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16th sunday in ordinary time

Luke 10:38-42

Living in Stillness and Motion


The storm that threatened to drench us in rain had evaporated. A quiet stillness had replaced the raging wind. The cold front may have been miserable to the people in the valley, but we knew that it had driven the mosquitoes and flies into hiding. A qualm sensation hung in the air as we ate supper. The tents were up, the sleeping bags rolled out, the packs arranged for the evening. After all the chores and evening tasks were completed, we walked around our mountain meadow talking about our jobs, our family, and the week on the trail. It was a wonderful evening of conversation, sharing, and laughter. It was an evening that we almost missed.

Each morning we would wake up, make breakfast, wash the dishes, take down the tent, and pack our gear. Before we would set out on the trail, each of us would take time for prayer and Scripture reading. Then we would hike nearly 7 miles a day through the Cascades. For a group of out of shape middle age men, that was not too bad. Once we arrived at our destination we would unpack, set up the tents, make supper, wash the dishes, clean up, and then get the camp ready for the evening. We barely had enough time to complete all the chores before bedtime. Until that last night, we did not have much of an opportunity to just sit and talk with one another except while hiking. In our busy-ness, we almost missed taking time to enjoy our friendship.

Camping for me serves as a powerful allegory for life. Problems and struggles are intensified. I cannot ignore them or minimize them. That last night on the meadow reminded me how easy my life can become so filled with activities that I miss the "better way."


In our Scripture lesson Martha is the proverbial "Martha Stewart" hostess. Her life is filled with activity and responsibilities. Her heart was in the right spot. She believed that a guest should be honored. A hostess should go out of her way to do all the right things to make her guest feel important and special. This required extra work to plan the menu and to prepare the food, the table, and the home. Martha lived under the tyranny of the should's and the ought's. She was duty bound to fulfill her obligations to her guest. Her responsibilities to the complete the tasks were more important that the people she was serving.

Martha was probably a wonderful homemaker. She probably maintained a clean, neat house. She understood duty and responsibility, but she failed to appreciate that all of her work was distracting her from the most important priorities of her life - enjoying intimate relationships with her friends and her God.

Even through the American church has lost the gift of hospitality; the Martha syndrome is driving our society. We are people who have to be doing, accomplishing, and performing. We fill our lives with activity. The activity can be almost anything; it need not be limited to housekeeping. It can be a job, schoolwork or even a hobby or recreational sport. An attorney shared with her counselor that she found how even the seemingly harmless activity of reading historical romance novels can become a substitute for more satisfying relationships with real people. After a mentally grueling day in court, she enjoyed losing herself in the predictable plot. What began as a diversion, become a substitution. She preferred to invest her time in fantasy rather than reality. She began to decline social opportunities in favor of quiet evenings with her books. She isolated herself from the ups-and-downs of flesh and blood relationships. Her social life became nonexistent. She experienced life only through the make-believe adventures she vicariously shared with the heroines of her books.1


Martha discovers what happens when a person is driven by busy-ness. While she was scurrying about the kitchen preparing the meal, her sister Mary was sitting doing nothing with Jesus. I could almost picture the situation. Martha is reaching for some flour and notices that she is alone with the servants. Her sister is not in the kitchen. She moves to the entranceway and overhears her sister talking to Jesus. She returns to kneading the bread. She calls to Mary and asks her to do something. Mary obliges but instead of staying in the kitchen, Mary returns to sit with Jesus. Martha calls again, but this time Mary orders a servant to complete the request. Martha now starts banging pots and dishes to get someone's, anyone's attention. Her movement becomes quick and tense. The servants eye one another with a look of warning. They know that they should give their mistress a wide bertha. She has worked herself into a rage and is looking for an excuse to unleash her anger. The servants know that if they are not careful, they will become the scapegoat.

Frustration and anger are the natural responses to unfulfilled expectations. When a person feels stymied and unable to fulfill their goals, tension and resentment build up inside, until finally they must be released. Road rage is inevitable when people are driven by overloaded schedules, unrealistic goals, and excessive demands.

Rather than raise her fist in anger, Martha chose to appeal to a higher authority. She sought a sympathetic response from her guest.


As a side bar, this story is also an excellent example on how not to deal with conflict. Martha did several things wrong. First, she set goals that were unrealistic. She tired to accomplish too much. So many arguments could be avoided if people would simple be realistic about time and money. Whenever we try to accomplish too much, too soon, with too little, we become frustrated and angry. Secondly, Martha insisted that Mary share her goals. Martha may have been absolutely right, but that did not mean that Mary had to agree with her. We must be willing to allow other people the freedom to make their own choices and set their own goals. One of the easiest ways of avoiding conflict is to stop insisting that everyone else do what we think should do. Martha's third mistake was to not address the conflict directly with her sister. The issues were between her and Mary. She did not need to bring in a third party. Martha quickly discovered what could happen when you appeal to a higher authority-they may take the other person's side.

