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Worries and Distractions
Luke 10:38-42  September 20, 2020

I don’t know about you, but today’s passage has sometimes left me feeling guilty and confused.

Guilty because it seems like another nag that I should be praying more and reading the bible more.

I try, but I know I don’t spend enough time in study, prayer and contemplation.

Confused because I wonder what was so terribly wrong about Martha hustling around to prepare dinner for their honored guest.

Someone had to do the responsible thing – right?

Lots of people through the years have been troubled that Martha was rebuked by Jesus.

John Calvin, one of the founders of the Protestant churches, for example, railed against this text.

Popular stories like this one are so familiar that we sometimes miss their actual message because they’ve become misrepresented as simplistic universal truths for cross stitches and Facebook posts.

But when we actually consider their context within the gospel narrative, we may find that they’re making a larger point as part of the bigger story.

When we step back, we see that today’s narrative actually begins with a question from a man Luke describes as “an expert in the law”, who asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life.

As you know, Jesus commends the man when he says the greatest commandments are Love the Lord, your God with all your soul, all your strength and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.

Luke expands on Jesus’ answer with two back-to-back stories – essentially a part “A” and a part “B” that must be taken together.

Part “A” is the parable Jesus gives in response to the questioner’s challenge to Jesus when he asks, But who’s my neighbor?

That’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan that John Vargas spoke about two weeks ago.

Loving the Lord is not shown by the piety of the devout Jews who crossed the road to hurry past the injured or dead mugging victim so that they would remain ritually pure by the standards of the Mosaic Law.

No, loving the Lord was shown by the non-Jew who cared for the bloodied man with his time, attention and money.

But before you rush out the door with all your good intentions to help the poor and victimized, Luke immediately shares about Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha.

This is part “B” of his answer of how to love the Lord.

To be sure we get the connection, Luke begins the two with similar language: “A man” and then “A woman” – a literary technique to show their juxtaposition.

Part B is a story of hospitality – a high virtue among the Hebrew people going all the way back to Abraham providing water to wash the feet and preparing a meal for three strangers who arrive unannounced at his tent, and who later are revealed to be angels.

Martha is scurrying around “doing” by providing hospitality to their guest, who we know from elsewhere, loved a good meal.

So, there is a tension between the seemingly conflicting truths of these two stories.

If we were to ask Jesus which is most important, Part A or Part B, doing service or learning and contemplation, his answer would have been a direct, “Yes”.

So, the composite of the Samaritan man and the woman Mary is the model for discipleship: seeing and hearing, activism and reflectiveness combined is loving neighbor and loving God.

Presbyterian minister Tom Long tells about belonging to an advisory group for the chaplains at a major university.

The job of the advisory board is to listen to reports from the chaplains about their work, and to offer them counsel and support.

One year, a new member of the advisory group wanted to get up to speed on campus life, and so he asked, “What are the university students like morally these days?”

The chaplains looked at each other, wondering how to answer.

Finally, one of them took a stab at it.

“Well,” she said, “I guess you’d be basically pleased.

“The students are pretty ambitious in terms of their careers, but that’s not all they are.

“A lot of them tutor kids after school.

“Some work in a night shelter and in a soup kitchen for the homeless….”

As she talked, the Jewish chaplain among them began to grin.

The more she talked, the bigger he grinned, until finally it became distracting.

“Am I saying something funny?” she asked.

“No, no, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I was just sitting here thinking.

“You are saying that the university students are good people, and you’re right.

“And you’re saying that they are involved in good social causes, and they are.

“But what I was thinking is that the one thing they lack is a vision of salvation.”

They all gave him a puzzled look.

“Well, it’s true,” he said.

“If you don’t have some vision of what God is doing to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen. It finally beats you down.”

I’d add that we’d be likely to do a little of this and a little of that.

Fire off some angry Facebook posts, write a couple of checks – but in the end accomplish little because, with reflection, we realize that we are unfocused.

More than one of you has said that these times seem apocalyptic – at least in metaphoric terms.

