Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 18, 2010

2010.07.18 “The Main Course” Luke 10: 38 – 42

Central United Methodist Church

“The Main Course”

July 18th, 2010

Luke 10: 38 – 42

Pastor David L. Haley

     “As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village.  A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home.  She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said.  But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen.  Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.  One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it — it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” – Luke 10: 38 – 42, The Message

     Martha and Mary.  Do you feel – as I feel – that they are two women we have known most of our lives? If not living in our houses, at least in our heads, and in women we have known?

      There’s Martha, always at work in the kitchen. My grandmother was a definite Martha.

For those of you who have experienced meals in southern homes, as in some other cultures, you will know that, traditionally, southern women are great Marthas, and proud of it.  They have refined hospitality to such an art that they never sit; they hover.  Plates are never allowed to go empty. Guests are continually asked if they need anything. The hostess keeps working, huffing around the table, a trickle of perspiration running past the string of pearls on her neck. She misses most of the dinner conversation, giving herself to serving.

      Up until modern times, this was almost exclusively women’s work. And, to add insult to injury, not only were women expected to do this work, they were at the same time excluded from male circles of education and power; as they still are, in some cultures.

      Having come such a long way, baby, most women would not be willing to go back to such ways, no matter how much men might wish. 

      A few years ago a friend sent me a story about three men sitting around bragging how they had given their new wives duties. The first man married a woman from Alabama, and bragged how his wife was to do all the dishes and housecleaning that needed doing at their house.  He said that it took a couple of days but on the third day he came home to a clean house and the dishes were all washed and put away.

      The second man married a woman from Florida. He bragged how he had given her orders that she was to do all the cleaning, dishes, and the cooking.  He told them that the first day he didn’t see any results, but the next day it was better.  By the third day, the house was clean, the dishes were done, and there was a huge dinner on the table.

      The third man married a Chicago girl.  He boasted he told her that her duties were to keep the house clean, the dishes washed, the lawn mowed, the laundry done and hot meals on the table.  He said the first day he didn’t see anything, and the second day he didn’t see anything, but by the third day most of the swelling had gone down . . . and he could begin to see a little out of his left eye. Enough to fix himself a bite to eat, load the dishwasher and washer, and telephone a landscaper.  

      But to get back to the story, Martha has a sister, and her name is Mary. If Martha is the practical one, Mary is the dreamer. She sees her opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and takes it, ignoring her sister as she hustles about.

      Finally, Martha has had enough, and interrupts: “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” And Jesus replies, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.  One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”  

      Peterson catches the play on words.  In the text, when Jesus says “only a few things are needful, really only one,” is he talking about how many dishes are served, or is he talking about life, and what’s really important: “The Main Course,” capital M, capital C?

      From that day to this, this story of domestic intranquility has provoked the taking of sides, discussion, and reflection.  It poses, in story form, the tension we still discover in our own lives between the active versus the contemplative life, between doing and being, between being distracted from that which is really important, by that which is merely urgent.  

      After all, we can and do serve God in both ways, through both action and through contemplation. Both Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus, and responded to his presence, one by serving, the other by listening and learning. Let us acknowledge that we need both Marthas and Marys not only in the church, but as two complementary aspects of our own personalities.  (Remember they are, after all, sisters, not enemies.)  As someone once said: “There is a need occasionally to get the visionaries in the kitchen and the kitchenaries in the vision.”

      Some of us may feel that Mary and Jesus were too hard on Martha. Surely, if Martha had not done all she did, Mary could not have taken her seat at Jesus’ feet.  Giuseppe Belli’s 19th century sonnet “Martha and Magdalene” ends with Martha snapping back at Jesus when he tells her that Mary’s choice is more important:  “So says you, but I know better.  Listen, if I sat around on my salvation the way she does, who’d keep this house together?”

      Most churches I know would cease to exist if it weren’t for the Marthas, both men and women, who take care of details. Services would never be held, the bills would never get paid, the grass would never get cut, food would never get served, the ceilings would literally fall down upon our heads.  What anyone can do, someone must do.  Thank God for the Marthas of the church.