Jesus was not a neutral consultant. He did not even hide behind the shield of being a dinner guest. He sides with Mary. When the choice is between activities and friendship, Jesus chooses friendship. He had come to Mary and Martha's home to spend time with them, not to be entertained by them. He wanted to enjoy their friendship, to free them from the burden of customs and religious laws, not to encumber them with additional duties and obligations.


Have you ever consider that God wants you to spend time in prayer to lighten your load, not to burden you with another religious obligation? Prayer takes time. With our busy schedules, we struggle to find the time to pray. We feel guilty when we neglect the time, but anxious while we are praying because we are thinking all the things we should be doing. I believe that one of our difficulties relates to our perception of prayer. We view prayer as a religious chore, a duty, rather than a time to develop a friendship with God. We fail to appreciate that our time in prayer is actually a time to talk to a personable God. The Divine Sovereign seems remote and distant. In the silence of the moment, we appear to be alone with only our thoughts. But prayer is time with our Lord; time to enjoy our friendship with our God. Allow me to share how one old Scotsman overcame this misconception. Leslie D. Weatherhead retells the story about a minister who went to visit an ailing member of his parish. The pastor sat in a chair alongside the bed. During the visit, he noticed another chair placed on the other side of the bed at such an angle as to suggest that a visitor had just left. Referring to the empty chair, the minister said 'Well, Donald, I see I am not your first visitor.' The feeble man looked up in surprise, so the minister pointed to the empty chair. "Ah, " said the old Scotsman, "I'll tell you about the chair. Years ago I found it impossible to prayer. I often fell asleep on my knees I was so tried. And if I kept awake, I could not control my thoughts from wandering. One day I was so worried I spoke to my minister about it. He told me not to worry about kneeling down, "Just sit down," he said, "and put a chair opposite you, imagine that Jesus is in it and talk to Him as you would to a friend. The Scotsman went on to explain that he had been doing that ever since. 2 Using the gift of imagination that Scotsman learned how to enjoy the gift of friendship with his Lord.


In church work, the politically-correct choice would affirm that Mary chose the better way, but in private every pastor that I know, would give his right arm for a group of Marthas. Pastors appreciate people who will jump in and volunteer time and energy to accomplishing the institutional goals. They may say that people are more important than programs, but they would prefer to work with a group of people who willing to devote the time and energy to a few projects. Pastors actually have a more difficult time working with a group of people who want to spend more time praying and less time setting up tables and chairs.

The truth of the matter is that both are needed. Marthas must learn not to neglect their intimacy with God and their friends and Marys must learn not to neglect their sense of duty and obligation.

This is one reason why I believe that every committee meeting should begin with a time of reading the Scripture and sharing with one another. Our committees need to develop a sense of community. They need to foster friendships and intimacy. By opening the Scriptures, we take a moment to sit with Mary at the feet of Jesus before we join Martha in the kitchen.


Martha must have learned from the rebuke by Jesus. Latter the apostle John compliments her by recording her words of faith. After her brother dies, she hears that Jesus is on his way to the city. She runs out of the house to meet him. She is neither bitter over her brother's death nor angry with Jesus for taking so long to travel to the city. Rather, she greets him with words of faith. Jesus tells her that her brother will be resurrected. Having heard him teach on this before, Martha affirms his words and her own belief in a bodily resurrection. Jesus asks her again, "Do you really believe this?" She responds with the words,

    Yes , Master, All along I have believed that you are the Christ the Son of the living God.

What an incredible pronouncement. Martha the perennial hostess had become, Martha the woman of faith.


The daughter of that old Scot drove to the minister's house a week later and knocked on the door. She was shown to his study. When the minister entered, she could not restrain her emotions. Through her tears she said, "Father died in the night. I had no idea death could be so near. I had just gone to lie down for an hour or two. He seemed to be sleeping so comfortably. And when I went back he was dead. He had not moved since I saw him before, except that his hand was out on the empty chair at the side of the bed. Do you understand?" "Yes," the minister said, "I understand."

That old Scotsman had learned what it meant to be both a Martha and a Mary. He had learned to serve his Lord through his church all the while enjoying a relationship of pray with his friend and Savior. And in that final moment, he took the hand of his dear and trusted friend, and together they walked into Eternity.

1 Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth and Paul Meier, We are Driven, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), pp. 46,47

2 Leslie D. Weatherhead, The Transforming Friendship: A book about Jesus and Ourselves, Abingdon Classics, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), pp. 35, 36.

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