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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Luke 10:38-42

“All Work and No Pray”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA

July 22, 2007

The week before last we were at Disney World. And we are so grateful to the church for your annual Christmas gift to us that allows us to go on trips like that. Last Monday, when I got back to the office, people asked, “How was your vacation?” and I’d say, “Great!” And then they’d say, “Are you rested and relaxed?” And I’d look at them to make sure they weren’t joking. Because there are people who think Disney World is restful and relaxing. They’ve never been. At Disney World, just standing in line to get a Coke is a competitive sport. Disney’s a joyful place – “The happiest place on earth.” But restful and relaxing it is not. It takes a lot of work to be that happy.

On the other extreme, we find ourselves here. Here we are on “the peaceful side of the Smokies.” The Lily Barn has got to be one of the most restful and relaxing places on earth. Unless you own it. It takes a lot of hard work to make a place this restful and relaxing.

Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” Meanwhile, her sister, Martha, did all the work. It takes a lot of hard work to get your house ready for a visit from the Lord. Think of all the cooking and cleaning you do when ANY company is coming. Now imagine the person coming for dinner is Jesus. You've got to hide the trashy magazines. Brief the kids on what words NOT to say. Find out what his favorite food is and learn how to cook Middle-eastern cuisine. It takes a lot of work to get your house in order for Jesus. It takes a lot of work before you can even THINK about sitting at the feet of the Master and listening to what he's saying.

Sister Martha is all work and no pray. She's going to get around to talking with Jesus. As soon as all the chores are done. Sister Mary is all pray and no work. I think the reason this story is in the Bible is to get us to think about how we define work, and how we define leisure. What's work to you? What's leisure? Is listening to and talking with Jesus your vocation? Or is faith a leisure activity? Is faith what you do when all the really important work is done?

Work before pleasure.” How many of you agree this is the decent and orderly way to live your life? You know people who think life ought to be all pleasure and no work. What do you call them? “Celebrities.” Paris Hilton gets a hundred thousand dollars just for showing up at a party. With an ankle bracelet. You call that work? No wonder everyone was so glad when she went to jail. For years she's been breaking the law of “work before pleasure.”

Now, if you take Sister Martha's view, this may be the ONE thing Jesus has in common with Paris Hilton. (And who thought that sentence would ever come out of a preacher's mouth?) Because Martha – who's doing things the RIGHT way (work before pleasure) – Martha looks over at her sister, Mary – who's having a seat and listening to Jesus – and hard-working Sister Martha's nostrils start smoking.

How many of you have a sister, or a brother, who got away with everything? Your parents told you both to clean up the living room, and suddenly your sister or brother got religion. Suddenly, they had to go read the Bible. Or go pray. On their bike. About half a mile from home. Responsibility knocks, and suddenly Sister or Brother answers a different door. Any of you have siblings like that?

Sister Martha's face turns two shades of purple. “Lord,” she says. And you can just hear how she says it. “Good Lord!” “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Imagine how good, dutiful, hard-working Sister Martha feels when Jesus gives his answer. “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.”

That's where the story ends. The Bible doesn't tell us what Martha says back to Jesus. What do you think she did next? Do you think she said, “O, Lord, you're right, forgive me,” and sits down next to Mary and lets supper burn itself to a crackly crisp? Smoke's pouring out of the kitchen, but Martha stays put, listening to Jesus. I just don't see Martha doing that. She's a pretty feisty lady. I could her her saying saying, “You know, Lord, in this kingdom, lamb does not roast itself.”

And another thing. The Bible doesn't tell us what Mary might have said. We always picture her doe-eyed, staring up at Jesus, hanging on his every word. But she might have said, “Oh, Lord. I've forgotten all about Martha and supper. Can we put this conversation on hold until after dinner?” We imagine Jesus telling Mary sweet, wonderful words. But what if Jesus' teachings were making Mary uncomfortable? What if Mary was looking for an excuse to get back into the other room?

