The First Thing

Proper 11, Year C
Amos 8:1-14
Colossians 1:15-28

Luke 10:38-42
The Mary and Martha Story is very well known. I used to serve a church that had a Mary/Martha club. They’d get together and serve food and have a book study. I once heard of a group in England that called themselves the “Martha Society” that lobbied to keep women from leaving the house and getting jobs. (Note for humor, they traveled the country working very, very hard trying to keep women from working.)

1. First about Martha.
The traditional interpretation is that she was in the kitchen cooking while Mary was out studying theology with Jesus and she got miffed at that and Jesus put her in her place. Not a stirring support for the traditional housewife. However, that may not totally be true. She says she was distracted by her many tasks and that her sister has left her to do all the work. We have traditionally interpreted that to mean that she was in the kitchen and her sister was in the living room, but maybe not.  Actually, the terms for her work (diakonia diakoneo) were only used by Luke 8 times in his writings. Six were in occasions of “material relief for those in need.” Two were in waiting tables, but those were when the diaconate was formed and they wanted people to wait the tables for the feeding program the church sponsored in Jerusalem. In neither case did it mean cooking a pot roast for their house guest, Jesus. Luke does not mean by those words, domestic activities.
So, it’s quite possible that we just got it all wrong for all these years. The Bible does not say that Martha was off working on the dinner, we just put that interpretation on top of it (I’ve added that little fake tidbit myself on occasion). So, in keeping with the meaning of diakonia, it’s enticing to think that she is working because she is out doing something good for the community, and has gotten frustrated with it and resentful that Mary is not helping. She’s probably at little league, or the Red Cross, or sponsoring Brownies, or PTA, or building a house with Habitat for Humanity, and resentful that Mary seems to be taking a theology class instead of swinging her hammer.
Of course that doesn’t change the importance of what Jesus said to her, but it puts a slightly different slant on it. He says, “Martha, Martha” (notice the very familial sound to that; not the way you’d talk to a stranger). You are distracted by many things. But there is only one thing you really need. Mary has chosen that one thing, the better part of two things, and I won’t take it away from her.” (Luke 10:41 [paraphrase]. See the CEV’s wording: “But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her”.)
Now, what does he mean by the “One thing”?
Go back to last week with the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s a wonderful story about the Samaritan who rose over the wall of hatred that divided the Sunnis and Shiites, and Tutsis and Hutus, and Palestinians, and Israelis, and the Democrats and Republicans. But remember how it began? A man came up to Jesus and said, what must I do to inherit eternal life? So Jesus asks him what did the scriptures say? And the man quotes two lines from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). He used almost exactly that same idea in other contexts. In Matthew, he says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt 22:37–39).
So, the first thing is to love the lord your God with all of your heart, soul and mind.” The second one grows out of it. Love God and then love people. You can’t do the second unless you have mastered the first. Don’t be anxious and fret and get distracted about your tasks in the world. Love God and all of those things will fall into place.
Now, by “Love” we don’t mean anything romantic. And we don’t mean some empty-sounding public “brotherly love.” To love God means to have a meaningful interactive relationship with God, where you trust  God, feel touched by God.
And you do that by doing what Mary was doing, sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning the truths of the Bible and theology and religion. If you don’t start there, then sooner or later all of the good works you do will begin to feel hollow and empty. You’ll be doing them not because you love the person, but because you have to. You will be doing them because they are your duty. They won’t be charged with joy.
You get that by being a faithful person in a body of believers like this one. By gathering together for singing, prayers, sermon, Bible readings, and then fellowship afterwards. You get that by serving in our Tuesday morning community breakfast, by joining with the deacons to visit the sick and the elderly and the shut ins, by becoming a church school teacher, by attending our Tuesday afternoon Bible Study, and if that’s not good time for you, let me know and we’ll set up another one on a date you can attend. There’s nothing like coming into a meaningful community of believers and having your life changed.
Seek the first thing. Seek first the most important thing, and then the rest will take care of itself. Remember the passage from the sermon on the Mount?
Be not anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …why do you worry about clothing? (a relevant question today.) Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
(Adapted from Matthew 6:25-33)

Seek first the kingdom, then the rest will take care of itself.
Nobody knows whether Mary ever moved from the first thing to the second thing, but clearly Martha had tried to skip the first one.

