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Sermon for July 17, 2022 – Proper 11

Speaking of Life 4034 | Mrs. Fidget

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life Script 4034 | Mrs. Fidget
Greg Williams

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves, Lewis writes a descriptive picture of love gone bad. He introduces us to Mrs. Fidget, who is known for living for her family. But it turns out that this is not a complementary description. Mrs. Fidget displays a distorted expression of love that makes the objects of her love miserable. For example, Lewis writes:

“For Mrs. Fidget, as she so often said, would ‘work her fingers to the bone’ for her family. They couldn’t stop her. Nor could they—being decent people—quietly sit still and watch her do it. They had to help. Indeed, they were always having to help. That is, they did things for her to help her do things for them which they didn’t want done.”

Lewis had other humorous descriptions of Mrs. Fidget that painted a picture of someone serving themselves in the name of “love.” Have you ever known someone like that? Someone who tries to control you on account of looking out for your best interest. “I’m only doing this for you” they might say. They give gifts no one wants that end up being demanding burdens. Lurking behind their posture of “love” is a deep-seated self-interest. Their “love” for others is really a love for themselves.

This distorted love may be easier to spot in someone else, but have you ever seen it in yourself?

It may sneak into our actions more than we think. Even Martha, who welcomed Jesus into her home, seemed to be slipping into this trap while serving him. The story relays that Martha’s sister, Mary, is listening to Jesus while sitting at his feet. Mary is exactly where she needs to be. But Martha begins to act a little like Mrs. Fidget:

“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 10:40-42 (NRSV)

Jesus was gentle, but he wasn’t going to let Martha rob Mary of the words of life he was giving her. Maybe we need to hear Jesus’ gentle correction ourselves and ask ourselves if we are focused on the more important things of life – following Jesus, and loving others as he loved them.

Either way, Jesus opposes the Mrs. Fidget approach to life, where we get so distracted serving others with self-seeking expressions of love that we neglect what they need and what we need – to stay focused on Jesus. This is the better part, Jesus says, which cannot be taken away from us.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 52:1-9 • Amos 8:1-12 • Colossians 1:15-28 • Luke 10:38-42

This week’s theme is devotion to God’s word. The call to worship Psalm contrasts lying, evil plotting, and devouring spirits, with one who puts their trust in the love of God. The Old Testament reading from Amos speaks of accusations from the prophet against Israel that will amount to a coming time of famine of God’s word. The text from the Epistles comes from Colossians, beginning with a hymn about Christ’s role in creation and his relationship with God, and ending with some implications of his reconciling work. The Gospel reading from Luke has Jesus commending Mary for paying attention to his words, while gently corrected Martha for being distracted by her task.

Unexpected Expectations

Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”

Your name may not be Martha, but who can’t relate to those words? Are we not often “worried and distracted by many things”? These are the words spoken by Jesus to a woman who by all accounts seems to be doing exactly what everyone would expect her to be doing. According to all the cultural norms of her time, she has checked all the boxes for hospitality. So why is she being rebuffed by Jesus?

To answer that question, it will be helpful to consider another story alongside this one: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke wrote both stories to comprise a section that began with an expert in the law asking Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The expert wants a scorecard to use to justify himself. He is given one: to love God and love neighbor. This is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which we see a priest and Levite failing to love a neighbor. The one who showed true hospitality was a Samaritan, from a group the Jews looked down on with contempt. Jesus provided a twist to the story the law expert wasn’t expecting. This was covered in last week’s sermon.

Today we come to our passage of the two sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary is at Jesus’ feet listening to his words, and Martha is too busy with her tasks to pay attention to him. Jesus tells Martha that she demonstrates a failure to seek the greater things. Both stories can be seen as a failure of hospitality, a failure to love God, and a failure to love neighbor.

