By The Rev. Sherry Deets
9 Pentecost, Proper 11 – July 21, 2013
Jesus was visiting his friends, Martha and Mary. Like the Martha Stewart we know today, this Martha is determined to be the perfect host. But she is distracted by her many tasks: the hors d’oeuvres aren’t quite ready, the flowers still need to be arranged, and that special sauce needs her attention. But, look, her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, doing nothing, just listening to Jesus. “Lord, tell Mary to make herself useful; I could use an extra hand here.”
Martha is measuring her own performance against the lack of performance she sees in Mary. Like the Pharisee in the temple who thanks God that he is not like the roguish tax collector. Like another character in one of Jesus’ stories who gets all bent out of shape about the tiny speck of dust in his friend’s eye, but is totally unaware of the big log in his own eye!
“Martha. Martha!” Jesus says to her. “You are distracted.” Notice that Jesus is not criticizing her task orientation, her doing. After all, Jesus had just told the story of the Good Samaritan who mercifully aids the wounded victim in the ditch, concluding with the familiar words: “Go and do likewise.” So we are careful to not turn this into a story which lifts up the life of contemplation over against a life of action.
No, the focus lies not in what Martha is doing, but in her attitude. She is distracted by her resentments and her expectations of Mary. Distraction: literally the word means “being drawn away.” Later on in Christian literature it will become a technical term for the cares of the world which draw a person away from God.
Martha is distracted, all right. When Jesus calls to her, he calls her name twice — “Martha. Martha!”– probably to ensure he has her full attention! Jesus is not calling Martha to exchange her life of action for a life of contemplation. Jesus is not calling her to park herself beside Mary on the floor at his feet. He is simply asking her to respond to the presence of God in her life.
Several years ago, Tom Friedman had a column on the op-ed page of the New York Times called “The Taxi Driver”. He told of being drive by cab from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. During the one-hour trip, he and the driver had done six things: the driver had driven the cab, talked on his cell phone, and watched a video (which was a little nerve-wracking!), whereas he had been riding, working on a column on his laptop, and listening to his iPod. “There was only one thing we never did: talk to each other.” Friedman went on to quote Linda Stone, a technologist, who had written that the disease of the internet age is “continuous partial attention”. Perhaps it is not only the disease of the Internet age; perhaps it has always been with us, and the just the causes of our inattention have altered.
Is it possible that this story of two sisters offers us an ongoing plea from the Lord to focus on him, to give him some “prime time”, some continuous full attention, just as we hopefully do for our close friends?
It’s the easiest thing in the world for the Marthas of today to become distracted by their many tasks. For large numbers of people this is nothing exceptional. It is their normal state of existence. They are stressed out, scattered, ready to share their unhappiness with others. They may engage in outbursts like Martha, or try in other ways to throw their weight around. They may seem flat and disengaged, and feel that way. In a world of living color, they have no energy to see in anything more than black and white on a very narrow screen.
Martha’s distracted by her many tasks. Her relationships–with Jesus, with her sister–suffer as a result. This otherwise admirable person appears as a big headache. All of us suffer when the Marthas of this world are not simply busy, but busy in the wrong way, a way that lacks a center. When Martha-type people are distracted and worried by many things, when they view these things as gigantic and see nothing better, when they experience no places of refreshment, no sabbath time, then all of us pay the price. You know what I’m talking about!
Jesus speaks gently to Martha. There’s no sense of rebuke in his voice. He’s reaching out to a dear friend who’s making an unholy fool of herself. He tells Martha there’s only one thing important. Rather than be at the mercy of her distractions, she must recognize her center.
That center is ever present. Instead of nervous energy, she can receive new strength; in place of weariness, a sense of wonder; rather than self-pity, humor about herself; instead of a deadening sense of duty, a lively, light-hearted joy. Martha, the unselfish hostess, must leave behind her distractions and welcome her own center, the Christ who lives within her.
Martha need not set aside her work, only her distractions. She must find her center, and let all that she does reflect that discovery.
The Marthas of today must also find their center. If their many tasks are to amount to something more than willfulness, they must choose that better part, and choose it over again each day.
We do know that Jesus invites all of us who are worried and distracted by many things to sit and rest in his presence, to hear his words of grace and truth, to know that we are loved and valued as children of God, to be renewed in faith and strengthened for service. There is need of only one thing: attention to our guest. As it turns out, our guest is also our host, with abundant gifts to give.
And in each of us there is that busy, competent Martha, all too often overburdened and distracted. The role she plays in the world is essential, but she stands in need of joy. Within each of us there is also Mary, a little spacey perhaps, but in touch with that joy. May these sisters live together in peace; may Jesus bless their home with his abiding presence. Amen.
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