Monday, February 05, 2007

Excuse the Mess

I preached this sermon on February 4, 2007.

Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42. Listen to this story:

38. As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.

39. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

40. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41. “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,

42. but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

This is the word of God for God’s people. Thanks be to God.

Imagine. Someone is coming. Someone is coming to your house. Someone is coming to your house for dinner this evening. Or is it some other reason on this first Sunday in February? Now this person or persons will be over in a matter of hours. Imagine how you feel if that were to happen. See…already your blood pressure is rising. You know your house isn’t ready. You don’t know what the menu for dinner is. You don’t know how you will get everything ready by yourself because you know the rest of the household are going to occupied with resting. It is the day of rest, you know.

So company’s coming. Let’s suppose who it might be. It is someone you have not seen in years. Maybe it is someone who has not seen your new place. Or maybe it’s your mother-in-law. You aren’t too sure about how she will feel about your style of decorating. Or maybe it is a party for co-workers or friends (maybe a Super Bowl party?). Or maybe it is your life-group. I heard a life group host last week who said they had to hurry home to clean.

In any event, company’s coming. Maybe you had a few weeks advance notice. You have marked the date on the calendar—circled it with a red marker. You have ordered the food—a nugget tray from Chick-fil-a. If that person is staying overnight, you have changed the linens in the guest room. But you also know that the house needs a good cleaning. You don’t know when the floor was last vacuumed. Isn’t it so easy to put off a little cleaning especially when there is nice weather outside, or snow to play in this past Thursday, or so many things to do this weekend, or a that football game that is on television? But the day is coming, and you…reluctantly…start to clean.

If you are like me (and I am sure none of you are), I tend to put off the cleaning. I have good intentions. I think I’ll do a little each day…a little…very little. So the result is that I have a lot to do by D-Day, the day the company arrives. And usually I finish the cleaning just in time. When we hosted a Christmas party for my husband’s co-workers, I literally had just enough time after I finished cleaning to take a quick shower and change my clothes. And then…ding, dong or knock, knock, knock. The guests arrived. So your guests arrived. There is peace. You did it. You welcome the guests. You say, “Welcome. So nice to see you again.” And what is the second thing you say? “You’ll have to excuse the mess—I haven’t had time to clean up.”

Maybe you can relate. Maybe you have been there. Maybe it was last week. I hope that you share your hospitality with your guests even if it requires some last-minute marathon cleaning.

When I look at Luke, chapter ten, I see that there are three stories here in this chapter. One is about the sending out of the seventy-two with Jesus’ instructions about coming to a person’s house or what to do if a town rejects them. The next story is about the Good Samaritan. You know the story. Remember, the despised foreigner cares for a stranger? Maybe it rings a bell. And the last story, at the end of the chapter, is this story of Jesus visiting Martha and Mary. All three of the stories have a theme of hospitality running through them.

When I think about hospitality, I think about my Grandma. I used to call her Grammer when I was small. My Grandma lived in Sunshine, North Carolina. Thirty or so minutes from Gardner-Webb or the town of Forest City—she lived in the country. I was lucky enough to live in the house about a quarter of a mile from her—in country talk, that is just next door. The land adjoined, and many days I would go to her house. At first, with my mom; but later, as I got older, by myself. There was a shortcut through the woods. Or maybe we would go down our long driveway, walk a shorter distance up the dirt road, and then up my Grandma’s driveway—stopping by her mailbox to get her mail if it was late afternoon.

My Grandma always expected company. She welcomed anyone who came, whether it was one of her six children, or any of her numerous grandchildren or great-grandchildren, or someone from church—maybe the preacher—or a neighbor, or a distant relative—anyone who stopped by. There was no phrase “excuse the mess” because my grandmother kept her modest house clean. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it was well kept with the dishes washed, the beds made, and the floors swept daily. And there was always something you could count on: some type of dessert. Maybe a cake or a pie. My Grandma would say, “Come on, let’s get you a piece.” And you didn’t refuse. You could even have a little sweet tea to go with it. I remember some days when we would sit on the old church pew that was on her front porch and swat the flies as we talked about the weather or what we had been up to. So when I think about hospitality—this welcoming of friend or stranger—I think of my Grandma. Maybe hospitality makes you think of someone like that, too.

Hospitality is very important in the Middle Eastern culture. It comes from a desert custom of offering hospitality to all that ask for it. The desert climate was harsh and there was no certainty that a traveler could make it from town to town or water hole to water hole. So if you had pitched your tent, you were obligated to offer hospitality to the ones who came that way—even if it was your mortal enemy.

I have gotten to experience some Middle Eastern hospitality in my life. In the summer of 2001, I had the opportunity to go to Jordan on an archaeology dig. We were digging at Mudaybi, which apparently was the site of a fort of some sort. It was the third dig at that site, and there is evidence of a gate that faces down the phage, which is a naturally trench that is probably 40 miles wide, and it runs north and south. It made a kind of natural road, and we assume that this fort was a stronghold for people from the time of King Solomon. I actually dug up Iron Age II pottery! 600 B.C.!!

