By Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
This morning’s gospel story presents us with two characters; they are sisters, Mary and Martha. Now, we do this bible story a disservice if we arrive at the simplistic conclusion that sitting still is automatically better than being busy. In fact, the gospel story that immediately precedes this one is the parable of the Good Samaritan. And the Samaritan is the hero of that parable precisely because he stepped up; he acted in ways that demonstrated the mercy of God.
So I want to suggest that this morning’s story is not a simplistic indictment against busyness; but rather, a warning about an attitude in which our busyness results in internal feelings of anxiety and external expressions of impatience and resentment toward others.
As we begin this morning, we’re going to start with a little experiment. I want to invite you to close your eyes for just a moment and see if you can clear your mind of stray thoughts. See if you can simply breathe deeply – in and out – maybe tune in to how your body is feeling, if you have any tight muscles or places of tension. Keep your eyes closed and continue to breathe deeply in and out as I count us backwards from 7.
Now, go ahead and open your eyes. How did you do with those stray thoughts and distractions? Turn to someone near you and share with them a bit about what kinds of thoughts popped into your mind and how hard was it for you to set them aside?
Most of us have a hard time quieting our thoughts. Buddhists call it “monkey mind”; our thoughts dash around like monkeys swinging from tree to tree. Our 21st century western culture makes it hard to slow down our minds and focus our thoughts. We live in a culture that glorifies, one might even say worships, busyness. We are encouraged to live our lives eking out every last ounce of productivity, filling up every minute with activity; driving on spiritual fumes, so to speak, and in very real danger that we will spiritually sputter and run out of gas. We find ourselves distracted, worried and anxious. And that inward anxiety and dis-ease are often projected through impatience with, and criticism of, others. When we are overly focused on busyness – when our balance between being and doing gets out of whack – we become impatient and critical of others.
About 25 years ago, I ran my car out of gas. It was a beautiful spring morning. The night before I hadn't wanted to stop for gas on the way home because it was late and I was tired. So I resolved to leave sufficient time to fill my tank in the morning. That was the resolution I made in the car. But, I'd forgotten my resolution when it came time to set my alarm. It might not have mattered anyway because getting out of bed, for me, is the toughest thing I have to do all day. I am not a morning person. Now, I left for my first appointment of the morning right around the time of my appointment which, understandably, made that appointment run late, which, in turn, made me late for my second appointment, which I had scheduled closely on the heels of the first. My tardiness was further exacerbated by all those slow drivers with whom I grew increasingly impatient. Didn’t they have anywhere important to go? As I drove along, I frequently and nervously glanced at the fuel gauge needle. It was below "E" and well into the red. But, I reasoned, I had been there before and I'd never run out of gas. Underestimating the amount of time my second appointment would take – do you see a pattern emerging here – I had to leave before that meeting was over so that I could get to my church in time for – you guessed it – the next appointment. Besides, what was wrong with people that it took them so much time just to make a decision? “No wonder meetings run late,” I thought with a sense of irritation. I phoned my secretary to ask her to let the person I was meeting with know I was on my way. While I was on the phone, I heard my first little sputter. But, it was brief and the car seemed to quickly recover and, "after all," I reasoned "it was downhill almost all the way to my church." Almost would be the operative word in that sentence because, as my car reached the first of about 4 level blocks it needed to endure before its destination, it gave one final sustained sputter and came to a halt.
I called my secretary again asking if she might be able to round up a gas can and come to my rescue. While I sat and waited, I considered the source of my problem. There were no margins in my day; not a single spare minute. My problem wasn't really a lack of gasoline. I’d passed stations that morning. But, I’d never run out of gas before and these were important appointments, all of them. I had so much to do. And, so I rationalized that I could somehow cheat the laws of thermodynamics and make my gas burn longer. I could just keep going and never run out of gas… until I did.
You know, one of the things most interesting in this morning’s story is that Martha is fulfilling the role of hostess, the provider of hospitality. That day Jesus came to their home, Martha did what her culture – her friends, her family – would have expected of her: she was caring for her guest. She was likely the older of the two sisters and, in that culture, it was the responsibility of the eldest woman of the household to provide hospitality for one’s guests. It would have brought great honor to Martha to host Jesus in their home. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Martha engaging in tasks of hospitality; there’s nothing wrong with her being busy serving her guests. Jesus doesn’t judge her actions. Rather, Jesus points out what is going on within her. She’s allowed her mind and spirit to taken captive by distraction, anxiety and worry.
If one really thinks about hospitality and what it involves, we recognize that good hospitality means attentiveness to our guest; focused, undivided attention. Good hospitality means cultivating, creating, an environment of relaxation and welcome. Yet, when Martha drags Jesus into this little family feud, she’s concerned for herself, not for Jesus. She’s placed the attention on herself, not her guest. She’s placed herself – not Jesus – at the center of things. She is frustrated, angry and resentful toward her sister. Her irritation gets expressed through judgment. And Jesus’ response reveals that he has perceived the root of the problem… which actually has little to do with the distinctions between sitting and listening versus being busy and serving others. The root of Martha’s problem isn’t that she’s busy; it’s that she is distracted, anxious and troubled.
For Martha, this has become less about what she can do for Jesus and more about what Mary should be doing for her. It’s a danger we all run into. So easily, it becomes about us – what we’re doing and how hard we’re working. Our good deeds become a form of idolatry and a stick we can use to beat others who do not measure up. We become frustrated, impatient, angry and resentful toward others… as Martha was. But that is not what God wants for us. That’s not what God asks of us. Jesus wants us to choose something better for ourselves.
Here’s another interesting thing about this story. While Martha’s actions were honorable and dutiful and exactly what others expected, Mary’s action were not. Mary did what was unexpected and a bit scandalous. She assumed the posture of a disciple… an inappropriate position for a woman in that culture. And other people who may have been in the home that day likely would not have approved. They would likely have been thinking thoughts similar to Martha’s: “How dare Mary just sit there like a man and listen to the rabbi teach. How dare she not do what a woman should, what was expected and honorable?” But here’s the thing: at least as far as we can tell, Jesus didn’t place a demand on either woman. Friends, far too often, like Martha we may be apt to do what culture expects of us and to respond with resentment as if a direct demand has been placed upon us. When an employer, or a teacher or a coach or a friend or even a family member push us to do more than we feel we can or should, far too often, we do it anyway because we want to be good and well-liked and feel needed. But when we consistently over-give and over-extend ourselves so that we become anxious and impatient and resentful, we’ve missed the point. And we need to realize that often we have more opportunity for choice than we are willing to admit to ourselves. It is our choice if we will slow our pace and take time to sit at the feet of Jesus; if we make time to ponder God’s Word and listen for God’s voice. We can choose. We can choose a frantic lifestyle that leaves us anxious and resentful. Or, we can choose to slow our pace; to be still in the presence of God, to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.
Jesus defends our human need to sit at his feet and listen to his Word; to give him our undivided attention; to make him the center of our lives. Friends, to be in the presence of God, giving our absolute, unmixed attention, is to invite change into our lives – a change that will allow us to experience greater peace within ourselves and greater patience with others. Christian philosopher and mystic Simone Weil said that “absolute unmixed attention is prayer.” God speaks to us saying, “Be still and know that I am God.” That is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
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