the room.
Especially after that imaginative experiment, I think we’d all like to imagine that we’d make the turn, realizing who is there in front of us and taking the time to “be still and know” at the feet of God. But given our cultural conditioning, it’s actually a hard swerve: who here on the Park Avenue hospitality team is going to leave coffee hour half done so they can come upstairs and participate fully in worship?
Back to Bible study. Cindy had a complaint of her own to register with the text: where was Jesus’ invitation to Martha to sit down next to Mary and join her sister in soaking up the better part? It feels almost rude, to point out that Martha is doing it wrong but not ask her to join in. Where’s the bridge to help her get there?
That bluntness can sting a little, because we’ve all been there, and we can all tell that Martha is in danger of overlooking the opportunity of a lifetime. But she doesn’t see it clearly at first because Jesus is in disguise. Luke hasn’t revealed him yet as the Messiah and in the meantime, Martha will keep doing exactly what is expected of her because that’s how she’s been conditioned; it’s how many of us have been conditioned.
Here’s the thing, though, friends: Jesus is always in disguise. We will rarely, if ever, hear the trumpets sound and the voice of God incarnate inviting us to take a seat and marinate in the moment. We will almost always have to be Martha at that place where the text leaves off, having to realize for ourselves that this is Jesus right in front of us, that we have already done more than enough on our to-do lists and that we are free to make that hard swerve, to shrug off our anxiety and trade our troubled, busy spirits for the better part, for connection with the One who knows exactly what we need.
May we indeed have the grace to remember this and to live it. Amen.
Benediction: I’d like to challenge you to make time this week to choose the better part. Instead of letting your life get filled up with everything else first, build your schedule around an activity that connects you to God, whether that’s walking outside, praying, journaling, therapy, listening to music, visiting a friend who lifts your spirits, or making that pastoral appointment you’ve been meaning to make. Then let all the other necessary – but not necessarily “better” – things fall into place around that connection. Take a moment to sit at the feet of God and see how things change. Go in peace.