A sermon preached on July 17, 2016, by visiting pastor, Liz Coates
Associate Pastor of Discipleship & Spiritual Formation at First Baptist Gainesville.
Scripture Lesson: Luke 10:38-42
Foreign mission trips are quite an experience. Have you been on one? I’ve been on a few and when I was younger, I went with Rivers of the World to Brazil, the second hottest place on the planet. (Nicaragua has them beat). I was in college so I was young and pretty proud of how hard I was willing to work. So we are living on this boat on the Amazon River…I do not want you to imagine a cruise ship, because it was everything a cruise ship is not. It was grimy, we slept in hammocks on the deck of the boat and there was a single stall for showering on the deck, which when you stepped inside and pulled the rope, water from the Amazon River…yes, the parasite infested Amazon, poured over you. Ta-da, all “clean.” So we are roughing it is my point. What we are there to do is stop off at these villages and while one team offers dental care, my team does projects. One day the project was…digging. Yay! The single hardest work anyone can do in 5,000 degrees.
So we have our breakfast and head into the village from the river. I survey what needs to happen, get out my shovel and start going at it. It’s only 8:00 in the morning and the sun is already blistering hot. So I’m shoveling and shoveling. I stop to drink some water and I’m looking around and there’s this one guy from our group who I realize I think hasn’t picked up a shovel all morning. So then I start noticing as the day goes on, I’m swooning and about 5 seconds from heat exhaustion, and he’s laughing and cutting up and taking 17,000 pictures. He’s talking to the locals, all animated. Everyone around him is all smiles. This isn’t right. We’re here to dig out this floor and hand mix concrete in the heat for the floor of this worship space ROW is constructing. We’re not here to shoot the imaginary breeze and soak up the sights and sounds of monkeys. What is this dude doing?
I started feeling nasty inside, you know, and it wasn’t just from the heat. I was angry. So around 11:30, near lunch time, I find myself completely drenched in sweat, and I set down my shovel to go wring out my bandana. Everything goes black. I reach for a post to keep from falling down. I had overdone it. I had worked and worried myself to death with what I thought I should be doing and was now useless for the rest of the day recovering from heat exhaustion. I had not learned the names of the children playing nearby. I did not hug the old woman who had stopped by on her way someplace and come into our work space all smiles and gratitude beaming from her little, round, brown face. I didn’t SEE the people right in front of me.
And that’s how we tend to live our lives. American lives are, often, Martha lives. In the words of one of my heroes, Jesuit Priest Greg Boyle, “we spend our lives focused on the narrow path, rather than narrowing our focus.” “We spend our lives focusing on the narrow path, but Jesus is calling us to narrow our focus.” We try so hard to do everything, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, do it well, that we often don’t catch a glimpse of what really matters.
We are distracted by so much. The pace of our culture is literally killing us; stress, depression, and anxiety are at an all-time high. Children are babysat by iPads while busy parents try to keep up with the money-making, social networking, house-keeping, loan-paying life. Children are being neglected because parents are not present, they’re too distracted with too many things and they get overwhelmed. Sometimes drugs become both a way to keep up the energy it takes to live this life and numb the discomfort of a life so demanding. The challenge is, in a world of distractions, to be present. And presence is the greatest gift we can give to the people in front of us, but our contemporary culture just does not value it enough. Presence is not a marker of success.
Now here in our story there are several seemingly “incorrect” things going on. For one, women aren’t ‘supposed to’ be recognized as disciples. Societal roles of the day are being well defined by Martha’s actions. She deserves the kudos from Jesus, according to tradition. Women work behind the scenes. They show hospitality—which is a HUGE deal in the culture of Jesus day and time, by handling all of the rituals of welcoming an honored guest. Imagine Martha. She’s got her apron tied around her waist. Jesus, the honored guest is coming today, so she’s been slaving away. She has been to the market and is now hard at work preparing with spices and dates and fish and bread, a meal, a feast really, for Jesus. Martha is busy keeping the fire fed as she cooks a meal to proudly serve her guest. She’s fetching fresh water from the cistern to bring Jesus for cleaning his hands and cooling his face. Once he arrives, she’s back and forth from the kitchen area to Jesus. Martha is hot from all of the fuss. She takes her apron and wipes her upper lip as she glances over to see Mary. And now imagine Mary. Close your eyes if you want to and picture her there literally sitting at Jesus’ feet. She’s comfortable and looking up with her big, brown eyes at her Lord, soaking him in. Really seeing him, listening to the tales of his journey and who he has been teaching. Catching up on all that has brought him to this moment in his journey. Maybe, just maybe he is talking about what is yet to come…he’s already predicted his death, after all. Or maybe, maybe Jesus is telling Mary what has JUST happened before he came to their home. Maybe he’s recapping the parable he has just told, a parable about one Good Samaritan, to teach his followers about radical hospitality. Radical Hospitality—the kind Jesus teaches, doesn’t look like the Middle Eastern hospitality that Martha and Mary are accustomed to seeing. Hospitality should be reserved for people we trust, for honored friends, for people like ourselves…Jewish and pure. And yet, in the parable preceding our story, none of that mattered. We don’t know what Jesus is saying, but we know that Mary is listening—and maybe the Gospel here is showing us that there are 2 parts to our discipleship: DOING, as with the Samaritan who helped the wounded man, and BEING, as Mary now demonstrates.
And Martha sees. She sees what’s wrong about this. Hospitality was no joke then in that part of the world and it’s no joke now. Ya’ll know, you’re Southern. We are known for our hospitality, right? Martha sees it our way. When an important guest enters your home, you go crazy making sure everything is perfect and the tea is sweet enough and the pillows are fluffed and the house is in order and the chicken is frying to the perfect shade of brown and crispy.
