A Sermon preached by the Reverend Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, July 21, 2019
Back in March, shortly after my Mom passed away, I was driving home from San Francisco, through the Tube, into Alameda, when I was pulled over by the Alameda police for looking at my iphone. My infraction was “distracted driving.” After that ticket, I think I’ve learned my lesson. But from glancing over at my fellow drivers on my commute, and seeing people walking into the street looking down at their phones, I know that I’m not alone in living a distracted existence.
We are a distracted people these days, multi-tasking, following GPS directions, answering emails, texting, trying to get three things done at once in real time. And, as I reflected on why I was so distracted that day I got the ticket, I realized part of it was probably looking for ways to distract myself from the growing reality of my Mom’s death. I just wanted to keep moving.
Martha and Mary lived in a much simpler world, but as we see here in our Gospel reading today, distraction is not just a 21st century thing.
This is the only appearance of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke. They show up again in the Gospel of John when Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead. And later, towards the end of John, we see Jesus at table with them again, and it is Mary who kneels again at Jesus’ feet and anoints them with the precious ointment.
Hospitality was a central value in the Jewish home. Think of Abraham and Sarah preparing a meal t for the three young angels who came to visit; think of that other story unique to Luke, of the Prodigal Son. The Father slaughters the fatted calf for the prodigal son to welcome him home.
In today’s passage we see Jesus enter “Martha’s home.” This was unusual because men were considered the head of the household. It was also unusual for a man (Jesus) to enter into a house headed by a woman. Jesus as the guest sits down and Mary sits at his feet and listens. This is unusual behavior for a woman of that time; she was acting like a man to interact on same social level as a man. So when Martha reacts as she does, this would seem totally reasonable to a first century audience. Isn’t Mary supposed to be in the kitchen?
It’s also unusual for a text of this time to refer to women by name. Luke is careful to say, “a woman named Martha, and a woman named Mary.” They are not anonymous sisters, but real people with real names. We can read the passage as Jesus’ affirmation of women’s humanity.
These six little verses speak to our human proclivity for distracting ourselves while ignoring the deeper, more important issues, including faith and spiritual growth.
The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son, and today’s story are unique to Luke. In the Prodigal Son and today’s story we see contentious sibling interaction. The older son in the Prodigal Son says, “Don’t you care that I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do? and you go and kill the fatted calf for that no-good younger brother. The Father says, “yes, but he’s returned, and I love him. That’s the most important thing.” The older son sounds a lot like Martha when she says to Jesus, “Don’t you care that my sister is making me do all the work?” Like the older son in the Prodigal Son she’s missing the point because she’s focusing on herself and fulfilling the societal role that she’s supposed to fill. It distracts her from what’s important: welcoming Jesus, as a guest into her heart, and his call to grow closer to God, and to love.
The Church has interpreted this story many different ways, often contrasting Martha’s active ministry of hospitality with Mary’s more contemplative approach, and sometimes saying that one was better than the other. In popular culture women, especially, say they’re either a Martha or a Mary. It’s tempting to set up a dualistic viewpoint.
Being a preacher of the Anglican tradition, I’m going to say it’s a “both/and” situation. We need both Martha and Mary’s kind of energy in the church.
The Martha and Mary story also intrigues me as a student of the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a framework for looking at personality and spiritual growth. You take the Enneagram test, much like the Myers-Briggs test, and receive a “type” but the Enneagram expects that you will grow over time towards the healthier qualities of another. As a Six on the Enneagram, I’m prone to worry and anxiety, but my Sixes aim to grow towards a Nine, which is more serene and confident. I see Martha being challenged to grow towards Mary’s strengths.
I see some of the Six in the older son and in Martha. They show a resentment that others are not conforming to societal rules as well as they do. And the Father in the Prodigal Son, and Jesus in our story today, challenge them to see what is important: love.
Jesus says to Martha, “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.”
The word “distracted” has a special meaning here in Greek. It means “to pull away.” It’s the same Greek word used in the Good Samaritan, when the priest and the Levite walk on by. They’re “distracted” or “pulled away” by their duties.
In our lives, it’s not just our smartphone, that’s causing us to be distracted and pulled away, and worried. It’s the state of our country, which we see echoed in the reading from Amos about a society corrupted. Then there’s the cost of living in the Bay Area, and perhaps the health of the church? These are just my own worries and distractions, I’m sure you have your own.
Jesus tells Martha to chill out. “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” He challenges Martha to raise her eyes above her distractions and worries, and move closer to him, and to love.
This week, I hear Jesus saying, “chill out” to us at All Saints’. This is especially important during an Interim time. We need to slow down, put aside our worries and distractions, and sit at Jesus’ feet for awhile. We have important work to do this fall as we begin the self-study process.
On Tuesday I met via Zoom with Canon Abbott and Leslie Nipps who were here last year at this time working with the Vestry and with the parish. Both of them were complimentary of the work you all did last summer, and the mature conversations they heard in the small group meetings. They encouraged us to take the time to “go deep” and do more conversational work together in the coming months before starting the new traditional Rector Search Process.
There are some of us who are worried about moving forward as quickly as possible on the new rector search, and I understand that concern. But we have some time built in because we must renovate the Rectory before calling a new Rector. This is a great opportunity to take our time.
When you plant something new, the ground must be dug up and turned over. Not to dig up muck for muck’s sake at all. But to prepare the groundwork for new life, and new growth for the future. And we have great buried treasure here to uncover as well.
The Good News is I hear Jesus calling us to choose the better part along this journey of transition. We are called to spiritual growth from where we were a year ago, to a new place of maturity and openness.
After the 10:00 Mass we will talk more about the overall Interim process with Denise Obando. It’s going to be a very positive time because you all are attentive and care deeply about this community of faith. In the coming months, we will continue our usual liturgical cycle, and we will do the important work of moving many administrative pieces forward. Most of all, we need your participation. And we need to tune out the worries and distractions that so easily “pull us away,” from “the better part.” I’m looking forward to sitting at the feet of Jesus for the next few months with you all. Amen.