The (Im)Perfect Hostess
Luke 10:38-42 (Unsung Sheroes part 4)
We are now almost finished with our series exploring the stories of Unsung Sheroes in the book of Luke. Stories about women in the Bible are a mixed bag and often times we find what we came looking for, whether that’s subjugation or liberation. But the gospel of Luke has more stories about women than the other gospels and even though they don’t always says what I want them to say, they do contain wisdom that I don’t want us to miss. The first week we affirmed that the women who funded Jesus’ traveling ministry and managed the logistics were following the pattern of service set by Jesus himself. The second week Jon Powers showed us how Jesus emancipated women who had been marginalized by physical illness, bringing them into the center of God’s divine activity. Last week we saw how Jesus chose to honor widows when he wanted to talk about persistence and generosity. This week we are going to talk about distraction and perfectionism. But first we have to talk about Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day is a secular holiday, as in, it’s not a festival of the church, it’s not related to Jesus or the saints or church history. I don’t usually work secular holidays into our worship or liturgies. Although we do often mention them in our joys and concerns and our prayers. But I want to say a bit about Mother’s Day this morning because it relates to our story. Despite what Hallmark has made of this holiday, Mother’s Day was not designed originally as a celebration of motherhood. It was started by one woman who was grateful for her own mother and thought there should be a national day where people are thankful for their own moms. As a mom myself, and because I have a mother who is worthy of honor and celebration (who will be here with us next weekend), I think this is a great idea.
But as Christians we want to be careful. First we want to be sensitive to other people’s experiences. When we make this a holiday lifting up motherhood in general, not specific mothers, it too easily sounds like motherhood is the best most important thing a woman could do. That is not found in the Bible, nor is it supported by Christian history. It does not reflect the experience of the millions of women in the world who choose not to have children, who can’t have children, or who have children and feel an equally strong calling by God to their vocations. We also want to remember that this holiday is going to be hard for some people who are grieving the death of their mother, or are grieving that their mother was hurtful to them. Being sensitive to other people’s experiences doesn’t mean we can’t ever mention Mother’s Day or that we shouldn’t celebrate it. It just means we need to be aware that our feelings about Mother’s Day are not shared by everyone in the world. So first, we want to be sensitive to other’s experiences.
Second, we want to be aware of how our the meanings of our secular holidays creep into our theology. Most of the images of God in the Bible are masculine. We think immediately of father, king and husband. So when we try to uncover and reclaim the feminine images and characteristics of God, we usually default to a mother-image. And there’s nothing wrong with that, generally. But if that’s the only feminine image we have of God, then we begin to unconsciously associate the value of being female with the ability to mother. If God is a mother then mothering is the most God-like thing women can do, especially if we don’t offer any other images of the divine feminine. Now this is nuanced I know, but you guys are good thinkers, and this is important, so hang with me.
When we begin to poke at these ideas, we begin to see the ridiculousness of assigning gendered characteristics to God at all. The metaphors or father, husband, king, and mother are about relationship, not about gender. We might even begin to see the danger of assigning characteristics to human genders as well. Kings have authority but so do queens, so authority can’t be inherently masculine. Mothers nurture, but so do fathers, so nurturing can’t be feminine. Teachers are male and female. Women collaborate well, and so do men. What we need to remember is that God includes all our honorable characteristics and transcends all our culturally-created images.
At this point you may be saying, “What the Hallmark does this have to do with distraction and perfectionism and Mother’s Day?” I’m so glad you asked. Because my biggest pet peeve with Mother’s Day is the sentiment of the cards. They are almost all about how much mom sacrificed to get me where I am today. Aren’t they? You know it’s true. Because you bought that card or you got that card. Essentially the cards are about us kids, what great lives we have, and how we have them because supposedly our mothers ran themselves ragged for us and never thought of themselves. I’m exaggerating a little to make my point, but not much.
This reflects the standard we have for mothers in our culture. Father’s Day cards don’t sound like that. They don’t. They’re about how much dad taught me or provided for me financially, which is a whole different sermon. The standard of abject selflessness we have for mothers is unhealthy. For everyone. It’s unsustainable. And frankly, it creates a tremendous amount of pressure and shame because we are never doing enough.
Now that sense of never being good enough, never doing enough, that is not unique to mothers, is it? Many of us walk around the world with that fear. Many of us are bound by the tyrannical chains of perfectionism. Which, finally, brings me to our text for this morning. As we consider the standards set for women, especially mothers, and as we confront the demons of distraction and perfectionism, we are going to hear the story of Martha and Mary. This is the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42. I’m reading mostly from the Common English Bible, with a few word changes for clarity.
