john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Luke 10 - On Martha and letting go

    St Gabriel's, Toxteth, Morning Service, 11/7/2010

    Luke 10:38-42 (New International Version)
    38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the LORD's feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "LORD, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself ? Tell her to help me!" 41 "Martha, Martha," the LORD answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
    I'd like us to think today about what happened to Martha when she encountered Jesus - how Jesus encouraged her to let go - to let go of the many things which worried and distracted her; to let go of the addiction to the many tasks she told herself that she had to do; to let go of the judgemental attitude she had towards her sister who didn't share her addiction to housework, her need to be constantly 'doing'.

    Letting go - something which doesn't come easy to us, maybe because we are sentimental or nostalgic people who don't like to see old familiar things in our lives replaced by new unexpected or uncertain things; letting go - which doesn't come easy to us, maybe because it challenges our complacency, causes us to question ourselves and make a new start - which is gospel stuff, but as we well know, as well as being a joy and a liberation the gospel is a deep and difficult challenge.

    The challenge for us to let go comes to us in many ways.

    There are things we are forced to let go of (by laws and rules and regulations):
    - Smoking cigarettes in public places;
    - Hosepipe ban
    Things we are forced to let go of (by things beyond our control):
    - Holidays ruined by bad weather;
    - Appointments missed because buses don't come / traffic jams, etc.
    Deeper things we are forced to let go of (by laws and rules and regulations):
    - Our working lives;
    - Our responsibilities, eg in running Brownies (upper age limit on leaders)
    Deeper things we are forced to let go of (by things beyond our control):
    - Relationships ended by the death of a partner;
    - When our children grow up and move away.
    Things we decide for ourselves to let go of:
    - Smoking cigarettes
    - Drinking alcohol etc.
    Deeper things we decide for ourselves to let go of:
    - A destructive form of behaviour (anger, jealousy, being controlling) - if only Raoul Moat could have let go of the jealousy and bitterness he directed at his ex-girlfriend and the police....

    - An addiction to a particular role - like Martha's addiction to her many tasks at home... - if only we could let go of the things we think we have to do because (we tell ourselves) no-one else will do them - then we would be so much freer; and other people would be freer too: to step in, take new things on, change and grow... (we see this in our homes, and our churches....)
    In a BBC Thought for the Day broadcast the week that Tony Blair announced his resignation, the clergyman and broadcaster Alan Billings said,
    Sooner or later, like the Prime Minister, we are all going to have to let go our principal life's work. And whatever we may subsequently do, giving that up is not easy, because our sense of self-worth is so bound up with it. In our society, we judge ourselves and others by the jobs we do, which is why, when we meet new people, we want to know what they do, not what they think. [1]
    And not just what they think, I would add, but what they are like, what things they like, what sort of character they are. This takes us back to the text we are considering today - where Martha assumed that when she met Jesus he would want to know what she did - so after welcoming Jesus into her home rather than sit with him as Mary did, Martha set about doing 'her many tasks'.

    Luke says that she was 'distracted' by these tasks - but I wonder if she was actually being more deliberate than that: she was working at her many tasks to get Jesus's attention, to let him know what she was doing because she thought that Jesus would judge her on these things: positively; that he would praise her for her hard work.

    But instead Jesus wanted to release her from the idea that it was what she did which defined her; Jesus asked her to let go of her focus on activity and look for her sense of self-worth somewhere else - in him.

    Alan Billings:
    I have no doubt that this focus on activity is a legacy of Christianity, particularly Protestantism with its emphasis on our daily work as a calling. But Christianity [says] something else as well: namely, that your real value and ultimate sense of worth do not depend on what you do, but on who you are. Feeling valued [is] about recognising yourself as destined for eternity, rather than being a good banker or brewer [or in Martha's case, homemaker].
    Like Martha, Jesus asks us - in the middle of our daily lives - to take account of what we are holding onto and to decide what we should let go of.

    It's something which Jesus did repeatedly with people he encountered:
    - the disciples he invited to 'follow him' - in other words, to let go of their work and their family responsibilities, the security of their income and their social status, to be new people in the life of his service;

    - the Scribes and the Pharisees who he challenged time and again to let go of the crushing, restricting certainties of the old Law of Moses, to embrace the Good News of the Kingdom.
    And it is everywhere in Jesus' teachings. Take, for instance, these words from Luke 9.57-62:
    To [a man he met on the road] Jesus said, 'Follow me.' But he said, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' But Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.' Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'
    These are hard sayings of Jesus, because we instinctively think that the two men had good reasons to ask him to wait before they came along with him - family reasons: the first wanted to bury his father, the second wanted to say goodbye to those at home. Why would Jesus criticise them?