Anyway, I was in Jordan for six weeks. Our group had a couple of men in it who were anthropologists, not archaeologists. These men were especially interested in the lives of Christians living in Jordan. The Christians in the Middle East usually live in Christian towns—yes, there are Christians in the Middle East. One of the Christian towns these men went to was called Simakiyya. One afternoon, they came back from that town and said that a Christian family had invited a group of us to their house for the evening meal. And I decided to go with the small group to that family’s house that night.

When we got there, the family was there to greet us. I saw one woman—the matriarch of the family—among several men and boys of the household. That woman quickly disappeared into the kitchen to get the food that was to be served, but she didn’t bring it out. Her husband and one of the other men did that. And we gathered around a rather large coffee table to eat. We ate goat, and rice with pine nuts, probably some other things I can’t recall right now. But there were four women in the room eating with us. I was one of them, and the other three were women from our group. The women of this household were not there in the room with us. They stayed in the kitchen. The four women from our group did go into the kitchen after the meal, and we spoke with the five women there. The group in the kitchen included that matriarch, a couple of daughters, a daughter-in-law, and maybe a cousin. But these women did not leave the kitchen.

I kind of have the feeling that Martha and Mary weren’t supposed to leave the kitchen either. It was Martha’s house—it says that in verse 38—and Martha and Mary were expected to go into the kitchen and prepare. But Mary doesn’t follow that cultural expectation. The text does not say if there were more people in this scene than just Martha, Mary, or Jesus; but I suspect some of the disciples were there. After all, Martha is distracted; she needs help; it doesn’t seem to be a small meal for three that Martha is cooking. I wonder what Martha was thinking as she was in the kitchen alone. She hears Jesus teaching. She hears her sister responding. Pretty soon it is clear that Mary has no intention of getting up to help Martha. And as every minute passes, Martha is getting more and more angry. Then Martha appears in the doorway.

Now can’t you just imagine Martha coming out of the kitchen? I think I remember this image from an old Sunday School picture. Martha has crossed her arms, wrinkled her forehead (when my mom used to put the wrinkle in her forehead, my brother and I knew we were in trouble), and Martha has put a frowning scowl on her face. Maybe she even tapped her toe as she stood there. Martha is angry, and she does not ask Jesus, she orders Jesus to tell Mary to get back to the kitchen and help her. Martha wants Mary to be put in her place. Martha may have known that Jesus was the most special guest she would ever have in her home. Martha may have known that the things that Jesus taught would be important for her life. But I don’t think that Martha had any idea that she would get the answer that she got from Jesus. Mary had chosen the better thing by sitting at Jesus’ feet.


I’ve heard it said by some preachers and Sunday School teachers that Martha was doing an important job in the kitchen, and Mary was doing an equally important task of listening to Jesus. But that is NOT what this text says. Jesus has not praised them equally. Instead, Jesus uses this moment to teach that he has called a woman out of her traditional role and into equal service as one of his disciples. Do you see this? Mary is doing the better thing. What is she doing? Sitting at Jesus’ feet. That spot, at the feet of a rabbi, was the spot where the disciples of that rabbi sat. It was a place where the Torah was discussed. The disciple at the feet of the rabbi was supposed to one day become a rabbi. And there was Mary—she might as well have marched down to the seminary and enrolled in a preaching class. Judaism had no place for women at the feet of a rabbi, but Jesus came to change that reality. And bible scholars have noted this viewpoint. Fred Craddock says that the radical nature of this story should not be overlooked; he says, “Jesus is received into a woman’s home (no mention is made of a brother) and he teaches a woman” (Craddock, 152).1 Jesus makes it clear in this text that the study of the word of God is above the “socially and culturally imposed gender role of homemaker” (Atteberry),2 C.S. Cowles says that Jesus makes it clear that “a woman is greater than what she does. She has worth and dignity apart from childbearing. Her status is not dependent on her relationship to a man but is dependent on her relationship to God (Cowles, 86-7).”3

Maybe if you read the church newsletter this week, you saw that today is Baptist Women in Ministry Day. Specifically, Baptist Women in Ministry have called today the first annual Martha Stearns Marshall Day of Preaching. Baptist Women in Ministry have called on Baptist churches who support women in ministry to ask a woman to preach this Sunday. So you may ask, “Who was Martha Stearns Marshall, and why does she get a day of preaching named for her?” According to the Baptist Women in Ministry website, Martha Stearns Marshall was not a Martha like the one from our text. Instead, she was an eighteenth-century Baptist preacher, specifically, from the Separate Baptist tradition. Martha Stearns Marshall often stood alongside her brother Shubal Stearns and spoke at Baptist meetings. She also assisted her husband Daniel Marshall in his churches and preached to his congregations. In the late 1750s, the Marshalls founded a Separate Baptist church at Abbott’s Creek in North Carolina. There, Martha served alongside her husband and “was noted for her zeal and eloquence,” and it was said that her preaching “added greatly to the interest of meetings conducted by her husband.”4

Baptist Women in Ministry Day is the reason that our pastor asked me to preach on this day. I have learned that I enjoy preaching, both in the preparation and even the delivery of a sermon. I might even have the gift of preaching, who knows? But my hope and goal through my preaching is to help you be a devoted follower of Christ in this fellowship of faith, hope, and love.

