Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 17, 2016

2016.07.17 “The Main Course” – Luke 10: 38 – 42

Central United Methodist Church
The Main Course
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 10: 38 – 42
July 17th, 2016


He, Qi, Mary and Martha from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

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, by Eugene H. Peterson


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

There’s Martha, always at work in the kitchen. My grandmother was a definite Martha (who – coincidentally – named two of her daughters Martha and Mary).

For those of you who have experienced meals in southern homes, as in 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, running around the table, a trickle of perspiration running past the string of pearls on her neck. She also misses most of the dinner conversation, having given herself to serving.

Up until modern times, such hospitality was almost exclusively women’s work, as it was with my grandmother. 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 is still the case, 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.

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 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 woman. 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 in his left eye had gone down such that he could begin to see a little. 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 student. She sees her opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and takes it, ignoring her sister as she hustles about. In fact, some would say that this is the significant point of this text; unlike in Judaism, where women could not sit at the feet of a Rabbi; Jesus welcomed women. Could it be that Luke’s point with this story was that women were not expected ONLY to serve, unseen and unheard, but were also welcome to be students of the Word?

In the story, overwhelmed, finally Martha has had enough, and protests: “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. When Jesus says “only a few things are needful, really only one,” is he talking about how many dishes are needed (open a can of sardines?), 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 argument and discussion. Does it pose, in story form, the tension we still experience between the contemplative versus the active life, between being and doing?

To put it in context, last week Jesus met a man who had trouble hearing the Word of God, and offered him an example, a Samaritan. This week Jesus visits a woman so busy serving she does not hear the word, and Jesus offers her an example, her sister. To the man, Jesus said to go and do; to the woman, Jesus says, “Sit down, listen, and learn.” There is a time to go and do; there is also a time to listen and learn.

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. It is still true: some of us live out our discipleship by doing what need to be done: preparing meals, counting money, caring for the homebound, organizing outreach. Others of us live out our discipleship in service to the Word: study and prayer, worship and preaching, evangelism and teaching. In the church, we need both Marthas and Marys. 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, others of us side with Mary. What an opportunity! If only we could have been there, for a day or even an 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! “Come on, Martha, order out, for God’s sake!”

And yet, aren’t there times when we are all like Martha, whose problem may not have been that she was serving, but that she was seriously distracted from that which was better? Mindfulness, as some traditions call it: attention to the moment. And yet why is it that mindfulness in life – as we experience it – is so hard?

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.”

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 wondered: “Will the grass ever come back?” Then came the time when the children were grown and gone, when her husband would look out over the beautiful green lawn, immaculate from lack of use and wonder: “Will the children ever come back?”

Is there anybody here who doesn’t look back and regret experiences wasted and opportunities lost, because we were distracted at the time by that which we now know was insignificant, trivial, or unimportant?

As you may have guessed, I side with Mary, who makes the most of her opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet, to listen and learn, to think and reflect about that which is most important. To me, this is what religion is all about. Religion provides us with the opportunity to participate in what medieval philosophers called “the long conversation,” a conversation in which we can talk about what matters: life and death, love and hate, the way things are and the way things are not.

It is what we do when we come 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 is important in life. Jesus made it clear that what we’re talking about here is not the appetizer or the side-dish, it is the “Main Course.”

In worship, if 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 our building be in the best shape it’s ever been in, but we’d still be missing the Main Course. This is why we have as our church slogan, the motto: “Keeping God Central, in hearts, minds, and lives.”

I believe we most often err by 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, 500 channels of TV to watch, all those new cat and dog pictures on Facebook, and possibly a text or email that just arrived in the last 2 minutes, not to mention Pokemon Go. So we find ourselves so seriously distracted that we do not spend enough time in prayer or meditation or even in conversation with the people who matter most to us, about God and about life and about what’s important, in this short life that we have here. When we do this we are like Martha, distracted, missing the Main Course.

Many years ago I visited a family in 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 a gastronomic guessing game as to what would happen next. The food wasn’t served like we do – all at once – but in courses. First there was bread, then soup, followed by a salad. Next came some cheese, then some 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.

The older I get, the more I feel my life has been like that meal in France. First there was this, then there was that; each and every chapter of my life has been full of experiences and people who still live and breathe in my memory. I confess, too often – at the time – I was distracted, by that which I now know was less than important. Which makes the question Jesus poses to each of us today all the more compelling: “Am I missing the main course?”

“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.”



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