I really don’t want to preach this sermon today. This story makes me more-than-a-little uneasy. Maybe it makes some of you uneasy. And maybe for similar reasons. And maybe, for many of you males, you hear the story and turn your attention to your wives or mothers or aunts or other women, assuming along with us that this is a story about, and for, women.
So, no: I don’t want to talk about Mary and Martha. I don’t want to force types or categories of women. I don’t want to tempt false dichotomies and risk alienation. But mostly I don’t want to talk about Mary and Martha because most of us assume we already know the lesson here. As Danielle Shroyer writes, “It’s that time in the lectionary where we throw the practical women under the bus and shame them.”
We could do that. We could focus this morning on the tired dichotomies of women who do, do, do – keeping busy at hosting, getting frustrated at those who do not. We could focus this morning over-praising the docile, quiet, contemplatives. But the truth is, we’ll keep missing the point.
This story is not a story of shame. This story is not merely a story for women to discern personality type. (Am I a Mary or a Martha?) But think about all the ways we’ve turned it to that – we shame women for being too busy. And you never hear men say, “Oh, I was being a total Martha that I just didn’t even sit down!”
We as women have grown up with this story, placing us in categories of sinner and saint.
But I’m done with that.
Not least because I’m tired of women pitting against one another. But mostly because this story is not about a dichotomy between sitting or doing. It’s about something deeper. It’s about presence. As Shroyer describes, the Mary and Martha story is “a presence parable.”
This is a story about what happens when our activity loses its object. And what Jesus says is that there ought to be one object of devotion. There is One Most Important thing. “[Jesus] is not going after Busy Martha, but Worried and Distracted Martha.”
The Greek word, perispaomi, used here to indicate Martha’s distraction indicates that Martha has drawn away from, or diverted her attention away. The problem is the distraction.
Again, this story is not about an either/or typology, but a both/and.
We must do. And we must listen. The truth is, “either posture [– Martha’s doing and Mary’s listening -] assumed to the point of preoccupation or ideology courts very serious problems.” The real dichotomy here is between the distracted person and “the person who is present in whatever task he or she is doing.”
In this case, Martha’s distraction has left no room for gracious attention to her guest – she has sacrificed true hospitality for the sake of sibling rivalry – she embarrasses her sister in front of her guest, and goes so far as accusing her guest – accusing Jesus – of not caring about her.
Talk about distraction.
The opposite of Martha’s activity, then, isn’t Mary’s passive sitting (because that isn’t what Mary is doing); the opposite of Martha is a centered, present Martha. The counterpoint to a distracted, anxious Martha, is a Martha who understands true attentiveness, who has maintained or reclaimed her focus.
We need to hear this message all the more clearly and all the more bluntly in our age of touch-screens, and internet and text messages and constant Googling. Technologist Linda Stone diagnoses the “disease of the Internet age is ‘continuous partial attention.’”
We are really adept – and getting better – at constantly moving, convincing ourselves that we can do more and more things at the same time. I’m pretty convinced that all my devices don’t run on battery, but on the power of keeping me distracted. Perhaps you understand.
We are motivated by garnering comments, and likes, and retweets, and favorites, and followers. Even if you don’t think you know what I’m talking about, I’ll bet you get the idea. And if we aren’t distracted enough by our screens, or our devices beckoning us with their sounds and vibrations and flashing screens, surely we are distracted enough by all the words that saturate us: blogs, tweets, cable news, talking heads.
We are absolutely saturated by words, surely it is scientifically impossible to really listen to all of them. I have a friend who can hardly stand to turn on the radio when she is in her car because she feels that because of all the words she hears at home, at work, around town, that her ears are just too full to abuse them with any more. Perhaps she is on to something.
In all these words, in all these distractions, we need this story even more. We need to be reminded of the real lesson here – not found in choosing between doing and listening, but that in all of it – in our doing and our listening and all that’s in between we must reclaim attentiveness to the presence of God.
We do, to be sure, need to hear Jesus commend Mary for choosing to sit and listen and to hear his words. But we need to continue to listen to what it is he says to Martha. He does not chide her activity, but her distraction. And listen to her words – so full of self-talk – as though she has forgotten the person to whom she is speaking.
Jesus’ response, we should not be surprised, is one of grace and love – he extends an invitation to receive his presence. His invitation communicates to Martha that her value is intrinsic to who she is – not in the activity she busies herself doing. He invites her to remember her focus – to remember what gives her life, which is found in the purpose for the action, not in the action itself.
Jesus offers us a similar invitation – this is where this story does and can and ought exist on the level of parable: “Jesus [invites] us to get caught up in the joy of being in his presence such that we forget, if only for a little while, all the usual things that hold us back, all the usual worries and headaches and concerns, and simply be… ‘in Christ.’”
Further, the call, the invitation from God is to move away from our lives of continuous partial attention, to give continuous full attention – in all our undertakings. It is no accident or mere coincidence that Luke places this story after the story of the Good Samaritan, which, you will recall, is a story told to illustrate the greatest commandments. To Love the Lord Our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Good Samaritan, it would seem, is a story about doing. About activity. In fact, Jesus closes the parable with “Go and do likewise.”
And then Luke follows that parable with this story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. We don’t know what words Mary heard – but we do know what Jesus said to Martha. Keep in mind this is the only account of his visit at their home – the only recorded conversation from that night. Luke’s retelling, and Luke’s juxtaposition of the Good Samaritan with the Mary and Martha story is intentional.
We can no more fully understand and love God by doing only as we can by hearing only. If our attention, our focus, is rightly placed, then one will follow the other.
To assume that discipleship can be a one-or-the-other life, is to assume that we could keep on living by only inhaling or only exhaling. There is a balance – there is a rhythm. Both are essential to life. Our exhalations presuppose our inhalations. And in our inhalation, we anticipate the exhale. Likewise, we must seek the balance of sitting at the foot of Christ and listening, of contemplating, of being still and seeking quiet, and by turns being prompted to actions of grace, love, and hospitality – all of it centered on the one object of devotion.
What is that Most Important Thing – that one object of our devotion? It is found in our attentiveness to God’s presence – in all things. David Lose describes this attentive spirituality, “as easily practiced in the kitchen as in the study, at school or at play, while working the farm or looking for work. What matters is not so much what you are doing, but the attentiveness to God’s presence and purpose in, with, under all our varied activities and responses.”