When I am first asked to preach, I usually go to my Christian Seasons Calendar which starts at Advent and is divided into the church seasons. And the lectionary text is printed for each week; or if it is holy week (the week preceding Easter), each day of that week has a text. If you are interested in this type of calendar, you can look at my copy after the service. And if you think about ordering one for next year, remember that you’ll need it by December 2nd—the first day of Advent. Anyway, when I preach, I usually preach from a lectionary text. I choose an Old Testament passage, or a Psalm, or a Gospel Lesson, or an Epistle to preach from by reading each one and listening for the one that I think will be beneficial to the congregation. Then I usually study several translations of a text, consult commentaries, and come up with a governing theological theme. But I am still amazed, always amazed, how the Holy Spirit can use the Scripture text and my prayers to direct my thoughts and help me convey God’s message.

If you look at this week’s lectionary texts, this passage from Luke 10 is not for this week. In fact, Luke 10:38-42 isn’t preached until July 22nd. So you get this lesson early. Of course, not all preachers follow lectionary texts. They have to be flexible in determining what a congregation needs to hear or the message that God may be trying to convey to God’s people. (I just thought I’d throw in a little of my methodology and perhaps a little Christian education about the church year—which I had never heard of until my college years.) My point is that over the past month, something has kept me coming back to this story of Martha and Mary. Yes, it is an affirming story for women in ministry. Yes, I think that the writer of Luke is trying to tell this radical message of a new role for women—the role beyond homemaker. But as I think about my own call to ministry, and specifically the call to preach, I can’t help but be distracted as I notice what the text says about Martha’s attitude. And that was the word I just used. Did you hear it? There, in verse 40. Distracted. Martha was distracted.

In my own life, I tend to get distracted a lot. That is the way it is with two preschoolers in my house. But I’m sure it isn’t just preschoolers that distract. It is so difficult some days to just stop and listen—to God, to family, to neighbors, to anyone. Stop and be still. Stop and talk to God. No, we fill our lives up with busyness. And here the kicker: we say we put God first, but is that really true? Honestly, I think we are more apt to put our families first. Or our jobs. Or our friends. I am guilty of putting my family before God.

For a few years after my first son was born, I was content to stay at home with him—or so I thought. My husband says that it is not a good thing to get too comfortable in a job or task—we are not challenged; we don’t learn when we are too comfortable. I agree with that. Over the past year, I have felt a strong urge to find a place of full-time ministry that I know God has called me to find. Whether paid or not, I need to be using my education, my talents, my gifts for God and God’s people. I haven’t found a paid place of service yet, but I do serve this church with my gifts. One day a thought came to me. Over the last five years, I have not sought out as many ministry opportunities as I could because I have been comfortable just raising my kids. Now I’m not saying that raising kids is not an important vocation—many of you are called to do that as your ministry right now. But knowing that I am called by God to preach, to full-time ministry makes me wonder what my kids will think about my complacency when they get older. I have put them before God. I have allowed myself to get distracted.

Mary was not distracted. She listened with her whole heart to the teachings of Jesus. She learned at Jesus’ feet. Mary gave Jesus her undivided attention, her presence. And that is where this notion of hospitality comes full circle. Giving someone your undivided attention is the ultimate form of hospitality. After all, hospitality is to show someone you care for them. It is not being distracted by the comings and goings of a busy sister cleaning house. It is not about rushing home from church to clean the living room before life groups. It is not about offering a piece of pie or cake or a glass of sweet tea. It is about true presence. It is about paying attention. It puts the focus on the relationship not the dust bunnies.

This sermon has been directed at myself. I have bared part of my soul, and I feel very vulnerable. But…what about you? What is distracting you from giving God your presence, your undivided attention, your gifts, your talents, your service, your ministry? I know it is hard to find time, but I hope that you can give it a try. We can pray. We can read our bibles. We can listen to a message from God. We can minister to the sick, the hurt, the lost. We can find places of service in our church congregations. Most importantly, Jesus calls us all, men and women, boys and girls, to sit at his feet and become his disciples. Give the Lord your undivided attention. So that we may know him. So that we may become teachers for him. After all, it is the better thing. Let us pray.

Jesus. We know it is difficult sometimes on this earth for us to offer you our best when we are distracted by the events of our lives. We try so hard to be good hosts to those around us. But we forget that we are to host you first in our lives. Open our eyes to discover the learning that comes from sitting at your feet. Help us focus our attention on you. Help us to be ever aware of the message you brought to earth. In Your name I pray. Amen.

Our hymn of invitation is “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” I pray that each of you will be able to turn your eyes upon Jesus. If you do not know Jesus, this is the time that you can meet him. It is a time of dedication, to be ushered into His presence. It may be a time of rededication to center your life on Jesus. It may be a time to come into a congregation that will help lead you to be a devoted follower of Jesus. If you need to make a decision or if you need to pray, you may do so at this time.

1 Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 152.

2 Shawna R. B. Atteberry.

3 C. S. Cowles, A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1993).

4 BWIM website: