July 17, 2022
Rev. Scott Landis
During the month of July and into August I am using the general theme of “Faithful Living” for a mini-sermon-series. On the holiday weekend I began by focusing on “deserved living” or “living life the way I think I deserve.” Last week my focus was on “sacrificial living” as we considered the parable of the Good Samaritan and serving one’s neighbor. Today we turn to the story of Mary and Martha – two sisters who were dear friends of Jesus – after all he raised their brother Lazarus from the dead – as we consider the idea of “both/and living.” My hope is that you will understand what I mean by that idea by the end of my sermon today. I’ll let you be the judge.
I began my pastoral update this week with the words of Jesus embedded in this story, “Martha, Martha, Martha.” Well, those weren’t his exact words, but what he said DID remind me of that old show, The Brady Bunch which you may also have watched back in the late Sixties. Remember that? Ohhh – that seems like a long time ago now – but amazingly contemporary in an age of “Zoom Boxes” on your computer screen. I took some time this week to look at a few clips from the show. My, things have changed.
The Brady Bunch tried to portray – even though they were a “practically perfect family,” that all family constellations, regardless of how they appear in public, have issues. And so, when Jan or Cindy complained about how Marcia seemed to get all the accolades, we heard more than once the expression, “All I ever hear is Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” [Pause]
Our story today is very different to be sure, but the relational dynamics are amazing similar. Jealousy, envy, anger, frustration all come to a boil in Martha as she is heard banging pots and pans around in the kitchen while her sister sits with intense devotion at Jesus’ feet soaking up his every word.
It’s the last THUNK of the dinner plate on the table that was the dead give-away. Martha marched into the living room, gave Mary the evil eye and turned to Jesus, “Have you NOT noticed that my sister has left me to do ALL the work by myself? Tell her to get off her tuckus and help me!
“Martha, Martha, Martha,” Jesus responded. “You are worried and distracted by many things. But only one thing really matters.” [Pause]
She probably wanted to throw something at Jesus at this point as her blood reached the boiling point, and for good reason. Expectations did not match reality in what should have been a very typical means of entertaining guests.
First, there are the essential requirements of proper hospitality that was expected in Ancient Near East culture. Guests had to be properly received, cared for by washing their feet, feeding, given a clean tunic, and a place to sleep – and all this was done by the women of the house. And second, the men were expected to sit and discuss religion, and politics, and the weather I suppose. They did NOT engage in domestic chores. They attended to their guests in a different way.
Martha, following Jewish custom was doing exactly what was expected while Mary, her sister, did just the opposite. Mary fully abrogated her responsibility by doing what men do – sit and be waited on – and engage in conversation – which infuriated Martha. Oh, it was okay for a while, but soon it got the best of her – the outbreak of which is recorded in the social media of the day for all of history to remember. The result of which has been the source of way too many sermons criticizing Martha for her “childish behavior” as was often the case for one of the Brady Bunch kids – while Mary has been praised – much like Marcia Brady – for choosing well – the better part. [Pause]
Typically, this biblical story gets extrapolated into the idea that “doing” is not as important or valued as “being” or that “active faith” is not as important as “contemplative spiritual practices,” but take a closer look.
Jesus does not criticize Martha for what she is “doing.” Nor does he really praise Mary for sitting at his feet. What Jesus calls for in this story is something that is just a relevant for us today. The need to focus. It’s bringing the two together – both serving/and sitting – so that we might be fully present to Presence (as my mentor at the Shalem Institute, Tilden Edwards, used to say). You see it’s not about “doing” or “being.” Rather, both are necessary to be fully present to the Divine Presence incarnate in Jesus. The call — the invitation is to focus one’s attention so that we bring our whole self to the person in our midst.
Put another way – Jesus was eliminating the binary of these two apparent opposites to remind us that the life of faithful devotion is fluid sometimes calling for intentional action while other times demanding silence, presence, stillness as the better part. The trick is to know when to do what – and to do it with singleness of purpose. [Pause]
We are all wired a little differently. Some of us are just naturally “doers.” We can’t help ourselves. We see something that needs to be done and we have at it. Those so inclined in our church are seen fixing the altar, preparing for aloha hour, trimming the Ti leaves on the trees, or painting the window frames. You know who you are – and whether that is your kuleana.
Others find their spiritual highs in time spent apart — either in solitude or in a prayer circle with friends. These folks can spend hours reading the bible or spiritual literature. They find deep peace in centering prayer, journaling, or even listening to endless sermons.
But you see what happens when we skew one way or the other and tend to stay in that end of the binary? More often than not the “active or doing” folks tend to judge the “being” folks for not doing anything worthwhile (or at least not enough), while the “being” folks might look down their noses at the “doing” folks as less religious or lacking in piety because they are not spending enough time in obvious prayer. And that’s where Jesus calls us ALL out.
Neither is right AND neither is wrong. What is important is (A) balance, but even more important than that is (B) focus on why and not being distracted by that which can so easily get in the way of our allegiance to the Holy One. In short, it is both/and – “balance and focus.” [Pause]
We are an ADD Society. Almost every one of us suffers from a deplorable lack of focus. We almost can’t help ourselves. We have become so used to a constant bombardment from external sources that it has become nearly impossible to remain singularly focused. And if we are not distracted by external sources, we distract ourselves by turning on the television, while scrolling through Facebook on our cell phones. Some even pride themselves in multi-tasking as if that is somehow better than doing one thing at a time. Once again, no judgment, but that is not what Jesus was calling for.
In fact, he explicitly called out that which distracts us from him and gently invites us to return to the Divine Presence that is always in our midst.
So, without any judgment whatsoever, I invite you today to simply notice how easily distracted you are – at any given moment. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just notice it. And then try and gently pull yourself – your attention – to the one most important thing, person, or situation that is right in front of you. Give yourself completely to the moment whether it is getting someone a cold glass of water or listening fully to what she has to say – without a cell phone in your hand or thinking about the next thing you have to do.
Simply be present, focused, balanced to moment you are in. I guarantee, if you do, you will be far more at peace with yourself and those you encounter.
Let’s practice that right now in these few moments of silence.