So what does Mary think she’s doing? “Get up. I’m sweating over here,” Martha thinks. I’m doing everything. She starts feeling nasty inside. And it brews for a little while and finally it’s so clear to her that Mary is being so inhospitable, that she says it, I mean, my goodness, this is getting embarrassing for you, Mary. “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister jut sits here while I do the work? Tell her to come and help me.” But, Martha is living so deeply in the misunderstanding of what it means to follow Jesus, that she can’t even see it. She’s not doing anything wrong—but there’s a better way and it requires seeing our own spirituality, it requires tending to our BEING.
Jesus helps Martha see. It may hurt a little, it’s painful waking up, it is a blow to the ego to realize all of her hard work is in vain, but he tells her, “My dear Martha (notice the gentleness, almost merciful way he calls her—another translation says, “Martha, Martha—when Jesus repeats himself like that it’s a call to attention!!). “My dear Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” He is calling Martha to shift her attention from how to ensure she is on proverbial narrow path and rather to narrow her focus—to the moment, the person, the experience of God that is found in just BEING with Him.
Martha gets permission to engage in radical, true, Jesus-hospitality. The kind she has been taught, it turns out, is not the best kind. She’s been taught that it’s about how much YOU, the host, can DO to make people happy. But, Jesus turns that on its head in one simple statement…he has a knack for that doesn’t he…and he wakes her up to the true nature of discipleship. If you want to follow Jesus, you have to sit with Him, Martha. You have to NARROW YOUR FOCUS and see God through Him by listening and accepting His acceptance of you exactly as you are. Yes, there will be work to DO, action to be taken, but the person directly in front of you is always reflecting the image of God onto you. Do not miss that because you are too busy worrying with the lesser things. Look at Him, look at her, look and see the places inside people that are crying out to be seen. Narrow your focus and you will find yourself on the narrow path. That’s how you get there. But somehow she had missed that, we miss that…And it’s because of all the distractions. The questions Jesus presents us with is, “Are we taking time to see who we really are, or are we running crazy trying to show everyone else that we’re good enough, loveable, and capable?” We’re invited to STOP, shut down the distractions and look to Jesus to see God. That’s a big, better, part of discipleship.
Did you know that we now have research to back what I think Jesus was saying over 2,000 years ago? Studies shows that we are more spiritually alive when we are present, aware of this moment, aware of this life we are living right now. I have a friend from my congregation who got divorced recently. Her world fell apart. The details of assuming her mortgage and splitting up the assets and getting new health insurance were swirling in the air around her. When we would get together to talk, she wasn’t there. She was totally lost to what was happening in that moment. The chaos of her life and grief was like headphones with wild, unmeasured music playing loudly in her ears. She could not hear anything else. She could not hear God. She was suffering so fully.
Then one day her boss at work, she was in production and sound engineering, asked that she come and run sound for a mindfulness talk that a some spiritual leader was giving to a local community group. She was busy and severely grumpy, like 6 months grumpy, but she had to squeeze this in for her boss. So this gal begrudgingly shows up and gets the microphones ready. She’s pouting. She sits in the sound booth with her arms all crossed, and her face all cross if we’re honest. And the little, quiet man with the beaming face is introduced and asked to take the stage. He moves deliberately though he is very able-bodied, he moves slowly onto the stage. He sits quietly on a barstool and leans carefully into the microphone. He speaks softly but his very presence radiates joy and peace. He begins to talk, slowly, thoughtfully, with no notes in front of him, totally from the heart. This is a no canned speech. The man is speaking from deep inside of his experience and he’s talking about the ONLY THING THAT MATTERS. He’s talking about living a life that does NOT allow for so many distractions from what really matters. He’s talking about living a Mary life.
How? How in a Martha world do we live Mary lives? We sit. We learn to just be. We learn to step into silence because it is there that we hear God best. We stop and experience this present moment so fully and so truly, and we exhale the very Spirit of God…consciously. Clearing out the expectations and of what is supposed to be helps us absorb the reality of God right NOW. It helps us see God’s very image in whatever face happens to be in front of ours.
The holy man asked the group to close their eyes. He asked them to calm their minds and spirits and just breathe. He told them that when they became distracted by thoughts or demands, to graciously bring their mind back to their breath—to the present moment. About 5 minutes into this practice, my friend tells me, tears began to gently fall from the corners of her closed eyes. She found herself there, present in her own skin, not mentally in the future filled with fear, not angrily in the past filled with regret. She was there, in the moment, and she discovered for the first time in months that she was okay. She was okay. She was whole. The presence of God was there and she described it like this, “for the first time in months, maybe a year, I experienced the presence of God that had always been there, waiting for me to take notice. But I had been so distracted. I found that everything I had been searching for, the security I thought had been forever destroyed with my marriage…there it was, there God was, there I was…and I was okay.”
She narrowed her focus, ya’ll. She sat at the feet of God and did nothing and God was there, after all. “Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” Once we have a Mary experience, it is always there for us. We go back to being Martha’s because it’s the world we live in, but we don’t ever have to stay that way again, because it cannot be taken away from us.
So, doing away with distractions is counterintuitive. It’s countercultural. But, doing away with distractions is also the way to connect with the only thing that really matters. And you know what, it’s a way of life we have to choose. “My dear, you are upset and worried over all of these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered and it will not be taken away from her.” We are called to discover it, too. And once we discover it, it cannot be undiscovered. We’re invited to experience wholeness in a broken and busy world. We are called to be Mary’s.