We tend to make Jesus “nice.” But Jesus never sugar-coated anything. Jesus spoke the truth. He spoke the truth about people, and he spoke the truth to people. You can get clues to the intention of a Bible story by looking at what comes before and after. Just before this story of Mary and Martha, Luke gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is a scathing indictment of people who think they're religious. Maybe Jesus is telling Mary the truth about herself, and Mary's heart is getting squeezed to near breaking when she hears how shallow and misguided her own faith has been all these years. What do we call it when someone really gets it up one side and down the other for what they've done or haven't done? A “Come to Jesus” meeting. Because when we sit at the feet of the Master, we see how far up we have yet to go.

Faith to listen to the truth about ourselves is hard work. Sitting still and taking the words of Jesus into our hearts is hard. It's much easier to get up and go running around, worried and distracted by many things. It's like the bumper sticker says: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” It really is easier to get busy on immediate things – things that today may be really important to us – it really is easier to go multitasking on immediate things than it is to have solid, unmovable faith in permanent things.

So, this having been said, I wonder. I wonder if somewhere along the way we got confused about what's work and what's leisure. If faith, if listening to and talking with Jesus, is something we shove off to the side until all the other chores are done – if that's how we treat our relationship with Jesus – what does that say about us? Are we “all work and no pray,” because deep down we're afraid a lifestyle that puts faith first is “frivolous”?

The story of Mary and Martha sets us up to do exactly what Martha did. Which is to create in our minds an either-or situation. Either you're like Mary or you're like Martha. Either you sit and listen to Jesus or you cook supper. Either you do work or you do pleasure. But I don't think a split lifestyle, where we're constantly torn between faith and action – I don't think that's ever what Jesus intended. I mean, for a lot of Martha-esque people, cooking a fine meal IS an act of worship. And for a lot of us, sitting and listening to the truth about ourselves is hard work. Mary and Martha are sisters for a reason. They might have even been twins, born from the same embryo, which could mean that on some biological level we're all part Mary and part Martha. Maybe from birth we're split personalities, trying to fight it out over which part of us is going to have priority.

But this story could also mean something else. You see, this story – and the Bible as a whole – isn't about getting in touch with your inner Mary, or giving your overworked Martha a break. It's about Jesus. Jesus is the third party to this sisterly squabble over work and leisure. Jesus is thrown into the mix. Which means there's another possibility to how this story might have ended, and what the characters did next. Maybe the rest of the story goes like this.

We know from the Gospel According to John, when after his resurrection Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples, that Jesus knew his way around a charcoal grill. What if, instead of Mary or Martha, Jesus made the next move? What if Jesus got up, walked over to Martha, and said, “You are so right. That lamb isn't going to cook itself. Tell you what, Martha. You go over and have a seat by your sister. I think you two have some things you need to discuss. I'll go finish up the in the kitchen.”

With this ending, there is no either-or. Mary and Martha have their worlds reunited. Mary can tell Martha what Jesus has been saying. And Martha can tell Mary what's been going on in the kitchen. And they can laugh about how the Son of God just tricked them into rearranging their sense of order.

I didn't pick up the chicken today, so I didn't get to see over the counter at Lee's to see who was doing the cooking. It probably wasn't Jesus himself, but you never know. You might have prepared your side dishes or desserts with love, or you might have swung through Kroger's on the way up here because you had a million other chores to do. Who does the work, and whether everyone's worked enough to deserve the leisure of an afternoon meal – that's not the point. The point of all the hard work that went into this day isn't the praise or satisfaction we get from it. Although we will get plenty of satisfaction from the meal, that's guaranteed. The point of all this is that Jesus gets us to sit down together. Jesus gets us talking to each other. Jesus gets into our mix.

Whether you're addicted to work. Whether you're aching for some leisure. Whether you're just hungry and ready for the preacher to sit down. The point is that Jesus brings us all together – Marys, Marthas, Marks, and Miltons – Jesus brings us all together to be together, with him.

So is faith work? Or is faith leisure? It doesn't really matter what we call it. What matters is that we take the time to have faith, to listen to Jesus' words, to talk with him – and to each other, too. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are having an ongoing conversation, and they want you to join the circle. What matters is that we make being part of this conversation of faith our #1 priority, no matter what else we've got cooking.