Ordinary 16C, July 21, 2013

“The Jesus Distraction”

Luke 10:38-42
38Now 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.”
Of course, it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens more frequently than I’d like.  Out of the phone calls I receive over the course of a week, I estimate at least ninety-five percent of them begin something like this:
“Hello Susan?  This is so and so.  Listen, I know you’re busy but I wonder if you could…”
“Susan, I know you’re busy.”  I HATE hearing those words at the beginning of a phone call.  Not because I hate the person calling.  Not because I hate doing the things that people are calling to ask me to do. No, I hate hearing those words because I know it has happened again.  When people tell me that they know I’m busy, it means that, despite my best intentions, I’ve somehow drifted into the “Martha zone.”   While I wasn’t paying attention, I unintentionally began to give off the aura of being terribly “busy.”  And that aura of “busy” keeps people at a distance, doesn’t it?  “Busy” gives the impression that I’m somehow more important than I actually am or that what I am doing is far more interesting than the person on the phone or even the person standing right in front of me.  That offending stink of “busyness” makes meaningful relationships with people I care about strained at best, impossible at worst.  When I become distracted by a million small things, it always means I have been less attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit and things in my life are way out of whack.
The Martha zone.  That crazy, noisy, frustrating place.  We’ve all been there.  Sure you have.  Just ask your spouse.  Your kids.  Your best friends.  We’ve all been there.
Now don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes it’s good to keep a reasonable amount of psychic space between one another.  Boundaries are important.  We all need to know when and how to say “no.”  We all need time and space for rest.  If you are an introvert like I am, there is an absolute requirement for me to balance my time with other people with lots of quiet and privacy, or I will lose my good humor and gentle demeanor. 
And yet, I am always uncomfortable with people who give off that “busy, busy, busy” signal. I know a lot of people who constantly give off that vibe. They are the kind of people who cut you off in traffic and cut in front of you at the checkout line.  That kind of busy, busy, busy almost inevitably leads to a blow up, which is exactly what is happening in the story we have in Luke today. 
Do not doubt that this familiar story of Mary and Martha is about a conflict between two sisters — one is having a really good day, and one is having a really lousy day.  Mary is having the kind of day in which everything has gone just right, leaving the luxury of time for a quiet conversation with a beloved friend who, in this story, just happens to be Jesus.  Martha is having the kind of day in which nothing is going right and it’s going to take some kind of a major miracle for her to get dinner on the table. 
When a bad day becomes an overwhelming day, Martha reacts the same way you and I would.  First, she begins to feel put upon.  Then she feels abandoned.  Finally, she loses her cool.  In a fit of fury, Martha decides that it’s all Mary’s fault.  Her sister is being a total slacker and she’s going to let Mary know exactly how ticked off she is.  To be more precise, Martha’s going to ask Jesus to tell Mary what a slacker she is. Martha puts on her martyr makeup, plants her dishpan hands on her aching hips, and has herself a good old-fashioned pity party right there in front of Jesus.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
This is one of those texts from the gospels that tend to make everyone who reads it more than a little uneasy.  Because this story of Mary, Martha and Jesus can be interpreted in ways that can end up making us feel that we cannot win, no matter which side of the Mary versus Martha controversy we find ourselves on.   
Some have interpreted this story as Luke’s effort to stifle women who are trying to exercise too much authority in the early Christian community.  So Luke tells a story in which Jesus criticizes Martha for being way too mouthy, and praises Mary for being silent and docile.  The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really square with the rest of Luke’s gospel.  Women are not at all silent or sidelined in Luke.  This is the gospel that begins with the obscure and ordinary young girl singing about the proud and haughty being brought down from their high places of power.  This is the gospel in which a poor widow is so outspoken in her cries for justice that she makes a powerful judge cave in to her demands.  So I think we can safely toss the idea that Luke has a problem with strong women.
Other interpretations suggest that Jesus is criticizing us for being too distracted with the busy work in the church.  That Martha is so busy with the cooking and the stewardship campaign and the broken boiler and the midweek dinner that she has forgotten why she’s in church to begin with.  Maybe Jesus is criticizing Martha for being too religious and she should be more like Mary – more spiritual and studious.
The problem with that theory, of course, is that Jesus did not do ministry in an abstract, spiritual way.  As one commentator pointed out, God did not write a dreamy Valentine in the clouds that said, “Hello world, I love you.”  No, God became embodied, active love in Jesus Christ – the One who entered into the muck and mire of ordinary life.  Jesus was never afraid to get his hands dirty; he touched and healed and ate and drank and got involved in the earthly details of being a human being. Jesus came as the one who serves, not to be served.  Surely, Jesus isn’t giving Martha a hard time for getting dinner on the table and keeping life moving along.  Because isn’t it true that someone has to take out the garbage and clean up the communion cups and make sure the lights stay on?  If all of us sat around like Mary, things would quickly fall apart. And can you imagine Jesus walking into a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and saying, “Stop all this busy work.  Leave the poor, the homeless, the hungry behind.  Come and sit at my feet and meditate instead?”
Last week, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught us about the importance of loving our neighbor in real and tangible ways.  He talked about the love of neighbor that is willing to stop and pull a bleeding man out of a ditch.  Some say that here in this story of Mary and Martha, Jesus is teaching us about the importance of loving God – which is what Mary demonstrates as she sits quietly at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.
But we cannot separate loving God and loving neighbor, and this is what I think Luke is getting at in today’s story.  We cannot live out our faith by only being prayerful or only doing good deeds.  We cannot live our lives as Mary or Martha.  We cannot choose to love God or love neighbor. We have to somehow mix the two together so that love of God and love of neighbor become intertwined so deeply that you cannot tell where one ends and one begins. 
I thought about Mary and Martha this week as I was preparing for our Adult Vacation Bible school evening on centering prayer.  A lot of people showed up, many more than I ever expected given the sultry temperature of the church this week and the subject matter.  But I was delightfully surprised that 18 people came on a hot and humid Wednesday night to sit in a room without air-conditioning, to hear about an ancient form of prayer that requires no special reading, no special skills, and no special spiritual gifts.  Centering prayer requires absolutely nothing other than emptying our minds of our own thoughts, distractions and worries, and wait patiently in silence for God to fill in the empty spaces we’ve created.   All centering prayer requires is the willingness to sit in silence and wait upon the Lord. 
Which is actually much harder than it sounds.  As we discovered together on Wednesday night, emptying our minds and making space for God’s word is really, really difficult.  We live in a noisy, busy, anxiety-driven world. For those of us still in the working world, we often begin our days with a to do list and frantically chase after each item in order to get it ticked off.  Even for those of you in retirement years, there are other anxieties about health issues and money and adult children and aging parents – all of these are the kinds of things that fill you with worry and distractions.   
The problem we have – and the problem Martha has in this story – is not that we have too much to do, but that we are pulled in so many directions that we are no longer distracted by Jesus who wants us to go in his direction.  We are so distracted by the stuff of our lives that it is difficult for Jesus to distract us with the stuff that leads to wholeness and healing.  The crazy, awful worry we carry around makes it hard to hear Jesus’ voice inviting us into a different life filled with much better distractions — God’s word of mercy, love and grace. 
Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” (Lk. 12:22-26)
These words that tell us to stop worrying are perhaps the hardest for us to hear as modern people.  We know that what bothers and distracts us keeps us from being fully present to God and fully present to our neighbor.  We know we should make time and space for God to speak into our hearts and lead us to the sort of work that fills us with love and joy instead of anger and resentment.  We know that worrying kills our spirit in a million different ways, and yet there are days when worry plays on continuous loop in our muddled human brains.
And I wonder…what would it look like if a person – or a church – was utterly distracted by Jesus?
Perhaps it begins by tending to those disciplines of prayer and worship and silence that help us to forget ourselves – if only for 20 minutes a day – so we can hear God.  Perhaps that is how we can improve our odds of choosing the better part, the good part, the connection to God who is Goodness itself.
A person distracted by Jesus, I think, is not motivated by things or problems or consumption or impressing others or judging others or even saving others.  A person distracted by Jesus is at peace, knowing that he or she is loved so thoroughly that they can take the risk of deeply loving someone else, even that stranger in the ditch on the side of the road.  Without constantly coping with the rivalry of doing more or wanting to be more, we can attend to the crazy demands of life without feeling like a victim or a martyr.  We can keep at our work in the kitchen, get dinner on the table, and still hear Jesus.  We can catch his voice no matter where we are because we know what Jesus sounds like.
Our best laid plans, our most compassionate actions, even our most generous contributions of time, talent or money will eventually lead to us being as miserable as Martha if we are not led there by our distraction by Jesus. If our good works are not rooted in God’s loving vision that seeks to repair and restore the whole creation, we will end up broken and beaten down.  Without the distraction of Jesus to keep us focused, we will most certainly burn out.
Tom Long tells the story about a church youth group on a mission trip in Jamaica.  On the trip, the group visited a local elementary school there and observed a classroom seriously overcrowded with children, most of them poor, all of them very needy, noisy and unruly.  The folks on the mission trip were astonished by the way in which teacher interacted with those children.  Despite the poverty and chaos so apparent in that classroom, the teacher carried herself with great calm and patience, and treated every child with tenderness and love.  The group observing her decided that only way the teacher could possibly do such difficult work was because she really loved teaching.  But they were surprised to hear her say, “Oh I don’t come here everyday mainly because I love teaching.  I come here everyday because I love Jesus, and I see Jesus in every one of those children.” [1]
Our work as a community of faith cannot be rooted in our love for the church, for the Bible, for your pastor, for your leadership, or even by people close by or people half way around the world.  But we can believe that we have the capacity to love all of these things and people because we were first loved by Jesus.  It is God’s love that feeds us, enlivens us and empowers us to do all the things we do.  If we can just manage to stay distracted by the distracting presence of Jesus, I am pretty sure we have chosen the better part.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Tom Long sermon, “Mary and Martha,” July 22, 2007.  Accessed on Day1.org, 7/18/2013.