      On the other hand, some of us side with Mary. What an opportunity! If only we could have been there, for a day or even one hour, to listen to Jesus, to hear what he had to say, to ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask.  Surely that would be worth letting the place go for a day!   Order out, for God’s sake!

      And yet, aren’t there times when we are all severely distracted?  When we have severe tunnel vision at some of the most important times of our lives?

I think of a friend whose father drove the family to the Grand Canyon, but when they arrived, spent the whole time looking under the hood of the car.  I think of couples at their weddings, so spaced out by details, that they almost miss one of the most important moments of their lives.  I think of people I’ve seen at some of the greatest man-made and natural wonders of the world, so intent on getting it on video, that they almost miss experiencing it “in person” while they are there.

        I think of parents (including myself) who missed precious moments when children were growing up. The late Erma Bombeck once told of two such moments in her husband’s life. She said there was a time when their children were growing up that her husband used to go and look at the back yard.  Surveying the muddy patches where the lawn should be, he would wonder — Will the grass ever come back?  And then came the time when the children were grown and gone, when her husband went and looked over the beautiful green lawn, immaculate from lack of use and wondered — Will the children ever come back?

      Is there anybody here today who can’t look back and regret important opportunities wasted, because at the time we were distracted by that which we now know was insignificant, trivial, or merely urgent?

      Yes, I side with Mary, who makes the most of her opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet. Because as a person whose life is about religion, to me this is what religion is all about.

      At its most basic level, religion provides us with the opportunity to participate in what medieval philosophers called “the long conversation,” a conversation in which we can talk about the things that matter: life and death, love and hate, the way things are and the way things are not.  As scholar of religion Huston Smith, once said, “religion is a living conversation between the human and the divine that goes on generation after generation.”

      It is what we do when we come here to worship. Even though Sunday might be our only opportunity to sleep in or spend time with the family, if we miss worship we lose an opportunity to sit at Christ’s feet and engage in this conversation about what’s important.  Jesus made it clear that what we’re talking about here is not the appetizer or the side-dish, it is the “Main Course.”

      If – in church – we fail to engage in this conversation, then we miss what’s important.  Services might be held, bills might get paid, grass might get cut, food might be served, and the Log Cabin might return to the best shape it’s ever been in, but we’d still be missing the Main Course.   No wonder we’re posing as our church slogan, “Keeping God Central, in hearts, minds, and lives.”

      I believe most often – if we moderns err – it is in being too much like Martha, and not enough like Mary. Let’s face it, there is always plenty that needs to be done, places to go, deadlines to meet, kids to raise, meetings to attend, and 500 channels of TV to watch.  So we find ourselves running from one thing to another, with not enough time spent in contemplation or conversation, about God and about life and about what’s important, what we MUST be about, and we are like Martha, missing the Main Course.

      Years ago my family visited a family near Caen, France.  I didn’t speak much French and they didn’t speak much English, so when we sat down for the evening meal it was kind of a gastronomic guessing game as to what would happen next.  The food wasn’t served all at once, like we do, but in courses.  First there was bread, then soup, followed by a salad. Next came some cheese, then a little meat, followed by a fish. You never knew which was the main course, so you never knew how much of any one thing to eat.  Is there more to come, or is this it?  When the brandy showed up, I knew the meal was over.

      Friday, I celebrated my 59th birthday, in a life which feels a lot like that meal in France. First there was that, then there was this; which is the Main Course? With each birthday, the realization comes – sometimes with a start – that the number I have left is not only finite, but diminishing rapidly. (When the brandy arrives, will the party be over?) And the question occurs: am I distracted?  Am I majoring in minors?  Am I missing the main course? 

      What Jesus said to Martha and Mary, he says to us, as we seek to balance the world of things and the world of spirit, busy lives and quiet contemplation, action and insight, gracious service and grateful being: 

      “You’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.  One thing only is essential, and this is it — it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from you.”   Amen.

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