Priorities on the Way
Priorities on the Way
This address was given by Geoff Pound at ABC on 17 July 2016. It is the second in a series entitled, ‘People of the Way’. Check out the introduction to this series and Study 2 for personal and group study that accompanies this sermon.
Reading: Luke 10: 38-42
10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
10:39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.
10:40 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."
10:41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
10:42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
In former days we sent telegrams.
Because we were charged by the word, we said only what we needed to say.
Today we send texts.
Because time is costly, we get to the point and send.
But stories are different.
We’re attracted to stories because there’s a tension.
The tension of a struggle.
The tension of how it might turn out.
The tension of possibility.
The tension of change.
Good stories work because we’re not sure.
We’re half way there, half not.
This might work.
This might not work.
There’s the tension of maybe.
Today’s Scripture is a story told by Luke. There’s tension in more ways than one.
We know from John’s Gospel that sisters, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus lived in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. But Luke says: “He entered a certain village…” (v38) Its name isn’t mentioned, maybe because Luke wants to weave us into his story and make us think this could happen in Ashburton or Ashwood, Canterbury or Camberwell, Glen Iris or Glen Waverley.
When you’re an itinerant teacher, the open door of welcome among friends is so inviting. When you’ve just been tested by a stroppy lawyer quizzing you about eternal life, conversation with trusted, kindred spirits is so nurturing.
Yet can you feel tension in this home?
Even without words you can sometimes sense that the air is blue.
Luke’s story involves a sibling rivalry.
We don’t know who else was there but Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he was saying (v39).
At an appropriate pause in the proceedings Martha comes to Jesus and says (or does she whisper so Mary can’t hear?):
"Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." (v40)
Don’t you hate it when people ask you to fire their bullets?
Martha not only dumps her issues on her guest but she blames him: “Lord, don’t you care?”
Feel the tension rising? At this point we’re looking to exit via the back door.
Jesus doesn’t buy into Martha’s scheming and shaming but says:
"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." (v41-42)
Martha’s strategy backfires. She is roundly criticised and Mary receives not a tongue lashing but a wonderful compliment.
Is Jesus taking sides? Does Jesus play favourites?
Did Martha back off or did she explode?
Did Mary pull her weight or continue to sit there and purr?
We might respond, ‘This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.’
What exactly is the word of the Lord? What messages do we take home?
This story is as up in the air as Winston Churchill trying to forecast the response of Russia: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
Can you sense yourself wanting to come to Martha’s aid?
After all, she was the one who opened the front door and welcomed Jesus. If we consider Middle Eastern hospitality we can see her getting the cool drinks, washing the olives, readying the dips, bringing out the bread, doing the dishes - and it’s hot and never ending.
Jesus has just told that parable of the Good Samaritan in which he’s highlighted the gift of loving service. So where is the flaw in Martha’s hospitality?
Her feelings are accentuated by Mary’s unwillingness to shoulder the load—Mary the one who is sitting and listening.
So we have the classic contemplative represented by Mary and the stereotypical activist, represented by Martha.
Are these two stances diametrically opposed?
Is contemplative life, according to Jesus, superior, more spiritual and essential, while the active, practical life is necessary but inferior?
Is Jesus calling us to be contemplatives and not activists? Listeners rather than servers?
Are we hard wired to be one or the other, according to our personality, our temperament and our conditioning?
Is the problem that Martha wants Mary to be like her?
When we impose such a choice upon others—and divide the world between doers and dreamers.
We don’t have to choose between contemplation and action.
Both sisters are needed.
Both sisters are necessary to welcome and give hospitality to Christ.
I wonder if it’s not too much of a stretch in this story to point up the challenge of stirring our shadow side?
To encourage the Marthas among us, the task driven servant, to build into her life more quietness and time for prayer and learning.
To encourage the Marys, to take up the towel of service, starting with a tea towel and become a little more practical and grounded?
But Jesus appears to be tackling something more in Martha’s demeanor: “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;” (v40)
Martha seems scattered, frenetic, fussing maybe, overloaded, overburdened and full of self-pity.
One of the buzzwords of our day is the word ‘multitasking’—the ability to perform many tasks at once. It came into vogue in the 1960s when computers allowed multitasking, so now we can write an email, get notifications of our Facebook updates, send a text message and get live updates on the footy all while we’re in a meeting supposedly concentrating and contributing to the business.
Multitasking has been lauded as a skill and an attribute but in many spheres it has been called into question. We might be able to juggle more things at once but does the distraction blunt the sharpness of our thinking? Does it result in the poorer quality of our work?
Studies with drivers of vehicles who use the phone while driving have demonstrated the weakening of our alertness. Multitasking can be dangerous!
Pokémon used to be a family card game but there’s a Pokémon Go craze sweeping the world. You play this game on your phone or device. It calls you to move physically to objects in public spaces for clues to help you gain items, battle your opponents and win your game.
It may be good that it gets people outside and walking. Yesterday a friend took a walk around Blackburn Lake and he saw 60-70 people walking around, looking at their devices, playing Pokémon Go.
The LA Times reported this week that two California men fell off an ocean bluff and sustained major injuries while playing Pokémon Go.
On an overpass across a NZ freeway this week police warned motorists with a sign that reads: “Don’t Pokémon and Drive.”
Already insurance companies are dealing with accident claims incurred by people playing Pokémon.
The perils of multitasking. The danger of being distracted by many tasks.
Instead, the picture of attention is lauded by Jesus, when he sees Mary listening to what he is saying.
Perhaps nowhere more than in prayer and spiritual searching is such undivided attention so essential.
A man confessed to a spiritual mentor that he had problems with maintaining concentration in prayer. So after some training the guide gave him this incentive,
“I will give you a horse if you can pray the Lord’s Prayer without your mind wandering and wavering.”
“It’s a deal,” the man said and he quickly began:
‘Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be your Name, Your Kingdom come…and then he paused and asked:
“Does the horse also come with the saddle?”
I was in South Korea, a few years ago. In worship we had just signed and celebrated a new partnership between the Korean Baptist University in Daejon and Whitley College in Melbourne.
We moved to a large room where 50 seminary staff and Board members dined around a huge oval table. People distributed to each of us lunch boxes of rice, Kim chi and other Korean delicacies.
I was chatting away to the person on my left and right until I realized… that I was the only person talking in the room.
Everybody else was concentrating on their food. I was embarrassed. I stopped talking. All I could hear was the click of chopsticks and the sound of 50 Koreans masticating their food.
There’s no working lunch in their culture where they eat and do business at the same time. Only the practice of mindfulness where they enjoy the taste of their food and the pure pleasure of eating.
The challenge from our story today may well come in the words:
“You are worried and distracted by many things.”
The word of grace for us may be found in Christ’s commendation:
“One thing is needful.”
May God train us to give our full attention to each other, to God’s world and to God’s son—through silence, through Scriptures, through conversation, through joy, in pain, in what happens to us on the way and in listening to our lives.
Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for the way your Word takes us right into our homes and probes our relationships and unvoiced feelings.
We are not always appreciative but we thank you now for the uncomfortable ways you reveal our frustrations and challenge our resentment.
We confess that we so often live lives that are frittered and unfocused.
We are pulled and distracted by so many things and people.
So let our doing flow more from a centredness and your prompting, and let our listening and learning translate into effective, sustained service.
Help us to accept and truly appreciate the gifts and the personalities of others, especially those who currently annoy and exasperate us.
Save and deliver us from a fevered life that is about many things.
Shape us in this multitasking world to be about the one thing that is needful.
Make us like a river that is narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow.
Like Jesus in whose name we pray,