July 21, 2019 Sermon
“Distracted by Many Things”
Old Testament Scripture: Amos 8:1-12
This is what the Lord GOD showed me-a basket of summer fruit. He said, "Amos, what do you see?"
And I said, "A basket of summer fruit."
Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day," says the Lord GOD; "the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!" Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.
New Testament Scripture Reading: Luke 10:38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."
But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
Sermon: Distracted by Many Things
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been hearing the Apostle Paul talk about Jesus and what a Christian life might look like. Today, we step out of the Epistles, and go right to the source, Jesus himself. And strangely enough, he doesn’t really make things any simpler for us. In fact, he may have even muddied the waters a little bit, at least for those of us who like our theology cut and dried, and vacuum packed into a nice little box that we can understand, and even sell to other people.
Because, let’s face it, there are a couple of different ways of looking at today’s story of the two sisters.
One way, I think, the most common way, is to think of this story as a recommendation from Jesus, a command, even, to spend our lives in contemplative prayer. To withdraw from the world, to spend one’s time in meditation, reflective worship, adoration and praise.
And there is a lot in this scripture that points in that direction.
Jesus has come into Martha’s and Mary’s home to teach, and rather than listening to Jesus, Martha goes into the kitchen. And she is upset that her sister has not come with her. After it’s her job as well, isn’t it? Doesn’t Mary bear some of the responsibility for the work of the household? We’ve got guests, hungry guests, hot, tired, expectant guests, and instead of tending to their needs, Mary is simply reclining at Jesus’ feet, soaking in his words, without a care in the world.
It’s frustrating for Mary, and she shows it. From the kitchen, we hear an increasingly loud banging of pots and pans, accompanied by under the breath mutterings of how it’s only her always doing the work, and how is that fair, and gee whiz, it sure would be nice if other people could help out once in a while, and it must be great to just lounge around while other people are working their butts off in the kitchen.
But this buzzing noise from the kitchen just doesn’t seem to faze Mary. Without a care in the world, she hangs on every word that Jesus says, ignoring the tempest brewing in the next room.
Well, finally the storm breaks, and Martha comes marching into the living room to demand that Jesus tell Mary to get off her rear end and start pulling her own weight. It’s not right to leave all the housework to one person. There’s too much to do. And if Mary can’t seem to get the hint, then it was time for Jesus to make it very clear to her what the rules were.
But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. In fact, he gently rebukes Martha for being distracted. He compliments Mary for her attentiveness. Martha is left steaming mad, a vindictive busybody, trying to earn her place with Jesus, trying to use him to get her own way, and we see Mary being held up as a model for us all.
At least, that is how many folks have interpreted this scripture. For them, by sitting still and doing nothing, Mary has chosen the better thing. The work, the service the hospitality, the self-less-ness of Martha’s actions are put down, and adoration and praise are glorified as the correct and only acceptable posture of true worship.
And I think we know of people and of churches who hold this attitude. Worship isn’t just the primary thing, it’s the only thing. After all, Jesus said right out that Mary has chosen the better way of doing stuff, and nobody can take that away from her. And so that’s what we should be doing. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, lifting our adoring faces to him, hold out our arms to him, looking for an experience with him, naming him, claiming him, praising him, loving him.
And for some folks who take this path, the sort of work that bleeding-heart do-gooders do, the sort of social work, the advocating for the poor, the sort of activism, the sort of going around making noise about the state of the world and how unfair it is, and why don’t more of us do something about, well, they’re just like Martha, aren’t they? They’ve become distracted by many things, and they’ve walked away from Jesus, they’ve locked themselves into a different part of the house. In fact, they’ve chosen the lesser thing.
When read in this way, this story becomes an indictment on an active faith: Contemplation, good, action, bad. Adoration, good, service, bad. Experiencing Jesus, good, ministering to the world, bad. Because, Jesus said so. And that seals it. Conversation over.
And you know, there is some truth to this interpretation. It would benefit us to find ourselves at Jesus feet more often. We could use some quiet time in our lives when we listen for the words of our savior.
But I’ve also heard other ways to interpret this scripture, maybe not so common, but in some circles, pretty convincing.
For some folks, Mary’s decision to sit at the feet of Jesus is more than just a gesture of worship. It’s a radical decision, a firm statement of her inclusion as one of Jesus’ inner circle, one of his disciples. And in the time in which Jesus lived, this was unheard of. When a Rabbi taught, it was the men who gathered at his feet. Woman couldn’t learn. Women couldn’t think theologically. It was the men who were invited to hear the Rabbi. The woman’s place was in the kitchen.
Yet here we see a woman brazenly inserting herself into the realm of men. Of forcing her way into a closed society. Mary isn’t just lounging around. She is breaking a glass ceiling, millennia before the term had been invented. Mary is the first feminist, and she is insisting on her place at the table.
And in this interpretation, Martha is clinging to the old ways, the patriarchal order of things, where the men learn, and the women work. She sees Mary breaking down walls that are there for a reason, and Martha doesn't know how to handle it. What Mary is doing is dangerous, revolutionary.
And not only that, it’s embarrassing. Mary should know her place. Martha is very aware of her position in society, and, she turns to the ranking member of the religious elite to back her up.
“Jesus, you see what’s going on here, don’t you? Tell her forget about all this talk of being equal, of sharing the same responsibilities and rights as men. Who knows where that might lead? It’s a dangerous path, this attempt to break down our traditions, our ways of life, and we just can’t afford to go there. We’ve got more important fish to fry. Tell her to take her place with me in the kitchen. There’s work to do.”
