A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on July 17, 2016.
Principal reading Luke 10:38-42
The law, what we know as the Ten Commandments was given to the people of Israel as a guideline for life, because God loved them. Loving God in return and because they wanted to please God, the interpreters of the law, the Pharisees, figured if law was good, then more law was better. And so, over time, they wrote more than 600 laws which helped further explain the first rather broad laws. As an example, observing the Sabbath is one of the commandments. God’s law required a weekly day of rest, work should cease and burdens should be laid down. But what does it mean to lay down your burdens? They tried to cover every possibility. The Pharisees so finely tuned the law that it meant if one was carrying a needle in their cloak and they were a tailor, then that meant they were sewing. If a chair was pulled across a sandy floor, that meant they were plowing. If one plucked an ear of corn and rubbed the kernels between their hands, then they were reaping. In all these things, they were breaking the law.
It was in this legalistic setting that our story of Mary and Martha is set. The culture was patriarchal by nature. Only men were allowed in the synagogue, the women sat outside. Only men were allowed to wear the trappings of godly devotion, the phylacteries and prayer shawls – it was a male domain. Women who wanted to show their devotion to God were encouraged to do it through good works and that was about their only option. And the list of household duties for the Jewish woman was long. Even keeping the Sabbath meant a lot of work for women. All things for the Sabbath had to be prepared the day before. Three meals made ready, lamps filled with oil, water jugs filled, the house cleaned, and fresh laundered tunics were required for the whole family to wear on the Sabbath. That was every week and then for feast days it was even more prep work.
It was right before the feast of the tabernacles when Jesus visited Martha and Mary so I imagine that the house was filled with cooking and activity. When Martha invited Jesus and his disciples to stay at her home on their way to Jerusalem, they accepted her hospitality. Martha continued what was expected of her to make everything ready so the others could worship. It never occurred to Martha that she should join Jesus because it simply was not allowed. She loved Jesus and showed it in her service. For her sister Mary to be sitting at Jesus feet was not only out of character but also against the cultural norm and even against the law. I am sure Martha fully expected Jesus to agree that Mary should be helping with the myriad of things that needed to be done around the house. And instead, Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen the better part.
This story of Mary and Martha interacting with Jesus is one of the more familiar in our Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. In Luke’s gospel this story immediately follows the story of the good Samaritan. In the story of the good Samaritan Jesus opens the people up to the idea that someone considered to be shunned from Jewish society, a ‘Samaritan’ a person who was only half Jewish could be their neighbor. In today’s story, Jesus again turns their cultural world upside down as he encourages a woman to sit at his feet – says that this is a better option than what normally she would be doing. Both of these things were socially and culturally unacceptable and yet this is what Jesus taught.
I have studied this story many times before. There are many valid interpretive approaches that can be taken. As I considered this story again this week, I wondered what we might take from it here in the church at this time.
This church has entered a new stage of its life. It is a time to recognize how this faith community has served God and been an instrument of God’s Shalom, God’s peace in our world. It is a time to assess how the community and it needs may have changed over time. A time to be curious about where God is leading. Lots of things to consider and think about.
Some will push to get everything done as quickly as possible. Let’s move on for heaven’s sake! Isn’t that just what Martha wanted in today’s story? Martha sees her sister doing something unheard of and wants Jesus to remind her of who she is and what she should be doing – working in the kitchen. But Jesus doesn’t agree with Martha’s assessment of the situation. Jesus tells Martha that what Mary is doing is the better part of the whole. The work has to be done, yes, but sitting in Jesus’ presence is even more valuable than all the tasks that need to be done.
In the midst of all the violence and terror in our world both abroad and at home, I feel the need to do something. We have gay people being killed in nightclubs, we have black people being killed in church, we have children being killed in schools, we have movie goers being killed in theaters, we have police being accused of racism and use of unnecessary force resulting in deaths and then we have police being ambushed and killed at a peaceful protest in response to that. And this is happening not just here but across our world. We as a church need to stand and say that hatred is not what we are about; that fear and violence is not God’s way. I don’t know what that means for us. What is the best way for us here in North Yarmouth Maine to reach out in love to our neighbors and our world and say ‘Enough!’ I don’t know but I feel strongly that we must do something.
Jesus invites us to come sit at his feet, soaking in the beauty and wonder that is God’s presence in our midst. What a gift. In the midst considering the ‘what and how’ of ‘doing’ we need to always remember that we are invited to be in God’s presence. This means being intentional about it. Asking for God’s guidance in every situation, in every meeting, in every decision we make as we consider and figure out where God is calling us as a faith community and then take action.
I think we can do both – take time to be curious about what message God has for us; sit with some unanswered questions for we will never have all the answers; and then take steps to act in love in our world. I see this scripture as giving us a message that both we need to sit and bask in God’s presence and also we need to be doing God’s work. Jesus did not condemn what Martha was doing. He did not come to abolish the law. He points out however that the law without love is meaningless. It is not an ‘either/or’ sort of thing – it is a ‘both/and’ sort of thing – reflecting the world we live in. We need to act in love and also be sure that our actions are fully grounded in the purest of love, God. As we move forward together, let us always pray for God’s guidance, taking time to be in God’s loving presence and then as a faith community let us act in love making it fully known that we stand against fear and hatred and violence and on the side of God’s love and peace. As I said a few weeks ago – let’s overwhelm our world with love! Amen.