But wait, how can that be with Martha? After all, the passage begins with:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. (Luke 10:38 NRSV)

How is she being inhospitable to Jesus? Do you have that question when you read this story? If not, let’s walk in her shoes a little in that “certain village” where she lived. First, Martha clearly welcomed Jesus and his disciples into her home. Surely that’s one point for hospitality for our scorecard! We are not told explicitly in the text, but we do know that Martha is not just hosting Jesus alone. He seems to come with some of his disciples, too. That’s potentially a lot of guests! Let’s give Martha another point for going the extra mile. Second, the “certain village” Martha lived in was in a culture that had placed high expectations on hospitality. And for women particularly in that culture, Martha was in complete compliance with all that was expected of her. She was busy doing the tasks that would qualify her as a good host. According to this scorecard, it is hard to cast Martha as being inhospitable to Jesus.

Let’s go one step further! How are Jesus and Mary doing on the hospitality scorecard? The next verse gives us a picture.

She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. (Luke 10:39 NRSV)

Mary, who was probably the younger sister, who is living in the same house, is breaking all the rules. She should be helping her sister with the chores. Instead, she is just sitting at Jesus’ feet listening. And since Jesus is a rabbi, she gets another demerit for taking a position reserved only for men in that culture. How dare she sit at a rabbi’s feet as if she were a disciple? Shouldn’t Mary be the one in need of reprimand? And on that note, what about Jesus himself? He is allowing Mary to sit there and break all these cultural rules Martha is working so hard to obey. What’s more, Jesus ends up rebuking Martha, who is his host. Proper rules of hospitality would never allow a guest to rebuke his host. It seems Jesus too does not score well.

So, what is going on here? Why is Luke telling this story in this way? His purpose comes into view when we look at the broader context of this section. Jesus had been preaching and teaching about the kingdom and the radical obedience it brings. In the preceding chapters, for example, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration demonstrates that something radically new has taken place. This means being his disciple would have radical implications. In the follow-up story of the Good Samaritan, we see a radical new obedience to the well-known law of loving God and neighbor which breaks and resists cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers. With the arrival of Jesus and the kingdom he brings, you can expect the unexpected. And that is what is going on in our story with Martha and Mary. Cultural expectations are not scorecards to measure one’s own “hospitality” or “love” to God and neighbor. Being a disciple of Jesus is far more radical than checking off the right boxes.

So, Martha and Mary start in the right place. They do show hospitality to Jesus by having him into their home. But it is after that we begin to see Martha struggling to receive Jesus on his terms. The problem emerges in verse 40.

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.” (Luke 10:40 NRSV)

Martha is distracted. We are told explicitly what is distracting her, namely, “her many tasks.” The words Luke uses to describe this do not leave room for interpreting Martha’s distraction as a neurotic obsession. She’s not being a workaholic here. It is stated as an objective fact that there are simply many tasks to be done. Her situation is real, it’s not all in her head. There is also no indication of indictment on Martha for poor time management or any other fault for being in this predicament. Luke is not inviting us to blame Martha for having more on her plate than she can handle alone. Maybe the best question to ask here is, “What is Martha being distracted from?” That’s key!

The answer to that question becomes obvious when Jesus commends Mary for listening at his feet. As important as all the tasks are in the name of hospitality, they are secondary to the primary task any host should have towards a guest. And that is simply to pay attention to the guest. Mary is paying attention to Jesus while Martha is distracted. She is not paying attention to Jesus or to his words. Notice the language of Martha when she comes to him in her frustration. She refers to herself four times in two sentences: my, me, myself, me. Martha is distracted by Martha. And in her distraction, she has ceased to be hospitable even by cultural norms. A host would never tell their guest to settle a family dispute. That was a faux pas! This is what happens when secondary things become primary. We not only fail in the primary, but we eventually fail in the secondary as well. And when this happens, much is lost.