And in this interpretation, Jesus blesses Mary’s courageous destruction of bender barriers. Mary is here at his feet, learning with men, establishing her own place, and that is a good thing, in fact, it’s a better thing than clinging to an artificial segregation between people of equal character and ability.
And it’s not just a blessing of Mary. We even see Jesus encouraging Martha to let go of her fears and take her rightful place among the men as well.
And you know, there is also some truth to this interpretation. It was unusual for a woman to assume the posture of disciple, especially in public. Mary is not just being lazy. She is actively pursuing an education, in a world where you just don’t do that.
And so, we have two interpretations of this scripture. They go in different directions of course, but they spring from the same source. And both of them have their attractions. For those who value contemplative worship, the first story holds the most weight. For those who look for a more liberative theology, the second is more compelling.
The problem for me is, these two interpretations make this story a little too easy for us. They remove the tension that is inherently part of the Gospel, and we are left with a basic morality tale that is simple, and unthreatening, depending on your theological inclination.
But let me try one more time at looking at this scripture, not just in terms of its recommendations for a certain style of worship, or as a template for feminist theology.
First, I would like to point out that those who would suggest that Jesus favors a withdrawal from the world, or that Jesus wants us to live a life that consists of simple praise and worship are ignoring the vast number of times that Jesus connects faith with action.
We remember in the story of the Good Samaritan that we saw him telling someone whose job it was to sit at the feet of the Rabbis that it was time to leave his study, to get out of the books, to leave the law library, and to get to work, being a neighbor, binding up the wounds of a strange and foreign world, even at the risk of his own life.
Folks who think that Jesus is all about private adoration have forgotten that Jesus said that if you want to see him, you need to look for him in the lost, the naked, the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the prisoner. Those who think that Jesus prefers us to simply lounge around at his feet forget that Jesus was quite clear about the fact that there will be many who will claim to know him, but will be separated as goats from sheep if they do not do his work in the world.
And so, to suggest that the main point of this story is that prayer is more blessed than work is ludicrous. And quite frankly, for those who do do the work, this interpretation is insulting, and it questions both their faith and their hearts.
On the other hand, those who read this story, and can only see a proto-feminist Jesus blessing the idea of woman’s rights, or of fomenting a social revolution ignore the reality that Mary was not just at Jesus’ feet, that she was not just asserting her place, that she was not just blazing a path for other women to follow.
The main thing about Mary’s actions was that she was listening to Jesus. And main thing about Marth’s actions was that she was not. Because it can become easy for those who spend their lives working in the kitchen to stop listening for Jesus. It can become a chore to work, and we can resent those who are not joining us in our work. But when we forget to listen for Jesus, then our work has become our goal. Our work has become the one thing to which we give our full attention.
Jesus blesses Mary, not because she’s achieved perfection in her worship practice, or because she’s torn down the wall between men and women, but simply because she listened. And he rebukes Martha, because she didn’t. Not because she was working in the kitchen, that had nothing to do with it. It was because her work was full of bitterness and reproach, and she was distracted by many things.
The reality is, we live in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to listen to Jesus. His message of welcome, forgiveness, humility, service, compassion, courage and peace is lost in the noise of a culture that values money, aggressiveness, power, and exclusivity.
We are surrounded by advertising, every moment of every day, in our television, movies, computers, and even in our cell phones that glorifies the idea that we deserve the best, the most, the latest, the biggest. Rather than hearing a call to give, to heal, to help, we are told that we’ve earned the right to have, and to get, and to spend, and to splurge, and to waste. It is very easy to become distracted by the many things in this world that clamor for our attention.
Even those of us who feel called to the ministry of the church can become cynical, hardened, bitter, about the work that is before us, the games that people play, the laziness, the corruption, the desperation, the hopelessness of it all. There are not enough people doing the work, and there is not enough money to do the work, and why don’t more people see that they are supposed to working right alongside us? Jesus, why don’t you tell these people to get out of their churches, out of their houses, out of their sacred and secular cloisters, and start getting involved in the community?
We can identify with Martha. But there’s also part of us that longs for the experience that Mary is having, the closeness, the blessing that Jesus offers each of us.
The Good News is that Jesus is still calling all of us, as individuals, as women, and men, as children, as churches, to listen to him. To listen for his voice calling to us from the prisons, from the hospitals, from the streets. To listen for his words of welcome and inclusion, and blessing. To live our lives at his feet, walking where he walked, among the tombs, among the lepers, among the poor, and the lame, and the sick, and the lonely, and angry, and lost.
Listen for Jesus. And you can do this in so many ways, in so many places. It just takes an intentional effort. When you are alone, be still, and hear his voice. When you feed the hungry, know that you’re looking into his face. When you show compassion for the less fortunate, know that he is very near. In everything you do, be at peace, and know that you have a place with him, no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or what you look like.
You see, it really doesn’t matter how we worship him. We can worship him with shouts of praise and thanksgiving, with love and adoration, with works of art, music, and compassion. We can worship him in the church, in the orphanage, in the hospital, in the slums.
Because the point of this story is not whether you sit at Jesus feet in the living room or work your fingers to the bone in the kitchen. It’s whether you are paying attention to what he is saying and living your life in such a way as to make his words actually mean something in our world.
Thanks be to God. Amen