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Sermon for July 17, 2016

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Luke 10:38-42New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

                                    Holy Work

         We all know the story of Mary and Martha. Martha is all business and gets stuff done. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens. Jesus tells Martha to chill out like Mary, that listening is the better choice. It’s the story we love to hate. There are a lot more Martha’s in the crowd than Mary’s. Thank God. Without the doers we’d never get anything done. So we wonder, what’s up with this story Jesus?

It doesn’t take Jesus to tell us that listening is important. Our mother told us that when we were three. Business people understand that success depends on it. There’s a story told by business guru Steven Covey about the importance to listening.

“One day a seasoned farmer was casually walking along a country lane with his dog and his mule. Suddenly a speeding pick-up truck careened around the corner, knocking the man, his mule, and his dog into the ditch.

“The man decided to sue the driver of the truck, seeking to recoup the cost of the damages. While the countryman was on the witness stand, the counsel for the defense cross-examined the man by asking a simple question: "I want you to answer 'yes' or 'no' to the following question: Did you or did you not say at the time of the accident that you were 'perfectly fine'"?

“And the man said, "Well, me and my dog and my mule were walking along the road … " And the counsel for defense said, "Stop, stop, I asked you, tell me 'yes' or 'no', did you say you were 'perfectly fine' at the time of the accident?"

"Well, me and my dog and my mule were walking along the road and … " The defense attorney appealed to the judge. "Your honor," he said, "the man is not answering the question. Would you please insist that he answer the question?" The judge said, "Well, he obviously wants to tell us something. Let him speak."

“So the man said, "Well, me and my dog and my mule were walking along the road and this truck came around the corner far too fast, and knocked us into the ditch. The driver stopped, got out of his truck, saw my dog was badly injured, went back to his truck, got his rifle, and he shot it. Then he saw that my mule had broken his leg so he shot it. Then he said, 'How are you?' And I said, 'I'm perfectly fine.'"

I don’t think this Jesus story is just about listening though. When we think of Mary and Martha, we think about Martha frenzy vs. Mary tranquility. We think about Martha activity vs. Mary passivity. I wonder if the story of Mary and Martha though is less about the virtues of listening vs. cooking dinner than it is about distraction vs. focus. What kind of service pleases God most? Clearly Martha served Jesus. She made a lovely meal for him and for his disciples. Clearly Mary served Jesus, she listened to his stories and tried to understand all he had to say. Both Mary and Marty served God. I wonder then if Jesus was instead noticing that Martha served with a frenzied distraction, while Mary served with single-hearted devotion. Jesus notices, and Jesus invites Martha to join her sister, serving God with an undivided and undistracted heart.

I think we served God well yesterday as a church, and we served one another well, and we served our neighbors well too. We served God with an undivided and undistracted heart. People noticed.

At the hottest part of the day I stood with a guest from another town who was overcome with awe by the Village Faire. She said, “this is what it’s all about, isn’t it, the energy of the Holy is evident here.” She said, “You just don’t know how amazing this is. My faith community wouldn’t be able even to pull THIS off”, she said, gesturing to the grilling tent, “let alone all the rest of this. We’d be arguing and trying to figure stuff out and never get anything off the ground.” She loved her faith community, but saw them as too distracted to be able to serve in such a way as this. She loved the Village Faire. So did a whole bunch of other people. Those of us who had anything to do with the Faire went home hot and sticky and exhausted and deeply content. We did it out of love for God and other another, and we all loved it too.

I think Jesus would have loved the Village Faire. I think Jesus would have served baked beans all morning, and talked with the children at the face painting booth at noon. I think Jesus might have taken his turn selling tools or flipping burgers, eventually siting with the guys over in furniture telling stories. Jesus loved to tell stories. I can just see him, head flung back, laughing out loud with his friends at First Parish over some fine story. I imagine he had a certain twinkle in his eye as he captivated whoever would listen with tales about God things. They started out as tales about all manner of ordinary things, but always seemed to have a surprising twist at the end. The disciples were accustomed to thinking a story was about this, when in fact it was really about that; a story about lost coins was really about people who temporarily lost their way; a story about lost sheep was really about those who had wandered far from faith and needed help to find their way home to God.

