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.”
The continued invitation for us today is to remember and reclaim what is most important and what One True Thing matters.
Paul Tillich described religion as that which concerns us ultimately. The things or persons or being or thoughts where we place our ultimate concern – there we could find our religion. How many of us, understood this way, would find love of God and love of neighbor as the sum of our religion? What other things to do we hold in the place of ultimate concern that preoccupies us – that distracts us, like Martha.
What we must declare as ultimate significance is a proclamation of the Gospel – we must be ready to proclaim what God has done through Christ, which is ultimately a proclamation of God’s love for us. But how often are we really ready and really aware of these things? We have lost our attentiveness; we are distracted from our center. And so what does our busy-ness proclaim?
I have a saying that I keep on my desktop: “Stop the glorification of busy.” Do you glorify busy? I know I do.
We might even venture to say that many of us worship at the altar of busy. We chase schedules and pursue being busy.
We give into frantic and frenetic activity as a way to (at least) attempt to quell our anxiety. Or we want to be important, we want to be needed. Our busyness, though, is one of the key ways that we distract ourselves from what ought to be of utmost priority. “We become distracted when we serve, [when we keep busy] for the sake of the rewards – the approval, paycheck, affection – rather than out of love for the One who created us” and gives us purpose in our action.
Pastor Eugene Peterson writes when we worship at the altar of busy, we do so for one of two reasons – or both: we are either vain or we are lazy. We are driven by our own vanity – the need and desire to be important, to receive accolades, to be needed and wanted. Or we are too lazy to choose anything but busy – we lack the decisiveness or the discernment to determine our own priorities, so we let others decide what we will do. By abdicating our time to others’ priorities, we do everything but what is essential.
But. What Jesus’ invitation reminds us is that without time to be still – to listen – reclaim our focus – we have nothing left but anxiety and trouble. We get burnt out, we turn resentful, and bitter. Service that has Christ at its core, that has love of God and love of neighbor as its core identity does not lead to these things. Service with Christ at its core – that balances the inhalations and exhalations of contemplation and action is life giving and redemptive.
This story, this parable for us is about The Most Important Thing – being in the presence of God – being attentive to the presence of God all around us – and by shaping our very being, our very lives around this presence, acting out of that presence we fully love God with our whole lives, and by extension our neighbor.
This Most Important Thing follows a challenging essay posted this week by Sara Miles (as many of you know Miles is one of my favorite, favorite authors). The essay, provocatively titled, “The Most Important Word in the Bible,” posits that the most important word in scripture is not what you think. It is not love, justice, mercy. The most important word isn’t even sin or salvation.
Rather, the most important word in the bible is “with”. Grammatically speaking, this word is mere conjunction – a word designed to link two other words or ideas together. And yet – what a powerful piece of grammar.
‘With’ links us to God and tells us so much more theologically about the God who created us than attributes like love and peace might. ‘With’ is the starting and ending point of our theology. This divine ‘with’ also points toward our Trinitarian theology – by God’s very nature, God exists with – in relationship – the Creator with Son and Spirit – and, by grace, God extends and gathers humanity into relationship. God brings us along into life with God.
We proclaim in our worship: “The Lord be with You.” We describe Christ as “God with us.” We hold fast to Jesus’ promise that, through the Holy Spirit, “I am with you always.”
We do wrong to posit that God is for us – as though God is against others. God is for the same folks I am, and against my very enemies. No. The fundamental theological truth, then is that God exists only in relationship. This is how we love God with all of who we are – by being with God in relationship. And we love our neighbors when we reflect this divine relationship by being with others.
This ‘with’ is the most important word in the Bible and it is the most difficult. Being with Christ is the invitation in the story today, but it is also the most difficult piece. Jesus invites Martha to be with him – to let go of her distraction and her busy-ness and focus on his presence. Letting go and being attentive in this way takes time and will change us. It will redirect and redefine our priorities – our ultimate concern.
We are likewise invited to be with our neighbors. Doing for, as Miles writes, is the easy part. I can do things for other people all day long – and feel pretty good about myself. But it is the being with that is the call of Christ – to wait, listen, be – it takes time and it changes us.
We at First Baptist are pretty distracted these days. Look around. Things are different. We are inconvenienced. We are distracted by the noise, and the headache and the change. We fear too much interruption. Do we remember what all this inconvenience, noise, and interruption is about? We are about hospitality and we are about welcome.
There is a lot in the planning that can – and, dare I say – has distracted us. There are contracts and contacts, there are bids, and schedules, and details. There are programs that are postponed, interrupted, shifted.
Let this story, this parable, particularly at this time serve as a call to attentiveness.
Let this story, this parable, particularly at this time serve as a reminder of what is the Most Important Thing: is our ultimate concern in maintaining the status quo and in providing the same, uninterrupted schedule, or is our ultimate concern in providing a place of hospitality and care?
Are we as a church too distracted in our busyness and our chaos to sit at the feet of Christ and remember who it is that is with us? Are we seeking to be with him – in relationship with God and with one another? Even in the midst of disruption and unexpected obstacles, Jesus invites us to keep our eyes focused on the Word, our reason for being and doing.
Cynthia Jarvis offers this uncomfortable and challenging reminder: “A community that is hospitable to Christ is a community marked by the attention the community gives to God’s word. A church that has been led to […distraction] will be a community that dwells in the shallows of frantic potlucks, anxious stewardship campaigns, and events designed simply to perpetuate the institution. …business being done without any word of the God whom they thought they had agreed to serve.”
May we not hear the condemnation most loudly, but hear the call to remember our purpose, remember that the way to eternal life is loving God fully and wholly, and loving other people as God loves them. To do that requires attentiveness. And not mere attention, but a commitment to being present with. May we find eternal life as we commit once again to being with God and with one another.
 Danielle Shroyer, “Let the Cat Fight Begin,” The Hardest Question, July 15, 2013. http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/lec16cgospel/
 James Wallace, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, 267.
 Douglass John Hall, Feasting on the Word, 264.
 David Lose, “Mary, Martha and My Dad,” Dear Working Preacher, July 11, 2010, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1569
 Luke 10.37
 Preaching Peace. http://www.preachingpeace.org/lectionaries/yearc-proper11/
 Sara Miles, “The Most Important Word in the Bible,” The Daily Episcopalian, July 21, 2013. http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/mission/the_most_important_word_in_the.php
 Cynthia Jarvis, Feasting on the Word, 264.