“Why do we do what we do?” – Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

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I had the opportunity to bring the message yesterday on the story of the sisters Martha and Mary.  What follows are excerpts of that sermon.  I have removed some of the more contextual pieces that would only really make sense for the congregation that this sermon was preached for.  I titled the sermon, “Why do we do what we do?”  It was preached on July 21, 2013; and is based on the text of Luke 10:38-42, and the other lectionary texts appointed for Lectionary 16/Pentecost 9C.

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Do we have anyone named Martha here today?  If so, I am guessing that you share a similar sentiment with every other Martha in the world when it comes to this passage.  You probably don’t like it much.   For those of you who grew up with the Brady Bunch, or grew up later watching reruns of it on TV like me, it’s hard not to hear “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” when Jesus says, “Martha, Martha…”

Today’s gospel is rather short, compared to the other lessons we heard read.  But it’s also such a familiar one.  It’s so familiar in fact, that many of you referred to it at the “Tell it to Pastor” experience which the Transition Team led us through this past year.  You might remember how this passage ended up getting used by many of you as an illustration of ministry and the work of this place.  So here we are today, with a chance to dwell in this passage.  Like we were encouraged to do so last week, to imagine ourselves in the story of the Good Samaritan, let us imagine ourselves for a moment within this text.

So close your eyes and listen again to this text:  “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.’”[1]

So the way that conversation goes, we often get a dichotomy, or the perception of two opposites.  In the one corner we have Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening.  This is something Jesus appreciates; he appreciates and commends her focus and devotion.  However, in the eyes of Martha, who for the sake of this exercise is in the other corner, she sees her sister just sitting there and not helping when there is much work to be done.  I have to admit, given this sort of description, I would almost always be categorized as Martha.  The problem with this opposition is that it’s a false dichotomy, one that Jesus never actually makes.  He says that Mary has chosen the better part, but he never tells Martha that the work she is doing, that the service of hospitality is bad.  Jesus never tells Martha that she has chosen the wrong part. Jesus only responds to Martha because of her vocalized frustration.[2]

Jesus says “there is need of only one thing.”  The reality is that in order to get an understanding of that one thing and to live it, there has to be an approach of both.[3]  This means that we need time to pray, sit, listen, focus, study, and perhaps even relax a little like Mary.  We need time to just “be.”  This also means though that we don’t always just sit, pray, listen, focus, and relax, for there is also work to be done.  This is the same way in ministry.  If we think ministry is all about prayer and listening, and that’s all we do, well… to be honest I think we sell ourselves short both as disciples and followers of Christ, but also as God ordained co-creators with God to do work in the world as part of God’s work in our daily lives and communities.

I am not downplaying the importance of listening and prayer.  I am not downplaying the importance of reading the scriptures and discussing them either.  But what good are they if they do not move us to act?  What good are they if we just call them “spiritual food” for our Monday through Friday lives, and leave them at that?

The followers of Jesus should go, do, and hear; and hear, do, and go.[4]  Martha is exhibiting the service part of ministry, and Mary the listening part. Both are important and necessary.  So, I believe what Jesus is really getting at here, is an idea of integration which brings me to a question.

“Why do we do, what we do?”  No other question I have found or been asked does a better job of opening up our daily actions, decisions and choices for reflection.  This is a question that I think is being posed in today’s short, but far from simple, gospel message.

If we return to the text, and look at its larger context we see that the story of Martha and Mary, follows immediately on the heels of Luke’s depiction of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  What is the significance of this?  At the very least it helps depict the complexity of the situation.  In today’s gospel “Jesus rebukes Martha for doing what is expected of her, and commends Mary, who is [not serving] her traditional role.”[5] Theologian Justo Gonzalez argues that the two passages-that of the Good Samaritan and the sisters who are hosting Jesus, need to be read together.  They need to be integrated, because they are part of an integrated narrative. In this way, it appears that Martha is displaying the role of the Good Samaritan- taking care of the guest’s needs, making sure that the food is prepared and all is ready for her guests.  Her hospitality is both expected from a cultural sense, but also from a biblical one which can be traced back to Abraham.  In today’s Old Testament reading[6] we hear just this, as Abraham works to offer hospitality with Sarah for three strangers, who ultimately bring news of blessing and hope to the older couple, regarding the news of a soon to be born child.[7]

Returning to the gospel, even though hospitality like Martha displays is good and important, you can’t just be doing good work and showing hospitality as Jesus insinuates.  Likewise, we can’t just interpret today’s gospel as a “reminder that the life of study and devotion is important,” and is more so than service.   Study, devotion, and service are all important parts of Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom.