This Jesus story is told like a play within a play. At first glance it appears to be a moral lesson about something that happened at a dinner party in the home of his dear friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We think the story is about one of two things. We either issue a warning not to be like Martha, fussing over dinner when we could be hanging out with Jesus. Or, we point to Mary as an example of the importance of listening to God above all else. I’ve probably preached it both ways myself.

            Jesus intends something else altogether? When Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing….”, I think he was inviting her to a deeper relationship with him, deeper trust in him. Martha chose distraction, Mary chose to focus on relationship. Jesus knew that to listen to someone is to care for them. David Augsburger said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable. Mary heard Jesus, because Mary loved Jesus. When she was with him it was as if she had blinders on. There was nothing more important in the world than to be fully present to him. She loved him through listening to him. She listened until she heard him. She got him. She knew him. When he was in the room it must have been as if all the air was sucked out of the room, he had her total attention. She wanted nothing more than to be with him, and to serve him. She focused on Jesus and his message, and nothing else. For the sake of this love, he tells Martha that Mary has chosen well.

         Hearing one another focuses our attention. It’s hard to be distracted when we’re sitting in the front pew. It’s easy to get distracted the minute we walk out the door. Hearing deeply changes everything in a relationship. When we focus our attention on a relationship with Christ, it becomes it possible to do great things, with great love, for God’s glory.

         Martha was so full of Martha that there apparently was not much room for anybody else. If you’ve ever prepared dinner for a large group, you know that the host always says, “Oh, it was nothing.” When in truth, entertaining is hard work. There are many details to consider, a long time on your feet preparing, the very task of listening deeply to each guest, and the requisite clean up after everyone goes home.

         Some of us love hospitality and entertaining, and it gives us great pleasure to serve others in this way. And yet, we know how much we appreciate it when someone volunteers to help. In today’s story, Martha wasn't getting any help and she was ticked off, growing more surly as the hour grew late. Finally, when Jesus and the disciples got up for a bathroom break, Martha took that moment alone with him and asked for a little assistance. “Jesus,” tell my sister to get off her bum and come out here to the kitchen to give me a hand, will ya?”

         Her request had little to do with dinner and everything to do with valuing the wrong things. Notice that the text doesn’t condemn her beautiful hospitality or the well-prepared meal or her immaculate home. What it says is that Martha had a problem and it wasn’t what she imagined. Her problem wasn’t that Mary wasn’t giving her any help in the kitchen. The text says, Martha was distracted by many things.” Martha forgot who she was. As the host, what people wanted most was her. They didn’t come for the food, they came to be with her. They didn’t come to play video games with Jesus, they came to hear him, and then to serve him.

         We’re all tempted to pay attention to the merely important to the detriment of the essential. We all know how easy it is to allow time-wasters and toxic relationships to drain the energy out of our lives. What distracts you from giving your full attention and focus to loving Jesus and serving God?

Jesus gives you permission this morning to stop doing whatever it is and let it go. If you want God to use you in great ways, you’ll need to let go of distractions. God wants your focus. The more focused you are, the more effective you’ll be in serving God. God will infuse you with power and use you for God’s glory.

There’s awesome power in a focused life. Diffused light doesn’t have much of an effect on what it touches. But when you focus light — like the sun’s light through a magnifying glass — you can light a piece of paper or grass on fire. If you can focus it even more, it becomes a laser with the power to destroy cancer and cut through steel. It all starts by sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening.

In the week to come, our youth and their chaperones will travel to Pennsylvania once again for their mission trip. There is no doubt that Jesus will confront them in a Martha and Mary moment. There will be decisions to be made. They’ll be tempted by distractions: focusing at first on how much they can get done instead of what kind of relationships they build with the homeowners. They’ll have a good time on the bus eating junk food and want to hang out with their friends instead of going to worship every evening, at first. And then, it may happen for them as it happened for you. They may lay down their cell phones, and their paintbrushes, and the Cheetos bag and their video games. They will fall into their beds at the end of the day spent and then...they will lie in the dark and listen. In those quiet moments when the distractions fall away, they may hear God speak. In the God moment that follows, their service begins.

When God has our undivided attention, through Christ we can change the world.