07.17.2016 Preaching Text: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing…” (Luke 10:41-42a)
Every time someone at a meeting asks the Chair if he or she has an agenda, I silently answer: “Everybody has an agenda!”
This does not mean, of course, that everyone’s agenda is necessarily bad or that it isn’t well-intended.
Take Martha’s in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. She seems to have nothing but the best of intentions. That they don’t fit in with what the situation calls for is beside the point.
Consider Jesus’s actual situation, the favored guest: he is heading for Jerusalem and certain death. No doubt his mind is filled with weighty thoughts. The last thing on his list of priorities, I suspect, is what sort of spread or decorum he will encounter when visiting his friends, Mary and Martha.
In my first church we had a deacon who was absolutely obsessed with the look of the chancel. Her focus, in particular, was on the linens covering the Lord’s Table. Woe be to anyone who set them up off-center! Her focus, in the end, was a matter of misplaced priorities, though her intentions were good. She just wanted things to look neat and decorous.
In our gospel story, only Mary seems to get the gist of Jesus’ mindset. She is anxious to listen to him and learn from him. It is Jesus’ personal mission that matters most, not whether the doilies on the coffee table are properly situated! It’s human contact she and Jesus most desire.
Martha, on the other hand, reminds me of those rare occasions when my parents entertained. I remember all the fuss made about this and that. I especially recall the dessert my mother would prepare – a coffee soufflé of sorts. It was absolutely delicious, though we kids rarely got to taste it!
But as I say, Jesus is not so much interested in culinary excellence. He wants to make a human connection, something Martha, in her distracted state, simply cannot manage.
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, with, I imagine, affection, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing…” And that one thing is spiritual attentiveness.
The fact is, at times we’re all guilty of focusing on extraneous things while the big things are left unheeded. We “major in the minors and minor in the majors.”
I’m reminded of a curious sort of ethic Episcopal priest, John Claypool, once called the ”Platinum Rule” (as opposed to the “Golden Rule”).
We all know what the Golden Rule says: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” On the face of it, this sounds pretty good, yes?
But the Platinum Rule takes things a step further. It says: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Note the difference. The Golden Rule requires that we give others what we ourselves would want. The Platinum Rule requires that we give them, not what we would want, but what they would want!
Martha, it could be said, is trying to live by the Golden Rule. She is doing what she thinks Jesus wants (which consists of doing what she would want).
Mary, on the other hand, adheres closer to the Platinum Rule because she is doing what her guest wants and not necessarily what she would want.
In this is an important distinction. In order to practice the Platinum Rule we are required to stop and listen to the other person. We must take the time to discern what it is the other person is about.
Martha simply has no time to listen, to gauge what her guest really needs. She’s too busy with her own preoccupations. So sure is she that this is in fact what the occasion requires, she even attempts to recruit Jesus in scolding Mary for not assisting her in avoiding the very thing he most wants and needs!
I sympathize with Martha, though, because I think she thinks she’s being helpful, if not selfless. Her sin, if you can call it that, is that she’s too consumed with her own agenda.
I know it’s far easier for me personally to spend time doing things I’m comfortable doing, things that don’t always coincide with what most needs doing! Such behavior can even become an obsession, which is only compounded when it’s socially approved.
Work is a classic example. Martha is consumed with her work. In fact, if most people were to look at the situation objectively, they’d likely conclude that Martha had every right to be upset with her sister. After all, the work needs to get done and Mary appears to be shirking her responsibilities.
I remember a year or two back I saw a television interview with Billy Graham, the famed Christian evangelist. At one point the questioner asked him whether, if he had to do it all over again, he would change anything about his life.
Without hesitation Graham confessed that he would have spent less time evangelizing, travelling from city to city and country to country. Despite all his fame and success, he said that were he to do it all over again he would spend more time at home, studying and praying.
You see, busyness, even for a good cause, can take us away from the Lord. When we’re on the treadmill, when the scenery is flying past us at 60 miles an hour, we’re prone to lose touch with the Lord, forgetting to spend quality time in God’s presence.
And when that happens, we end up doing more of what we ourselves think God wants us to do rather than what God would wish us to do.
The Christian life, at its core, is premised on reconciliation with our Creator, the One from whom we have been existentially alienated. Our task, thus, is not merely to act, but to act in a certain way, according to God’s will. First we must change our perspective. And that can happen only by spending time with God. Otherwise we will continue to act in accordance with our otherwise unredeemed, unspiritual ways.
The primary task of a Christian, then, is to seek spiritual transformation in order to see the world the way God does, and not according to a pre-set, humanistic standpoint.
Jesus is inviting Martha – and us – to be still and know that God is God, to calmly dwell in the presence of the Lord that we might be changed. For when we are distracted and obsessed by life’s lesser things, we suffer. Amen.