St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Worries, Distractions, and the Better Part”
Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him-- provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
Martha often gets a bad rap. We need our Marthas. They get the job done. I am always wary as I come to this story, because it can so easily be misconstrued. Jesus did not want Martha to do less, necessarily, but rather to put first things first. We need the Marthas to get things done, and for the Marys to get it in gear when the time comes.
This reminds me of a story. A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office, and says, “Doc, you have to help me. My wife thinks she’s a chicken.” The doctor, surprised says, “Well bring her in so we can figure this out and fix the situation.” The man paused, and then said, “And by fix you mean to have her stop thinking she’s a chicken?” “Yes!” replied the psychiatrist. Another pause. “Then what will we do for eggs?”
We want the benefit without the cost. We want our Marthas to keep plugging and chugging, but Jesus wants us all whole. He wants the Marthas to not be unhealthy, and the Marys to jump in at the appropriate time. Jesus knows about getting things done, and a healthy way to do it. From his three year ministry, we are still here today. And as we read in the beautiful opening to Colossians:
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.Jesus is about the doing. But to get the job done, we have to come at the task in a healthy and appropriate way. Burning ourselves out, burning bridges with our sisters and brothers, feeling unloved and spent, is NOT how God wants us to live this one precious life we have been given.
What we see here is a burnt out Martha. She is hurting. And hurting people hurt people. They may not mean to, or they may be full of malice wanting to lash out at the world. When I was doing lifeguard training so many decades ago, one of the things they taught us was that if someone is drowning, all rational thought is gone. They may try to climb up a rescuer just to catch one breath so desperate is their need. The same can be said of so many who are hurting who do much the same thing. They are so desperate to maintain normal that they can run all over people do keep up the appearance of having their act together.
Martha gets a bad rap, too often. She is doing exactly what she was expected to do by society, and I have to admit, we need Marthas. They keep the world going, the dishes washed and the grass cut. Duty, a word we do not use very much any more, is vital and needed. It keeps us going when we do not have it in us to do the thing which needs to be done.
I was serving a church, and got the unfortunate news that I was about to be laid off. But that did not stop the need for me to keep doing my job till the last day. Giving and attendance had gone down, and the numbers could not justify having an associate any longer. Now this church had a vibrant and unbelievable food ministry. They served more than 100 families weekly, year-round. It was a staggering amount of work each and every week. In my final days, I was having a bit of a pity party. I did not want to go to work. It depressed me having to pack up shop. It hurt. Now on Food Pantry days in the summer, I often took my kids in so they could help. There were lots of jobs they could do, and I liked seeing them helping and learning to give, even in small ways. Driving in that morning, I got a little too honest, and said out loud, “I really don’t want to go to work today.” Immediately my youngest fired back, “But they need us!” Duty, even out of the mouth of someone who did not need to use two hands to count her age, is a good thing, it motivates us and keeps us going.
But often, tired people shift. Duty becomes drudgery, and that is where obligation rears its ugly head. Martha had gotten to that point. She was hurting, wanting some aid, so she appeals to a higher authority, Jesus. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Drowning people drown people. Hurting people hurt people. Duty or obligation was keeping Martha from doing what she really wanted to do, sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from the Teacher. She did not want to be up and doing, but she also did not want her sister getting to do what she wanted to be doing herself if she could not. Hurting people hurt people. She decided to pull her sister down to her level, instead of stepping up to be where she wanted.
Duty, while helping us get things done, while helping things keep going, there are times and seasons when we are called to something higher, better. You do not wash dishes when the guest of honor is present. There will be time to do that later. As Jesus told Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Bringing Mary down will not help Martha get up. I have said this often, and I will repeat it for years to come because I need to constantly be reminded. Watch Jesus. In his interactions, over and over, he invites people to reframe and step up. He does not get mired in bringing down, he reframes the situation, and encourages folks to step up to something higher, something better. Mary and Martha, you and me.
When Jesus informs Martha of where she is getting stuck, I almost feel like he is talking to our society. The need to be needed makes us feel important. The cult of celebrity and being known makes us feel important. Our society preaches a gospel of success, which is the foundation of the American heresy, the Prosperity Gospel. God wants you rich, and happy, and beautiful. Martha thought her busy-ness would get her praise. But Jesus saw through it. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” That is not what he wants for you. Not for me. Not for Martha.
I saw a priest friend of mine posted this quote this week from the book Keeping in Tune with God, and it fit so well with this week’s text:
A hectic schedule can be a misplaced effort to earn respect and affection, which invariably leads to exhaustion and spiritual aridity. Prayer gets squeezed in between meetings and appointments or dwindles altogether. A desire to serve God morphs into a flurry of activity that serves a hungry ego. The result is burnout. Keeping in Tune with God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Clergy (p. 8)
Ministry never ends. It could go on, 24/7/365. But our Lord modeled for us healthy servant leadership. He modeled for us washing each others’ feet, as well as going off alone to pray. He modeled for us to let ourselves be interrupted by the stranger in the crowd, and then getting back to the urgent matter at hand. The advice for the passenger on the plane is often the same one we need to hear. Put your own oxygen mask on first so you have the ability to help someone else. Martha jumped to the task at hand, and then complained she could not breathe.
The call of God is for us to be faithful, not successful. We are called to follow, and trust that the path we are on will be blessed and fruitful, though we may not see it. When the founders of this church set out 150 years ago, little could they imagine the acres of beautiful land we have, the facilities where we can bring glory to God. But they started down a path they could not see the end of. A wise man plants a tree that they will never sit under, digs a hole for a pool in which they will never swim. When we get worried and distracted, maybe we need to accept Jesus invitation to sit at his feet, bask in his love and teachings, and remember why it is we do what we do.
When I was feeling sorry for myself, worried about my calling, my vocation, my wife and kids, I felt a bit like Martha. Worried and distracted, and said I did not want to go to work. Duty was done, and obligation had reached its end. I did not want to have to work the food pantry or deal with anybody. But out of the mouths of babes, wisdom emerged. “But they need us!” It was not out of duty, nor out of obligation. It was out of a true sense of care and concern. It was said out of love for the Least of These. If she could not show up, she could not help. And if she could not help, people would not eat.
Reframe, and step up. Jesus can speak to us in so many ways. Jesus can invite us even through the mouths of the very ones we are given charge over. Choose the better part. Amen.