Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
Sermon: Luke 10:38-42
July 21, 2019
Patricia Marks

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. +

Like many of you, I have all sorts of hobbies. Knitting, for instance– it’s amazing what you can make out of just a strand of yarn. And origami! All you need is a piece of paper to fold this way and that, and Voila! You have a bird or a butterfly. It’s like making something out of nothing.

It’s the same with research into dusty photos and letters and articles or writing a meditation or poem.

But that takes focus. Do you know the best way to begin writing? Put glue on your chair and don’t get up until you’re done. That’s a lesson I need to take to heart. The other day, I sat down to write. And . . . oops! I forgot my coffee in the kitchen; it’s cold—needs reheating. Back I come, fingers poised over the keyboard. And all I can think of is everything I forgot to add to my to-do list. The friend I promised to visit at Langdale Place; the laundry I need to move to the dryer.

Distraction is the name of the game. If there were a flesh and blood Devil, I’d see him grinning as he tossed all these diversions my way. I remember when I was a brand-new deacon, nervous and wanting to be perfect at everything. Standing to read the Gospel, I worried that my voice wouldn’t be heard—as if I hadn’t taught in a narrow room with 50 + students stretched out this way. I worried about setting the altar just right—Suppose I put the wine flagon where the wafers were supposed to be?

It took a while—and a lot of patience on the part of Fr. Peter– but I learned something important. What counted was not reading or setting the table itself: it was that those actions had the deeper purpose of helping everyone to be fed, fed by the Word and the bread. I learned to gather up all my worries and toss them into the big long-leaf pine-needle basket that Jesus holds up. When I did that, I calmed down, and all was well.

The broader lesson is to focus, not so much on actions as on their meaning. So let’s try to do that right now by focusing on the meaning of our reading from Luke. In my sermon two weeks ago, I asked you to imagine that you were in a Gothic church. Today, I’m asking you to begin by imagining something uncomfortable. Imagine, for instance, that you are in a group where you simply don’t feel welcome. It’s happened to me, to just about everybody.

Worst of all is when this happens at church. You feel as if you’re sitting in someone’s seat or wearing the wrong clothes; perhaps you speak a different language. The list is endless. (And, if you ever experience that here, PLEASE tell someone, because you are welcome, no matter what.)

Anyway, begin by putting yourself in Mary’s shoes. Remember—she is a woman, and according to the “rules” at that time (notice I said “at that time”!), she belongs in the kitchen. She is not supposed to be in a roomful of men learning life lessons from a well-known teacher. In the accepted social framework of the day, she cannot be a disciple, since women were not thought to have the intellectual ability to understand preaching and teaching.

And yet, she can’t help it. There is Jesus, and she is mesmerized by his words. So she quietly draws closer and closer. I’d guess that some frowned and looked the other way. What I hope is that at least a few never noticed her because they were paying such close attention to what Jesus was saying.

Now, put yourself in Martha’s shoes. Imagine what the situation is like for her—a house overflowing with guests, food to prepare and serve. And then, on top of it all, she is admonished by Jesus that Mary, who looks as if she is sitting, doing nothing, is in fact doing the right thing. Commentators have struggled for years with this passage—I can’t solve that, but here’s what I think.

I think Martha is like her sister Mary, who breaks a major cultural rule. In fact, they are both like Jesus, who himself is a rule-breaker. To begin with, Martha is a widow. That means there is no husband to back her up, just her brother Lazarus. And yet that doesn’t stop her from inviting an itinerant preacher and his whole entourage into her house. And in so doing, she performs a dangerous act, since Jesus is himself at risk. Martha breaks a cultural rule so that she can keep a moral one: she goes out of her way to practice hospitality.

But then, not surprisingly, with all of those people to take care of, she is overcome by distraction.

Now, I’m an only child, so I supposedly don’t know how siblings react to each other—well, that’s not really true. I am blessed with three sisters-in-law who, thankfully, have adopted me as one of their own. Anyway, in this case, Martha is clearly annoyed with Mary! There Martha is, with the pot of soup boiling over, the bread ready to be shaped (it’s called challah, and the dough is kneaded and braided), the salad greens waiting to be washed, and the dishes to be wiped. Where’s her sister?

I can see Martha, holding a dishcloth in one hand, her apron still on, marching into the room full of men. She knows that her sister will ignore her, so she goes directly to the heart of the problem. “Lord,” she says plaintively to Jesus, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!”

Listen closely to what she’s really saying. She feels forgotten, rejected—if Jesus cared about her, he’d send Mary into the kitchen. In effect, she orders him, who is her guest, to embarrass her sister! She orders him to conform to social expectations.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. I imagine him settling back and looking deeply into Martha’s eyes. He doesn’t take either sister them to task—in fact, since Jesus knows that he is about to speak a hard lesson for Martha, he begins in what would have been seen in those days—and today, too—as a gentle way. He uses her name twice.

“Martha, Martha,” he says, as if to be sure of her attention. And I think he must have looked at her with compassion and perhaps shaken his head slightly as if to say, “My dear, you don’t understand. Here’s the point . . .”

Focus. Focus on what is important. That’s what he’s telling her. He’s not saying—”we’re hungry, where’s dinner?” He’s not saying, “you shouldn’t be here in this room.”

No. He says this: “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.” That is what he says not just to Martha, but to me, to all of us. There really is only one “better part,” so to speak.

And so we need to focus. To choose to listen. To choose to be a disciple. No matter how we serve, whether it is by rolling up our sleeves and working, or sitting quietly in worship, we need to focus on the reason for doing it. Martha has taken the first step in opening her home; now she needs to open her heart, her mind, her soul. No doubt about it—it means going out on a limb. It means breaking rules. It will certainly mean a major life change.

Choosing the better part means that I, that you, that all of us need to focus on the Christ message, no matter what we are doing, no matter where we are.

And then what? Choosing the better part means, quite simply, that we will love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and we will love our neighbors as ourselves.

In His Holy Name.  +