By The Rev. Sherry Crompton

July 18, 2010

Read: Luke 10:38-42

When Jesus decided to drop in on Martha and her sister Mary, Martha’s first impulse was to get something going in the kitchen. In doing this she was faithful to her tradition of hospitality begun long ago when Abraham welcomed three guests to his tent. I don’t see anything wrong with this? Do you?

This piece of scripture is a difficult one to talk about because over the years it has been used to dichotomize Martha and Mary. In other words, and either/or situation – our tendency is to see ourselves either as a Martha or a Mary. Let’s think about that? Do you know someone who works all the time, without ever slowing down for a bit and sitting? Do you know someone who sits and learns all day, without every doing anything else? I think we can have tendencies toward one way or another, but we are all some mixture. We are both/and, not either or.

Another thought comes to mind. We just heard Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan last week in which he lifted up serving our neighbor. Acts of doing – sort of like Martha. Busy doing, busy serving.

So what is Jesus trying to say in this story? Well, let’s pay attention to what is being communicated. Twice Martha is described as “distracted”. First in the narrative by Luke and then by Jesus himself when he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

Perhaps the point of this story is not WHAT Martha is doing, but rather THE WAY in which she is doing it. In other words, she has lost her focus. Jesus is the guest in her home. Why is Jesus a guest and what does it mean to host Jesus? What is hospitality?

You might remember, from some time ago now, that comic film “City Slickers.” It was about three men ~ old friends from way back, and now approaching middle age ~ who spent some vacation time each year doing something daring that would pose a profound contrast with the button-down yuppie lifestyle they lived most of the time. The plot of the film revolves around their decision to spend a vacation together going on a cattle drive ~ helping a bunch of seasoned cowboys move a herd of cattle across the big plains of the West with the hope that, in the process, they might get in touch with their more primitive selves, and find out something useful about the meaning of life.

The boss of this cattle drive is a leathery old cowboy named Curly, who lives up to all of our stereotypes about cowboys. He’s mean and he’s tough, and he can do anything with a rope or a whip or a knife. But in his tough and rugged way he’s also very wise.

In one of the more serious scenes of this comedy, Curly is riding alongside one of the city slickers ~ a character played by Billy Crystal ~ and their conversation turns philosophical.

Against the backdrop of an open sky and roughhewn mountains and clear streams and jaggedly beautiful scenery, the man on vacation turns to Curly and says with longing, “Your life makes sense to you.” To which Curly replies: “You city folk. You worry a lot. How old are you? 38?”

“39,” the man says.

“You all come up here about the same age. You spend fifty weeks getting knots in your rope and you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it.”

He pauses a minute and then he goes on, “You know what the secret to life is?”

“No, what?” says the man.

And then Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean nothing.”
“That’s great,” says his companion, “but what’s the one thing?”

Curly looks at him for a minute, and says, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

So what is that “one thing”? What is Jesus talking about when he tells Martha that Mary has chosen the “better part which will not be taken away from her”? What is the “better part”?

I think those questions tie into my earlier questions about why is Jesus the guest? Have you ever been invited to someone’s else for a lunch or dinner? For a party where food is served? Have you noticed how people wind up congregating in the kitchen, around the food?

I think part of that has to do with why we go to someone’s house. We want to talk to the host or hostess. And the host or hostess is usually doing something in the kitchen, preparing something for the guests. So we hang around them while they work. And if the host doesn’t get too worried about that and focuses some time on the guests, a good time is usually had by all.

So, I don’t think Jesus is saying that there is anything wrong with being a responsible, action oriented, get it done kind of person. Jesus did not fault Martha for being responsible. Martha’s fault is that she was … too busy to listen … too distracted to sit at his feet and absorb his presence … too busy living life to quietly hear what Jesus had to say … too involved with all her activities and actions that she didn’t find time to first listen to the voice of Christ.

And so perhaps Jesus is telling us, in an unforgettable way, that listening precedes action, that we listen first and then do or act. The answer to the riddle is Mary first and Martha second. It is in that order. That is true in both human love and Christian discipleship. Listening first and action second. Listening and then doing. Jesus also says: be hearers and doers of the word.

Let me give you some examples. Have you ever come home from a day of work and your kids are talking with you at the kitchen table, and they are saying, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you nodding affirmatively at their words and thoughts, but you haven’t heard a word that they said. Yes, I think so. Or have you ever come home from a day of work and your spouse wants to share with you what has happened during their day, and he or she goes “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you don’t hear a word or thought that was spoken because you are so preoccupied with what happened during your day? Yes, I think so. Or have you ever been introduced to someone and your mind is racing so fast about everything that you actually don’t hear their name at all, and so you ask their name again, and you hear their name like you had never heard it before. You actually totally did not hear their name the first time. Have you ever had that experience? I think so. Many of us, in our intense business of life, have lost the art of listening.

What is listening? Listening is focusing on the other; it is centering on the other person; it is concentrating on the person before me, giving them my undivided attention. Listening is a gift of self to the other person. Think about a pair of binoculars. When we look through a pair of binoculars we are focused on one thing. Nothing in front; nothing to the side; nothing behind. If we use the binoculars to look at a garden, a garden full and lavish with flowers, so full and so lavish we couldn’t focus on just one flower. I then put the binoculars to my face and focus on three roses that I hadn’t seen so vividly without the binoculars. With my natural vision, I saw the whole garden; with the binoculars, I could focus on each individual plant. I did not focus on what was in front, behind or around. And so it is with listening. Listening is an art that is learned and slowly developed where you actually focus on that person before you. Not the history of everything that has happened earlier today or before. Not on the future and all the activities that will occur later today or this week. Not on the side about everything that is occurring right now at this moment. Listening focuses on that one person, not on the past, not on the future, not on all the stuff going on right now. Listening is a gift; it is an art; it is a learned behavior.

Listening is paying attention. Listening is part of being in relationship and Jesus is asking us to wake up and pay attention. Jesus is our guest. How will we be Jesus’ host? I pray that we all recognize the presence of Jesus in our life and act accordingly. The better part is putting Jesus first. Amen.

Copyright 2008-2012 Episcopal Church of the Trinity.

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