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Sermon: The Choices We Make

July 18, 2010

Some weeks just get away from me.  Those are the weeks in my busyness or lethargy that I don’t actually write a sermon, but instead turn to my files.  This sermon is from 2004.  It preached fairly well the second time around, which isn’t always the case.

Luke 10:38-42

There was a mother who, like most other mothers, found herself doing most of the chores around the house.

Now, she went to a PTA meeting one evening, and her husband and her oldest daughter got together and decided that it would be a very wonderful thing if they would clean up the kitchen for her.  So they did.  They put up all the food, wiped all the counters, washed all the pots and put them away, put the dishes in the dishwasher, and even remembered to put detergent in and turn the thing on!  They swept and mopped the floors and then sat down, and overcome by their own nobility, they awaited her arrival.  Two hours later she returned from the meeting, walked in and took off her coat, hung it up, walked right through the kitchen and into the den, grabbed the remote control, and began watching television.

They followed her over to her chair and stood by her side.  Finally she felt them looking over her shoulder and looked up at them and said, “What?”

Her husband said, “The kitchen.”

“The kitchen.  What?”

“The kitchen.  We cleaned up the kitchen.  Didn’t you notice?  It’s sparkling clean.  We cleaned it for you.”

The woman replied, “Yes, I noticed.”  [The woman went back to watching TV.

The husband was perturbed by her lack of response, and said, “Honey, we cleaned the kitchen for you.  What do you think?”]

“Thankless job, isn’t it?”  (John Fiedler, “This Thing of Giving Thanks,” First United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas, November 23, 1997; Homiletics Online.)

Then there was another woman named Martha.  Martha had a very important guest coming to her house, and so she did everything she could to prepare–swept the floors, bought all the food for a wonderful dinner, and then went about preparing the food and getting ready to serve.  You probably know what it’s like in those last hours before important guests arrive.  Things get crazy.  You suddenly remember thirty things that absolutely must get finished.  And then when the people arrive, it seems to get worse.  Everybody needs their coffee freshened up.  You have to serve the food, keep the table cleared and prepare for dessert.  So you can imagine Martha’s rising frustration with her sister Mary.

Mary’s expected role was to be in with Martha, helping out.  We should be frank about this–the women were not supposed to be sitting at the feet of the teacher.  That was for the men.  But instead of helping Martha, Mary was just sitting and listening.

Finally, Martha could stand it no longer.  She went to Jesus–the guest–and said, “Lord, don’t you care that I’m running myself ragged in here with all this work, and my sister isn’t helping.  Tell her to come help me.”  Martha wanted Jesus to tell Mary to do exactly what everyone else expected her to do.

Jesus, however, surprised Martha, and probably the rest of those gathered, when he said, “Oh Martha, you’re worried and distracted about so many things.”  The Greek word used here for “distracted” literally means “dragged around.”

“Martha, you’re being dragged around by the nose by these chores.  They are controlling you.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary, on the other hand, has made a better choice, and what she is receiving won’t be taken away from her.”

Can you imagine the shock?  Martha was engaged in the thankless task of running a household, and she wasn’t asking for praise, but just a little help from her sister.  She figured if anyone would support her, it would be the man of compassion and justice, Jesus.  But no.

And we can sympathize with Martha.  This is one of those scriptures that we Americans wish weren’t a part of scripture.  The first Puritans who came to North America passed on to us the idea that industry is the path to holiness.  We have lots of phrases in our culture that remind us to keep busy, like “Idle hands do the devil’s work” or “Early to bed and early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  Even the Bible lifts up the example of the hard working ant.  The ideal of the American dream says to us that we can be anything or have anything we want if only we work hard enough.  In our country, self-worth is directly connected to our work.

We are on Martha’s side.  But Jesus doesn’t seem to be.  This is the man who later in Luke’s gospel will say to us, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about what you will wear…Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap…Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin…And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.”  (Luke 12:22, 24, 27, 29)  “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  (Luke 12:25)

So maybe it isn’t hard work Jesus doesn’t like, but worrying.  He tells Martha she is worried.  He tells her the jobs she is worried about are dragging her around.  Martha is focused on the jobs for the sake of the jobs.  Jesus is there.  The kingdom of God has come near.  The word made flesh is present, teaching those in the house.  And how does Martha respond?  She’s more worried about the meal.  Not only that, but Martha tries to involve the honored guest in a family dispute.  Mary, though, has recognized that someone and something special has come into the house, and that’s where her focus is.  Martha has made the chores her Lord, and Mary has chosen Jesus as her Lord.

Work is a God-given gift.  Through hard work we can use our talents, help others, get personal satisfaction and make a living for our families.  But like any gift of God, it can turn ugly.  Work is a cunning master.  We begin with all the right reasons.  I want to do my best for myself and my employer.  I want to produce something of lasting value.  I want to help others.  I want to support my family.  I want to give my guests the best hospitality possible.  Yet after we have started, the work itself begins to subvert our original motives.  Martha’s desire to serve Jesus in the best way possible caused her to forget why Jesus was there in the first place.

Martha’s mistake can easily become ours in the church and in our lives.  My long hours at the office may help support our family, but it also can rob them of something more precious–my presence.  Any of you who have ever been to a Trustee meeting know there is more work around this place than could ever be finished.  We could have every church member working eight hour days five days a week fixing plumbing, painting walls, repairing doors, weeding and watering, and cleaning things up, and still there would be more.  We could do all that without ever advancing the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ even one step.  And sometimes we do that.

Someone has suggested that there are four levels of priority.  Top priority items are those things that are both urgent and important.  The next level is for those things that are important, but not urgent.  The third level down includes everything urgent, but not important.  And, finally, you have things that are neither urgent nor important.

If we ever took the time to analyze our lives, we would discover that we spend a lot of time on tasks that are urgent, but not important.  Somehow, we forget that urgency is not the same as importance.  Imagine the host of a dinner rushing out to buy flowers before the store closes–very urgent–while the roast burns in the oven–not only urgent, but important, too.

The difference between Mary and Martha is in the way they made their choices.  Martha in her worries let the tasks at hand make the choices for her.  By default, they became the most important things to her.  Mary, however, was more aware of the situation.  She understood that Jesus was right there, and his presence and his teaching was an eternally important treasure.  Jesus didn’t become most important by default, but by choice.

The question comes down to, “how do you make your choices?”  Do you choose Christ as most important first and always?  Do you stop to think about priorities?  Do you let your worries and fears make your choices for you?  Do you confuse urgency with importance?  These are the kinds of questions we ought to ask individually and in the life of the church.  Every discussion in church meetings ought to include the idea of prioritizing.  And for the church and for followers of Jesus Christ, the top priority is always, “do what Christ asks us to do.”

What I would like each of you to do today–especially if you are one of those folks who is extremely busy all the time–is to stop!  Don’t do anything active.  Don’t wash the car.  Leave the dishes.  Worry about the bills later.  Take some Sabbath time to sit and think.  Think about all the things you’re involved with: church, clubs, sports, leisure activities, family activities.  Prioritize those things that are truly important, and those things that are less important.  Then ask yourself, and ask God, too, how you can let your life reflect what you believe is important.

In our modern lives there are lots of things that worry us and drag us around by the nose.  Not all of those things are important.  Following Jesus is of primary importance.  The quality of our lives in Christ will depend upon the choices we make.

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