“THE ONE THING”[1]

LUKE 10:38-42

MARCH 15, 2009

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            Have you ever wondered how Jesus spent his evenings?  After those long, weary hours of ministry, have you ever wondered what Jesus did and where he went?  Some of his disciples came to him early on to ask about the fringe benefits of discipleship, and Jesus told them that foxes had holes and the birds of the air had nests, but the Son of Man had no permanent place to put his head.  So I gather that there were times in Jesus’ life when he slept outside with the sky for a blanket and a stone for a pillow.

            But there were other times that Jesus enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of good friends, and no home in all of Israel was more valuable to him than the home of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.  In the final days of his life, when other hearts and homes were closed to him, the door of this home was always open.  We’ll spend the next three weeks looking at these three.

            In our passage of Scripture for this morning, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem one last time.  To get there, they have to go through the village of Bethany, located two miles to the east of Jerusalem.  And when Martha hears that the disciples and Jesus have hit town, she insists that they come over for dinner.

            And I’ve never cooked for a large crowd of people, and I’m in awe of people who can do that.  A good cook can take cold food from the refrigerator at one time, put hot food on the stove at another time, and make it all come out at the same time – well, that’s a minor miracle to me.

            Anyway, as Martha was trying to pull off the miracle, it wasn’t going very well.  The stove was giving off more smoke than heat.  The bread refused to rise, and pretty soon the whole thing smelled more like a burnt offering than a dinner.  Finally, she looked around for her sister for help, and there she was in the living room, sitting at Jesus’ feet.  Perturbed, Martha went back to cooking, and she was as burned up as the dinner.

            Then the volcano inside of her exploded.  She stormed into the living room, went up to Jesus, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that I have to get this meal together by myself?  Tell my sister to come and help me!”

            I’m sure she thought that Jesus would come to her defense and send Mary scurrying into the kitchen, but that is not what he did.  Instead, Jesus responds to Martha as a parent might respond to a fretting child.  He says, “Martha, Martha, you worry about too many things.  Only one thing is important.  Mary has chosen that one thing.”

            Now, you don’t have to go to seminary to understand that story.  You don’t have to take a course in hermeneutics to discover who gets the low marks and who gets the high marks.  We all know that Martha made the bad choice and that Mary made the good choice.  That’s just the way it is, and we understand it.

            But, I don’t know about you, but when I come to that conclusion, my head and my heart just don’t agree.  I confess to you that I have a secret sympathy with Martha.  Putting it bluntly, Martha is my kind of woman!  She’s realistic.  She approaches life as it is.  And she calls them as she sees them.

            For example, in a couple of weeks we’ll look at the death of her brother, and how Jesus was four days late for the funeral, and when he showed up Martha gives him a piece of her mind.  She says, “If you had been here, he would not have died.”  Then they took him out to the cemetery, and he stood in front of the tomb.  Then he asked for the stone to be rolled away.  Martha said, “Lord, you’d better not do that.  I mean, he’s been dead for four days, and by this time he reeks.  He really stinks.” 

            She’s realistic.  She calls them as she sees them and she was realistic enough to know that if you’re going to prepare a dinner for 16 people, somebody’s got to go out there and hustle to get it done.  Sitting around at somebody’s feet won’t get the food prepared.

            I have to say if it were not for the Marthas of the world, nothing much would get done.  Few sermons would get prepared and preached.  Very few missions would ever be undertaken.  If it weren’t for the Marthas of the world, you could put evangelism to bed.  Any pastor with a lick of sense is delighted to have some Marthas in the pew.

            No, I don’t think Jesus is faulting her for her service, her willingness to get things done.  Rather I think Jesus is faulting her for trying to do too much. 

            I think if Martha had gone to her friendly psychologist and taken a battery of tests, she probably would have ended up as a type-A personality, kind of obsessive-compulsive, and if you ever meet an obsessive-compulsive their life verse, their mantra is that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  Unfortunately, that mantra has murdered as many people as it’s motivated.

            Martha’s a woman who lives by that motto.  I mean, this woman is going throw a great dinner party.  She cleans the house as though she’s going to perform an operation.  She dusts the door jamb as though the company’s coming with a white glove and have an inspection.  And if you’d ask her why in the world she goes to all this trouble, she says, “Well, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

            But Jesus responds to Martha and says, “Martha, look: you’re worried and upset about too many things.  One dish would have been enough.  That’s all you really had to prepare.  One casserole would have done it.”  Some of us need to underline the lesson Jesus offers here:  If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing simply.

            Certainly, it is a good thing to do one’s best, however, if we are driven to super-human feats and our spirit is hurt, we need to know a bowl of soup and a sandwich will pass muster.  If it is worth doing, and it is worth doing simply.

