Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 17, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Don’t just sit there, DO something!”
When someone says that to you, whether it is a parent, or a spouse, or a co-worker or supervisor, it gets your attention. They don’t even need to use those precise words. There are more subtle ways to convey this expectation that doing something is better than just sitting there. It could be an overly dramatic sigh while standing at the kitchen sink. It might be a passive aggressive comment about how tired you are from all the work you have done, spoken loudly in front of people who are sitting on the couch watching TV. It might be a grumble under your breath about how some people aren’t pulling their weight around here.
There are lots of ways to say, “Don’t just sit there, DO something!” And they all come with a heavy dose of judgement. They stir up guilt and shame. They tap into the Protestant work ethic so deeply imbedded in our culture, which says that doing something is always better than doing nothing. It is certainly better than just sitting there!
Oftentimes doing something is important. It is good. It is beneficial. When it comes to the workplace, or the family, or the functioning of a congregation, it is important for everyone to pitch in in whatever way they can. It is important that there be a fair distribution of chores and tasks. It is important that people not just sit there, but do something. Many hands make light work. Hard work builds character. The people around us often depend on us not just sitting there but doing something.
This isn’t just the Protestant work ethic, it was very much a part of ancient Jewish culture as well. We hear in our first reading how Abraham and Sarah exemplified the Jewish work ethic of hospitality by doing something for the three strangers who passed by their tent. They brought them water and washed their feet and fed them some bread. Abraham and Sarah didn’t just sit there, they did something!
In our gospel reading for today we see Martha embodying this Jewish work ethic of hospitality. As Jesus came to Bethany, she welcomed him into her home. His disciples were with him, so this was a major effort. She suddenly found herself cooking for more than a dozen people. She had linens to prepare and pillows to fluff and water to fetch. She wasn’t just sitting there, she was doing something!
Her sister Mary, however, was just sitting there. While Martha was running around making all of the preparations, Mary just sat there at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he was saying. I can imagine Martha shooting some looks Mary’s direction, looks that said, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” As Mary continued to just sit there, Martha asked Jesus to intervene. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
And Jesus answered her, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
It is important to note here that Jesus’ criticism of Martha was not her work as such. It was not the hospitality she was showing him, which was surely appreciated. The criticism was that she was worried and distracted. Jesus’ concern was that her work was getting in the way of something better, something even more important. She was serving him by doing something, but she wasn’t taking the time to sit at his feet and listen to him.
At this point Jesus could have said to her: “Don’t just DO something, SIT there!” Jesus praised Mary for doing just that – for sitting there! Jesus was not praising Mary for shirking the obligations of hospitality. He wasn’t praising her for kicking up her feet in a recliner while Martha did all the work. Mary wasn’t just sitting, she was sitting at Jesus’ feet. To sit at someone’s feet was to assume the posture of a student, a disciple. This language is used in Acts to describe how Paul once sat at the feel of his rabbi Gamaliel.
When Jesus came into her home, Mary assumed the posture of a student. This “sitting there” wasn’t about relaxation, it was about receptivity. This “sitting there” wasn’t about taking it easy, it was about taking in all he had to say. Doing something for Jesus wasn’t inherently wrong or bad – not at all! – but sitting there at his feet was even better. As Jesus said, Mary had chosen the better portion, which would not be taken away from her.
Abraham and Sarah performed the tasks of hospitality beautifully as those three strangers came by their tent beside the oaks of Mamre. But the doing eventually gave way to something better, something even more important. It gave way to the listening. It gave way to hearing one of the strangers say, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” The doing gave way to simply sitting there and hearing the promise of God.
There is much that we can and should do for Jesus. A congregation runs on the work of people like Martha, people who work in the kitchen, people who tend to our building and property, people who fix toilets and change lightbulbs and bring cookies and make coffee.
This is all ultimately the work of hospitality – making our church a place that is hospitable for others. All of that is so very important! It is so appreciated! It is good! We could use more people helping us with these tasks!
But there is something that is even more important. There is something even better.
There is a better part for us to choose, which will not be taken away from us. And it is simply sitting there, sitting at Jesus’ feet, receiving the word he has to give us, taking in all that he has to say. This is the better part which will not be taken away from us.
I recently visited one of our members over at Regency Memory Care. She has been in poor health for a long time, but recently had a stroke too. She now lays in her bed. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t eat. She hardly even opens her eyes. She can’t do anything for Jesus.
But as I sat there, simply reading Bible passages to her, she was doing the one thing needful. She was sitting at Jesus’ feet, receiving the word he has for her, taking in all he has to say to her. Even as this dear woman can now do absolutely nothing else, she can do this. She can listen to Christ’s word. This is the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.
As I left that visit, I thought about the title of a book Marva Dawn wrote many years ago about worship. It has the best title of any book on worship I’ve ever seen. It is called, “A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshipping God and Being Church for the World.” Simply sitting and listening to God’s Word in worship seems like a waste of time to many people. Perhaps it even seems that way to us at times.
Many people, even church members, seem to only fit worship into their schedule when there is nothing supposedly better going on. Many people complain that they are too busy with other things to engage in Bible study or prayer.
This is what Jesus is criticizing in Martha. She was worried and distracted by her work. She thought it was more important the supposed waste of time of sitting at Jesus feet. She was focused only on the doing.
Martin Luther set a good example for us when he famously said, “I am so busy today that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer!” He had his priorities straight! He knew that the better needed to come before the good, the listening needed to come before the doing.
When we focus only on the doing, we burn out. When we focus only on the doing, we sometimes end up like Martha, resentful and bitter towards our brothers and sisters in Christ who we think aren’t pulling their weight around here. Focusing only on the doing is what leads to some of the worst bickering and conflicts in congregational life. Focusing only on the doing isn’t good for us, and it isn’t good for the people around us.
If you want a good family life, a good community, a good job, or business, or career, you need to work for it. You need a good work ethic. You need to put in the effort. You need to do something.
But if you want a relationship with God, you do nothing.You just listen. You listen to and trust in his promises to you, which are completely unearned, and, frankly, undeserved.
So don’t JUST do something, SIT THERE! Sit at Jesus’ feet. Sit and receive what he has to give you. Sit and take in all he has to say. Sit and listen to God’s promises to you.
The Christian life isn’t primarily about doing. It is first and foremost about passively receiving the gifts Christ has come to give us, the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is the better part, and it will never be taken away from you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church