Mary, Martha, and the Search for a More Useful Faith

To-do list(Creative Commons image by john.schultz on Flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,


I think the word “useful” has gotten a bad rap. At least in the church. I’m not sure what it is, but I think we’re afraid that if you’re really faithful, you don’t care about whether things — like going to church, reading the Bible, praying, etc. — are useful, you just do them out of a sense of pious duty.


But I want to challenge that. I want to suggest that one of the great reasons the church is declining during our day is that most of our people have a hard time connecting what we do at church with what we do the rest of the week. Their faith practices on Sunday are nice, perhaps even comfortable, but they don’t inform their daily decisions at work, home, or school. In short, they don’t find their faith particularly useful. And in a 24/7 world of multiple opportunities and obligations, they — oh, let’s face it, we — tend to privilege those things that help us navigate, make sense of, and get more from our lives. We tend to privilege, that is, those things that are — you guessed it — useful to us.


Well, if there’s ever a story that was begging to be put to good use, it’s this one. Consider, for instance, the interesting use to which Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, put this familiar story:



What I appreciate about this video is that while Gretchen probably identifies along the lines of “spiritual, but not religious,” she finds in this story something of great value, something that informs her life. And that’s what I crave for our people — the conviction that these stories we read actually have value. Why? Because if the only time we think about biblical stories is on Sunday morning — in other words, they don’t help us lead more fruitful lives the rest of the week — then sooner or later we’re going to wonder why we’re spending time with these stories at all. (Which is exactly what a lot of folks, I suspect, have already done.)


So, if you’re going to take up the challenge of preaching a more useful Bible, I’d suggest retelling this story briefly, because while lots of people are familiar with it, we can’t assume everyone is. Moreover, there is at least one key background element that will help even the savviest biblical readers get more out of it. That element is hospitality, which Elisabeth Johnson unfolds in greater detail in her excellent commentary this week. In short, Martha is doing exactly what was expected of her — she is working hard to extend hospitality to her guest.


Why, then, Jesus’ seemingly harsh words? Perhaps because Martha has lost something essential in her dutiful labors to be responsible and hospitable: herself. She has forgotten, that is, that ultimately she is valued and loved not because of what she does, but because of who she is. That is not her intent, of course, but amid her concern to care for Jesus she forgot to listen to him, the One who might remind her that she is a beloved child of God.


This may not seem a fair characterization, and Jesus’ words may still seem needlessly harsh. So let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with doing — my goodness, but the previous story of the Good Samaritan ended with Jesus telling the lawyer “go and do likewise.” But amid all of our doing we, also, can get distracted, lured into thinking that we ultimately will only find our true value and purpose in and through what we do, rather than in who we are, God’s beloved children.


In this respect, aren’t our lives pretty much like Martha’s? I mean, I began by describing our lives as “a 24/7 world of multiple obligations and opportunities.” Which is where I think this story has so much to offer. Our culture, I believe, has lost any real sense of Sabbath — the need for regular rest and renewal. Moreover, we are regularly told that our worth stems not from our status as God’s children or even as human beings but from what we have, from what we own, from what we do. (What’s the first question we ask when meeting a new acquaintance? “Hi, what do you do for a living?”) In this kind of world, we need more than ever the opportunity to hear that while much of our doing is important, there is a more needful thing: to hear from Jesus that we are loved, even treasured, for who we are, regardless of what we do.


This, frankly, is what church is supposed to be. A time to stop amid all of our important doing and hear the one needful thing: that we are God’s children, beloved for all time, and that there is nothing we can do that would earn that love and nothing we can do to lose it.


But be careful: in our hyper-busy world even coming to church has become an obligation, and the purpose of this sermon should not be to scold people for not choosing the “better part.” Rather, perhaps we can hear Jesus’ words not as rebuke but as invitation — to Martha and to us — to come and be refreshed and renewed by God’s word of mercy, grace, and love.


So perhaps this week, Working Preacher, we can help our people discover a more useful Bible and faith by inviting them to make a short list of four or five of the things they most want or need to get done this week. Then ask them to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 just how important getting that thing done really is. What, that is, are the consequences of not completing it: whose life will be affected, what will change or happen? No doubt there will be a lot of sevens, eights, and even nines among these things. We are, after all, responsible for a number of important things. Then ask them to assign a value to hearing that they are loved, that they have meaning, purpose, and value in and of themselves.


Or, perhaps ask them to rank how much they would want those closest to them — their children, siblings, best friends — to hear this message. My guess is that most of us, when we think about what we most want for those we love, realize just how important it is to hear and believe that we are loved not for what we do but for who we are.


That’s what church is all about. At its best, church is the place where there is a lull in the cacophony of voices telling us we aren’t good enough so that we might hear in the quiet “third space” of the sanctuary the promise that God loves and values us for who are. And, when we realize that, often all the things we need to do somehow go better.


One more thing, Working Preacher: maybe we can even give our people permission to miss church. Perhaps on some Sundays this summer the needful thing will be to spend time with friends, or attend a family reunion, or take a vacation. Church wasn’t intended to be an obligation, and maybe we need to remind our people of that. Church, at its best, is always an invitation — an invitation to the kind of richer, deeper life that only comes from believing that you have inherent dignity, worth, and value. So perhaps we should say that if they need to miss a Sunday or two, so be it, but then come back to be reminded again and always of who you are: God’s beloved child, now and forever more.


Blessings to you amid all your work, responsibilities, and duties, Working Preacher. Preachers, too, have been known to get distracted — so let me remind you that you, also, are valued not for what you do — even preaching manifold sermons! — but for who you are — God’s beloved child.


Yours in Christ,