    Maybe because he could see what was behind their motives. And maybe he could see that what was there were things they needed to let go of.

    The man who wanted to bury his father: why did he want to be the one to do that? Why did he desire to be the one person in the family who would make the funeral arrangements? Could he not leave it to one of his brothers to take the central role at this family funeral? Was he holding onto a form of sibling rivalry which he needed to let go of?

    The man who wanted to say goodbye to those at home: why did he feel the need to do that? Why couldn't he just leave with Jesus and leave off telling the family the news for another day? Again, perhaps Jesus sensed, the reason may have been that this man was holding onto a desire for attention in the family - a desire to be noticed above the others. He wanted a good send-off. A desire of the world, the flesh, which he needed to let go of, to embrace another totally new form of freedom in Christ.

    Why does Jesus want us to do this letting-go? In her book The Art of Letting Go the psychologist Sylvia Clare tells us three things about holding on and letting go. [2]
    1. Holding on causes tension and restricts freedom;

    2. Letting go does not mean losing or having to give something up;

    3. Letting go means allowing things to exist as if they were in the palm of your hand.
    We can follow her argument by using our hands....

    1. Holding on causes tension and restricts freedom: (do it - it hurts)
    If we are holding onto something which has affected us in the past, we carry on hurting ourselves.
    Sometimes we convince ourselves that we need to hold on so we can keep learning from it. But if we stay attached to it then we continue to harm ourselves and those around us; we need to let it go.

    We can see this in Martha: - tense about all the things she had taken on herself to do: a tension which caused her to judge Mary harshly; and feeling restricted about herself: thinking that she was always going to be the one to do all the work, stopped her seeing herself doing things differently, being a new person.

    Why might Martha be holding on like that?
    - Maybe because she took over the role when their mother died;
    - Maybe because as a child she was told she wasn't clever and housework was her destiny;
    - Maybe because she'd never married and was compensating for her 'loss'...
    ... whatever reason Martha's holding on caused tension in her and in the house, stopped her being free to be who Jesus could help her be.

    (Sylvia Clare) 2. Letting go does not mean losing or having to give something up. You can keep that thing as something to learn from, while letting go of your attachment to it, let go of it emotionally.

    So Martha could continue to do the housework - but if she was less attached to it then she would stop being worried and distracted by it. She could find her self-esteem in other things, in what Jesus could tell her about herself. And she could lose her tendency to judge others and her expectation that things are always going to be like this ...

    (Sylvia Clare) 3. Letting go means allowing things to exist as if they were in the palm of your hand.
    People who let go feel like children making sandcastles: happy to spend lots of time working on something lovely; equally content when the tide comes in to wash that thing away.
    People who let go know that they can't control what is happening in the world;
    - they know what they want to happen;
    - but they can accept that if it doesn't, there is some good reason for it, even if they can't see what that might be;
    - they feel that if they remain open they will find it;
    - they're sure that if they let go of what they think it should be then they will find it is far better.
    Jesus said, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.'

    What did he mean by 'the better part'? Perhaps simply the art of letting go and letting be - or to use an old familiar and very useful expression, 'letting go and letting God'. Letting go of our obsessions and urges and unhealthy desires and giving God permission to enter our hearts, deeply, to live in the freedom which he brings, live a full and fulfilled life in Jesus Christ.

    Alan Billings again:
    So what are we to do? Those of us who are religious will remind ourselves where religion sees our real value lying. We can recall the words said over us at confirmation: 'God has called you by name and made you his own'. How could you possibly add value to that?
    "Martha, Martha," the LORD [says], "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. ... choose what is better, and it will not be taken away from [you]."

    When Martha encountered Jesus he told her, 'Martha, stop holding onto these things. Let them go, and come to me'.

    Let the Lord speak these words to you and me, today, too.

    [Close with a prayer using the threefold hands action....]

    [1] Rev Dr Alan Billings, Thought for the Day, 14 May 2007.
    [2] Sylvia Clare, The Art of Letting Go, originally published in Positive Health Online, issue 59 - December 2000
    [3] This sermon is an expansion my earlier effort, Luke 10 - On Letting Go, Good Shepherd Morning Communion 22/7/2007, and also includes elements of last week's talk at the Good Shepherd, Galatians 5, Luke 9: Family misfortunes - the difficulties of desire. I can't recall where the 'hand' images came from - if they are yours please contact me...