Very few other texts from the Bible generate such passionate discourse in my family and extended family as this one (Luke 10:38-42). So, out of awareness, love and respect for especially the women in my life, I must confess I approach this sermon with a little trepidation. Because this story about Jesus is fraught with some interpretive pitfalls.
To begin, I think it must be said that Jesus is not against being busy and active when helping others, regardless of gender. After all, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus self-describes as a “servant” (Luke 22:26-27; 12:37). So it hardly makes sense to suggest he is admonishing Martha – one of his best friends – for being busy, serving. The first verse of the Gospel text today announces that Martha “welcomed” Jesus into her home; she “opened the door” as some translations have it, to let Jesus in.
Thank God for Martha! She initiated this encounter and made possible, by her invitation, Jesus’ presence and teaching. This story is not about either service or prayer; it’s not choosing one over the other. Both characterize the people of God; both are necessary, holy, and good.
What is more the point, here, is acknowledging and re-connecting – in all our contemplation AND action – with the centre and source of our faith: God, in Christ Jesus.
When serving others in your home, the focus, while mediated through the gift of a shared meal together, is not about the food. It’s about presence of mind and heart. What’s important is being with and connecting with your guest, not fretting and fuming over the food preparation and setting – nor your guest’s reaction to your food.
I know, for some, this might seem a no-brainer, self-evident. But especially for those who can easily get caught up in perfectionist expectations and compulsive people-pleasing ways of being – this is particularly difficult.
The most important thing is the very reason we are making the effort to prepare the food in the first place – the relationship you have and the blessing of the other’s presence with you in your home, your space. First things first.
We don’t know what happened after Jesus spoke. Again, the Gospel leaves it up to us. How did Martha react to Jesus’ admonition? Did she continue fluttering about in her anxiety, cursing under her breath? What did Mary do? For all we know, Mary could have gotten up and started helping Martha. We can only speculate, of course. But would Mary engage the act of service better grounded in purpose and aware of the presence of Jesus in all her busy-ness?
The Gospel story doesn’t tie it up neatly. We may wish the Gospel writer concluded Jesus’ teaching here with a nice, satisfying ending where both Mary and Martha are seen behaving in ways reflecting the teaching of Jesus. But it’s not so, because the transformation – the change – is meant for our lives. How do we act? How will we respond to this scenario? How does this story affect and change our lives?
First, may I suggest that we can apply Mary’s approach to our whole life – not just those prescribed ‘holy’ moments in formal worship on Sunday mornings. But more importantly – as the setting of the Gospel story implies – in our very homes and among our regular, daily relationships with those closest to us. We need to simply observe what is going on. And, in our simple and honest observation, as people of faith, we must first confess that – for one thing, we are distracted.
Some years ago now, Tom Friedman had a column in the New York Times (Nov 1, 2006) entitled “The Taxi Driver”. He told of being driven by cab from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. During the one-hour trip, he and the driver had done six things: the driver had driven the cab, talked on his cell phone, and watched a video (which was a little nerve-racking!), whereas he had been riding, working on a column on his laptop, and listening to his iPod. “There was only one thing we never did: talk to each other.”
Friedman went on to quote Linda Stone, a technologist, who had written that the disease of the Internet Age is “continuous partial attention.” Perhaps it is not only the disease of the Internet age; perhaps it has always been with us, and just the causes of our inattention have altered (cited from James Wallace in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Proper 11, page 267). That is why today, one of the most confounding verses in the Bible is Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) because how can we pray always when we are plagued with “continuous partial attention”. Antidote – we need to pray more, and focus our mind and heart.
Laurence Freeman, leader in the World Community for Christian Meditation, suggests that the problem we find today among even good Christian people is this division between heart and mind. The heart wants to do, and the mind is distracted. Once the mind is focused and aligned with the heart, a person can discover the peace of Christ. And then, all activity is done mindful of the presence of Jesus – in all situations and circumstances of life.
A posture of listening before speaking. An approach to another that communicates – “I first seek to understand you” before spouting YOUR opinion. An attitude of inner stillness that is focused and undivided on the intent and purpose of whatever it is that you do.
In many ways the history of this congregation, from the early days in the 1950s when this space we sit in today was built, through the 1990s when the addition was built and then early in the last decade the parsonage was sold – in many ways our history has revolved around bricks and mortar. Has this been the ‘food’ of our ministry?
There is little doubt in my mind now that I’ve been with you over a year that the issue of ‘building’ has been not only front and foremost in your minds in recent years. But, also, the energy for this project is gathering momentum again.
The question is – and perhaps this text can serve for us some guidance – is it going to be just about the ‘food’? Or, will the ‘food’ be guided by the ‘focus’? Will any plans to build or renovate be fueled by a mission focus? I hope so. With the understanding that first and foremost Jesus is found both in here and out there? That the Jesus in me sees the Jesus in you? That any building be grounded in purpose and function and Christian vision.
You heard the famous Japanese proverb? That vision without action is daydreaming; but action without vision is a nightmare.
How do we change the mind? “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind …” (Romans 12:2) Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. In contemplating a changed life offered by Jesus, I think we need to appreciate the very possibility and health around changing the way we think; that is, changing our attitudes, our beliefs, that underpin all that we do. Especially those beliefs and attitudes that serve only to keep us stuck in unhealthy ways of being.
Michael Harvey, in his book, Unlocking the Growth; You’ll be Amazed at your Church’s Potential (Monarch Books, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2012, p.18), writes about neuroplasticity, which looks at how our brains work. Scientists have discovered the brain is ‘plastic’ and ‘malleable’. In other words, our brains are not simply ‘hard-wired’ from childhood. Life experiences beyond those critical early years can change the brain.
When they study stroke victims, they discovered that each time someone repeats a movement or action, a neuro-pathway in the brain is formed initially as a scratch. But each time it is repeated it becomes deeper and deeper until it becomes automatic, a habit. You may have heard the advice that if you want to start a new, healthy discipline – like exercise or some diet – you need to do it on each of 21 consecutive days before it’s a habit.
The concept of neuroplasticity suggests to me that should we focus our attention – our minds – on what we want to change, and then repeat it frequently enough the thought or belief will take root, and then affect our behaviour. That’s the power of the mind.
How do we change the heart? Those like Martha usually start with action. So, simply start behaving in better ways. Start acting “as if” you are healed. As if we are thriving. As if we are transformed people of God inheritors of the kingdom. As if we are children of God – loved, redeemed, forgiven, saved. Start acting it! That’s the power of the heart.
And when the mind and heart are aligned in the awareness of the steadfast, constant, unconditional presence of Jesus, peace reigns in our lives and our action and contemplation are grounded, clear, and focused.
In Saint Paul’s words, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).