Sermon: Distracted or Disaster

July 21, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 18:1-10, Luke 10:38-42

by Eric Anderson

Churches, like people, seem to have personalities. You know that’s the case with individual congregations. Worship here and you’ll have a particular kind of experience. Go down the street, turn the corner, and worship at Church of the Holy Apostles – a change of three tenths of a mile and one word – and you’ll have a very difference experience. I grant you that you’re going from a free church style of worship to Episcopalian, so it may be something of a shock, but if you were to go from one UCC church to another here in Hilo, elsewhere on this island, more broadly in this state, and then across the nation, you will find differences. Sometimes they’ll be subtle, and sometimes they’ll be right in your face. Congregations have personalities.

So do entire denominations, and entire traditions, and the differences aren’t limited to worship. They include the things we tend to hold up as important. We, descended from radical seventeenth century Calvinists, look at personal piety as individual reading of the Bible, daily prayer, and perhaps reading something from a daily devotional. We have little resembling the Roman Catholic tradition of monastic life, in which people dedicate themselves to prayer throughout the day every day. We emphasize the sermon in Sunday services. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, an article describing regular worship raises the importance of communion and doesn’t mention a sermon at all.

Churches have personalities, sort of like… Mary and Martha.

We – in the United Church of Christ and, dare I say it, in Church of the Holy Cross UCC – are very much a Martha style of church. It comes directly from John Calvin himself, who wrote of this passage: “Luke says that Mary sat at the feet of Jesus. Does he mean that she did nothing else throughout her whole life? On the contrary, the Lord enjoins his followers to make such a distribution of their time, that he who desires to make proficiency in the school of Christ shall not always be an idle hearer but shall put in practice what he has learned; for there is a time to hear, and a time to act.”

Martha-like activity energized the reforming efforts of Calvin and his supporters. It drove the English Puritans to attempt the oceans to establish a place they could worship without interference. It drove the pen of Henry ‘Opukaha’ia to write a Hawaiian dictionary and grammar, as well as the memoir which inspired the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to send missionaries to Hawai’i just two years after his death. Martha-like activity baptized Hawaiians, then Japanese and Chinese immigrants. Martha-like activity founded hospitals and homeless shelters. Martha-like activity found beds for those who evacuated lower Puna last year, is helping refit residences that survived the eruption, and is working for more permanent homes for those who lost theirs.

Martha-like activity has also re-written constitutions, forced legislatures to pass civil rights laws, and swayed public opinion. In these days of racist slogans to “send her back,” we need Marthas.

I like Martha. I’m comfortable with Martha. I approve of Martha. Rename this the Church of Saint Martha and I am all for it. Who’s with me?

I’ll tell you who else is with me: Jesus.

Brian Peterson writes, “Jesus, earlier in Luke 10, sent out 70 disciples and told them to expect and accept hospitality from others. Isn’t Martha precisely the sort of host that Jesus had promised? Later in the Gospel, when those closest to him begin to argue about which one of them is the greatest, Jesus will define ‘great’ discipleship and even his own ministry in terms of serving others (Luke 22:24-26), using the same vocabulary that here describes Martha.”

And, of course, we have the parallel example of Abraham and Sarah’s welcome to their three visitors to see that Martha’s hospitality was to be praised.

Jesus criticized two things when Martha came to complain. First, he told Martha that she was “worried and distracted.” He didn’t tell her she was busy; he said she was “worried and distracted.” D. Mark Davis writes, “[Martha is] a wreck because she is trying to respond well to what Jesus has put before her. That’s the kind of stormy anxiety that we have to identify with in Martha. I’m not saying that we have to become Martha in all of her anxiety before we can fully appreciate Mary’s sitting. I am saying that we have to appreciate Martha’s position before we critique Martha. She really is panicking about the many things. Jesus does not say that she is irrational or wrong-headed. He merely says that he will not stop Mary from her sitting and hearing.”

Martha had let the responsibilities turn into anxiety, maybe even a panic attack, that prevented her from doing what Abraham did: to be attentive to her guest. To appreciate his presence. To affirm his importance in her household. It’s not her activity that Jesus rebuked. It was her frustration.

Martha had reached the point where she saw nothing except distraction or disaster.

That’s the great danger in living as a helper. It gets frustrating. It can get overwhelming. All that needs to happen, we know, is for this person, or that person, or those people to just do the thing that is obvious to me, and everything will be fine!

Each and every time we give in to that anxiety, or pride, or anger, things start to fall apart.

I read an imaginative dialogue by Maren Tirabassi this week. It’s a conversation between them some fifteen years later.

Martha: You know, Mary, that story still follows us — all these fifteen years later. I am forever the “do-er,” the worker … and the cranky one, the impatient one, the trying-to-be- pretentious-one, the bossy one.

Mary: Well …?

Martha: Never mind!

Mary: And me? I am the mousy one, the slacker, the navel-gazer, the teacher’s pet — yep, story doesn’t work so well for me either.

Martha: Do you think that is all anyone will remember about us?

Jesus’ second critique of Martha was that she intervened to take something away from Mary – her experience of Jesus. An experience of the wondrous, an experience of the holy, an experience of the divine: these are the better part, are they not? Nobody gets to take that away from someone: not because they’re “supposed” to be doing something else, not because they’re seemingly indolent, not because they’re your younger sister (or other sibling). No, said Jesus. That’s hers. You can have yours. But you can’t take away hers.

That’s why I don’t march down to Church of the Holy Apostles and insist they all come up here for worship. I can have my experience of Jesus. We can have our experience of Jesus. But the point is: they get to have their experience of Jesus, too.

They get to have their experience of the sacred.

There’s no need to choose between distraction and disaster.

In Maren Tirabassi’s imaginary conversation, the sisters recall how much Jesus loved them, and then:

Martha: But I will tell you what’s even more important — to me, at least.

Mary: More important than Jesus loving us?

Martha: Yes. More important than Jesus loving us, is how much we loved him.

There it is. Right there. Can you remember that about Mary and Martha? Can you remember that Martha loved him, even if she forgot it in her anxiety to serve him? Can you remember that Mary loved him in her still wordlessness? Can you remember that Martha loved him, and that was her better part? Can you remember that Mary loved him, and that was her better part?

More to the point: Can you remember to love Jesus yourself? Can you remember when you’re out-Martha-ing Martha, letting your activity spill over into your emotions, letting the unmet needs overwhelm your spirit, letting the frustration swell into anger and resentment? Can you remember when you see the Marys sitting by apparently without a care in the world? Can you remember to love Jesus when Jesus doesn’t fix it for you?

Can you remember to love Jesus yourself when you are kneeling at his feet? Can you remember when you’ve lost the thread of his words in your internal reflections? Can you remember when it seems like you, and only you are the center of Jesus’ world? Can you remember when somebody comes along and says, “Get up, there’s work to do”?

Can you remember that that person loves Jesus, too?

There is no need to choose. Love Jesus at the stove. Love Jesus with a petition. Love Jesus with a sign.

Love Jesus in the reading of the Scripture, in that solitary time of prayer, in that life of contemplation.

There’s no need to choose. Love Jesus as is proper to the place and time. Love Jesus.

And let your neighbors love Jesus in their own way, too.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Distracted or Disaster

If the recording seems a little closer to the text than usual, well… the text has been edited to reflect the sermon as preached. Except for the part where Pastor Eric’s electronic screen went right back to the beginning of the text. We didn’t put that part in.

The image comes from a 14th century fresco in St. Nikita Church near Skopje, Macedonia. Photo by Zografs Mihailo and Evtihij, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on July 21, 2019

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