Speaking Differently: What Truly Matters
17 July 2022
Good morning and welcome to FCC!
We are doing things a little differently today because I was in contact with multiple people who have since tested positive for covid, and I’ve been closely monitoring myself. I discussed with the team and I think it would be safer for everyone if I record this sermon instead of delivering it in person. One drawback is that I won’t get to hear your insights and responses over menti. But I would like to encourage you to share your thoughts and responses in our youtube chat if you are okay with that. I will be on the youtube chat too so it would be lovely to hear from you!
So this morning, we are looking at a familiar story from Luke 10 – the story of Mary and Martha.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him.[k] 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’s[l] 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 but few things are needed—indeed only one.[m] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Traditionally, the interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha usually goes something along these lines.
Last week, Darryl introduced you to Bob.
This week, let me introduce you to Mary.
This is Mary.
She chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listened to him, unlike her sister, Martha.
Mary is smart.
Be like Mary.
That’s usually how many have understood the moral of this story. In fact, the story of Mary and Martha has become a cliché over the centuries. And there is this false dichotomy where these two sisters are held up as examples, one positive and the other negative.
But I don’t think this is what this story is about.
This story has always bothered me because I think Martha is just like many of us. In many of our cultures, and especially our Asian culture, which is very similar to the Middle Eastern culture that Jesus is from, hospitality and making sure others are well taken care of certainly ranks quite high on our list of priorities.
So I can understand why Martha had many tasks to see to as she welcomed Jesus into her home, and I would dare say many of us can probably empathise with Martha. She was just trying to be hospitable and responsible as a host, and yet she’s often made out to be a complainer and the negative example in this story.
This story is not about doing vs. listening, action vs. contemplation. We need to have both in our lives. In fact, action and contemplation needs to work hand-in-hand in our spiritual lives. We are called to be either activists who are deeply contemplative or contemplatives who are fully engaged with the world. It’s not an either/or but a both/and.
And Jesus demonstrates that both action and contemplation are necessary in his own life. So I don’t think that was Jesus’ point.
So what was Jesus’ point? What was he trying to say to Martha, and to many of us who may find reflections of ourselves in Martha?
To understand what Jesus was trying to say, let me bring you back to the larger context of this story. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes right before this story of Mary and Martha. And the question that starts off this parable gives us a hint as to the point that Jesus was trying to make.
Luke 10:25-28 What must I do to inherit eternal life?
In Luke 10:25, an expert in the law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus asked him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus replied, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Do this and you will live. This is the secret to eternal life! When we live out the commandment to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbour as ourselves, that is when we will truly live!
Luke 10:29-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan (to love our neighbour)
Then Jesus went on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to explain who is a neighbour and what it means to love our neighbour.
Luke 10:38-42 The Story of Martha and Mary (to love God)
Then in Luke 10:38-42, we see the exchange between Jesus and Martha, and essentially, this story sheds light on what it means to love God.
Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” — it is not the things themselves that are the problem, but Martha’s attitude. Similarly, the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan were so worried by their temple duties and obligations, that they fail to attend to the needs of a badly injured man lying by the side of the road. It is not their responsibilities at the temple nor Martha’s tasks and desire to practise hospitality that is the issue, but they let themselves be so distracted and worried that they missed out on the most important thing. They missed out on why they were doing all this in the first place.
The issue is not about hospitality or serving others. It’s about what’s going on inside. Jesus told Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Notice that the actual problem Jesus brought up was that Martha was worried and distracted by many things.
Debie Thomas says, “The root meaning of the word “worry” is “strangle” or “seize by the throat and tear.” The root meaning of the word “distraction” is “a separation or a dragging apart of something that should be whole.” These are words that describe woundedness and fracture. Worry and distraction are states of mind that render us incoherent, divided, fragmented, not whole.
Jesus found Martha in such a state of fragmentation — a state of mind in which she could not enjoy his company, savour his presence, find inspiration in her work, receive anything he wished to offer her, or show him genuine love. In fact, what she did was to compare herself with Mary, and start judging her for her action or inaction.
Being worried and distracted, instead of centred and whole, led her to question Jesus’ love (“Lord, do you not care?”), fixate on herself (“My sister has left me to do all the work by myself”) and triangulate (“Tell her then to help me.”)
Does any of this sound familiar? Is your inner life so fragmented, so strangled, so incoherent, that you struggle to give and receive love? Are you quick to get irritated? Do you tend to look at the people around you, and start comparing and judging them for what they do and don’t do, instead of focusing on yourself and what you need to do? Has your busyness kept you from remembering why you are doing all this in the first place? Is your worry keeping you from being fully present, fully engaged, fully alive? Have you lost the ability to attend to someone, connect deeply, and be present? Are you using your packed schedule to avoid intimacy with God or with others?
My answer to some of these questions is yes. If your answer is yes, too, then I want to invite you to listen to Jesus’s words to Martha again — not as a criticism, but as an invitation. Not as a rebuke, but as a comforting balm.
Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
At first glance, we tend to read this as a rebuke but actually, just like in text messages, there’s no way for us to know exactly what tone Jesus was using with Martha. Last week, Darryl in his sermon, challenged us to transform our human tendency to judge to a perspective of compassion. We tend to hear what Jesus said to Martha as a criticism because we would have responded the same way from our own judgement mind. But what if Jesus was approaching Martha from a place of care and compassion? What if he was gently inviting her to a place of wholeness?
