Learning from Jesus (2): What are my Priorities?

The Old Testament prophesied that a little child shall lead them, and today we’re going to obey. I’ve invited the kiddos to help me start the sermon. [Children join Louise at the Communion table and “play” with the donut stacker.] There’s a trick to getting all the donuts on the stacker. You have to start with the largest one, and once you get that into place, it’s much easier to find room for the others. But if you start with a smaller one, you quickly learn that some of the others will be left out. Whether donuts or decisions–at every age, it seems, we have to learn to get things in the right order; to center the most important thing and trust that other things will find their place.

Today’s scripture reading is a similar example of the donut-stacking enterprise. Along with Jesus and his disciples, we are welcomed into the home of Martha and her sister Mary (later a brother named Lazarus makes an appearance, but he’s not mentioned here).  Both women eagerly extend hospitality to the beloved teacher and healer, but their choice of “first donut” varies…and becomes a source of conflict. A reading from the gospel according to Luke, in the tenth chapter, verses 38-42. Listen for God’s Word in the teaching of Jesus about choosing the better part…and what that means for our own priorities. [Luke 10:38-42]

This text appears regularly in the lectionary every three years, which means I’ve preached on it approximately 14 times in the course of my ministry, give or take a few. I know those early ones focused primarily on Mary, and how Jesus affirmed her posture as student, his disciple–something that teachers of the time reserved exclusively for men. In this reading, Jesus is the consummate feminist, authorizing women as well as men as spiritual role models and potential leaders in the faith community. Women are set free from their culturally-mandated roles as chief cook and bottle washer, invited out of the kitchen and into places of power; liberated from dusting the pulpit to preaching from it.

Now make no mistake: I think this is a true and faithful interpretation, amplified by many other teachings and actions of Jesus to demonstrate women’s equality before God. Even the apostle Paul who preserved prevailing social standards keeping women out of church leadership, would proclaim There is no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galations 3:28] Gender equality is a settled matter in Christian theology and in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

However, Scriptural interpretation is not monolithic but multivalent. As I grew older and more experienced I saw how a single reading of this story could make women who chose homemaking and parenting as their chief vocation feel marginalized or unappreciated or slighted as spiritual role-models. Plus there were a lot of Marthas in those congregations (and they weren’t all women!). They served meals and prepared funeral receptions and fellowship hours; people who organized food drives for the local hunger center; sewed baby items for indigent families; taught English as a Second Language to refugees; taught the middle school confirmation class; fixed and repaired crumbling infrastructure in church (and manse). Ensuing sermons on this text assured my congregations that these were honorable and faithful priorities. The importance of hospitality in those ancient times could not be overstated. Jesus wasn’t criticizing Martha’s desire to serve; she had simply forgotten the essence of service was not in the complexity of the meal but the grace with which it was served. Her resentment of Mary and perhaps jealousy of the regard in which Jesus held her “lazy” sister cast a shadow on her good work and best version of herself. Martha’s preoccupation with her tasks crowded out the possibility of simply marinating in Jesus’ presence, and she became fretful. We who identify with Martha are reminded in this reading to re-order our priorities to include “sabbath” rest, intentional time and spiritual space to renew our relationship with Jesus, and enthusiasm for our chosen work.

Jesus’ desire to be with us is not withheld until all the problems and situations get resolved

And that’s an important interpretation as well.

But context is everything, friends, and as I read the text in preparation for this sermon, I found myself absolutely distracted with the daunting work of this church’s life in this threshold moment.  We’re post-pandemic, but are we?? (Denver is back up in the “red” zone and care must be taken to avoid highly contagious variant infections).  We’re almost finished with construction…but no, we aren’t yet. We’ve made an enormous financial investment in our building as a tool of ministry…how will we fully use it to serve more broadly, deeply, and effectively in our downtown community and beyond? Some of us are plagued by worry about money: will we have enough to carry out a thriving mission and pay down the debt we took on? We’re preparing to communicate our message of God’s inclusive love with a brand new website and marketing materials…but can’t do that until those materials are ready and the building is fully open. Will new people be drawn to our church? Heck, will members we haven’t seen in ages return?  Like other churches and businesses during the pandemic, we’ve experienced lots of staff changes–departures, re-configured position descriptions, and recruitment for these positions. Your personnel committee has been working overtime, considering options, proposing plans, seeking consensus around a different sense of what is most needed at this time. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was real grief in the loss of beloved staff members that can’t be comforted simply by filling a vacancy.  So I read the text in full-on anxiety-work- mode and actually snorted aloud at the luxury of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet (in my mind’s eye, they were in an air-conditioned room and enjoying lamb kabobs and humus with pita chips, prepared of course by Someone Else). Just two more weeks I said to myself through clenched teeth. Two more weeks and I’ll be on vacation with my family. Then I can catch my breath and delight in God’s presence. Two. More. Weeks.

My donut stack was seriously out of whack.

And suddenly there was the solution in front of me.

Hmmm.  Well, no. The solution was in front of me, right in those ancient Biblical words. But I’d been hearing them wrong. I had heard Jesus scold Martha for chiding her sister and point out that Mary had chosen the better part, which is achingly close to being the better one. And Martha? Well, she had failed– her attempts to offer hospitality weren’t good enough; her choices weren’t good enough; she wasn’t good enough.  Martha, your problem is that you are frantic and selfish and missing the point. If only you’d done what Mary did…

But what if instead I heard the voice of Jesus not as judgment, but as kindness?  An invitation to breathe, to let go of anxious worry, to receive what Jesus so much wants to give us.  Martha, my beloved sister, I see that you are worried and pulled in many directions. You are not carrying your busy concerns all alone. Remember, I am with you. I love you and want you to experience that love. Come here, take a load off, and relax in my presence among the people who also care for you.

I heard God speaking through these verses in a different way this week. Jesus’ desire to be with us is not withheld until all the problems and situations get resolved; or until we go on vacation. It’s an expression of his love in the middle of our distracted lives; when it feels as if there is too much to do, to decide, to devise and design and figure out.  It’s the “one thing”–the largest donut–that guides all the rest. Jesus never said that Martha’s gift of hospitality didn’t matter. The decisions we face as individuals and as a congregation are important. But none as important as getting the first priority right. This week (and for some time), I’d left no time to be still in Jesus’ presence, and was trying my hardest to prove how well I serve and how much I do and how invaluable my work is…it’s really hard to get there when you’re stuck forcing those tiny donuts onto the stacker without the first one securely in place.

And the thing is, friends, we have only to open ourselves to the gracious presence of Jesus and he is there.  We have only to remember that our value is not because of what we do or achieve; it’s not based on our performance; no one is keeping score but us.  Our exquisite value lies in the simple truth that we are beloved children of God.  All of us: Mary and Martha, the disciples and Lazarus, the moneychangers and the religious leaders…homemakers and career-minded; parents and grandparents concerned about the world in which their young ones will grow; church volunteers and those “too busy” to serve; everyone worried about money; those who are discouraged about the state of our nation; dutiful, but resentful siblings; worried and weary folks…you and me.  Beloved. Of. God.

Dear ones, are you worried and distracted by many things? Listen. Breathe. Choose the purple donut with intention today, and each day.  Come sit at Jesus’ feet, and receive exactly what you need to choose other priorities wisely–and to live with joy and peace.

Thanks be to God!