38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
“Martha, Martha, Martha”
Siblings have been bickering since the beginning of time. Well…ever since the beginning of siblings. Cain and Abel – -those were the first two brothers, and their fighting did not work out so well for them – -the very first sibling fight resulted in the very first murder. The Biblical text is full of sibling squabbles – Ishmael picks on Isaac. Jacob and Esau squabble over their birthright. And it’s not only the boys. Rachel and Leah are jealous of each other and disagree with one another as well. All this and we are still in the book of Genesis! Those accounts makes Mary and Martha’s disagreement in our reading from Luke today seem small in comparison.
We see the scene from the perspective of an outsider. The details are sparse. It probably looked different if you lived there, or were present that night. Have you seen those bumper stickers that say, “Jesus is Coming, Look Busy!”? Well, Martha heard that Jesus was coming and so that’s what she did. Setting the example for another famous Martha several thousands of years later, she scrubbed every corner of the house using all natural organic cleaning products imported from across the globe, set the table with her finest hand embroidered lace tablecloths and fanciest dishes, opened the nicest wine to breathe (that she then listed on her website along with the seven course dinner menu), made place-cards out of paper that cost more than your dinner last night, and color coordinated the sheets on the guest bed with the towels in the guest bathroom – -wait, which Martha was I talking about…. The point is, Martha – -Luke’s Martha– did not only look busy, she was busy. Jesus was coming, this was an honor, and she wanted everything to be just right. This was her Lord, and she wanted to honor and please him. As he arrived she began to prepare the meal, becoming increasingly frustrated. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to his every word, and here she was, putting the finishing touches on appetizers and pulling a who-cares-how-many-courses-it-was-at-this-point meal out of the oven – all by herself. The to-do list was ridiculously long before she could serve supper, and didn’t Jesus even notice that Martha could not be out there with him too because she didn’t have any help? Martha gets more and more upset until she can’t help it anymore. If her sister won’t come help, then she will make Jesus make her come help so that she may participate in the visit. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to so all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”
Martha, Martha, Martha. In that request she shows that Jesus’ response to her – -his noticing that she is worried and distracted by many things is true. In her request to him, she refers to herself 3 times – Mary has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her to come and help me. Martha, Martha, Martha. You are distracted indeed. Martha is distracted and worried about the details of serving the Lord. She is worried about the state of the house, the preparation of the meal, the details of the night. She is distracted by her resentment towards her sister who is doing what she wants to be doing, who seems to not be helping. Martha, Martha, Martha – you think this night is all about you, and how you serve the one you call Lord. He sees it differently.
Now, here is where the sermons on this text usually go one of two directions. Direction 1: Martha was wrong. Martha was worried and distracted, and rather than being totally focused on all she was doing, she should have stopped fighting with her sister and gone to hear what Jesus had to say. Jesus would have been fine if she had called Dominoes and put out paper plates instead of focusing on all her busyness and her doing. It is the classic set up of “doing” vs. “being”, and Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, so then the answer is clear. Mary has chosen the better part – the listening part. The contemplation, the hearing of the word. Martha chose the worse part -the business and distracted part. The action-oriented and action-focused are called to task. Jesus said he liked Mary’s inaction better, so we are asked “who are we?” Martha or Mary? Who should we be like, and how should we choose the better part? We are supposed to be like Mary and listen to Jesus without being distracted by the everyday concerns of the world.
OR…. The second direction the Mary and Martha sermons takes is that this is the sermon to preach is an allegory with each character flatly listed and representing a specific attribute that we are supposed to be like, and Jesus plays the role of teacher. At the end of the sermon, the preacher implores us to choose which character from the story we are, and to live like that – choosing the better part for ourselves.
You can probably tell that I disagree with both of these ways of looking at the reading, even though I have heard them both. Over the course of this summer, we have spent a good deal of time listening to stories many of us grew up with, or have heard repeatedly in our church lives. Each of the readings from Luke we have looked at were ones I thought I knew how I was going to preach when I sat down to write. And then I prayed, and I read, and I spoke to some of you and realized that while the text itself may be ancient and familiar, what God is telling us through the word this time we read and hear it is not what we heard last time. It’s comparable to rereading your favorite book for the third or fourth time and saying “oh, I never thought about it that way before.”
