Text: Luke 10:38-42
Series: “The Church Your New Pastor Deserves”
To quote the popular songwriter Alanis Morrissette, isn’t it ironic that our Labor Day observance takes place on a weekend when most Americans take time off from their labor? You would think that on Labor Day people would actually engage in some type of work, but instead we choose to mark the holiday by taking a break and getting away from the grind. Why do you think that is the case?
I would like to think that deep down we all recognize that all work and no play not only makes Johnny a dull boy; it also makes him a depleted boy. That is to say, that we are not wired to be perpetual machines, constantly in motion, with no time off for renewal and restoration. Unless we find a way to create some space in our souls to allow them to breathe, we will eventually meet ourselves coming from the other direction, which is another way of saying that while busy as a bee, our busyness won’t necessarily produce anything of substance.
No, to flourish in our labor, we must make sure that we have ample time for some rest, not so much because leisure is better than labor, but more so that we can stay committed to the labor we have been given to do and have something of significance to show for it. That not only is a sound economic truth, it also is a sound spiritual one.
We see that truth front and center in the story before us this morning from Luke’s Gospel, the story of Jesus being welcomed into the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary, sisters who come to represent the struggle so many believers have with maintaining a spiritually healthy balance between labor and leisure.
In this section of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has recently felt led “to set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), which of course points to the cross. And along the way, Jesus takes advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to teach his disciples about all that is required of them to be of service to the Kingdom of God. You don’t put your hand on the plow and look back. You go out into what at times can be a hostile world with only the promise of the Spirit. You invest yourself in meeting the needs of others, following the example of the Good Samaritan. And now, Luke will tell us, you make sure you have the spiritual resources that are required to be about all that good work because of how you are careful to spend sufficient time with Jesus.
I find it interesting that in this story there is no mention of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. Perhaps that’s because Luke, more than any other Gospel writer, emphasizes the role of women as models of devotion, and how they might teach us that at times we are better off not giving in to the pressure of conforming to cultural expectations so that we might better show our allegiance to Jesus.
In this case, you have one sister, Martha, who has become a prisoner to those expectations. Hospitality was a cardinal virtue in the first century world, and it was the responsibility of the women in the household to make sure that guests were adequately received. This expectation would have been true for all guests, but certainly for a guest like Jesus. And so, Martha was up to her earlobes in making sure that everything was just right for Jesus. Luke goes so far as to tell us she was “distracted,” a word in the Greek that suggest being pulled about from one thing to the next, hardly the single-minded devotion that should characterize a true disciple. Meanwhile, Mary, the other woman in the story, was sitting blissfully at the feet of Jesus, taking in every word he had to say.
Male or female, surely you can understand how Martha’s blood pressure must have risen to the point where she couldn’t hold back her tongue any longer. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
And how does Jesus respond to Martha’s exasperation? Not with a rebuke, not with a retort that would put Martha back in her place. Jesus responds with compassion and with an invitation to consider a better way. “Martha, Martha.” How many times does Jesus call a person by their name twice? Let’s see. As he enters the city of Jerusalem to go to the cross, he will feel the weight of the sacrifice God will be calling him to make. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). As he finishes up his last meal with his disciples before his arrest by the religious authorities, he overhears his disciples bickering with one another over who among them is the greatest, Jesus picks out Simon Peter, and calls him to rise above such ambition. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you…that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32). And on the road to Damascus, as the church’s greatest enemy Saul is going to that city to persecute Jesus-followers, the Risen Jesus suddenly appears and calls out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). At which point Saul professes his belief in Jesus, is transformed in his spirit, and becomes the apostle that Jesus desires him to be.
Do you see a pattern here? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.”
So, was Jesus saying that Martha’s work was unimportant? No, that’s not what he was saying. Jesus was instead saying that because it was important, as is all work important, we must make sure that we undergird it with the deepest devotion to Jesus so that our work might serve God’s Kingdom purpose and we might know both abundance and fulfillment as we give ourselves to it.
My prayer for this church is that you will see this principle of devotion to Jesus as a priority in preparing for the next chapter of this great church’s ministry. Too many times today, a church is tempted to find its value in the amount of activity it has going on. “Look at all we’re about! We’ve got programs and activities for every age group!” And programs and activities are good things, as long as those programs and activities are in response to God’s leading. I’m reminded of that painful image C.S. Lewis offered in his fantasy novel, The Great Divorce, an allegorical story about a bus ride from heaven to hell in which those on the bus learn the marked difference between good and evil. One of the discoveries they make when they get to hell is that a thriving congregation exists there, a church that is busy, a church that has all the right programs and activities, with one exception. The church is not animated by the Presence of God and is therefore a distracted church, an exasperated church, a conflicted church, and worst of all, a church that for all intents and purposes is spiritually dead.
I pray that this great church will never mistake busyness for vitality, a mistake that only is made when its members mistake working for waiting. So, on this Labor Day Sunday, while we are taking a much needed break from our everyday activity, let’s begin now to slow down enough to recognize as a community of faith the energy that comes from attending to Jesus. Let’s choose what is better than aimless activity. Let’s wait on the Lord and renew our strength, so that the strength that Jesus gives will undergird all our labor and what comes from it will be of such substance that what we gain from it and more importantly what Jesus gains from it will be something that will in fact never be taken away.