"Bringing Peace To Our Tasks"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 22, 2007

Psalm 84; Like 10:38-42

    The story of Mary and Martha appears to contain a very valuable lesson for us, a lesson that concerns our discernment between the importance of the practical matters of life and our spiritual nourishment.  Every day we are constantly faced with making decisions. This is never an easy task because there are so many variables that go into each choice.    

     For example, should our kids be in Church School on Sunday mornings or on the soccer field where we fanaticize about collegiate athletic scholarships if our kids excel?  Should we continue to give as much money to the church as we do when we know that the soaring costs of college are looming on the horizon?  Do we have time to start our day with a quiet time of centering when we are anxious about what rush hour will look like?   Every morning the traffic patterns are different.           

     Someone recently sent me a story that has been circulating for years that illustrates this inner dialogue.  It seems that a young man had decided to allow his hair to grow in a nonconformist manner.  His father realized that his son was going through the normal teenage search for his identity.   He also knew that his son might not get a second chance at making a first impression.

     His Dad said, “Son, when you interview for a summer job, your long hair is going to communicate something about you.  Don’t you want to look your best? Why do you want to create a variable that might suggest that you are a rebellious person?”  His son said, “Dad, you know that I’m not rebellious!”  His Dad said, “I know that, but a future employer may read into your appearance something that is not there. As you know, many conclusions people develop are all about how they perceive.    Why would you want to take that risk?”           

     The young man still did not get his hair cut.  As the summer grew closer, the teenager knew that he needed a car.  The young man had been looking for a good used car on the Internet and he found one.  He wanted his Dad to go along with him to the dealership to look at it.  The car had low mileage and was priced very reasonably.  

     His Dad said, “I have decided that you are not getting the car until you get a haircut!”  His son responded, “Dad!!  That’s not fair!  You are manipulating me from your point of view. You know that you have to co-sign for the loan.   You have always taught me that what mattered was what was inside. Besides, Jesus had long hair and he was God’s son.  How about that?”  His
Dad thought for a moment and responded, “Good point, son, but in case you have had a small lapse of memory, Jesus and his disciples walked everywhere!”   Soon the young man was in the barber’s chair.  He had to weigh the importance of holding onto his principle of wanting his longer hair or getting the car he had found on the Internet.

     The episode described in our lesson probably occurred many times.  The home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany was a favorite place for Jesus to relax.  This occasion happened at a mealtime and Jesus and Mary were having a question and answer period.  Martha was preparing the food and was not happy that she had to perform this task alone.  She said, “Jesus, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Please tell her to come and help me.”

     According to Peterson’s translation Jesus answered, “Martha, dear Martha!  You are fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.  Only one thing is essential and Mary has chosen it. It will not be taken away from her.”  

     In this story, Jesus appears to have taken Mary’s side when it comes to spiritual matters having more importance than the practical matters of life.  There have been countless sermons and discussions related to this scene.  Was Jesus suggesting to Martha that her tasks were unimportant?  Are we to ignore many of the practical aspects of life while we sit at the Master’s feet? 

     For example, some of us may have found ourselves delighted this past week that the Dow Jones Industrial averages closed above 14,000 points for the first time in history.  This fact is important to people who keep a careful eye on their retirement accounts.  With the current costs of housing, utilities, gasoline and food, people want to know if they will have enough cash flow to sustain them during their years of retirement.  The booming global economy has been welcomed news. 

     On the other side of life’s equation is our trust that God will provide.  In 1887, John Sammis wrote that hymn: 

     When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word, what a glory he sheds on our way!  While we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey.  Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.   

     The truth is that we live in a material world where Jesus instructed his followers to make visible the realities of spirit while living in it.  Constantly we struggle with trying to balance these two worlds. 

     There is another dimension to the Mary and Martha story that is often ignored.  For whatever reason, Martha displayed unhappiness while preparing a meal for Jesus and the members of her family.  She may have felt that she was being left out of substantive instruction.  She could have been jealous that Jesus was devoting so much time to her sister.  The reason for Martha’s upset really does not matter.  

     Have you ever struggled with tasks that you were convinced no one noticed, no one appreciated and were ones that others had taken for granted that you would do?  This morning we will consider this question. 

     Jesus said, “Martha, dear Martha!  You are fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.”  Jesus was not demeaning Martha for what she was doing because having a meal together was one of those occasions that made life worthwhile.  Fellowship was important.  What made this story such a drama was her fussing about food preparation while her sister was entertaining Jesus.

     How do we deepen our spiritual awareness so that we remain free from making a similar response?  Can we achieve this by studying the Scriptures and learning at Jesus’ feet as Mary was doing?  Some people think that they have a deep faith because not only can they articulate what they believe; they can defend their beliefs.  We admire people who have an expansive and commanding knowledge of the Scriptures.  

     Is there something greater than Biblical knowledge and beliefs?  Yes, there is.  The quality of our spiritual lives has to do with allowing what we know and believe to carry us through every circumstance of life with a degree of peace.  Can we ever be free from frustration, anxiety and anger?  If the answer is “yes” how do we get there?  Jesus instructed his listeners in the art of living, but what he did not teach them were the struggles they had to experience in order to get there.  Let me give you an example from my own experience.

     I had graduated from seminary and had been ordained for a number of years. The Trustees of the church asked me if I would like to earn an additional $200 a month by assisting our custodians who were both in their 80s.  I agreed.  One of my duties was to straighten up and secure the church every evening.