Jesus knows that we ache to be whole. Jesus knows that we are often hard on ourselves, and we end up worried and distracted because of all the heavy burdens and high expectations we place on ourselves. The reality is that Martha could have been looking at Mary with envy. Maybe she longed to sit where Mary sat. She longed to take delight in Jesus’ words. But perhaps she couldn’t because of all the expectations of society.
In her time, and even in our time now, women are expected to cook, serve, clean, organize gatherings, take care of the needs of guests, while men do the more important spiritual work of preaching, teaching, entertaining, leading prayer, etc. Martha was conforming to the expectations of society in her time by busying herself with the many tasks of hospitality, while Mary broke tradition by taking on the role of a disciple. This parallels the Good Samaritan who goes against tradition to help an injured Jew, while the priest and Levite avoid making themselves unclean, in line with what their community expects.
Traditionally, only male disciples sat at their Teacher’s feet to study the Torah. Yes, Jesus broke tradition and elevated the status of women by affirming Mary’s right to discipleship. This gender reversal is a big deal, and I appreciate how Jesus challenges societal norms, and opens up the way for discipleship across all genders.
But a part of me wishes Jesus had done more. I wish he had directed his male disciples to the kitchen, and instructed them to bake the bread, grill the fish, and to do their part so Martha could have the choice to rest and sit at Jesus’ feet if she wanted. That would have been really radical. The fact is that Martha’s sense of obligation and duty had cultural roots which Jesus didn’t confront on her behalf, at least in this story. As Debie Thomas says, “Her anxiety didn’t come from nowhere; she lived inside a social and religious system that fully expected her to behave as she did, and the power of that system was formidable. In other words, Martha needed deep, systemic change in order to live into the permission Jesus tried to offer her. She couldn’t embrace such radical freedom by herself — she needed the folks with power to embrace it with her and for her.”
“She needed the folks with power to embrace it with her and for her.”
What about us? I wonder what would it be like for us contemporary Christians to examine the systems and structures that still bind people like Martha today? What could we do to help dismantle those systems? What would it look like to create concrete opportunities for today’s Marthas to rest? To sit freely at Jesus’s feet? To find support, community, and help as they struggle to become disciples? Would you come alongside the Marthas in your life as they unlearn a lifetime of messaging around what makes their souls beloved, cherished, valuable and holy?
That is what truly matters. “Do this and you will live,” Jesus says to the expert in the law.
We all know the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind, and our neighbour as ourselves.
But as we learnt in Mary and Martha’s story, it’s not always so easy. Sometimes we are hampered by the systems and structures, and the expectations of our culture and society. Sometimes we are the ones who are holding ourselves back. We want to love God with all our hearts but we are easily distracted. We want to love the people around us better but we allow our busyness and the daily grind to consume us. Perhaps this morning, Jesus is approaching you from a place of care and compassion. And he is gently inviting you to a place of wholeness because he knows you ache to be whole. You long to love and be loved.
There was a lot happening in my life over the past 2 weeks. Almost my whole immediate family came down with covid. They basically took turns to test positive these past 2 weeks. It started with my youngest niece who is 2 years old, and it slowly spread to the rest of my family, including my parents. Thankfully, their symptoms were manageable and all of them are on the road to recovery. But in the midst of all that, we received news that my uncle passed away (not from covid) last Friday. This is my dad’s eldest brother, and our families are relatively close.
My dad had just tested positive the day before we heard the news of my uncle’s death. So my parents couldn’t be there for the wake and funeral. I was at the wake and funeral with my brother and sister, and caught up with some of my cousins, uncles and aunties. Many of them I had not seen for a while because of the pandemic. And I realized how precious our time together was – just being present with one another, hearing about each other’s lives, and during the funeral, knowing you’re not alone when you hear the sound of sniffles and see the tears in each others’ eyes.
Even as I was preparing this sermon, I was processing through some emotions of grief and loss. The truth is that our time with loved ones is brief and the funeral made me reflect on how I should be focusing on what truly matters.
Death, grief and loss are often opportunities for us to pause and reflect about what truly matters in our lives, and what we can be doing differently. Relationships are complex and have their mix of good, bad and difficult. But death often invites us to greater clarity and to me, the ultimate question is: have I chosen to love and be loved?
We say the greatest commandment is important to us but how do you embody it in your life? How do you live it out? How would you like to do better? Perhaps it begins with letting God love you.
Let Your God Love You
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—
For many of us, we know in our heads that God loves us. But we struggle with letting God love us in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps like Martha, we are caught up in systems that tell us we are loved and useful only when we are productive. Perhaps we never knew how it feels to truly be loved. And it’s hard for us to imagine that God loves us just like that. Without us doing anything, without us comparing ourselves to others, without us striving to be loved. God loves you just like that.
And maybe for some of us, we’ve heard it so many times that we take it for granted. Just like with our families and loved ones, we kind of know they love us and we love them, but we take them and the relationships we have for granted. Until death, grief and loss reminds us of what truly matters – to love and be loved. We forget that only one thing is needed – being present in that love we have for one another. God longs for you to understand and experience that love each and every day. Will you let God love you, and through you, love others until they fully realize that they are beloved too? This is the one thing that is needed. Do this and you will live. If we choose it, no one will ever have the power to take it away from us. So let’s choose to let God love us, and then love the world through us.
Will you join me in a word of prayer?
Ever-loving God, we know you love us and we love you, but sometimes we get worried and distracted by many things. Help us know that only one thing is needed. If we do this, we will live. So we choose to let you love us in the stillness, in the silence, and as your love transforms us, help us love others until they realize they are beloved too. Amen.