So how do we re-think Mary and Martha? How do we reclaim them from the cartoon characters they sometimes turn into in our own minds? How to we redeem them from the one sided, flat interpretations of being an allegory, which is not what Luke intended? Well, what if we begin here – like much of the rest of the Gospel of Luke’s accounts of Jesus’s ministry, the time spent with Mary and Martha is about hospitality. How we welcome the stranger, how we minister to the alien, how we serve the poor and the outcast. Here in the 10th chapter of Luke, the seventy have been sent out to minister in the cities and towns. Scholar Joel Green writes that “Jesus encounter with Mary and Martha clarifies the nature of the welcome he seeks, not only for himself, but also for his messengers, that is for all who participate in the drawing near of God’s dominion.” Jesus expects hospitality for himself and those who serve him. We saw it when we read the beginning of chapter 10, verse 7. Jesus tells the disciples to eat what has been set before them in each house they go to. Not to expect the fanciest thing the hosts have to offer, not to require a meal worthy of the best chef, but the basics as they teach their hosts. As a hostess, I try to offer my best to my guests whenever possible, and know that sometimes it can be easy to get wrapped up in the details of planning a nice night intending to honor my guests. Have you ever spent an evening distracted by the details of the timing of the meal rather than just enjoying the company of those who were there with you? Worried about the status of the pie in the oven rather than listening to the person you prepared so hard to host? That’s what Jesus was fussing at Martha about – she was not focusing on the proper things – rather than focusing on the one she called Lord, she was focused on the details and preparations for him.
But real hospitality is about more than the meal itself. It is about the time we spend together with those we welcome into our homes and our spaces. It is about how we welcome them, for sure, and them how we continue that welcome throughout our time together. Think for a moment about the favorite time when you have visited friends and family, or when they have come to visit you. Are those memories centered around the hours you spent in cleaning the house, or the stories you told, and the time you spent simply being with one another? The details of the visit are important – -you can’t visit someone for three days and not eat, and we don’t expect to have to make our own beds when we stay in someone else’s home. But what makes the memories are the times spent together as family and friends, listening to one another as we tell our stories and as we create new memories. It is the act of conversation that is the focus, not the act of bed-making.
Now, before we get back into that place of Martha was wrong and Mary was perfect, I found it helpful to think about it this way too – This was not the first or last encounter Jesus had with these sisters. Jesus had a close friendship with this family. One wonders if this, perhaps, was not the first time the scene had played out. Maybe what we don’t know is that Mary was a horrible cook and she was supposed to do the dishes. Or, that last time Jesus came to visit, he gently rebuked Mary for spending all her time listening and daydreaming and not assisting her sister. We need both. We need both listeners and do-ers in the world and in the church. This story is so often set up as a struggle between word vs. deed, speaker vs doer, contemplative vs. activist, worship vs. service. But as a church, we need both, we cannot survive without both. We need people to worry about the details. In the church, some are destined to live out their discipleship in the details of the common life – it is what they are called to do. Some are called to count the money each week, prepare home communion, attend meetings, balance the budget, set the table for family night, unlock the building and call the HVAC person when the A/C unit breaks. Folding the bulletins and newsletters is an act of hospitality, as is washing dishes or arranging chairs. Jesus understood that. You need both Marys and Marthas in every church. The day-to-day tasks are just as much manifestations of discipleship as walking a labyrinth or attending worship. If we are all like Martha, we will never stop to rest or Sabbath. If we are all like Mary, we will never get anything done.
Jesus does not take issue with Martha’s tasks. Notice he does not tell her to come out of the kitchen. He does not tell her that they will be ordering Chinese food, or fasting that night. This issue for Jesus is where Martha’s thoughts are. He tells her that she is “worried and distracted” and that “there is only need of one thing.” The one thing that needs her attention is the one place Mary has her attention – their Lord, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The issue is where our focus lies. Do we fall into the worries and distractions of the details and forget why the details need tending, and who we honor when we tend them? One of the commentaries I read this week asked this question – not about us as individuals, but about congregations as a whole – where does our focus lie? Are we worried and distracted or are we focused on Jesus Christ?
Distracted: also defined as drawn away or diverted. Are we diverted from listening, really listening to Jesus? Are we drawn away? These do not have to be negative terms. Are we drawn away from listening to Jesus because we are so busy serving him? It is an interesting question to pose on a church level. I found myself trying to answer it this week as I was diverted from preparing for this morning by distractions. All of which were necessary, and all of which were important. But where was my focus? Ask yourself – what ministry are you part of here? How does that ministry listen to Jesus? Do you begin with prayer before you prepare a meal or arrange flowers or sing your praises to the Lord – or do you just go about tending to the details of our common life?
We start out our scripture readings each week with a variation on the words “listen now to the word of the Lord” or “Hear now what God is saying to us this day.” Then the scripture is read and the Word is proclaimed through the sermon. As Presbyterians, we surround ourselves with words. Literally – look in any Pastor’s office – I have books on 3 of my 4 walls, and currently my desk has several piles of them. As people in the modern age we cannot escape words – -not the word of God, but words in general. You may have heard about a television show on AMC called Mad Men that has its season premiere tonight. It is about an advertising agency on Madison Avenue in the early 1960’s. I was fascinated that the very first thing you see in the very first show is an explanation of the title. In white letters on the black screen, it flashes the following: MAD MEN A term coined in the late 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it. This group of men, I think they were all men, used words to define themselves. And then they created an entire industry devoted to using words to help us define ourselves. How we dress, what we eat, what we drive, and yes, now even where and how we worship and see God. There are marketing agencies geared specifically to work with churches to help us find the right words and strategies to bring in more traffic on Sunday morning. Or, said differently – to help us tell our neighbors about who we are and what we do. Words matter. But we are surrounded by words, and those words create a constant, almost unnoticed distraction and diversion. The words form e-mails we get on our phones, and texts as we talk to people. The constant babble of TV and radio. The music playing in the shops and in our cars. Every time I go to the doctor, I swear I’m never going back because of the TV’s in the waiting room – there is no place quiet to sit. The same with the lab to get your blood drawn, the waiting room at the eye doctor, or the airport departure lounge. Add in our propensity to multi-task and it is no wonder we have such a hard time focusing on Jesus – -there is always a constant distraction!
Thomas Freedman, columnist for the New York Times describes an experience he had in Paris several years ago. He had arrived and met his taxi driver, who was talking on his cell phone using a headset.
“When my luggage arrived, I grabbed it off the belt; he pointed toward the exit and I followed, as he kept talking on his phone. When we got into the car, I said, ”Do you know my hotel?” He said, ”No.” I showed him the address, and he went back to talking on the phone.
After the car started to roll, I saw he had a movie playing on the screen in the dashboard — on the flat panel that usually displays the G.P.S. road map. I noticed this because between his talking on the phone and the movie, I could barely concentrate. I, alas, was in the back seat trying to finish a column on my laptop. When I wrote all that I could, I got out my iPod and listened to a Stevie Nicks album, while he went on talking, driving and watching the movie.
After I arrived at my hotel, I reflected on our trip: The driver and I had been together for an hour, and between the two of us we had been doing six different things. He was driving, talking on his phone and watching a video. I was riding, working on my laptop and listening to my iPod.
There was only one thing we never did: Talk to each other.”
Not only did they not talk, they did not listen to each other. When Thomas got out of his cab, he did not have a quote for his next article or any new information about Paris. He had spent an hour diverted from what was happening in the front seat, and the cab driver had spent an hour doing some very distracted driving. But there was no listening. There was no quiet looking at the Parisian sights from the window, no acclimation to the surroundings. We tend to blame our inattention on technology – the iPod, video-player, cell phone, and laptop all feature prominently in Friedman’s article. But inattention, not listening for what Jesus has to say to us goes back all the way to when he was still with us – Mary and Martha show us that.
Yes, we as a church are also surrounded by distractions and diversions as we seek to focus on Jesus. Yes, even we too can fall into focusing too much on the details that need to be done and not on the listening. We get caught up in the words and forget where we should focus. We do not stop to be quiet and listen for what our Lord is saying to us. There is no silence. Douglas John Hall reminds us that in our text for today “the silence that is needed for our words to have meaning is noticeably lacking both in those who speak and those who hear.” In his comments to us at the Annual Meeting, Ted encouraged us to spend some time listening and discerning as a church for our church. How are we doing? What have we heard Jesus telling us this year? Jesus encouraged Martha to come be in the silence, to quiet her diverted mind and listen. How do we find the silence? How can we do the same?
There is not one form of devotion – not one right way to listen to Jesus. We need both Marys and Marthas in our lives and in our churches. This reading and this sermon are not about who is right and who is wrong in their actions, but where our attention should be. For if Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus computing the theory of relativity, then she was just as distracted as Martha, and just as much in need of shifting her attention and devotion. We need the folks who live their discipleship in the details of common life. And we need the folks who live their discipleship in other ways as well. When we concern ourselves with the details more than the visit, with the preparations more than the one we prepare for, we need to stop and think. The tablecloths won’t sustain us, just as the best-written prayers can be hollow. When we listen to where Christ calls us to serve, and how Christ calls us to be as a church, and how to serve in the church, then we honor and glorify our Lord in all that we do. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Quoted by Jarvis, Cynthia A. in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year C; Volume 3. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. Louisville, KY. 264.
 Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1.
 Thomas L. Friedman: The Taxi Driver. Published: November 1, 2006. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C03E1D6123FF932A35752C1A9609C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all