July 21, 2019
Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Emmanuel Baptist Church
Here's my problem with the story of Martha and Mary: I can't help but feel like I could have handled the situation much better than Jesus did. Jesus doesn't take a moment to consider why Martha it is that Martha is distracted by many things at that moment. Could it be because Jesus has just showed up at her house and she is trying to take care of him and be a good host? And Jesus didn’t usually travel alone—he may well have shown up at Martha and Mary’s house with his disciples and a number of other people as well. And it’s not like he was able to phone ahead and let them know he was coming! Wouldn’t you be worried and distracted if thirteen or more people showed up at your house unannounced? I have a fantasy version of this story where Jesus says, “You know, you’re right Martha. We’ve made a big mess here. How about Mary and I both help you clear these dishes and then we’ll all sit down and talk together.” That just seems to me to be a better way to manage the work involved with running a household and hosting guests.
This solution to the central problem of the story seems so obvious to me--and the gender and familiar dynamics of the story are so triggering to me--that it is hard for me to hear the spiritual lesson within this story. If you share some of my struggle, I would suggest reading this story as a kind of parable. As with other parables in the Gospels, Jesus takes the common things in his world and uses them to teach spiritual lessons. Just as he used a lost sheep or a prodigal son to teach his disciples about the world that God intends for them, so too these sisters are illustrating something bigger than just the dynamics in their household. If this passage is teaching a spiritual lesson, perhaps the push and pull between Martha and Mary is actually a spiritual struggle, one that takes place inside our own hearts.
Let's test that hypothesis by stepping into the story a little bit. In your programs this morning, I think you'll find a sheet with a numbered list entitled "To Do". Is this kind of sheet familiar to all of you? Who here makes a to-do list on a regular basis? Let's all make one right now, shall we? It could be a list of errands you need to run or tasks you need to complete at work this week or calls you need to make or repairs you need to do to your house or all of the above. Or it could be a list of all the things that you have you feeling worried and distracted, the things that go around in your head when you wake up in the middle of the night. But please note: on this list, we are going to start with #2. We are going to leave item #1 blank!
Now that you've started in our your list, let's check in. How did it make you feel to write this list? Did it relieve stress or create stress for you? Do you find it distracting to sit in worship with a to-do list like that in front of you (or did you have that list in your head already when you walked in this morning?) Do you want to hurry up and bring this service to a close so that you can get to work on your list?
Now let's consider item #1 on our list. In the passage we read from Luke, Jesus says to Martha, "You are worried and distracted about many things. There is need, however, for only one thing." And to illustrate what that one thing is he pointed to Mary. What is the ONE THING that Mary has on her to-do list? How would you describe her behavior, her attitude, her choices? Now take a look again at the to-do list you just wrote. Find your own words for the ONE THING that Jesus is talking about in this story--and then write it on that top line. I'll give you a few minutes to do that.
Would anyone like to share what you wrote down? How did it feel to put statement in the first spot on your list? How does it affect the rest of the items on your list?
My bet is that if we take this exercise home, if we actually made out our to-do lists this way, we would discover that paying attention to Jesus like Mary did makes us look at everything else on our to-do list differently. When we give total priority to the presence and power of God in our lives and in our world, a lot of what we spend our lives doing starts to seem unimportant. It makes a lot of what we worry about irrelevant. It makes a lot of what we devote our time to seem ridiculous. So, when we have Jesus’ ONE thing as our ONE thing, that isn’t just a way to get all of our priorities in line. It’s makes a lot of our other priorities evaporate.
Once we really hear what Jesus is saying, our busy lives and long to-do lists start to look a little different. These things aren’t just symptoms of our complex modern lives. Our multiple priorities are a defense mechanism. They are the way we keep Jesus and his call to radical commitment at bay. Our distractions aren’t an accident of the media or technology—they are protecting us from what we might hear if we really paid attention. I know this habit well. If there’s a difficult conversation I need to have or a complex project I need to really think through, I will often find myself clearing off my desk, answering my email, doing my filing and watering my plants. I tell myself that I’m being productive, that I’m working through my to-do list, but really all I’m doing is avoiding the one thing on my list that will actually ask something of me.
Do you ever find yourself doing that? What if that isn’t just a bad habit that some of us have? What if that is actually a pattern that we see replicated within our community, by our country, throughout this world? What if all the busyness, what if all the distractions that bombards us, are all ways in which we are actively avoiding addressing the things that really matter?
The story we read from Luke this morning describes an incident in the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago in a town thousands of miles away from us. But this story need not stay so far away. What if the house in the story is inside us, in my heart, in your heart? What if God has come to that house, shown up in your life, become incarnate in your world? There’s a part of you and a part of me that wants to notice God’s presence, wants to give it our complete attention, wants to learn from it and allow it to shape our lives. There’s a part of us that has been hungering for that kind of spiritual nourishment for years. But there is another part of us that is so occupied, so busy, and that occupied self won’t even let the hungry self sit for a moment. That occupied self wants to pull everyone in. She wants to engage everyone around with the busyness of the day.
Can we hear the voice of God speaking to us in that moment?
Heather, Heather, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need, however, of only one thing. That One Thing will rearrange the rest of your life. Are you listening?