The Better Part (sermon 7/21/13)

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.” (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV)

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They sat around the table, enjoying the amazing meal, and the fellowship and friendship. Twilight had fallen, and the light from the oil lamps burning around the room put a warm, welcoming glaze on what remaining daylight was still making its way into the inside of the crowded little house. Jesus and his followers had just arrived in Bethany earlier that day. The way Luke tells us the story, it was just after Jesus had taught the lawyer, through the story of the Good Samaritan, about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves – half of the most important commandment that Jesus gave us – half of the commandment that he said all the scriptures hung, that half our faith, our relationship with God, our salvation itself, hung – that we should treat others in the same way we’d want them to treat us.

Did the lawyer learn the point that Jesus was trying to teach him? The gospels don’t say. But at the moment, that didn’t matter. All that mattered this day, this evening, was that once again they were all together in the company of friends, enjoying the meal and the mellowness and calm of the evening. As they sat there, Martha looked across the table at her sister Mary, and she thought about the events of earlier that day.

Bethany was a special place for Jesus. Maybe part of that was just the name of the village itself. Beth Ani; it translated to “House of Misery” or “House of the Poor.” What more fitting a place for Jesus, who was teaching that he’d come to proclaim and to usher in the coming of the kingdom of God, which meant freedom for all, and that the poor, the miserable, and afflicted were blessed by God. Maybe there was something symbolic about it, but the fact that Jesus’ good friends, Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, lived there, was probably the most important draw. Bethany was a safe haven for Jesus, and when he came to visit Mary and Martha’s home, he knew it was a place where he could let his hair down and relax, and know that at least here he didn’t have to worry about his enemies. Here in these walls, and in this little town in general, he knew that he was among friends.

So it was always a big thing for the village when Jesus, this wandering rabbi that everyone was talking about, would come around to visit with them. He was apparently the next best thing to a hometown boy for them, and whenever he’d come around to visit, they’d clamor around him to hear his latest news, and to hear more of his challenging and inspiring words. As soon as word got to Martha that day that Jesus was back, she ran out to see him and to offer him the hospitality of their family home. Then, she scurried off to round up all the food they’d need to put on a nice spread for their good friend and houseguest.

But while Martha started doing that, her sister Mary did something very different, and unexpected, and something that certainly didn’t seem very helpful to Martha. Instead of helping with all the preparation required for a big meal for a houseful of guests in the days before refrigeration and gas stoves and microwaves, Mary stayed with Jesus, and as he sat down to talk with the men of the town, she sat down along with them – and she didn’t just sit out at the edge of the gathering, but she plopped down front and center, right at Jesus’ feet, in the center of the action. That had to raise eyebrows. That was a place reserved for the inner circle of a rabbi’s disciples – and in that time and place, in that culture, that was a role reserved for men. It was this inner circle of men who were expected to sit at the master’s feet and soak up his wisdom, so they could pass that wisdom on to others, to future generations even, after the master himself was long gone. It was not considered women’s work. But here was Mary, saying very clearly to hang all that nonsense, this was where she belonged. This was where her heart, and her spirit, called her to be. She felt called to be one of the ones who would absorb Jesus’ teachings like that and share them with others. So beyond Martha being upset that she wasn’t getting any help in the kitchen, she was shocked at the social scandal involved. This was a small town, and people’s talk and gossip and backbiting about whether people’s actions were right or wrong were a big deal, and would have lasting repercussions. So Martha pulled Jesus off to one side and complained to him. What Mary was doing just wasn’t right. Seriously, Jesus, tell her to get back in the kitchen, and in her place.

But as we all know, that isn’t what Jesus did. Instead, he gently told Martha that she’d allowed herself to get worried and distracted by things – the wrong things – and that she was missing the big picture.

There’s a great scene in the movie “City Slickers,” where Billy Crystal plays the part of a stressed-out, anxiety-filled guy going through a mid-life crisis who’s on vacation out west as part of a dude ranch cattle drive. And in this scene, Billy Crystal is riding along a trail on horseback, just him and Curly, the grizzled, scary old cowboy trail boss, played by Jack Palance. Curly tells Billy Crystal’s character that the secret to life is this (index finger). One thing. Just one thing. And when Crystal asks what that one thing is, Curly tells him that that was for him to figure out.

Well call Jesus Jack Palance, because that’s exactly what he said to Martha. In life, there is need of only one thing, he tells her. And for her part, Mary has chosen the better thing – the better thing for her, anyway. Jesus didn’t tell Martha that she should stop what she was doing, and join Mary. He didn’t tell Martha that she was missing out on what was the “better thing” for her. These two sisters had different gifts, different callings. What Jesus says to Martha is an amazing declaration that each of us is called to discern our own “one thing” – our own better part; to hear God’s call, and to follow it. To follow it regardless of what else it might mean you don’t end up doing. Regardless of what others might think about it. This surprising, unconventional message from Jesus – this kind of first-century Emancipation Proclamation, as one writer put it – wasn’t just for Martha and Mary. And it wasn’t just a revolutionary change in understanding women’s roles in society, and the kingdom of God, and the church. It went beyond being a word of liberation for women, but was meant for everyone – each one of us, regardless of any category or classification the world might place on us. Jesus’ words to Martha here show us that God really couldn’t care less about those categories when deciding who is going to be called to what in the kingdom of God. God calls each of us, whoever we are, and equips each of us with the gifts and talents required for us to follow our own one thing – our own better part. That’s our good news in this story.

That’s good news, that’s truth, for each of us as individuals. It’s also true for us collectively, as the church. It’s our life’s work to discern what that better part is for us, and to follow it and stick with it. So we need to always check in with ourselves: what is our one thing? What is our path, the path that God has called us to, as we’re called to live out that Great Commandment that Jesus talked about with that lawyer – to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves? And as we all try to discern the answer to that question, just as Mary did that day in Bethany, are we sure that what we think is our one thing is really God’s one thing for us? What is my one thing? What is your one thing?

The dinner had gone on, and now it was late in the evening. The light of the oil lamps cast long shadows, just as Jesus’ words had cast long shadows, and the coolness of the night drifted into the room from the outside as the meal and the conversation continued. Martha and Mary caught each other’s eye across the table. And they smiled at each other, realizing that Jesus had blessed the better part for each of them, as they used their own paths to live out that Great Commandment. And then, someone spoke up and asked for a little bit more lamb, and Martha snapped her attention back to the table, and passed the platter. And so the meal went on.

 Thanks be to God.

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