Ice caps and glaziers are melting faster than climate scientists had predicted; massive fires are destroying people’s homes and polluting tens of thousands of miles of air; our President seems immune from countless revelations of hate, corruption and crime; unprecedented demonstrations for equal justice in our country are largely ignored by the rich and powerful; and the pandemic that has claimed about 200,000 American lives still lacks a unified response from our leaders – many of whom scoff at science and public safety measures.

A caring person’s attention could naturally become fragmented, while they become drained and exhausted, and their actions feel pitiful and useless.

More than ever, we must anchor ourselves in our values, focus ourselves after deep reflection, and allow ourselves time to renew so that we don’t flame out and give-up in despair.

Spiritual discernment is getting a sense of where God is in the midst of all this, and then knowing when to act, knowing when to listen, and knowing when to rest.

Something else happens in this scene … see if you can spot it:

Luke 10:39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

This brings us to another context to consider … this time the social context.

Mary assumed the posture of a student learning at the feet of a rabbi, but that was a role reserved for men.

Rather than being offended by Mary’s presumption, Jesus says she exemplifies an exceptional disciple.

Luke 10:42 Mary has chosen the better portion, and it will not be taken away from her.

By the way, notice the pun Jesus uses.

The setting is a meal, but Jesus says Mary’s time with him was the better portion.

So, once again Jesus is teaching that to Love the Lord your God and your neighbor may require doing the opposite of the cultural ways … even ways of our religious institutions.

So, why does Martha get rebuked by Jesus?

She’s running around, handling dozens of last-minute details like a good host, while her sister just lounges there listening to Jesus.

Finally, she’s had enough and turns to Jesus and says,

Luke 10:40 “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Even if you empathize with Martha’s resentment, you cannot miss that Jesus chides Martha … but not for her being busy and serving, as we’ve often assumed.

Luke 10:41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and distracted by many things….”

Jesus’ rebuke is for her being worried and distracted, in this case from the very thing her effort is supposed to be directed at: graciously hosting an honored guest.

Both Mary and Martha’s attention would best be focused on Jesus – whether serving him or studying with him.

Anyway, if Martha had really needed some help, couldn’t she have just taken her sister aside and said, “Hey Mary, I really could use a little help here”?

Instead, she allowed her worries and distractions to build into frustration that put their guest in the middle of their squabble, publicly humiliating Mary and possibly embarrassing Jesus.

This story shows how distraction robs us of being present to what is most important in the moment.

So, this isn’t a story about which form of devotion is best:  student or servant – it is Part B to Jesus’s answer of how to fully love the Lord.

Grace Thomas was born in the early twentieth century in the Jim Crow South as the second of five children.

After getting married and moving to Georgia, Grace took a clerking job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law.

Then, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.

In 1954, Grace shocked her family by announcing that she would run for public office – and not for county commissioner of parks or some such, but for governor of the state of Georgia.

There was a total of nine candidates that year but really only one issue: Brown v. Board of Education.

That was the landmark decision that mandated a desegregation of schools.

Grace Thomas was the only candidate to say that this was a just decision.

Her campaign slogan was, “Say Grace at the Polls”!

But few did, and Grace ran dead last.

Apparently, her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t, and she decided to run for governor again in 1962.

Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats – this in a place where death threats need to be taken for real.

One day she held a rally in Louisville, Georgia where the centerpiece of the town is not the courthouse but the old slave platform where black people were bought and sold like commodity items.

During her campaign speech, Grace motioned to the platform and said, “The old has passed away, the new has come.  A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.”

A red-faced man in the crowd blurted out, “What – are you some kind of communist!?”

“Why, no,” Grace replied quietly.

“Well then, where’d you get all them goldarned ideas!?”

Grace paused, and then pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church.

She replied, “I learned them over there, in Sunday school.”

What Grace had heard from Jesus’ teaching launched her on a very specific mission in life.

We sit at the feet of Jesus to learn, we pause to listen to the Holy Spirit to discern and be empowered – but the Word always leads to action.