Terri and I were at Target the other night doing our weekly grocery shopping. I walked down the aisle with the peanut butter in it and suddenly felt “product option overload.” There were at least 8 different brands of peanut butter, three textures (creamy, crunchy, and whipped), and at least two different sizes available. All I needed was that sweet and savory, creamy and peanut buttery goodness, you know, the one that “Choosey Moms choose JIF.” Sometimes, we just have too many choices in this life, sometimes we make the wrong choices, and sometimes our choices are more complex than merely buying peanut butter at Target.
Making mature choices is never easy because it takes a lifetime of making good and bad choices, to arrive at a place of wisdom and insight, where we can be open to the Spirit’s work on our growth and maturity. One sign of Christian growth is the ability to discern God’s call on our lives to serve in ministry. There are many mission opportunities from which to choose, which requires prayer and discern (listening to God andto others.
The Martha and Mary Dilemma
Today’s gospel reading is the tale of two sisters, who wrestled with their true ministry calling. One sister focused on the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and preparing for a “mind-blowing” banquet. The other took the unlikely place of a first century woman, and sat at the master’s feet listening, learning, and relaxing. One chose to work hard to serve the guests, the other chose to join the guests in the parlor and relax.
Sunday school told us that one woman made the right choice and other made the wrong choice. We learned one sister tried to be a hero superstar disciple, and the other a was a holy contemplative disciple. The Martha and Mary story is not a comparison of a good versus a bad disciple, nor is it an advertisement for one form of ministry over another. It is a complex story of two people strugging with the WHY of how they decided to serve Jesus.
Author Simon Sinek in his book Start with Why wrote, “Working hard for something we do not care about is called stress, working hard for something we love is called passion.” What was the motivation for Mary to decide to sit at the Master’s feet, and what was the motivation for Martha to’decide to be busy in the kitchen? I wonder which of these two women served Jesus with spiritual joy and peace, and which one with anxiety, stress, and burnout. Let’s start with Martha.
Anxious Martha and Calm Mary
I had a church friend back in the day, who took on ministries with a tweaked up level of anxiety and coffee-enduced frenzy. No one else could to find their part in it his ministry and trying to create a team or shared ministry was impossible. I think that person’s motivation (or the why of their ministry) was about ego, boredom, and spiritual guilt, and not be about passion, joy, and serving God. That person used to complain that no else is willing to help them do their work, and when they did, they were not doing it right anyway. That person could have been me too at one time, and even today, I have to fight that demon that calls me to fall back into that trap. That is our sister Martha’s dilemma.
Martha was so wound up tight and anxious about putting out an “over that top” banquet for Jesus, that she could not find joy in her work. She had no passion because ministry was a struggle and she was overwhelmed and burned out. Martha was not engaged in joyful Christian service, because her anxiety, related to her self motivated interests, led her to experience what we might call a religious panic attacks. When our ministry is a struggle, a burden, or just a duty, we miss the point of ministry completely; we miss the why.
Let’s look at Mary and the motivation of her choice to sit at Jesus feet. Mary’s motivation may have been that she wanted to learn and listen, so she might be prepared for the work God would call her to do. Her decision to sit with Jesus was pure joy, passion, and purpose, which made her able to truly and authentically reflect Gods grace in our work. With Martha, there was no passion but anxiety, and she was no longer an icon of the Good News of God’s grace, but a reflection of anxiety, fear, and a sense of duty. She really needed to re-think her why.
Martha was overwhelmed with her own anxiety that she went to Jesus, and dragged Mary into her mess. She said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” The problem with Martha is not that she chose work over relaxation. The problem was that she was so panic stricken and overwhelmed by the task, she tried to force Jesus to choose which sister was the better sister. Her ”why” was not about passion, but about self; self-justification, self esteem, and self, period.
Our decision to do ministry has nothing to do with tasks and “to do’s,” but it has everything to do with seeking joy, passion, and purpose. When we are motived by Jesus’ command to Love God and Love neighbor, there is no room for anxiety and stress. Remember, mission is never about us it is about Jesus and our neighbors.
Loving God and Loving Neighbor
Theologian Joy Strome explains, “The dinner party Mary and Martha threw was not about the attendees, not about their roles and responsibilities, but about the guest of honor (Jesus).” Jesus is always the guest of honor to whom we issue an invitation, a bidding to join in the hospitality of our lives, and the guest we are called to serve. So, if we are doing whatever it is we are doing, because we want to honor and love Jesus, then we are making mature Christian choices and our ”why” is aligned with God’s. However, none of us can work all the time and sometimes we need to just stop and listen.
In this life “distractions and worries abound (and so) Jesus calls us to stop.” (3) Stop trying to do things for the wrong reasons, stop trying to earn grace, stop doing ministry because you feel guilty. Just stop and make sure your ministry, the work of mission you do is because you love God and your neighbor, and that should be the first reason for the choices we make anyway.
We all come to this party of love and service showing up with our histories, concerns, sin, anxiety, and our broken lives. “No one is a perfectly balanced Super Disciple, nor should we criticize one another for not doing everything equally well all the time.”(4) We all have choices in this mission focused community, sent out to carry on Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation in the world. We are called to relax in Jesus’ presence, but we are equally called to be more than mere Jesus fans sitting in the stands watching the game take place. We are called to get out on the field.
The church’ mission choices are always more complex than simply deciding between social groups versus mission teams, bible studies versus leadership service, or any other busy work ministry versus spiritual growth ministry. Our “WHY,” the motivation behind whatever we will do must be because in it we will find joy, passion, and purpose. The choice is ours, and hopefully like Mary we will choose the better portion, because it will never be taken away from us.
Choosing a ministry you are called to serve in is not as easy as buying peanut butter; you know “Choosey Mom’s, choose Jif” when we are fueled by fear, anxiety, self-serving motivations, and glorifying exhaustion. It is easy when we are fueled by the desire to love God and love our neighbor.” So, when you stare at that board of multiple ministry and service opportunities at St. Monica’s, your choice is as easier than buying a jar of peanutty goodness. Just remember when an opportunity to serve in God’s mission field comes your way, think of your call to serve like peanut butter, “Choosey Christians, choose mission.”
(2) Jones, L.Gregory. “The Virtues of Hospitality.” The Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 20, June 1992, p. 609.
(3) Strome, Joy Douglas. “Kitchen Relief.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 14, July 2007, p. 18
(4) Hutson, Christopher Roy. “Martha’s Choice: A Pastorally Sensitive Reading of Luke 10:38-42.”