     On Thursdays and Sundays our church gave space to a very large chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Because many of the men and women were cross-addicted to tobacco and alcohol, a special vote was taken by the Administrative Board to allow smoking in our fellowship hall.  Cleaning on Sunday nights was a constant struggle for me. 

     My tasks started around 10:45 p.m. The room was always filled with a blue haze from their smoking.  Numerous times intoxicated members had spilled their coffee on the floor, coffee that was setting up like concrete because of the quadruple sugars and double cream they had added.  Chairs had to be wiped down and put away.  The floor had to be cleaned.

     Never in my life have I ever wrestled with my identity as I did during those years.  My mind was filled with attitudes about alcoholics, my academic degrees, the value of $200 in the face of these kinds of tasks, my getting home around midnight every Sunday after I had been in so many settings during the day including my providing leadership for our junior and senior high youth groups.  How I empathized with Martha’s words,  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself.”  

     As I look back on my past, I have learned that this was the most important work that I have ever done in my life.  I had to deal with me, not my faith, not my understanding of God’s will and word, but me.  I kept thinking, “I deserve better than this!  What in the world am I doing with this mop in my hand?”  For the longest time, I could not get me off the stage. 

     What saved me from spiraling into deeper resentment was my discovery of a potential that had been within me all along but I was not prepared to access it.  That quality was gratitude.  It hit me like a ton of bricks.  The lights went on as soon as I remembered.  My thoughts were the problem, not the tasks.  I had to change how I was thinking. I was helping our custodians.  I was playing a small role in the lives of men and women who were breaking the hearts of everyone they knew because of what their addiction to alcohol was doing to them.

     There was a unique moment that occurred one Saturday morning that gave me a deeper insight into what some custodians must experience from time to time.  I was polishing the floor of our fellowship hall with a buffer when I was approached by a woman whose daughter was going to be married that afternoon.  This family did not belong to the church and I had never before met this woman.  Presuming that I was the church custodian, she instructed me on how she wanted the tables and chairs set up for her daughter’s reception.  Her tones were condescending.  She kept asking me if I understood what she wanted. 

     At 2:00 p.m. that Saturday afternoon, I stood in the chancel in my white robe performing her daughter’s wedding.  She seldom looked at me during the ceremony.  I often wondered what she was thinking.  Even then I had to deal with me in order to keep my peace.  I did so because I had learned from my earlier struggles.   

     When there are tasks with which we struggle for whatever reason, more than likely the issue has nothing to do with the duties we are performing.  Our pain is the result of our attitude while we are doing them. Dealing with ourselves is often the most difficult chore we have to do in life.  Even Jesus did not escape having to face what his deeds and words were communicating.

     I am sure that after Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple courtyard, he was not happy about his performance.  Did he really want to communicate that when your world is not the way you want it, it is appropriate to respond with violence?  When he told his beloved disciples, “How long must I put up with you?” was he happy with his lack of patience with them? 

     Matthew’s 23rd chapter is almost exclusively devoted to Jesus’ bitter verbal assaults on the Teachers of the Law and the pious Pharisees who were behaving in the same manner as others had done before them.  They were only living the way they had been taught.  One wonders if Jesus ever had to reconcile his wrathful indictments with his instruction to listeners to love their enemies.  Of all people, Jesus knew that even he could not fix people so that they would conform to the skill levels he wanted them to have.  We have to grow by starting where we are.  We cannot begin our spiritual evolution on Mt. Olympus.

     The episode of Mary and Martha would have contained a very different message had Martha looked at her sister with joy and peace because she had given Mary that time to be with the Master.  When we perform every task to the best of our ability filled with gratitude that we are doing it in the spirit of serving others, no task is drudgery and no task is unimportant.  When we remember this, we will carry ourselves with peace.


     Loving God, we enjoy using our voices to sing about your presence in our lives.  We enjoy learning about your faithfulness through the experiences of those who wrote our Scriptures.   Enable us to build on the foundations they placed before us.  Spare us from ever thinking that what has been written or said is enough.  Your gift of new insight and vision has always come to those who remain open to your daily presence.  Remind us that the world’s concerns have always surrounded every generation.  Those who walk with trust and faith in your guidance experience a peace the world can never give.  We come today with gratitude for your remarkable world, for each other and for the moments life continues to bring us where we can make you visible.  Amen.


     Loving God, as our faith continues to be refined within each day’s events, we thank you for constantly being in relationship with us.  We are not completely sure what it means to be created in your image, but we trust that you have given us the ability to walk with you through the fog, haze and illusions created by the distractions that lie in our path. 

     We do experience peace when we authentically allow our cares and concerns to dissolve in the sands of your presence and understanding. We thank you when we experience the instant judgment during the times that we swim against the currents of life, when we place our faith in worry and fear, as though fretting might deliver what we want.  Inspire us to think again when we withhold our love to motivate others to conform to our wishes.  There are moments and there are certain sensitive episodes in life when we forget how having faith and trust in you translates into our attitudes and behavior. 

     Guide and teach us, O God, to let go of the words and actions of others that may have been offensive to us.  Perhaps in our becoming more like you in the way we forgive, we will learn what it means to be created in your image.  May we remember that Jesus’ invited us to walk among people who are not like us, so that they might experience how we communicate by remaining disciples of Jesus.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .