A sermon based on Psalm 63-1-8 and Luke 10:38-42 preached July 3rd, 2016
Much ink has been spilled over the centuries about these 5 little verses. Even over just the last couple decades, this little story about Mary and Martha has given rise to Sunday School lesson after Sunday School lesson. There’s a book, complete with a study guide and DVD, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, that’s marketed to women. Its author, Joanna Weaver, points out that most women are Martha’s, constantly running around taking care of everyone around them, no time to stop at all. That certainly seems true.
The question that tends to be asked about this passage in every bible study ever made about it is, “Are you a Mary or are you a Martha? This story has been made into a personality test of sorts. Regardless of your gender, “Are you the doing type like Martha, or are you the reflective sort like Mary?”
We’ve made Martha out to be the personification of constant worry and anxiety. She’s the very first Martha Stewart—queen of the kitchen. Mary, on the other hand, is made out to be the personification of faithfulness and prayerfulness.
So, Which one are you? is the question. Mary or Martha? So, whenever we hear this story, we’re forced to choose one or the other as if that’s how we’re wired. As if Martha was always the busy-body and Mary was always the relaxed, laid-back one. The truth is, at times, we’re all a bit like Martha, and at other times, we’re all a bit like Mary. It all depends on the situation we’re in.
The other truth is there were many moments when the roles were switched, where Mary was all business, and Martha was the one paying attention to Jesus. We’re are all Martha in moments. We are all Mary in moments. It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and. There are times in our lives for everything. Times to be of service and times for quiet contemplation. At least in a well-balanced life, that’s the way it works out. This story doesn’t exist so we can peg ourselves as one or the other. This story exists to remind us that it’s important for all of us to take time to unplug from or resist all the demands that come rushing at us from one day to the next, and push them away at least for a time, so we can take some time to listen to Jesus—to sit at His feet and keep company with God.
Last week, we talked about prayer as speaking up—shouting into the heavens, demanding, expecting God to answer. This week, we go a little deeper than that. This week, we’re looking at the relationship that prayer is meant to foster.
Imagine Mary in this moment. Jesus is teaching in the living room. There are disciples all around her listening to Him, also. She may be the only female in the living room.
There’s the clink and clatter of dishes being thrown around in the kitchen just one room over. Martha, her sister, is angry that Mary’s not helping and she’s taking her anger out on the pots and pans. Mary hears the clatter she’s making and knows the exact meaning of every single noise coming from the kitchen: Martha thinks she should be in there with her preparing the meal. But Mary tries her best to shove all those distractions aside and focus for a time—for this one moment at least—on Jesus’ every word. It’s not every day that Jesus comes around, so Mary is not going to let this opportunity pass her by! This is her chance to keep company with God, to pay attention to the Teacher, to learn the language and lessons of Jesus, to hold space with the Divine!
Is there someone in your life who you don’t have to say a single word to in order to feel completely understood? Who you can simply hold space with, and no matter where the two of you happen to be, that space feels like home? If you’re lucky enough to have found that sort of intimacy, then you know a bit about the heart of prayer.
Prayer has many purposes, of course. There’s the kind of prayer where we ask God for what we need. That’s the sort of prayer where we do most of the talking. We can use prayer to ask for forgiveness or to complain about something. All of it is legitimate. Whatever we need to take to God is a perfect use of prayer. But when it comes down to it, the central purpose of prayer is to keep company with God. That’s it! The chief purpose of prayer is to hold space with the Divine, to nurture an intimate relationship with the God who craves relationship with us. Prayer is close encounter of the 1st kind.
More than anything, God wants us close, and prayer is the vital lifeline of every disciple. It’s the engine room of the Christian faith. Prayer’s purpose is to know God and be known by God, and that happens only when we make time—undistracted and intentional time—to do what Mary did, and sit at the feet of Jesus. God sees how hard that is for us. He knows that there are a million and one things to take care of in the kitchen. He’s heard the banging of pots and pans, the anxious stirring of spoons and restless slicing of kitchen knives. But even among all the loud distractions, God speaks up and says Choose what is better! Don’t just do something, sit there! Spend time keeping company with me. If that means getting up earlier in the morning before all the distractions of the day come rushing in all at once, so be it! Make that happen. If it means calling Time Out in the middle of the day to catch your breath and, like Mary, take a moment to sit at the feet of Jesus, then do that.
