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“Be Not Distracted or Worried”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 10, July 21, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 10:38-42

I was one of those weird kids in high school in that I went to church pretty much every Sunday and tried to get my parents to come with me. And I would sometimes use this passage against my mom. Not a good way to use scripture, I learned later, but this does resonate with me in that way. Mom would always have too much housework. Now that I am older and am an adult I understand where she was coming from. She worked full time, dad worked full time...

Anyway, we have this Martha and Mary story here. As I was thinking about this passage this week, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. There is the character Polonius, an aged man of wisdom and counselor to the king. There is a scene when Polonius’ son Laertes is going off to college, so Polonius offers his advice. And it’s a kind of double-sided bit of advice.

He says to be familiar – but don’t be vulgar.
Hold your friend fast and dear, participate in their lives, and do what they want – but don’t always do what they want.
Don’t fight – but win the fights you are in. Don’t lose.
Buy the best you can afford in terms of clothing and lifestyle – but don’t be fancy.

Do this, but don’t do that or do it in a different way.

Between last week’s Gospel reading (the Parable of the Good Samaritan), and this week’s reading, I’m seeing Jesus as a kind of “do this, but don’t do this” advice giver. Something confusing about these two passages. Last week was the parable of the good Samaritan. It was an example that helping others was the highest good, the highest ethic, the greatest thing one could do is to love your neighbor even at great expense to oneself, and even if one must allow it to interrupt your life and your routine. Helping other people is the greatest thing that you can do.

And then today, in this story, Martha is helping the people who are in her home. She is being a good host. She’s showing hospitality, she is being, in a sense, the Good Samaritan for the people who are in her home. And then Jesus scolds her for doing that, and celebrates Mary who he says is “doing the right thing”, which is doing nothing. Not literally doing nothing, she is at Jesus’ feet listening and participating. But she is not helping her neighbor. She is not serving.

These two passages are right next to each other. Nothing is in between them. I want to say, “Jesus, which one is it? Are we supposed to help, or are we supposed to sit and listen, not be distracted by the interruptions? Not be distracted by the person on the side of the road, or the people who come into our house? Which one are we supposed to do?”

Polonius ends his speech to Laertes with the famous phrase, “Above all, to thine own self be true.” And maybe Jesus is offering an ethic of “To thine own self, be untrue.”

Don’t fall into your comfortable roles, or comfortable thinking. Or your standard routine. Take a risk. Do something different. Be more than you think you are. Maybe that is part of what Jesus is saying here.

Maybe he is speaking to Martha’s assumed role. She is probably always the good host and focused on her guests’ needs and not her own needs. Hospitality was very important in the middle east in Jesus’ time, and still is today. Hospitality is really important. And maybe Jesus is saying, “Martha, Martha, think outside yourself. You should be sitting here listening. Because for you, this would be the strange and difficult and different thing to do. To be more complete, you need to add this way of being to your repertoire.”

And maybe Jesus is also saying that in his new ethic, his new world, women don’t have to follow the culturally conditioned role of servant or host, and the culturally and religiously conditioned role that they are not supposed to be students, ever. That they are only there to serve and help. Being a student, that’s man work. This could be Jesus saying also, “You have permission, Martha, to not be a servant. You don’t always have to be a helper. You don’t always have to be the maid and the cook looking after people. Now, in this moment, this is the time for my disciples and my friends to learn and to talk, and that includes you, Martha. We will eat later, and when we eat, we will all help prepare the meal as well, not just you.”

Martha here wants some help. It is interesting that she doesn’t go to Mary and say, “Mary, why don’t you give me a hand?” She goes to Jesus and says, “Why don’t you tell her to give me a hand?” Martha is thinking of her own needs as well. At the end of worship today we will sing a hymn called “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant” and I wonder if Martha in this moment might sing this as “Won’t you help me and be a servant with me?” or perhaps more sarcastically, “Why am I the only one serving? Why don’t you come help me?” But Jesus says, “No, this is not the time. This is a time in which the better portion is to sit and to listen. Pay attention. To not be distracted by life. Right now we are learning. We are talking, we are in conversation.”

And Jesus’ admonition is not necessarily her serving. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are distracted and worried. You are distracted. Focus, Martha.”

There are so many other times that Jesus talks about service, hospitality, tending to others, to be doing things, that actions speak louder than words. But not this time. Not this time. This happens right after that encounter we read about last week with the religious scholar that Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to. We also had two weeks ago the story of Jesus sending out the 70 to go out and do things. The week before that we had Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem. He is on his final journey to Jerusalem. He knows what is going to happen. We are now in that second act of Luke with Jesus set on going to Jerusalem. And he said, “No one who puts hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom.” Which appears to also be a message of go, do, serve, help people, be always moving, don’t just sit and listen and meditate. Action, action, action. And today is “No, sit. Listen.”

This is a Polonius moment. Serve your neighbors, except when it is more important not to. Sit and listen and learn, except when it is more important not to. Do both. But you can’t do them at the same time. Do what I say, but not when you should do the other thing I say you should do.

That is part of faithful life – to find a balance between the two. Sitting, praying, meditating, learning; and also being out serving others, serving your neighbor.

And maybe this message to Martha fits us more. We as recipients and inheritors of the Protestant work ethic that says you have to always be busy, always be doing something.

We don’t always have to be busy. We don’t always have to be doing something.

Between these two scriptural passages of the Good Samaritan and the Martha and Mary story, we get Jesus saying to those who spend more of their time thinking, being contemplative, some of our orders of monks and nuns are contemplative orders that spend most of their time in prayer and doing heady things, like last week’s religious scholar or the Pharisees or Sadducees – Jesus is reminding them that there is work to do in meeting the needs of your neighbor. Meeting the needs of the people around them, and showing love, because that is the real place to meet God.

And Jesus’ message to Martha today is a message to people who are busy doing stuff, running around, showing hospitality, taking care of things, taking care of other people, busy busy busy. Jesus is reminding them that they need to stop, pick up a book, be mindful, sit and think, because that is the real place to meet God.

Both places.

It is a both/and situation.

We come to worship and we rest and listen for an hour on Sunday mornings here to remember who we are and whose we are, and to prime us for going out in the next week to be the servants in the world. And because we are active during the week doing service, we take time to stop and pray, to put our experiences into meaning on Sunday morning or our daily devotionals. That is the balance in healthy life, and a balanced faithful life. Prayer followed by action, and action followed by prayer, and a reminder that prayer is a form of service and action, and that action and service is a form of prayer.

Maybe that is the point.

Not a lesson aimed at everyone, but a lesson aimed at the Marthas. Those who are worried and distracted, who have lost focus. That it is okay to take a break. To try to regain focus. And also a message to the Marys that sometimes we are to serve and be active. I think this message to Martha is such a good message for us; we who live within this Western, Protestant work ethic tradition that says that you should always be doing and feel guilty if you are not. We do not need to feel guilty if we are not. We cannot be busy all the time. We cannot be burning the candle at both ends all the time. There is in the Christian call this call to read scripture. To studying. To at least stop and contemplate. To think about our life. To recharge ourselves. Find that inner balance to not be distracted and worried.

Jesus went off to pray. And God took a day of rest after creation. Jesus says to Martha, “Martha, Martha, it’s okay to take a break. It is okay to take a break when you get distracted and worried. Keep your focus on me. When you need, take the time to refind that connection. That is important to do. Martha, Martha, it is okay to take a break.”


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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