Pentecost 9C Luke 10:38-42, Colossians 1:15-18
Our lives are so full! Full of wonderful things and events and people, but also full of junk. Filler, busy work, and distractions take up huge portions of our lives. It is so easy to be distracted by all these many things! From TV shows and movies, to the incessant and attention demanding news, weather and sports, from neighbors in need to friends with gossip, there is so much crammed into every moment of our lives. Advice to give, advice to receive, shopping, vacations, travel, money, jobs. I could go on, but you get the point. There are many things, many important issues and tasks as well as many trivial ones, that distract us daily.
It is into our world of many things and myriad distractions that this story of Jesus, Mary and Martha comes to us. In our whirling world of distraction and frustration, as we drown in overwhelming information, this story may be just what we need.
Jesus has been on the road and today he arrives at the home of his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, to rest for a while. We know that this little group of people are Jesus’ friends because eventually, Jesus will wind up coming back to this very same home to raise the brother, Lazarus, from the dead. It will be on that day that Martha will make one of the most profound statements about Jesus prior to his resurrection, equaled only by Peter himself. “I know you are the Messiah,” she will say, “the one coming into the world, and I know you will raise my brother on the last day.” But that story is for another time. That story is about grand and amazing works of God and deep, significant proclamations of who this man Jesus really is. This story is about everyday profoundness. This story is about what our world is filled with: all those large and small distractions. But it is also about something else in our world as well, that something or someone who is most important, who we really need: Jesus.
When we hear the story of Mary and Martha it would be really easy to get wrapped up in the part about the relationship between the two sisters. That’s reasonable, of course, because isn’t it easy for us to see ourselves as one or the other of the two ladies? This isn’t just a story for women either. Most men can see themselves as the kind of person who spends lots of time preparing, repairing and worrying about those they care about or the kind of person who could sit around and talk all day about nearly anything with those they love. That is, after all, how we see Martha and Mary; one working, focused on tasks, and one sitting, focused on people. It would be easy to oversimplify this story into Jesus’ endorsement of carrying about people and not caring about hard work, but that may miss something. Not only is that unlikely because Jesus is quite hard working himself, but also because this Mary/Good vs Martha/Bad entirely misses the centerpiece of the story.
Jesus and his traveling companions are in Martha’s house and Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. Now, how common it was for women to sit at the feet of a teacher or Rabbi to learn right alongside the men is not clear, though we can make an educated guess that it was not common. It would be out of the ordinary for a woman to sit socially with a group of men in the first place, much less be present alongside them as an equal while the Rabbi is teaching. Yet, there she was, right along with the rest of them, learning from Jesus as he talked with them all. What a gift! What a moment! What a treasure! What an amazing thing: to get to sit at the feet of Jesus!
Meanwhile, Martha is busy with “many tasks”. Our scripture is not clear about what the many tasks are, but anyone who’s had company over for a visit can imagine what these tasks might be. Food preparation, possibly preparing rooms for the guests’ stay, cleaning up, setting the table, washing dishes. There is a lot to be done! Additionally, the text tells us this is Martha’s house, a phrase which means she is the head of the household and must oversee the running of all of it. So whatever the day to day tasks of the running of the house would have been, she needed to tend to them. However, what is notable in the scripture is this line: but Martha was distracted by her many tasks. This is the key word to what happens here: distracted. What she’s actually doing isn’t the point, the fact that she is distracted is the crucial element.
Martha goes to Jesus and says, “don’t you care at all that my sister has left me to do all the work myself? Tell her to come help me.” In other words, this is not fair! I have so much to do—look how hard I am working—and my sister is just lazy and you should scold her and put her back to work. But Jesus’ response to her is “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things.”
You are distracted by many things. Now, let’s make sure we are clear on a few things with this. Jesus does not say: there’s something wrong with what you’re doing. Nor does he say: running a household is unimportant. Or: what you are doing is unimportant. He simply says: you are distracted by many things. Distracted—or as the Greek word says literally pulled away—from the One thing. The preparations for and caring of a guest are very worthy tasks; in fact, there is much in scripture that emphasizes the deep spiritual importance of hospitality. However, it is the guest himself that is most important. The guest is the point and, in this case, this guest is the one thing that matters above all other things. Mary has chosen this one thing and that one thing can’t ever be taken away. The house will get dirty again, the food will be eaten and more will need to be made, all the distracting tasks of any life will need to be done over and over and over again. But this…. This One Thing is the most important of all.
This one thing is Jesus.
We are often pulled away, too, from the one thing. It is not that the other things we do are automatically bad or wrong; sometimes they are quite good and might be important tasks without which the world could not function properly. But when they pull us away and become a distraction from the thing that matters the most, this is the problem.
Our second lesson for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. They, too, were being distracted by many things. They were being pulled away in many directions by people in their community who were teaching lots of different things about God, most likely teaching that they needed to work on having a special “secret” knowledge they could figure out how to get salvation. They were being distracted by the acquisition of knowledge and their own actions and being pulled away from the centerpiece of their faith.
He is the image of the invisible God, Paul writes, the first born of all creation. Over and over again in this section all things keep returning to, centering on, growing out of Christ. For in him, in Jesus, all things in heaven and on earth were created. Things visible and invisible. Even all the most powerful things anyone can imagine, all have been created through him and for him. It is he who holds all things together. For in him, all the fullness of God lives and through him, God reconciles to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Everything we can think of and even everything we can’t think of was made through Jesus. All of that, every last bit of it, is made by, for and held together by Jesus. Everything in all of existence from the furthest star to the tiniest cell inside our hearts, from the loftiest philosophical thought to most complex mathematical concept to the little to-do task list running through our heads right now are all defined by Jesus. He is the one needed thing. He is the lynchpin that holds it all together. Holds us, our lives, the people and things we love, those we have lost, every thing all together and redeems it all.
When Jesus tells Martha that she is being distracted and drawn away by many things, he is showing her that what she’s being drawn away from is that which is more important than all those things put together.
I remember a women’s bible study some years ago in which the question that formed the center of the study was this: are you a Martha or a Mary? The idea behind it was that this particular gospel text must be some sort of example of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘faithful’ and ‘unfaithful’ ways for us to be. I used to say, “I’m a Martha, but I’m in recovery.” However, there’s so much more here than just trying to choose the right one of these women to emulate. Mary chose the better part not because she was or was not working around the house and not because of what activities she did or did not do, but because she was not being drawn away from the centerpiece, the lynchpin, that which holds all things together.
Whenever I teach a class on photography, I always give an assignment that includes looking around for a certain shape. A square, circle, triangle, whatever; it doesn’t matter what the shape is because the point is to look for it in the world around you and photograph it. When we do this, it is remarkable how much more we actually take the time to see our world. So today, I want to give all of us an exercise for this week that will help us all to begin to better see our world and recognize the one thing that matters most. When you find yourself distracted by many things, be that many important things or helpless worrying over the state of the world or just “wasting time”, stop and say to yourself: God made that; that book or newspaper or television or computer or even the human brain. Whatever it is, it was made by, for and through Jesus. And where it is broken, for so much of our world is broken, God will redeem it. If you catch yourself wasting time on facebook, look at the faces and lives of all your friends, family and acquaintances and say to yourself: God made them, each and every one. They were made by, for and through Jesus. And wherever they are broken, God will redeem them. If you are dwelling on worries about your finances, health, relationships or other things like this, stop and say to yourself: God made me. I was made by, for and through Jesus. And wherever I am broken, God will redeem me, too.
For in him, in Jesus Christ, all the fullness of God lives and through him, God reconciles to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross.