Princeton University Religious Life

Hour of Power

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
February 20, 2008
Luke 10: 38-41

Open our ears and our hearts this afternoon, O God, so that your Holy Spirit may do its work, and we may never be the same again. Amen.

What would you do if Jesus Christ himself came into the town where you live, was walking down the road – your street – and was looking for a place to rest himself and do some teaching, open up the gospels to people, answer all our questions of faith? It’s easy to say that we’d do just what Martha did – she ran out into the street. She said to him, “Lord, you are welcome in our house!” Maybe she took him by the elbow and said, “Right this way!” He had a crowd following him, as always. I imagine her little living room was packed to the gills, with Jesus taking the place of honor on the most comfy chair, a few other folks getting the remaining chairs, and most people left sitting knee to knee on the dirt floor. Martha certainly was a hospitable woman to have all those people into her house, and with no advance warning, just a few shouts in the street that Jesus was coming. You couldn’t exactly send each other a text message in those days or check the radio to know someone’s whereabouts. But Martha and her sister Mary are more than hospitable. They are brave. At this point in Luke’s gospel Jesus has already been threatened, been interrogated, and spent time in hiding. So-called “decent” folks were deciding not to have anything to do with him. They were worried – they were scared. If they believed the hype, this guy could be a criminal, or someone really crafty who was trying to lead them away from true faith. He could be a big faker, a false prophet out for some free room and board. The rap about Jesus had gotten really bad. Even if they didn’t believe the bad things being said about him, these women might have been very afraid to associate themselves with him. Their neighbors could make life hard for them for having welcomed him to their home.

 And yet they did welcome him. They had the courage and the faith. Martha ran right out into that road where everyone could see them. See didn’t peek our from behind her door and go, “Psst!” And once they are all in she pulls out the stops. Pots and pans start clanging in the kitchen, the fire begins to crackle and soon there’s the smell of freshly baking bread. Everyone gets a cup of cool water on a hot Judean day. Martha is so so busy. She knows, as do we, that it is an honor to have any guest in your home. She knocks herself out to show them every respect through her hospitality. Her home was clean for them; the food was delicious and plentiful. She was going all-out in the kitchen. And yet . . . the real action was out in the living room, and her sister Mary was in the front row.


If Martha was a woman of great courage and faith to have run into the street to welcome Jesus, Mary was a woman of equal courage and faith to sit at his feet. Jesus Christ was unique for his time – and many times since – in welcoming women to be not just his followers but his students.    He counted them worthy to learn from him, to be in his company alongside men and receive his teaching. There were probably some men in the living room that day who didn’t like having a woman among them.  Her place was in the kitchen with her sister, after all! But Mary didn’t let their scowls and whispers bother her. She took a place on the floor right up front and center. She listened to every word that came from her Lord’s mouth, and she applied it to her life. She may have understood Jesus’ teaching much better than some of those guys.

 But it’s not to these men that Jesus has to defend Mary’s learning at his feet, it’s to her very faithful sister Martha. Martha’s working hard; she’s getting it all done in the next room. “Tell her then to help me!” she says to Jesus. That sounds to me like an embarrassing moment – shaming her sister in front of so many guests. “Martha, Martha,” says Jesus. “You’re a good and responsible woman, but the right thing to do at this moment is to sit and listen. Mary’s made that choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”

 This is a passage that pushes a lot of people’s buttons. Some of us identify strongly with one sister or the other. As the Martha’s among us know, food doesn’t just appear on tables, rooms don’t stay clean, clothes don’t appear ironed in closets, lawns don’t just stay mowed, cars aren’t clean or in good working order, light bulbs and gutters and ceiling tiles don’t just replace themselves. Nobody notices this stuff getting done, but they sure notice when it isn’t. To those who have ever felt unappreciated, whose ceaseless, loving efforts on behalf of the family or church or community rarely get so much as a thank you, Martha’s case is pretty appealing.

 And then there are those among us who identify with Mary. Sometimes people call us lazy, a dreamer, idealist, irresponsible. Mary is curious. There’s always work to be done, on the job or at home. When you become an adult that fact just hits you in the face, if you hadn’t figured it out already: there will be work in front of you that you “should” be doing for the rest of your life. When an opportunity comes to sit and learn, to reflect, to feed your mind, heart and soul, man – you just have to grab it! Those chances are too few and far between. Life is short, and all the stuff you have to get done will get done. When a chance for grace, or adventure, or being fed in the spirit, or just feeding your intellectual curiosity – whenever such a chance comes along, take it! This is the real stuff of life. There will always be dishes in the sink.

 It can be easy to take sides with these strong and passionate sisters, but let’s not do it. Because Jesus doesn’t. His response to Martha isn’t a slam against those who are responsible and task oriented. It is an invitation to all to discern what is the right thing to do at any particular time. Jesus doesn’t give us a hard and fast rule to live by, he gives us an invitation to the fullest life of faith, one in which service and discovery are balanced by people with the maturity of faith to know how to “choose the better part” in any moment. The life of faith might be easier if we could interpret Jesus as saying one is better than the other, service and reflection, but he does not. He reminds us that the life of faith is very busy, and the life of faith is very still, in fact the life of faith is both, and it is up to us to decide when either is appropriate. No, Jesus doesn’t rate one sister over another, he puts back in our hands the responsibility for discerning when to go and do, when to serve, when to create, to build, to challenge, to maintain, and when to reflect, to study, to meditate, to listen for the voice of God in the stillness. Christ tells us to remain always attentive to the possibilities of every moment. Of course, for us the questions are not presented as boldly as they were for Martha and Mary – whether to listen to the Savior of the world who happens to be in our living room or to load the dishwasher! But Christ is very present in individuals, in experiences, in moments of our lives that are brash or quiet, and we can (and do) bulldoze past many of them.

 Are you distracted by many things? I know I am. I can be overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility that will not let me rest until every last thing is done. I am a task-oriented, goal-directed person and I finish what I start. It can be very hard to feel I am denying some responsibility – especially to others – in order to enjoy myself. Relaxation can be very difficult if an unfinished project or sense of duty is hanging over my head. I work hard at my work. I suppose that Martha wouldn’t dream of enjoying the good company at her house before every last service to them was completed. Like her, I know I need to hear Christ’s permission to refocus, to pay attention to where my attention ought to be. Sometimes I try to pray alone and silently, or to meditate, but I must confess – within a minute I’m not praying, I’m thinking to myself, “Did I move the laundry from the washer to the dryer?” I’ve learned that I do my best praying as I take long walks. My body is distracted – occupied – and so then my spirit can connect with what is above.

 Silence and busyness, learning and service – so many ways to be faithful and how much do they overlap. If Jesus were among us today I think he would encourage us to make our faith communities into ones that welcome the spiritual personalities of all people and equally – those with a gift for learning and those for serving, those for meditation and those for swinging a hammer to build a poor family a new home, those who can teach us something out of what they prayed about and those who can teach us something out of what they saw or did. In this way the spiritual gifts of others complete our own, and we all grow larger in faith. In this way we connect with Christ as he humbly joins us in so many ways throughout our daily lives. In this way we learn to reflect the love of Christ outwards, in every situation, to the people we meet every minute of every day. In this way we become the very best disciples we can be. Every day!




Joseph Dondos, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series, Westminster/John Knox Press.

Sermon School Year: