Sermons That Work

There is an Old Vaudeville Joke, Proper 11 (C) – 2010

July 18, 2010

There is an old vaudeville joke about a man and woman dancing in the Catskills, at a singles resort. “I’m only here for the weekend,” the man says. “I’m dancing as fast as I can,” responds the woman.

Martha is that kind of a woman, dancing around her house as fast as she can, trying to get things ready for her honored guest, and trying in her own way to make the most of their time together.

Our natural sympathies are with Martha. We recognize her condition. Were he expected, the visit of Jesus would probably have sent Martha and Mary scurrying ahead of time in preparation. And that may have been the case. But note also, this text does not give us reason to believe that Jesus was expected when he came to call: “She received him,” it says, which may mean little more than that she opened the door to his knock, not necessarily expecting to see him standing there. If that were the case, then there was much to be done post haste, as hospitality was always the rule of the day and the more unexpected the guest, the more lavish and bountiful the hospitality typically was. Such hospitality is the hallmark of the Jewish home, where even at Passover a spare chair is left for Elijah, should he come to call and partake of the family’s meal.

Martha is a sympathetic sister for our time because she is in the business of activity and anxiety: two chief preoccupations of our age. The Marthas of this world are intent upon doing the right and good thing at the right and good time. We all recognize them because we all have at least some of Martha in us.

Yet, look again, and you will see that Jesus does not deny the value of what Martha is or of what she is doing. He does not say to her that everything is all right and that there is nothing to do or to worry about. He says to her, in essence, that she has her priorities wrong. He recognizes that Mary knows that she has something to learn from Jesus. He would like Martha to know that as well. He seems to be saying to Martha: “Don’t just do something, sit here, at least for a moment. Listen to me.” He seems to want to slow her dance, to let her mind and soul catch up with her body.

It is not that Martha’s work is unimportant, and it is not that Jesus does not appreciate the work. But Jesus is about priorities; first things first. And he is unambiguous about what comes first here. He said it once before, in his sermon when he warned people about being anxious regarding what they would eat and wear. Remember, he concluded that remarkably practical address with the words “Therefore, do not be anxious … But seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

What was so important about sitting at Jesus’ feet? It seems certain that he had been a visitor before to the home of Martha and Mary. He was a great friend of the family, and we know of his love for their brother, Lazarus. The answer to the question comes in the words that introduce the story, “Now, as they went on their way…” This is the crucial context in which we understand not only this story but our own as well, for if we read the paragraphs and chapters before this we will find that “they” – Jesus and his followers – are on their way to Jerusalem and to the cross. It was Jesus’ last journey, his final earthly pilgrimage, not a day’s outing or excursion or Sunday drive, but a purposeful procession across the pages of history to the sure and certain death on the cross, and into the future which he would claim for God. Somehow, in some way, Mary had caught on to the fact that Jesus’ message on his visit to their house on this afternoon was of such significance, such urgency, that the routine must be interrupted in order to hear it.

It seems doubtful that it was Mary’s regular custom to entertain visitors by sitting at their feet while her sister did all the work. In fact, Martha’s comments suggest that Mary’s behavior was not her typical behavior. But perhaps, somehow, Mary sensed that this was not an ordinary visit. The Lord was passing by, and after he went, things would never be the same again. Mary sensed that the time he had with them was precious and to be savored.

We learn an important lesson from this story in the example of Mary and Martha. The mark of hospitality is the capacity to give. Martha was doubtless very good at that, and she was busy about that very work, giving Jesus a pleasant time, providing for his needs and comforts, organizing his stay under her roof. It is hard work and should be rewarded, as it usually is, with appreciation and gratitude. But just as Jesus interrupts the routine of the household in Bethany, he also interrupts the role, for he is not “guest,” he is now “host.” He is the Lord, and it is he who gives and others who are now invited to receive.

An ancient custom of hospitality in England holds that when a sovereign comes to your house, while in your home, it is no longer yours but his – or particularly at this point in English history, hers. A sovereign becomes the host under any citizen’s roof. It is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is infinitely more difficult to receive than it is to give. It makes one beholden to the giver, and it makes one, in some sense, dependent. Try to give someone something and that person will insist upon returning something to you, wanting things to be even, not wanting to feel obligated. Giving is power; receiving implies need and weakness.

The Marthas of the world are so busy doing good and necessary things that sometimes they don’t have time to realize how deeply they themselves stand in need. When Jesus comes, he reminds us that we need the grace and peace he offers. Rather than be distracted by providing service, or being anxious and troubled about many things, we would do well to slow the dance we are doing, to stop, look, and listen.

This, then, is a parable about giving and receiving, doing and being, and about the presence of Jesus in the midst of the ordinary that becomes extraordinary. It is a parable about priorities, first things first, and it is a parable about two women who in their lives and attitudes give our Lord and his Church an opportunity to teach an important lesson for our time. It is also a parable of our worship, for it reminds us that what happens in our churches – our prayer, our praise, our instruction, and our fellowship – is not what we do for Jesus, entertaining him and busying ourselves with some sort of fast dance. But rather, we slow that dance, we come to “sit at Jesus’ feet,” and we come to receive from him the means of grace and hope of glory.

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Christopher Sikkema


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