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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2013

My cell phone went off at Amanda’s ordination, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was at the lectern leading a psalm, and all of a sudden there was my ringtone, loudly playing. There was nothing to do for it but to let it finish, because the woman holding my purse didn’t know where it was or how to turn it off. I was red with embarrassment. I always try to put my cell phone on silent mode when I am at a public event, because I do not want to leave it somewhere else. They are too tempting to steal.

It is hard to imagine the days when we did not carry cell phones around. Now we have “smart phones” that can send and receive email, download special apps and search the internet. We use them while we exercise, while we wait for something, while we’re driving, even when we’re in a meeting. Some of the meetings I go to have to ask people to refrain from texting and emailing during the meeting. How rude can one be, and yet we do it anyway. I have a “dumb phone”; it only calls and texts. And yet, I use it in places I should not as well. I do not have a hands-free device but I use it while I’m driving. Cell phones and other electronic devices are one of the greatest distractions of our modern world.

Martha is very distracted. She is the owner of the house where Jesus is staying and has an important job to do. She is busy preparing a meal for Jesus. Martha is probably a Type A personality. She has a hard time being still. She has a list a mile long, and she attends to her tasks with fierce intensity. Martha probably measures her worth by the tasks she gets accomplished. Martha has been busy for a long time doing everything by herself because Mary has sat down at Jesus’ feet and begun listening to him. Martha gets more and more resentful and more and more anxious as the tasks are slow to get done because Mary is not helping. Finally she can stand it no longer. She comes to Jesus and says don’t you care that my sister is leaving me to do everything myself. Tell her to come and help me. It turns out Jesus does not care. Instead he addresses Martha, and tells her she is worried and distracted by many things. Jesus reminds her that there is need of only one thing and supports Mary in her decision.

We have often heard this passage as talking about placing the contemplative life above the busy life, but that is not the case. Jesus does not talk about Martha’s busyness – after all someone has to prepare the meal. Jesus is talking about Martha’s worry and distraction. He is implying that Martha should be focused – on her task of course – but mainly on Jesus, who is here as their guest. What starts out for Martha as a way to serve their guest has turned into drudgery that is upsetting and annoying to her. Martha calls Jesus Lord, so she knows who he is, but she is not making him welcome with her attitude. In fact, to put him in the middle of the tug of war between her and Mary is inhospitable to say the least (Matthew Skinner).

Mary has chosen the better part by being focused solely on Jesus. She wants to be a disciple and so is sitting at his feet listening to him talk and perhaps having conversation with him about the good news of thekingdomofGod. She is doing what few women were expected – or allowed – to do, but Jesus, in his typical overturning of social barriers, is glad to have her there. We do not know if he wants Martha to stop what she is doing and come and listen or continue her tasks with a good heart and a listening ear for what Jesus is saying, but we do know that the one thing needful is to listen to Jesus.

This story is about hospitality, a very important concept in Luke. He sends out the 12 and the 70 and tells them to accept the hospitality of whomever offers it. While the disciples were teaching and healing, surely there were people preparing a meal for them. In fact, not to offer hospitality to them or to Jesus as he heads toJerusalemwill bring future judgment. The Good Samaritan offers hospitality to the man in the ditch. Jesus is always eating with people, and in Acts, the apostles appoint deacons to serve at tables.

When Jesus is present, however, a new order emerges. Jesus becomes the host rather than the guest (Thomas A. Renquist). It is Jesus who is feeding the people when he teaches and the same goes for Mary and Martha’s house. The food that is most important is the spiritual food that he is giving people and that should be the object of their focus. Luke talks about how Jesus emphasizes how important hearing and doing the word is. It is building on a solid foundation (6:46-49), maturing as in good soil (8:15) and makes one a member of Jesus’ family (8:21). Listening and doing the word of God makes people truly blessed (11:27-28).

Though this story is not about competition between the active life and the contemplative life, it is about balance between them. Jesus, who said he was servant of all (Matthew L. Skinner) could hardly fault Martha for her busy way of showing hospitality. The story of the Good Samaritan is all about action in favor of the neighbor. Jesus tells the lawyer to “Go and do likewise”. The disciples go out to teach and heal. But there is a time for listening too. Before the disciples were sent out, they listened to Jesus proclaim the good news. People listened to Jesus during his sermon on the plain. Mary learned discipleship too through her listening. We do not know what happened next in the story. Perhaps Martha put her dinner preparations on hold and came and sat at Jesus’ feet as well.

Most of us lead very busy lives. We have jobs, families, and other activities that require commuting, working late, carpooling to activities. We have leisure time pursuits as well. We keep mental or physical lists. I have little sticky notes hanging on my wall and stuck to my desk to remind me of what I have to do. Being busy is satisfying. We like to have things to fill up ourtime. But being busy can become overwhelming as well. We can become exhausted and burnt out from all the things we do. We can lose our focus and become anxious and worried. We forget our focus is to love God and love our neighbor.

We lose connection with what we are doing in our daily lives and how we honor God by doing everything with love and compassion. Sometimes it is hard to be kind, but we are to do it anyway. Sometimes it is hard to recognize Jesus in our neighbor, but that is our ultimate goal. If busyness is all we have, we will begin to think our self-worth lies in it, that we earn approval or disapproval based on how many things on our list we can check off.

In the midst of all our busyness, we have to have time to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he is telling us. We need to hear, over and over, that we are all beloved children of God and that is where our self-worth lies (David Lose). We need to receive, over and over, Christ’s gift of his Body and Blood to strengthen us. We need to open our hands over and over to receive the gifts Jesus would give us to make our lives more blessed. To do this, we need to take time to be with Jesus, in prayer, in worship, in listening. The presence of Jesus in our lives, as he was at Mary and Martha’s house, helps us to restore our focus. (P)

A church can get anxious and unfocused too. The community can lose its focus on what God wants it to do in the world and become caught up in things of the moment (Cynthia Jarvis). AtSt. John’s, we need more money and more people, but those cannot be our main goals. Our main focus must be to listen to Christ and respond to his will for us, a byproduct of which may be growth. By focusing on the one thing needed, we can be the church in the world in mission and service.

God has called us to hear the word and to do it. Take some time to hear Jesus, whether you are busily crossing off your list or sitting in a chair drinking iced tea and enjoying God’s creation. And you will be the grateful recipient of the one needful thing.


     - Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Matthew L. Skinner, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 3, Exegetical Perspective, (Louisville,KY:Westminster John Knox Press 2010) 265
Thomas A. Renquist, Topsy-Turvy: Living in the Biblical World: Gospel Sermons for Sundays After Pentecost (Middle Third) Cycle C. “Pray Devoutly, Hammer Stoutly”, taken from Sermon Studio blog post.
Skinner, ibid.
David Lose, “Martha, Mary and the Search for a More Useful Faith”, from Dear Working Preacher blog post
Cynthia Jarvis, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 3, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville,KY:WestminsterJohn Knox Press 2010), 264