A whole host of sermons is possible on this text, and they could lead us in varying and even opposite directions.
It could be a feminist sermon, obviously. With Mary positioning herself at the feet of her master, a place traditionally reserved for male disciples of a rabbi, ignoring the house work that needs doing, ignoring the food in need of preparing, even the hospitality in need of being offered to the revered guest. She breaks with the traditional role of the female in the house and gets this behavior endorsed by Jesus, while her poor sister, slaving away in the back ground gets told off.
I must admit I like this. Although I like cooking and entertaining guests, I am not one for slaving away in the kitchen all hours and I love sitting down for a good yarn and a thorough discussion about the important issues of life.
Unfortunately it is not quite as straightforward as that, this story. For one because Martha is the one who breaks the female mould first. Offering hospitality was the prerogative of the male, she had no business inviting Jesus into the house, Lazarus should have done that.
It seems we got two early feminist sisters here, and not one, Martha not the complying household drudge she is sometimes made out to be.
And apart from that: There is an echo here of the story we read a couple of weeks ago about Jesus proceeding on his way to Jerusalem being refused hospitality in Samaria. In this story he is once more proceeding and looking for a place to stay. This time it is offered to him, by Martha.
She gives him what was denied him earlier, and shows she very well knows how to make the right choices.
Also: Martha, in the gospel of John, is the first and only person to confess faith in Jesus as the son of God just after Lazarus has been raised from the dead. She was a woman of great faith, and she was, as we know from other sources, known and revered in the early Church because of that. She was one of the early leaders of the Church, long before all sorts of gender issues started to kick in and push women out of leadership roles. Martha is one of the giants of faith, a woman that received the gospel very early on and lived by it.
Another way of looking at the story is to read it against the background of the congregations Luke must have been writing for. House churches mostly, groups of Christians coming together on the Sunday to break bread and share the cup, praise the Lord and tell each other the stories of Gods love and grace.
They often shared a meal together as well at these meetings, in some cases quite elaborate.
Anybody that has ever been responsible for feeding a largish gathering at home will know what that can do to you: Loads of shopping to be done, last minute panics, heaps of pots and pans bubbling away all at the same time and a lot of washing up to do afterwards.
Most of us will also be familiar with the feeling after such a gathering that we barely had opportunity to be with our guests and enjoy their company because there were so many other things we had to do.
Perhaps Luke is saying: Beware that cooking for your house church will not start to obsess you in such a way that you lose sight of what those guests have actually come for: Sharing the good news of the gospel.
Another angle: As we have heard in the last couple of weeks the pace in the gospel of Luke keeps increasing in the chapters we are reading. There is an urgency about everything, a haste to get things done, with whats going to happen in Jerusalem looming in the distance. Perhaps we should read the story against that background and not as a general directive on what or what not to do. There is only so much time left for Jesus to convey his message. Mary picks up on this and drops everything to listen to what he has to say. Martha gets off on the right foot, inviting Jesus into her home, but then gets herself so entangled in detail that she forgets to focus on what is important and so needs to be called to attention by a Jesus who at that stage really doesnt have time to do the dishes.
Perhaps there is a bit of everything, and perhaps together it mixes into something that could be meaningful and nurturing for us today.
The gospels are, much more than we often realize, pretty revolutionary in their breaking with custom and tradition, in their disregard of what was considered right and proper, in changing gender roles and turning the world on its head.
Jesus calls people to freedom, to be who and what they are before the face of God regardless of prejudice and culture. He welcomes men and women in equal measure and gives them both equally important roles to play.
Martha is not disqualified. The people who were Lukes first readers knew her as a leader and a mother of the Church. They knew well enough that she wasnt an empty headed busy body who preferred the sink over her Lord and redeemer. But perhaps in telling this story about her Luke helps his readers to see that even Martha went over the top sometimes and that we need to be aware that fussing and worrying before God is not what we are called to do.
That the quiet and determined attention of Mary, breaking with tradition and the demands of living a life of service, is sometimes needed. That prayer is not optional but necessary. That sitting and being and listening and staying in Gods presence for a considerable length of time while around us the world is crying out to us for help and support is a necessity rather than a luxury. Because without it well never make it to Jerusalem. Jesus himself was a very busy man who was, by the sound of it, in danger of burn out because of the demands placed on him. But he took time out to go up the mountain and spent time with God and listen, to rise above the day to day business of saving people, and be in Gods presence.
Perhaps this story is telling us to focus: On the gospel, on following Jesus, on proclaiming the good news of Gods love and grace rather than get ourselves lost in the detail of the day to day running of things.
Last but not least: As a congregation there is always the danger of those who are doers and have an inner drive to get things done running around like mad and burning themselves out while others enjoy the fruits of their labouring. Always being in danger of being one of those myself I realised reading the story that the danger is not in the being busy and running around as long as we organise some prayer time for myself as well. The danger is in the worrying and fussing and becoming irritated with those who are of a different inclination. Of losing oneself in the detail and losing sight of the big picture.
I believe as a community, as a congregation, we are given to complement each other and help each other to get the balance right between action and reflection, between work and prayer. And that we all, in our own way, with our own talents and weaknesses, with our own strengths and temptations have something to offer to the world out there if we let ourselves be nurtured by the gospel and dare to be and make room for God in our lives.
Coming together in worship is one step in that process of getting our priorities right: It is a royal waste of time if you look at it from most of the worlds perspective. Making time to praise, pray and listen, making time to reflect and share with each other is in itself engaging in counterculture, of being Mary in a world full of Marthas, of balancing our busy lives with some space to just be and let God into our lives.
Doing may change the world, but making space for God will change us. Amen.