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Sour Service is No Service at All

The passages below are taken from Max Lucado’s book “He still moves Stones,” published in 1993.

 

Do everything without complaining or arguing.

Then you will be innocent and without any wrong.

PHILIPPIANS 2:14—15

I LOVE MILK. I am a confessed milkaholic. One of the saddest days of my life was when I learned that whole milk was unhealthy. With great reluctance I have adapted to the watered-down version—--but on occasion I still allow myself the hallowed ecstasy of a cold glass of whole milk and a hot, gooey, chocolate chip cookie.

In my years of appreciating the fine fruit of the cow I have learned that a high price is paid for leaving milk out of the refrigerator. (On one occasion I spewed the spoiled stuff all over the kitchen cabinet.) Sweet milk turns sour from being too warm too long.

Sweet dispositions turn sour for the same reason. Let aggravation stew without a period of cooling down, and the result? A bad, bitter, clabberish attitude.

The tenth chapter of Luke describes the step-by-step process of the sweet becoming sour.

It’s the story of Martha. A dear soul given to hospitality and organization. More frugal than frivolous, more practical than pensive, her household is a tight ship and she is a stern captain. Ask her to choose between a book and a broom, and she’ll take the broom.

Mary, however, will take the book. Mary is Martha’s sister. Same parents, different priorities. Martha has things to do. Mary has thoughts to think. The dishes can wait. Let Martha go to the market; Mary will go to the library.

Two sisters. Two personalities. And as long as they understand each other, it’s hand in glove. But when the one resents the other, it’s flint and stone.

Let’s say we quietly step in the back door of Martha’s kitchen and I’ll show you what I mean. (One warning: Stay away from the milk; it’s beginning to sour.)

Shhh, there she is. Over by the table. The one wearing the apron. My, look at her work! I told you this lady knows how to run a kitchen. How does she do that? Stirring with one hand, cracking eggs with the other. And nothing spills. She knows what she’s doing.

Must be a big crowd. There’s lots of food. That’s them laughing in the next room. Sounds like they’re having fun.

But Martha isn’t. One look at the flour-covered scowl will tell you that.

“Stupid sister.”

What? Did you hear her mumble something?

“That Mary. Here I am alone in the kitchen while she’s out there.”

Hmm. Seems the oven isn’t the only thing hot in here.

“Wouldn’t have invited Jesus over if I’d known he was gonna bring the whole army. Those guys eat like horses, and that Peter always belches?”

Oh boy. She’s miffed. Look at her glaring over her shoulder through the doorway. That’s Mary she’s staring at. The one seated on the floor, listening to Jesus.

“Little sweet sister . . . always ready to listen and never ready to work. I wouldn’t mind sitting down myself. But all I do is cook and sew, cook and sew. Well, enough is enough!”

Watch out! There she goes. Someone’s about to get it. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone to do all the work? Tell her to help me” (v. 40).

Suddenly the room goes silent, deathly silent except for the tap-tap-tapping of Martha’s foot on the stone floor and the slapping of a wooden spoon in her palm. She looms above the others—--flour on her cheeks and fire in her eyes.

We have to chuckle at the expression on the faces of the disciples. They stare wide-eyed at this fury that hell hath not known. And poor Mary, flushed red with embarrassment, sighs and sinks lower to the floor.

Only Jesus speaks. For only Jesus understands the problem. The problem is not the large crowd. The problem is not Mary’s choice to listen. The problem is not Martha’s choice to host. The problem is Martha’s heart, a heart soured with anxiety.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things” (v. 41). Bless her heart, Martha wanted to do right. But bless her heart, her heart was wrong. Her heart, Jesus said, was worried. As a result she turned from a happy servant into a beast of burden. She was worried: worried about cooking, worried about pleasing, worried about too much.

I like what my favorite theologian Erma Bombeck has to say about worrying:

I’ve always worried a lot and frankly, I’m good at it. I worry about introducing people and going blank when I get to my mother. I worry about a shortage of ball bearings; a snake coming up through the kitchen drain. I worry about the world ending at midnight and getting stuck with three hours on a twenty-four hour cold capsule. I worry about getting into the Guinness World Book of Records under “Pregnancy: Oldest Recorded Birth.” I worry what the dog thinks when he sees me coming out of the shower; that one of my children will marry an Eskimo who will set me adrift on an iceberg when I can no longer feed myself. I worry about salesladies following me into the fitting room, oil slicks, and Carol Channing going bald. I worry about scientists discovering someday that lettuce has been fattening all along.

 

Apparently Martha worried too much, too. So much so that she started bossing God around. Worry will do that to you. It makes you forget who’s in charge.