While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was distracted by serving. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.”
The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and disturbed by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”Luke 10:38-42
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Here again we have a story with women in the main roles, besides Jesus of course. These women are sisters who share a house. And from this story we don’t know anything else about them. Another gospel mentions these same sisters and their brother Lazarus, but Luke doesn’t include him. These women have a lesson to teach us and they don’t need a man’s blessing to do it. In this story, Martha is the host. She is the one welcoming Jesus. She is the one serving. Same word we’ve heard before, what Jesus does. Jesus came among us as one who serves. Martha is serving. She is doing a good thing.
Her sister Mary in contrast is sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teaching. This is the physical position of a disciple. Disciples sit at the feet of their teacher and learn. The other times we hear this phrase, it’s about men. But here we have a woman disciple, listening to and learning from this 5-foot-4 brown-skinned Palestinian Jewish rule-breaker. Please don’t imagine Mary in a fawning, groveling position here. There was likely a whole crowd of people, many disciples, sitting at the feet of Jesus in that house. Definitely men. Maybe other women, including Mary.
Jesus is teaching. Mary is listening. But Martha is distracted. Literally she is drawn away from Jesus’ teaching by her service. It’s ironic isn’t it? Martha is drawn away from the words of Jesus by doing the work of Jesus. And here we have the spiritually fatal temptation of all the doers in the world. Those of us who love to accomplish things, those of us who fear that our value to our families or our communities is tied to how much we produce for them, those of us who can’t sit still, who feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong when we aren’t working, we are the Marthas of the world. I am right there. This is me. Where are my people?
This story reminds us that we have to stay tuned into the words of Jesus in order to do the right work of Jesus. Otherwise we might just do what we think is right. Martha is doing good things. She’s doing things that probably need to be done. She’s doing things with the intention of honoring Jesus and blessing those in her home. Good things. But, in this moment, not the right thing. The good things we think we need to do are sometimes a distraction from the right thing, the one thing our soul longs to do.
And right here is where I am going to steer your brain cars away from the sheer cliff of perfectionism. This is not a sermon about how all the good things you are already doing are still not good enough. Seeking the right thing beyond the good things is not about seeking perfection. Perfectionism is a trap. It is designed by the enemy of our souls. Perfectionism actually makes us less effective for the Kingdom. Believe me, I should know. Perfectionism first distracts us; then it discourages us; and finally it paralyzes us. Perfectionism is not of God. God does not ask us to be perfect. God asks us to seek, God asks us to try, God asks us to do, God asks us to love. God draws us on toward wholeness. But God does not ask us to be perfect.
This is not about perfectionism. This is about discernment, about knowing the right thing to do in that moment. Sometimes there is service to do: active, necessary, God-honoring service, as Jesus modeled for us. And sometimes there is sitting to do. The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to know when it’s time to serve and when it’s time to sit. Unfortunately, there is no formula for when to do which. Because one is not always right and the other always wrong. We should have Mother’s Day cards that celebrate something other than the frenetic selflessness of mothers who are plagued by perfectionism. It is not always right for us to serve. But also it is not always wrong to serve.
The best guidance for discernment that the Bible gives us about this comes from another gospel. Here’s the great connection. Jesus gives this guidance for discernment in a speech where he is talking about worry. That’s the same word he uses when he sympathizes with Martha; she is worried. Jesus’ guidance for discernment, for avoiding the worry of life is this: seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness and everything else will fall into place. Ask yourself in that moment, “How do my options in this moment line up with God’s Kingdom? Which of these will bring wholeness?” I know it sounds cliché, but you can ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus served a lot of people, but he also went to a lot of parties and told a lot of stories, and hugged a lot of babies and took a lot of retreats. When you aren’t sure what to do, pause. Breathe. Ask God to guide you. Wait for a minute and see what feels right. First seek the Kigndom, try to make wholeness and love your main concern, and gradually you will grow in your ability to discern when to serve and when to sit.
Jesus does not chide Martha for her work, I don’t think. He does not say the work doesn’t matter. In fact he sympathizes with her feelings. She is worried and deeply troubled. And what Jesus offers her in that moment is to just stop. Just. Stop. Jesus invites her to sit. To take a load off her feet and her mind and join her sister. To listen. And to trust that, somehow, everything is going to be fine. It will get done. But in this moment, he wants her to have the best thing. What an invitation. For Martha. For moms. For all doers and perfectionists. Sometimes we just need to stop and listen and trust. At the feet of Jesus “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Amen.