Martha has not only lost sight of her role as host, but she has lost sight of who is in her house. Martha knows who Jesus is, but in her distraction, she asks, “Lord, do you not care…” Do you see what has happened? Martha has been so distracted by focusing on herself that she has forgotten who Jesus is. If there is anyone in the house who cares about Martha, we can be sure that it is Jesus. Martha has also conditioned her hospitality to Jesus by her own terms. She expects Jesus to conform to the cultural norms that she is pursuing. Martha wants Jesus to put Mary in her place, the place that Martha is currently inhabiting. Instead of being a disciple of Jesus, she has put herself in the place of a rabbi. She is expecting Jesus to answer to her, and for Mary to follow suit. In her self-focus she has failed in both loving God (Jesus) and her neighbor (Mary). And with that, Luke has made his point. The kingdom Jesus brings is a radical reorientation from self onto Jesus, who enables us to love others. We can’t rely on cultural scorecards to justify our selfishness. Check all the boxes you want, if Jesus is ignored, it amounts to nothing!

But Jesus doesn’t leave us turned in on ourselves. He cares for us too much for that. Look how he gently responds to Martha:

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 10:41-42 NRSV)

Jesus calls her by name twice. Maybe this is his way of letting her know that he is more aware of her than she is. Our self-focus does not put us in a better position of knowing ourselves. Jesus knows and sees us far better than we ever can. Here is another unexpected expectation Jesus brings in his kingdom: the more we pay attention to Jesus, the more we will come to know ourselves. His words are true and are the only reliable source of truth about who we are, no matter how countercultural that may sound in our world.

After gently addressing her by name twice, he doesn’t gloss over where she is and how she is responding. Grace doesn’t ignore our selfishness by patting us on the back and telling us we are wonderful and amazing just the way we are. No, grace will deal with all that does not align to who we are becoming in Jesus. Grace doesn’t settle, thank God! In Martha’s case, Jesus tells her that she is “worried and distracted.” Other translations say she is “anxious and troubled.” The first word, worried or anxious, in the Greek is used to convey the entanglements of life in the world. It’s the same word used when Jesus tells us not to “worry” in Luke 22.

The second word, distracted or troubled, in the Greek is a very colorful expression that roughly means “you are putting yourself in an uproar.” This is not a pretty picture Jesus has reflected back to Martha. Essentially, she is so entangled with trying to comply with the culture instead of following Jesus that she is disrupting the entire house. She’s making a fool of herself. This can’t be easy for Martha to hear but hear it she must if she is going to escape her self-imposed distractions. It won’t be easy for us to hear either, but we can trust that listening to Jesus’ words is a path into life, not away from it.

The Body of Christ in every culture since its inception must hear these words. We are called to listen to Jesus and to follow him. The culture around us does not dictate our focus. When we let it, we create chaos and division in the house of God. But Jesus doesn’t just tell us what is out of place. He goes on to tell Martha, and us today, the great secret that slices through all the distractions that divide and distort our attention—“There is need of only one thing.

That can be a breath of fresh air if we have ears to hear it. Just one thing! That certainly simplifies things, does it not? Well, yes and no! It’s simple in that it is just one thing. But it is complex when we understand that the one thing is a real, dynamic, and personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. But like Jesus says about Mary, she “has chosen the better part.”

The text is not telling us we can ignore all the tasks that are thrust upon us. At some point Martha, with the help of Mary, will need to tackle the tasks that come from hosting Jesus and his disciples. But those tasks are secondary, not the “better part.”

This text leaves us with one final thought. Not only does Jesus tell Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part” but he makes it clear that it “will not be taken away from her.” How comforting to know that as we give our attention to Jesus, we can rest assured that he will never comply with the demands of others to take us away. He will never tell us that we need to start listening to some other voice other than his. He is still the Word of Life and he will always be speaking to us. We follow him and him alone. That can also be encouraging when we are tugged by so many competing tasks for our attention. Jesus is not going anywhere. When we turn to him, even if we have been distracted or have made a fool of ourselves, we can trust that Jesus will still be there.

When our lives get hectic and full, we can take comfort that Jesus really does care, and he is not condemning us when we can’t get it all done. He comes to us and gives himself to us. The “one thing needed” is to pay attention to him, to listen to him, and to remain at his feet. Everything else is secondary. When we sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his words, we can have peace in knowing we are right where we are supposed to be. If saying yes to Jesus means saying no to the expectations of culture and others, so be it. As we pay attention to the “guest” we can also rest in how he is working with others. We don’t have to fear when others are not conforming to our ways of thinking and doing. Jesus cares for them too. As we go to be hospitable in our world we first sit and listen to Jesus who speaks his words of life to us. In this we find ourselves participating in the eternal life that we have inherited in Jesus – a life of loving God and loving neighbor.

Lord of the Harvest w/ Anthony Mullins W3

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July 17 – Proper 11
Luke 10:38-42 “Distracted”

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Program Transcript

Lord of the Harvest w/ Anthony Mullins—W3

The next passage is Luke 10:38-42. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 11, an Ordinary Time for July 17th.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has already set his face to Jerusalem. He could rightly be distracted and burdened with anxiety over his impending death on the cross. And yet we extraordinarily find him at the ease of his friends, just being with his friends. And in this encounter, we see Jesus entering into one’s anxiety, Martha.

And this is important. He does so without becoming anxious himself. This should be a profound lesson for all of us. He compassionately sits with us in our anxiety. Thanks be to God for that, by the Spirit, he shares in our affliction without becoming afflicted by anxiety himself. That’s good news.

And sometimes we want people to feel the same level of anxiety that we do, that somehow that demonstrates to us that they care like we care. It doesn’t mean if somebody is unanxious that they don’t care. We need God to be one who enters into our anxiety without becoming anxious himself, because he is the alpha and the omega, the beginning of the end. And he already resides in tomorrow and he knows in the end all will be well. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well, as Julian of Norwich said.

Let’s also not overlook the way that he values women. It’s no small thing that he’s entering into the home of these two women to sit down with them in an intimate setting without ever crossing any lines that would dehumanize them in any way, but he values them. He honors them. And so, it should be in the church of Jesus Christ.

It’s amazing how much folks have made out about this brief passage since the story itself, it’s quite spare in details. Thus, and not surprisingly, many commentators and interpreters over the years have rushed in to turn Martha and Mary into mere tropes, metaphors that stand for any number of things.

Is this a story on the value of contemplation? Or deeds-based ministry? Is this a story grinding an ax to address the role of women in ministry in Luke’s day? I don’t know.

There’s a lot of things going on, even in a small passage, but there’s some difficulties. First, the Gospel Luke, generally places a premium on service, on diakonia as it is in the Greek.

Yet Martha’s service is apparently criticized by Jesus in verse 40. And what’s more, earlier in Luke 10, (a passage we’ve already read) Jesus gave advice to the 72 missionary workers that when they are welcomed into someone’s house, they were to eat whatever was set before them in Luke 10:8. Yet, here Martha’s busy preparation to get a meal set before Jesus seems to be met with some disdain.

Also, Jesus has just told the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the bottom line is go and do likewise. So, help me understand! Did Jesus just pivot from advocating an active ministry of mercy and neighborliness to looking askance at a person who is doing a lot for someone who is content to do nothing but sit and listen.

Probably the only mistake we can really truly make in this incident is to make it an either-or scenario, to think dualistically about it. Given its placement and Luke, this story can at best highlight one kingdom value among others. The question, therefore, is not to ask whether this passage advises us generally to ask whether it is better to listen than to serve, to be contemplative or to be active.

But rather the question is in the larger kingdom-scheme of things, what do we learn? What particular aspect of life before the face of God is being addressed here? I think approach in this way, perhaps those who suggest that hospitality is a theme here, they’re onto something. How do we receive Jesus?

There have been times where I’ve made a choice and I knew deep within it was the only choice to be made. It was the right choice. And if I could do it all over again, I would make the same choice and do so with thanksgiving and gratitude. There also been times when I made what I thought was the right choice, but now can see it was not the right choice. There was a better choice to be. I would do things differently if I had chance to choose again, wouldn’t you? I’m sure you can imagine in your mind’s eyes, several things that you wish had done differently. Too often, we equate the choice we make and its subsequent approval or rejection with our goodness, our worthiness, our acceptableness, our faithfulness, our lovableness. That’s what most of history has done with Mary and Martha. Mary made the better choice, Jesus says.

And so, we can quickly conclude that we should be like Mary and not Martha. We are to sit and listen rather than me active and busy. Mary is acquainted with the contemplative life, and Martha with the active life. And much of the Christian history has seen the contemplative life as the more sacred pious, perfect life.

That’s one reading of this text. But is that it? If Jesus is saying that Mary, to the exclusion of Martha, is the way that we are to be, then the next time my wife asks me to run some errands or to help with the chores around the house, I think I might say, no, babe, you go ahead. I’m going to choose the better part and sit here with Jesus.

How do you think that’s going to go over, right? I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. I know my wife doesn’t want that. Jesus, I think is making an observation, not a judgment. So, while we might distinguish between Mary and Martha, there is a common theme. The common theme rather is presence. Mary and Martha are two ways of being present.

Both ways are necessary, faithful, and holy. Don’t get that wrong. There is not simply one choice that is made forever and always. We are always to be discerning. The one thing needed for a particular time and a particular place in particular circumstances. What is the better part given our particular situation?

What are you up to Lord in the particularity of this moment? How do we be present, show up to the divine presence that is already and always before us? That’s the question. Some days Mary will be our guide and other days Martha will be our guide. Either way, we must choose. Some days that choice may mean sitting quietly and listening to the heartbeat of God within us, reading and studying, watching a sunset with our spouse or praying for the world.

Other days, and other moments, it may be speaking words of hope and encouragement, offering actions of compassion and hospitality, seeking forgiveness, and making amends or climbing a tree with a child. What is the one thing needed right now in this moment, not forever or what you think will fix all your problems and let you live happy ever after just for now. What is the one thing needed that will keep you awake, aware, open, receptive, and present to the presence of Christ by the Spirit?

Choose what is the better part, but hold your choice lightly, because there will be another choice to be made after that. And another one, after that. We choose our way into life and love and relationships and faith, and our choices matter because of that. And know this, the choices that we make today determine the stories we end up telling tomorrow.

So, our choices matter. I don’t want to put too much weight on. But we don’t want to deny the power and the profundity of the choices that we make. Choose Jesus, choose to actively join him where he’s at work and be amazed at the stories we will tell.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Have you known any “Mrs. Fidgets” in your life? What was your experience?
  • Can you think of times you have acted like a “Mrs. Fidget” yourself?
  • Can you think of ways we “do things for others” when in reality we are really doing it for ourselves?

From the Sermon

  • How often do you feel like Martha, “worried and distracted by many things”?

How did seeing The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of our text being intentionally put together by Luke help in understanding the story? Did it add to your understanding or create more questions?

  • Have you ever read this story and felt like Martha had a good point? Have you ever wondered why Martha was being corrected by Jesus? Do you have a better answer to that question after the sermon? Do you have more questions? Share.
  • Discuss what Martha is being distracted by and what she is being distracted from. Which is the bigger issue, and how does this shape your understanding of the story?
  • Do you ever feel like Martha when she asked, “Lord, do you not care?” From the story, can you see how being distracted from attending to Jesus can bring us to a place to question his love? Discuss.
  • What significance do you see in Jesus calling Martha by name twice?
  • Discuss how we, like Martha, may be trying to keep up with cultural scorecards instead of paying attention to Jesus. How might listening to Jesus call us to break cultural rules?
  • Was it comforting to hear Jesus say that the one thing needed would not be taken away from Mary? How did this speak to you?

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