When it comes to prayer and scripture reading, most of us have good intentions. It’s just that most our moments get stolen away from us. Like Martha, the demand of the hour pulls us away into the everyday-ness of it all, and we end up losing ourselves in our tasks. It’s hard to find time to step back and take a moment to dedicate ourselves to growing our faith and our prayer lives. But, to use Jesus’ words about Mary, we need to choose what is better.
Prayer is slow time with the One who knows us more than we know ourselves. God knows us better than anyone else does. And if we give ourselves over to practicing prayer on a daily basis, we will find an oasis there, away from the clink and clatter of our busy kitchens and our busy lives.
The truth about prayer is that it’s not so much a way to visit with God as it is a homecoming. Our lives are made whole because of our relationships, and prayer is the way to nurture our first relationship, the most important relationship of all—the one we have with a God who calls us His very own sons and daughters.
Friends, God wants us close. God wants us to take our relationship with Him much more seriously. We know that every good relationship takes effort. It takes an effort to carve out time from the busyness of our everyday and give it to those we love. Our relationship with God is no different. In fact, it’s even more crucial. A faithful relationship with God is well worth whatever time we can steal away from any other part of our lives.
This is all way too easy to preach and hard to do. These sermons aren’t just for me to preach to you. I preach to myself, too. For a pastor, I’m terrible at stepping away from the busyness of it all to spend some time in prayer. It’s always my intention to do so, but it just never really works out that way. There have been times that I’ve spent moments in the dark and still of this sanctuary, eager to take slow time away from all clink and clatter of my week, and even though I tried, I couldn’t keep my attention on prayer.
There’s a story about a tourist who observes an Orthodox Jewish man who’s praying at the holiest place in all of Judaism, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish man is rocking back and forth from heel to toe and over again, his eyes are closed, and he’s beating his chest, and sometimes he raises his hands in prayer. When he finishes praying, the tourist comes up to him and asks,
What do you pray for?
The Jewish man responds,
I pray for righteousness. I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world, especially in Jerusalem.
Are these prayers effective?
the tourist asks. And the Jewish man replies,
It’s like talking to a wall.
Next week, we’ll talk a little more about all the stuff that gets in our way whenever we set out to pray, but for now it’s important to say that even when we think we’re doing it wrong and nothing seems to be working out, even in those moments of struggling prayer, God is keeping company with us and honors us for keeping company with Him.
Even when prayer seems like a failed experiment, God is there. We are too. And that means we’re holding space with God. Every moment we spend sitting at the feet of Jesus is worth it. God will use that time to grow us.
One more story. It’s the story of a father who decided to install a staircase in his backyard. He picked out the stones he wanted. Some weighed around 100 pounds and others around 200. It took all his strength to move each one into position. His five-year old daughter came out and begged to help. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. The father suggested she help by taking two giant steps back and sing him a song to encourage him along in his work. She said no. She wanted to help. So, carefully, whenever it would not endanger her, he let her place her hands on the rocks as he pushed them into place. Well, all this made the project go much slower than the father had anticipated. He could have built the steps in much less time without her presence. But when it was all finished, the father and daughter cheered as they looked at what they had accomplished together. He could see the sense of accomplishment and pride on his daughter’s face. That night at dinner, the daughter announced to everyone there,
Me and daddy made steps!
And the father was the first to agree.
From God’s perspective, the most important thing about prayer isn’t that we do it well or accomplish anything for ourselves with it. It’s that in our praying, we spend slow time with God, nurturing our relationship with Him, sitting at His feet, keeping company with the One who calls us His children, and wants nothing more than to make good steps in loving relationship with us.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!