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The Work of Our Hands 
By Dr. Stuart R. Gordon
09/04/11

The Work of Our Hands
Psalm 90
Luke 10:38-42

SEPTEMBER 4, 2011
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
DR. STUART R. GORDON


Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands upon us,
Yea, the work of our hands, establish it.

I wonder if, to an atheist, that prayer would sound especially odd: a prayer that God would establish our work, set it in stone like a monument. I ask because I can imagine someone saying, "If you want your work to last, then work hard and don't expect someone to come behind you to compensate for your deficiencies and to fix your mistakes." 
What sense does it make, to pray for our work to last, that it be something more than a temporary measure, not something that is forgotten as soon as the dust of the earth is placed in a mound over our bodies? Shouldn't we just work? Shouldn't we just use the brains God gave us, and the hours we have in the day, to accomplish what we intend?
The sisters Martha and Mary surely are among the most vexing people in the Bible. For as long as I can remember, this brief incident in their home has sparked debate between those who identify with Mary and those who identify with Martha. The Marys of the church wish that Martha would relax, sit down, and listen to the sermon with her sister. It won't be the end of the world if the dishes pile up in the sink until morning! The Marthas of the world wish that the Lord would tell Mary to get off her lazy rear-end and be useful! It seems, one would think, that Jesus might comply with Martha's request, given that he is sitting on her furniture and eating her food. But no. Jesus' reply to Martha is, to her and all who identify with her, simply incomprehensible, even maddening! She needs help getting things done; he starts talking in vague, philosophical language: "Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her." And I can imagine Martha staring at Jesus with a blank face, and replying, "Okay, but would you please tell her to help me?"
Yet Luke doesn't report Martha's response. He gives the last word to Jesus and the last word is that there is only one thing needed.
I noticed this week for the first time that this incident bears a remarkable resemblance to a parable that Luke shares a few chapters later. These two, contrasting sisters bear some resemblance to the two, contrasting brothers, older and younger, responsible and prodigal. In the parable, one brother is forgiven and the other is unforgiving. At the parable's conclusion, one brother is inside the house, enjoying the celebration; the other is outside the house, angry and resentful.
When it comes to the sisters, one is attentive to Jesus, sitting at his feet listening; the other is distracted, quite busy, in fact overwhelmed by everything she has to do! One is calm, the other agitated and resentful.
Notice that in both the incident in Martha's home and in the parable, our Lord does not choose between the siblings. The Lord does not favor one over the other. The resentful sibling feels as if the Lord is favoring the other; but he is not. The forgiving father tells his angry, older son, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." Jesus tells Martha, "You are worried and distracted by many things … Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
If Jesus' last word is not an effort to distinguish between Mary and Martha, then what is it? If it isn't a word to Mary to do the work given to her, nor a word to Martha to put down her dishrag and study the Bible, what is it? I am suggesting that this incident from the ministry of Jesus has nothing to do with salvation, with who is in and who is out. Both women are in the house with Jesus, just as both sons are always with the father. There is no need for distinctions here because both siblings are included.
I am suggesting that Jesus' word to Martha is not a matter of life and death, but it is a matter of living. It's a matter of praying instead of fretting, of listening instead of complaining, of peace instead of resentment. Quite frankly, it seems that you are free to take it or leave it. You can continue to be worried and distracted by many things, or you can choose the better part, which will not be taken away from you. So, we can be altogether sympathetic to Martha, which should not be very hard for most of us. 
Martha is no fool. She knows that she has a limited amount of time to accomplish an unlimited number of chores. Each day will bring her new loads of laundry, more dirty dishes, a new layer of dust. Each of us knows that though Labor Day offers a holiday, just as surely more work will follow: more potential clients to contact, more conflicts to address, more sicknesses to treat. Surely in the week to come, there will be more work to do than we have time to get it done. (I have been told by many retirees that they are busier in retirement than when they were working!) Anyone who has ever come to the end of the day knowing that the "to-do" list has several items still staring at you; anyone who has made difficult choices about which person to call and which person to leave until tomorrow; anyone who has ever wished that there were another day in the week, understands Martha – understands the distraction, the anxiety, the burden. "I'm not going to get it all done."