Taking a step back, today’s gospel is full of a bunch of rule breakers.  Jesus, himself, is the first one after all to break the rules.  Jesus is the guest in today’s story, “and against all rules of hospitality, he rebukes Martha, who is his host.  And Mary too breaks the rules.  Her roles as most probably a younger sister, or as one living in the house of her sister, is to help her in her various chores.  Instead she just sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him.”[8] When coupling this recognition of the Mary and Martha story with the telling of the Good Samaritan, these two passages “point to the upsetting and even reversal of roles that the kingdom demands” which the gospel of Luke constantly paints.[9]  The people of God need to serve and need to listen.  We need to do both, and not just have one person do the listening and another the serving, but we are all together doing both.  Therefore, when people cling to the “example of having some Martha’s and having some Mary’s,” on different sides, I believe it’s not the most helpful thing to do, because it’s a misnomer.

Perhaps the heart of today’s gospel lies in the answer to the question of “why do we do what we do?”

Mary sits and listens because she recognizes the power and importance of the word which Jesus is providing.  This is all the story says.  But if we place it in conversation with the preceding parable, we have a reminder that the hearing of the Word does have an effect, and leads to a way of living life, or at least it probably should.  If it does not, the Word is just that, a word.  Without the integration of faith and work, we have spirituality without its affects.  We have as Bonhoeffer would say, “Cheap Grace!”  What good are we as a church if we are not bearing each other’s burdens?  What good are we if we are not responding to the needs of this world beyond these walls, as well as within them? What good is prayer, scripture, and faith, if it does not connect with what we do at work or school doing the work week?

Martha is upset because she has been busy, trying to prepare and show hospitality.  But she has forgotten why she is being hospitable, she had lost track of why she is serving.  She has been so caught up in the act of service she has lost sight of the larger mission and calling which guides her in her work.  She is distracted by her many tasks.  Likewise, without the integration of faith in our daily lives, we have distraction.   Without work being grounded in a sense of purpose and vocation, work is just work.  There is nothing divine about it.

The problem is like with Martha, we lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing from time to time.  So how can we be more intentional about this? How are we to be more mindful of this?

Without taking the time to pray or listen, we can easily get caught up in our work or other things in life.  We might convince ourselves that we are too busy to take time for God.  We might believe that we are too tired and burdened for faith.  We might even unconsciously come to believe that what we are doing is more important than taking time to speak with God.  Well, in reality these are the times which are precisely when we need to speak with God most, because we are suffering in spiritual famine. [10]

If we don’t take this time, to talk with God, to reflect on how our faith and work are part of something together, we get burned out.  We lose focus.  We forget why we are doing what we are doing, and why we started doing what we were doing in the first place.  We lose sight, and are not mindful of how what we are doing affects others and is part of some larger work or response to a need in the world.   On our faith walks, this is definitely wilderness time, but it’s also a time where we don’t even recognize we are in the wilderness. It’s precisely this time where we are really in bondage and “enslaved” not just to sin, but to ourselves.

Being mindful and aware of why we do what we do is crucial.  The very question of “why do we do what we do,” in my view led in part to the creation and conception of faith formation within congregations as a way for people to go deeper and have a better sense of purpose and meaning.  Faith Formation involves education- educating around this question of why.  It involves worship, explaining worship, but also shaping the participation of the whole body of Christ in worship.  It involves congregational life, it encompasses mission, and helps people grow in the sense of their understanding of themselves as stewards of God’s creation and activity in the world.  Faith formation is an on-going, life long process.  It’s not something that just happens while a child between baptism and confirmation in Sunday School.  It’s not just about the milestones of confirmation, and graduation.  It’s not just the experiences of Vacation Bible School and Bible Camp; it’s all of this and more.  It’s also a chance to open ourselves up to ask questions, deep questions about what we understand about God and believe.  It’s about fellowship and conversation. It’s about opening up ourselves to exploration, grounded in scripture, but not just called “Bible Study.”  The concept of faith formation when done as a congregational wide effort allows for the depth of the congregation- to in all areas be able to ponder and reflect on the questions and offer the responses to the questions of why we do what we do. Without this reflection piece, we just run around seemingly busy for the sake of being busy, without some deeper sense of meaning and purpose.   We end up creating siloed ministries without the deeper story and purpose connecting them.