            Of course, the question is how to know when we’re too busy?  How do we know when we have pushed yourself beyond the limits?  That differs for different people, but I think one answer is that when we are upset, anxious, irritable and hard to get along with, that’s a good clue that we have gone too far.  We can tarnish our service by the way we do it.  Good service, done with a bad spirit, doesn’t do anybody any good.

            An old saying goes, “Misery loves company.”  That may be true.  One thing I am sure of is that misery spoils the company and the party for everybody else.

            That happened here.  Martha’s irritation spoiled the party for Mary.  Can you imagine how Mary felt?  Martha’s upset.  She doesn’t tiptoe to the door and whisper, “Mary, could you come and help me?”  No, she makes a grandstand play.  She storms into the living room, and she doesn’t even speak to Mary.  She goes up to Jesus and says, “Jesus, don’t you care that my sister has left me to cook the meal by myself?  Tell her to come and help me.”

            Can you imagine how Mary must have felt?  If she’s the sensitive type, which we know she is, she’s embarrassed.  This lovely evening with Jesus is spoiled.  When we’re irritable, we spoil it for everybody.

            Martha even spoiled it for the disciples.  Have you ever gone to a home, and before you got there, the host couple was sort of at each other?  They might have been arguing when the doorbell rang, and then they hear the bell and put a smile on their faces and greet you.

            And have you ever gone where the doorbell didn’t stop it?  You get to the table, and they’re still upset with one another.  I don’t care what the menu is or how lavish the meal; it’s covered with a gravy of irritation.  All you want to do is leave early.  Irritation spoils the party for everyone.

            Martha’s irritation even spoiled the evening for her.  This was going to be a sterling evening in her life.  Here, in her home, was the Messiah.  She was going to entertain him, but now suddenly because of her irritation, she’s angry with him.  She comes into the living room and says, “Lord, don’t you care about me?  I’ve got to handle this meal by myself.”

            When irritation is part of our service, it spoils our service.  We are over-extended when good works are done with a bad attitude.  When that happens, it will do us well to hear the word of Jesus.  One dish is enough.  It’s great to have a seven-course meal, but one dish would have done it.  If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing simply.

            Notice one more thing in the story.  Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part; it will not be taken away from her.  The question is: What in the world does “choosing the better part” mean?         

            Well, let me take a stab at that, and this is pure conjecture so take it with a grain of salt, but I think it’s simply allowing Jesus to minister to us before we minister to others.  It’s allowing him to do something in us before we do something for him.  Jesus says that Mary chose the better part because a ministry to our spirit must precede a ministry to others.

            Do you remember the first commandment?  According to Jesus the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  The second is like the first: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  And the order of those commandments are important.  If we put your focus in life on loving our neighbor, if that was the first commandment, then that gets to be a pretty exhausting and irritable business.

            Trying to go out and love your neighbor first is like dipping out the Atlantic.  You take a bucket and you dip and dip and dip.  By the end of the day you have a puddle at your feet, and the Atlantic is still there.  If you give yourself first to neighbor-love, it will destroy your spirit.  It will burn you out.  You’ll discover you can’t stay with it.  Only neighbor-love growing out of a love for Jesus Christ has staying power.

            Let me close with a true story about a mother and a son.  The father had died when the boy was young, and the mother and son had a unique relationship.  This was back before television, and folks would spend evenings listening to the radio or reading to one another.  They both enjoyed listening to good music.  Theirs was a special relationship.

            In his early twenties, the son met a young woman at church, fell in love with her, and they decided to be married.  Back then, during World War II, housing in our large cities was very difficult to get.  The mother, knowing they wanted to be married, said, “We have a two-story house.  I can make an apartment for myself in the second story.  You and your bride can live in the first story.  The only thing I ask is that we get a chance to spend some time together because I’m going to miss the reading and music.”

            Her son said, “Mother, you can be sure of that.  It’s too important to me.”

            The couple married.  For a while, life continued with the son stopping by a couple of times a week to spend some time.  He was busy, and eventually days and actually weeks went by with only a call from downstairs, or a brief glimpse.  The relationship was not what it had been.

            On the mother’s birthday, the young man bought his mother a lovely dress, brought it to her, and said, “Happy birthday, Mother.”

            She opened the package and looked at the dress.  “Oh, Son, thank you.  I appreciate so much what you have done.”

            He said, “Mother, you don’t like it.”

            She said, “Oh, yes, I do.  It’s my color.  Thank you.”

            He said, “Mother, I have the sales slip.  They tell me I can take it back.”

            She said, “No, it’s a lovely dress.”

            He said, “Mother, you don’t fool me.  We’ve been together too long.  What’s wrong?”

            The woman turned and opened her closet.  She said, “Son, I have enough dresses there to last me for the rest of my life.  I guess all I want to say is that I don’t want your dress.  I want you.”

            I imagine God may be saying the same thing to us this morning.  God doesn’t want our busyness.  God wants us.

           

           



[1] Message borrowed from Haddon Robinson, “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There,” Preaching Today, Tape 138.