The Greeks had a myth about it – Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, cursed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. Reinhold Niebuhr once said that anything worth spending a lifetime doing, takes more than a lifetime to accomplish (source unknown). Lesslie Newbigin talks about "the fact of death. Death removes each of us from the story before the story reaches its goal" (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 113). 
I used to have a father in this world; then one day I didn't. I used to be able to run up and down an asphalt basketball court in the blazing sun for hours; now I start digging footings on mission trips and mothers send their teenage sons to give me a break, because they are worried I'll keel over. None of us is going to get it all done. 
What is a mortal to do? Pray for your work to be established, set in stone like a monument, and choose the better portion, which shall not be taken from you. 
Our lives are filled with all sorts of cheaper invitations, false promises and deceptions. We are invited to live in denial about death. We are offered products and services intended to hide the fact of our aging. There is even some sort of doctor's office in my neighborhood that calls itself an "anti-aging center!" Talk about defying gravity!
Then there are options that are marginally better, actions that aim higher than the denial of death. We can feel called to leave some sort of positive legacy when we are gone. We can work to be remembered as generous or kind. We can be busy doing much good. But still, we must acknowledge that no building with our name inscribed on it, no foundation established with our fortunes, no family of children who carry on our names will either forestall our death or give us life, not by themselves. Everything we do in this world is subject to decay. The Psalmist calls us to pray, and Jesus offers to us a promise. The fact is that death is not a problem that we can solve, just as life is not a product of a manufacturing process. Life is a miracle worked by God, death is the mysterious result of human sin, and any life after death must be, itself, miraculous. We do not make ourselves and we cannot save ourselves. So we pray; and we trust Jesus' promise.
It was with some regret this summer that I joined my sons to watch the final movie installment of the Harry Potter series. They grew up with us reading those books aloud, and then watching the movies. I will be forever grateful to J.K. Rowling for crafting a world in which my family could imagine the gospel in a whole new way. At the heart of the Harry Potter story is love and friendship and sacrifice in the face of death. Perhaps you have heard, as I have, that the name of the villain in the story, Lord Voldemort, means "the one who flees death." The story bears this out, as Voldemort splits his own soul seven ways, in order to avoid death. But Harry, just Harry, by contrast does not flee death, but courageously answers its call. 
None of us can flee death, nor deny it finally, nor defeat it on our own. But neither must we. 
We trust Jesus, whose death is the answer to sin, and whose resurrection is the answer to death. We simply don't have to meet the mysterious force of death and its threat that our work is futile, with anxious labors, agitated complaining, or expensive denials. John tells us that Mary and Martha learned this very lesson from Jesus, after their brother Lazarus had died. "I am the resurrection and the life," He said. "Do you believe this?" Martha replied, "Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (11:27).
And that, according to the Apostle Paul, is what makes any work we do worth doing. That resurrection, and the promise of our sharing in it, is what frees us from agitation about not getting it all done. Of course we won't get it all done. But then, anything worth spending a lifetime doing, takes more than a lifetime to accomplish. And our merciful Savior does not will for us a life of agitation and anxiety. He wills for us "the better part." He wills for us the glorious freedom of the children of God, who pray, "Establish the work of our hands." Set it in stone like a monument. He wills for us the peace of those who sit at the feet of Christ, just listening. Whether it is a few minutes in prayer in your living room, or a few hours on a Sunday morning in worship, it is the better part. It is not life and death, but it is living. 
So Paul says confidently, because of the resurrection, "Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain." This is the same Apostle who claims to have outworked all the others. He must have known what Mary knew. Mary, wise enough to sit and listen to Jesus, must have known that anxiety will not make labor last, but all labor done in fellowship with Jesus will last. All labor: not just ministers preaching or choristers singing, but lawyers defending and teachers teaching, mothers nursing and fathers guiding, officers policing and nurses treating. All labor done in fellowship with Jesus will last. None of it will be in vain. God answers the prayer, "Establish the work of our hands," with the resurrection of Jesus. 
It is not life and death, but it is living. It is praying instead of fretting, listening instead of complaining, peace instead of resentment. And frankly, you are free to take it or leave it. Whichever you choose, you are still always with him. But why continue to be worried and distracted by many things, when you can choose the better part, which will not be taken from you?
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