I came across a story a month ago, and want to share it with you that might help bring this point home.  A man passed away recently in a Los Angeles area hospital.  He had to be carted off in an ambulance from his place of employment, and even when being taken, he said, “don’t let them take me yet.”  You see, this man, Ira Hawkins, was a revered usher, a steward at Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games, and had been so since they moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958.  Perhaps the only longer tenured person to still work for the organization is their timeless announcer, Vin Scully.  The usher spent 55 years showing hospitality to baseball fans, players, and families, and he loved his work.  Why did he do it? He didn’t do it for the money.  He did it because he:  1) loved the game; and 2) because he felt it to be his calling.  He had a deep sense that that was what he was meant to do- to help others and to give them the reassurance of a smile.[11]  Some might have called him a Martha, because of his service focus.  But the difference between him and Martha was that he knew and remembered why he did what he did.  He had a deeper sense of self and how he was part of something larger than himself.

Returning to the passage for today one more time, we see that the passage finishes with the acknowledgment that the better part will not be taken away. What is the better part?  I think it encompasses both an active faith- one open to new ideas, with openness for questioning; but doing so within a deep trust in God’s grace, and the hopeful assurance of peace, reconciliation, and restoration with God made known to us in Christ, which we heard about in the reading from Colossians.[12]  This is the good news. This is the better part.  We do what we do, because we understand God to be a God of reconciliation and promise.  This is what grounds us, guides us, and leads us.  This is why we pray and yearn to grow in faith, because we want to have our faith formed and grow deeply to better understand what this reconciliation means and what it means to be in relationship with God.  This is also why we serve, because there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, rather what we do is our joy filled response to love our neighbor because God has first shown love to us, a love we did not earn nor could we.  It was a gift; it is a gift God gives to all through Christ.

Today’s message is both a challenge and a promise. It’s a challenge, and even a calling to live a life both of service and purpose by being in relationship with and listening to God.  It’s a promise that God is there, that God is here, and God is for you. Ultimately, the part which will not be taken away from Mary is the same promise and news for you, that God is for you.  God created you.  God gifts life with hope and meaning, and wants to be in relationship with you.  God will not abandon you, and God is with you, even when we doubt that, God is there, God is really there. These are the better things, the knowledge of life in Christ, and the hope and promise of the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.


[1] Luke 10:38-42, NRSV.

[2] Commented on by Matthew L. Skinner, “Exegetical Perspective,” of “Proper 11:  Luke 10:38-42” in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary:  Feasting on the Word, Year C., Volume 3, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 267.

[3] Commented on by James A. Wallace, “Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, 267.

[4] F. Scott Spencer, The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 2008), 160-161.

[5] Justo L. Gonzalez, Luke, (Louisville, KY:  John Knox Press, 2010).

[6] Genesis 18:1-10.

[7] Commented on by James A. Wallace, “Homiletical Perspective,” of “Proper 11:  Luke 10:38-42” in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary:  Feasting on the Word, Year C., Volume 3, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., 263.

[8] Justo L. Gonzalez, Luke, 141.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Paul Scott Wilson, Ed., The Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary- Preaching Year C, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 2012), 190.

[11] Based on the article by Bill Plaschke, “Dodger Stadium usher worked to the end,” Los Angeles Times, 30 June 2013, found at:  <http://www.latimes.com/sports/baseball/mlb/dodgers/la-sp-0630-plaschke-dodgers-usher-20130630,0,2132432.column&gt;.

[12] Colossians 1:15-28.

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