What makes this case interesting, however, is that Martha is worried about something good. She’s having Jesus over for dinner. She’s literally serving God. Her aim was to please Jesus. But she made a common, yet dangerous mistake. As she began to work for him, her work became more important than her Lord. What began as a way to serve Jesus, slowly and subtly became a way to serve self.

Maybe the process went something like this. As she began to prepare the meal, she anticipated the compliments on the food. As she set the table, she imagined the approval. She could just picture it. Jesus would enter the house and thank her for all her work. He would tell the disciples to give her a standing ovation. John would cite her as an example of hospitality and dedicate a chapter in the Bible to her.

Then women would come from miles around to ask her how she learned to be such a kind and humble servant. The rest of her days would be spent directing a school of servanthood—--with Jesus as the director and Martha as the professor.

But things didn’t turn out like she’d planned. She didn’t get the attention she sought. No standing ovation. No compliments. No adulations. No school. No one noticed. And that irritated her. Martha is long on anxiety and short on memory. She has forgotten that the invitation was her idea. She has forgotten that Mary has every right to be with Jesus. And most of all, she has forgotten that the meal is to honor Jesus, not Martha.

I know exactly how Martha feels. For I’ve been in Martha’s kitchen. Or better, I’ve been in Max’s office.

I know what it’s like to set out to serve God and end up serving self. I’ve labored long and hard over sermons only to have my feelings hurt if they aren’t complimented. I’ve pushed myself deeply into a manuscript only to catch myself daydreaming about the post publication compliments. I’ve spoken to conference audiences about the sufferings of Christ and then gotten frustrated that the hotel room wasn’t ready.

It’s easy to forget who is the servant and who is to be served.

Satan knows that. This tool of distortion is one of Satan’s slyest. Note: He didn’t take Martha out of the kitchen; he took away her purpose in the kitchen. The adversary won’t turn you against the church; he will turn you toward yourself in the church. He won’t take you away from your ministry; he’ll disillusion you in your ministry.

And when the focus is on yourself, you do what Martha did—-- you worry. You become anxious about many things. You worry that:

Your co-workers won’t appreciate you.

Your leaders will overwork you.

Your superintendent won’t understand you.

Your congregation won’t support you.

With time, your agenda becomes more important than God’s. You’re more concerned with presenting self than pleasing him. And you may even find yourself doubting God’s judgment.

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone to do all the work? Tell her to help me” (v. 40).

Don’t you know Martha regretted saying that! I bet that after she cooled down, she would have loved to have those words back. I imagine she wished she’d heeded Solomon’s counsel: “A rebel shouts in anger; a wise man holds his temper in and cools it” (Proverbs 29:11 TLB).

There is a principle here. To keep an attitude from souring, treat it like you would a cup of milk. Cool it off.

Martha’s life was cluttered. She needed a break. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things,” the Master explained to her. “Only one thing is important. Mary has chosen [it] (vv. 41—42).

What had Mary chosen? She had chosen to sit at the feet of

Christ. God is more pleased with the quiet attention of a sincere servant than the noisy service of a sour one.

By the way, this story could easily have been reversed. Mary could have been the one to get angry. The sister on the floor could have resented the sister at the sink. Mary could have grabbed Jesus and dragged him into the kitchen and said, “Tell Martha to quit being so productive and to get reflective. Why do I have to do all the thinking and praying around here?”

What matters more than the type of service is the heart behind the service. A bad attitude spoils the gift we leave on the altar for God.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke about the fellow who prayed with a bad attitude?

“Why” he asked, “has my brother been blessed with wealth and I with nothing? All of my life I have never missed a single day with out saying morning and evening prayers. My church attendance has been perfect. I have always loved my neighbor and given my money. Yet now, as I near the end of my life, I can hardly afford to pay my rent.

“My brother, on the other hand, drinks and gambles and plays all the time. Yet he has more money than he can count. I don’t ask you to punish him, but tell me, why has he been given so much and I have been given nothing?”

“Because,” God replied, “you’re such a self-righteous pain in the neck.”

 

Guard your attitude.

God has gifted you with talents. He has done the same to your neighbor. If you concern yourself with your neighbor’s talents, you will neglect yours. But if you concern yourself with yours, you could inspire both.  (47-52)

 

While Jesus and his followers were traveling, Jesus went into a town. A woman named Martha let Jesus stay at her house.

Martha had a sister named Mary, who was sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach. But Martha was busy with all the work to be done. She went in and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone to do all the work? Tell her to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. Only one thing is important. Mary has chosen the better thing, and it will never be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38—42 NCV)

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