Sunday, March 04, 2007

Doing Nothing? A Sermon for Lent 2 C/Celebration of Gifts of Women

Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
Doing Nothing?
Psalm 27 (selected), Luke 10.38-42
Lent 2C, Gifts of Women

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘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.’

You’ve probably heard the phrase “behind every good man is a great woman.” The idea is, of course, that the man is the one out front, achieving and earning and being, while the woman is behind the scenes making sure everything is ready all the time: dinner’s cooked, house is clean, shirts are pressed, kids are fed. In the old-time-traditional church, this may have looked like the pastor being free to be holy while his wife and the women’s group made sure there were potlucks, that casseroles were taken to the sick, that the communion was set up, that the fellowship hall linens were pressed, that the windows were washed, that the sign was updated, that the newsletter was full of interesting tidbits, that the nursery was staffed and the Sunday school taught, and that everything ran smoothly.

Nowadays, of course, these things are not just women’s work—they’re the work of anyone who happens to be around to do them. And, of course, being the pastor isn’t just a man’s job anymore. In fact, last year the Presbyterian Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. And this year is the 98th year of the International Women’s Day, a day when people around the world both work for and celebrate women’s rights and gifts.

But in all this, whether men or women are doing the work in front of or behind the scenes, there’s a common denominator.


There is a lot of stuff to get done, after all. Windows need to be washed, bookshelves need to be built, classes need to be taught, lunches need to be cooked. Plus our culture has some expectations—chief among them that we don’t waste time. When we could be doing something and we’re not, we are wasting a precious commodity. When we’re awake, there’s work to be done. Otherwise, we’re lazy. There is an abundance of things to do—our lives are full to the brim with doing.

Martha’s life was full too. When people came to town, she knew what she had to do. She invited them in, and then she set about the abundance of tasks required of a good hostess—offering them drinks, washing their feet, cooking dinner, cleaning up, setting the table, and making them comfortable. Martha’s time was full to overflowing with things to do, while her slacker sister Mary just sat at Jesus’ feet, looking up adoringly, soaking up his teaching. Mary was wasting time while Martha was working hard, and that did not sit well with Martha.

But when Martha’s question came out, we could all hear the bitterness and the burnout. She’d been working so hard, all this time, and Mary was just lazy. Why couldn’t she be more helpful? Why did she insist on sitting there, doing nothing?

Martha, Martha. It turns out that one of them is indeed wasting time, but it’s not Mary. Martha is distracted by many things—she’s spending her time for things that are not valuable, she’s full to the brim and cannot hear what she’s being called to do, she cannot receive the teaching and grace and abundance of the Lord because she has filled herself with distractions.

Mary, on the other hand, has apparently made the better choice—to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him. It looks like doing nothing, but it’s actually doing the thing that matters most. She, like the psalmist, seeks only one thing:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
Mary has set aside the false abundance, the work that always expands to fill the available time, the cultural expectations, and has chosen to take some Sabbath time, to be with the Lord, to learn, to seek, to receive.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the object lesson in which a teacher takes a jar and puts rocks in, and asks if the jar is full. The students say yes. Then the teacher puts small pebbles in, and asks if the jar is full. The students say yes. Then the teacher pours sand in and asks if the jar is full. The students say yes. Then the teacher asks them whether, if he had put the sand in first, there would have been room for the big rocks? Of course not. The teacher then says that the rocks are the important things in life: God, relationships, yourself, and the sand is the busywork of life. The point has to do with not filling your life up with the inconsequential things first—the sand—because there won’t be room for the big important things—the rocks. It’s easy to fill up with the sand or the pebbles, squeezing out the rocks. That’s what Martha has done, and what Mary is trying not to do.

Perhaps Mary realized that only if she put the big things in first could she do the small things with grace and love. We can’t serve and serve and serve, give and give and give, work and work and work, without first being filled up. We just can’t sustain that much doing if we don’t take time to allow ourselves to be fed, to allow ourselves to be filled. If we try, we end up letting our bitterness and burnout escape in questions like Martha’s. No, first we have to let go of our false abundance, our jars filled with sand, and allow ourselves to be filled with God’s abundance, with grace and peace and love and mercy. Only when we sit with Jesus, and listen to him, and allow him to fill us with grace and peace, can we then go about our serving. Otherwise, we are filling ourselves with distraction rather than true service.

The trouble with letting go of the false abundance and allowing true abundance to come in is that it makes us look lazy or greedy, or sometimes both. But while prayer, worship, education, and meditation may look like doing nothing, they’re exactly the opposite. They are the things that feed us, that give us strength, the big rocks in our jars that ensure we have energy for the pebbles and the sand. The true abundance that comes only from God is worth clearing the sand for, worth sitting down for, worth leaving the dishes for! The psalmist says to wait for the Lord, to take courage—for we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living—we will taste and see that God is good, here and now.

One symbol of the abundance that God has for us can be found at this table. Here there is a joyful feast, here there is enough to go around, here all can be fed. This is a meal where you are offered as much as you want—Jesus offers abundant life right here at this table, and all are welcome. I love serving communion, and I especially love serving children. They always come up and take the biggest piece they can—even as many of you parents are telling them to take “just a little piece.” I love the idea that children know what this feast is about, they know that they are entitled to participate in the feasting. I think we tend to lose that as grown-ups—we take just a little piece as though that’s all we’re worthy of, or in case there isn’t enough. But this is the Lord’s table: there’s always enough. This is a time when we set aside those cultural understandings of scarcity and abundance, when we leave our false abundance behind, and we come to experience God’s abundance. Take a big piece! This is a feast—and someone else has prepared it and someone else is the host. All we do is sit at the feet of Jesus and enjoy the meal, and go out strengthened to serve with glad and joyful hearts.

Thanks be to God.


  1. Amen and Amen. What an excellent sermon, and funny you should publish it now. Last night our teaching was on David's "only one dwell in the house of the Lord" and this morning in worship, I imagined that I, like Mary, sat at Jesus' feet just enjoying his presence. Not particularly praying, or anything, but enjoying being with him.

    I'm a martha .. so having a mary moment was very refreshing.

  2. What a great sermon. Terrific! Thanks!