2. Mary
One interesting thing about Mary. Note that it says that she was sitting at the feet of Jesus. Nothing strange about that. That was the way that all teachers taught. Whenever you read of teachers or Rabbis or prophets teaching, they always sit down and their students sit at their feet. Note that that’s what Jesus did in Luke four at his home town synagogue when he preached. He read the Bible passage and then sat down to teach them what it said. We still today have some vestige of the idea of “sitting at the feet” of someone to learn. We don’t do it literally any longer, but we all know what it meant, and that was exactly what Mary was doing. Sitting at the feet of Jesus and he was teaching her. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his doing that, or her doing that. It was very, very common.
Except for one thing: it was against the law. It was against the law for Women to learn. Now, they could learn how to cook or run a vacuum cleaner, but they were not allowed to learn the Bible. In fact a famous rabbi of the day said that if you ever read the Torah to a woman, the scriptures should be burned. Some were that serious about it.
Reminds you a bit of the young woman in Pakistan who was lobbying to have schools opened up for young girls and the Taliban arranged to have her shot in the face. (Note, as I preached this, she had spoken at the united nations, just days before on her 16th birthday. She said, “they tried to silence me, but instead they strengthened me” I thought, “you go girl.”). the Taliban are a throwback to a very, very ancient world view, that goes back for centuries and centuries, back to about this time of Jesus. They are a movement that want to retain a very ancient and oppressive structured, society. And this was the kind of society that Jesus lived in in his day. And we can’t over state how radical and crazy Jesus must have looked to his contemporaries, because he seemed to just cavalierly disregard these barriers and laws.
Let me give you another example. One, of course, is the Good Samaritan story we read last week. But if you were here then, you remember that I also told the story of Jesus conversation with the woman at the well, over in John’s gospel (chapter 4). I said then that he came up to her and asked her if he could have a drink of water (she had a bucket and had just drawn some). She balked, because Jews were not supposed to share things in common with Samaritans. But he wore her down and they had a very interesting theological conversation about living water and where was God and when was God coming, etc. Completely disregarding the prohibitions against talking to a Samaritan or talking with a woman. Eventually the disciples come back (they had been in town buying supplies), and they stood at a distance shocked that they saw Jesus there, not just because he was talking to a Samaritan, but because he was talking with a woman! (Horrors.) And these were his disciples. (Now his disciples were never known for their brains, but still…)
So the point is that Jesus was sitting in Mary and Martha’s living room discussing religion and the Bible and she was sitting at his feet learning, and he was completely breaking the law in doing so.
Now, of course Jesus Christ, the Son of God would do that. He’s the Son of God, after all, and God made the Samaritans and the Jews and the men and the women, and God doesn’t have all of those barriers and walls between people. God doesn’t put up barriers and prejudices between people, because God created them. And Jesus, God’s son, embodies that same unity and oneness and completeness and family cohesion. AND, he teaches us to do the same.
Remember what he said at the end of the story of the Good Samaritan? After he talked about this half-breed, foreigner taking care of a Jew who probably would have hated him if he’d been conscious enough to know who was helping him, he turned to the person who started the question, and said, “go and do likewise.” That’s what we are supposed to do.
Let me end with an interesting story. I read many years ago an article in Psychology Today, a magazine that tries to write about fairly deep psychological subjects from a general audience point of view. The article was a look at several studies that had been taken by scholars about Racism in America. Now, they didn’t just ask someone if they were a racist, because if you do that, most people will just say, no I’m not. And they’d be lying. All of us are a little bit. Red, Black, White, yellow, Brown, We are all a little bit racist. We try to rise above it, but we are just that way. So, they tried to ask a wide variety of more subtle questions like who do you feel most comfortable with, what do you feel when you see someone of another race, etc. so that cumulatively they could put together a score for people, on a hundred point scale.
Well, that’s how they set it up. Then they broke down the findings for several demographic groups. Male/female, old/young, rich/poor, etc. One of the break downs was religion, and one of the things they found is that if you are a member of a church you have a higher likelihood of being more racially intolerant than the rest of your surrounding community!
When I read that, I went, WHAT? I have been a complete failure as a pastor for the last forty years. If you are a member of a church, then you tend to be more racist than your community. I was humiliated and ashamed.
However, there was one redeeming piece to that. The study also found that if you were not just a member, but that if you were actually very involved in your church, you went to things, you participated in things, you volunteered for things, then you tended to be less racist than your community. Did you get that? The more deeply you are immersed in the faith and life of your community the broader you become and the more tolerant and accepting you become and the less provincial and bigoted you become. Isn’t that fascinating?
That’s why we say get involved. If you help the deacons visit the sick and the elderly, if you help with our Tuesday breakfast, if you raise money for habitat or CROP or wigs for Kids, or Back Packs disaster kits, if you help organize one of our fundraisers, if you get involved in an adult study group, the likelihood of the windows of your mind being opened to take in more and more of God’s beautiful kingdom go up.
It’s following the first thing. It’s seeking the Kingdom. Do that and all the rest will fall into place.

One final thought: to get into the idea of the “one thing,” here is another good story. It’s the old story about a children’s sermon where the minister asked some kind of innocuous question about who-knows-what and a child raised his/her hand saying, “I know, I know, I know.” The minister says, okay, tell us.” And the little kid says, “Jesus!” The minister says, well, that’s nice but I was asking about (school, Red Sox, whatever). What has that to do with Jesus? And the little boy says something like, “well, I don’t know, but in all of your stories, sooner or later the answer is always Jesus.”
In another version, the pastor began by asking “What’s brown and furry, has a big bushy tail and eats nuts?” A little boy raised his hand and said, “It sounds like a squirrel, but I know it’s Jesus.”