Choosing to Choose

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 17, 2016
Taken from Luke 10: 38-42

mary martha -by he huibing

Did you know that last Sunday afternoon, the files on my computer needed to be re-organized? Well, probably not. Actually, I didn’t either, until I should have been figuring out what to write for this sermon. All of a sudden, those files just absolutely must be categorized, sorted, and labeled. And then, the empty shoeboxes long gracing presence of the floor beside my bookcase, needed to move to their proper place in a closet down the hall. A news article caught my eye, with “Six tactics to keep your kids from becoming too materialistic” – seems worthwhile, how could I not check that out? 10 Exercises to Prevent Runner’s Knee? Well yeah, I don’t want that, better start reading!

Ahh, procrastination. We all have our favorite vices, and this has long been one of mine. If you ever come in my office and see my desk free of paper and my shelves nicely organized, either I’m really on top of things, or—more likely—there was something else that I should have been doing.

Not so with Martha. Oh, no. She is not to be deterred. Let’s get to work, she says. I’ve got things to do. No idle Facebook browsing for me, no barrage of online articles with click-bait titles, no meandering and re-organizing. Martha is efficient and productive, getting things done—the exact opposite of my procrastinating self. Martha is hard at work, and all the while, Mary sits in the other room doing nothing.

This is a familiar story for many of us, isn’t it? Mary and Martha have become type characters for us, representing two totally different ways of engaging the world. Mary and Martha. On the one hand, a life of contemplation, quiet, prayer; and on the other a life of action, busy-ness, work.

There is value in that comparison, to a point. I’ve heard lots of people over the years who’ve seen something of themselves in Martha, noting that the really should slow down and take a break. And that’s a valuable insight.

But today I want us to take another look into this passage to see if there is more we might find there.

After all, Jesus doesn’t actually say, “Some of you are like Mary, faithfully devoted: good for you. Some of you are like Martha, too busy all the time: cut that out.” There’s more to it than that.

So let me start, first of all, by defending Martha’s willingness to work. It’s worth saying upfront that the moral of this story is not that “doing is bad.”

“Doing” is not bad. Reading this story by itself might give you that impression, but, fortunately, this story doesn’t come by itself. When this story is put in context, the picture gets a lot more interesting. Let’s zoom out a bit and see where we are.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and this story picks up right where we left off.

Two weeks ago we read the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers. Do you remember that story? These 72 have been devotedly following Jesus around, listening, learning, being attentive disciples (kind of like Mary…), and eventually Jesus says, okay, that’s enough; time to get to work. Go! Get out of here! He sends them two by two to all the towns in the area, telling them to stay in people’s houses, relying on their hospitality. Eat and drink with them, heal the sick, teach them. Go and get to work!

Then, last week, we continued in Luke 10 to the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Here, the hero of the story is not the religiously devout priest or pious Levite, but the foreigner who stops and gets his hands dirty to help someone in need. This is tangible, concrete love of neighbor, and Jesus ends with the unambiguous command, “Go and do likewise.”

The very next verse brings us into Martha’s house, where Martha is hard at work, getting her hands dirty to care for Jesus, the neighbor she has welcomed into her own home, preparing a meal for him. It’s tangible, concrete love of neighbor. Faith in action, just like he commanded. Right?

No… Where did she go wrong?

It can’t be the fact that she was busy doing things. Jesus has made it abundantly clear that he expects a great deal of doing from his disciples. I don’t think Martha is wrong for getting to work. Jesus doesn’t tell her to kick back and watch TV.

What does Jesus say is the problem? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.”

Martha’s problem is: distraction.

[PAUSE.] Hmmm…. I was kind of hoping a fire truck would go by just now, or at least a cough or a sneeze.

We all know that distractions happen, including here at church. Earlier this week (when I was definitely not procrastinating!) I came across an article listing the “top 10 actual stories of preaching distractions,” a dramatic list of unplanned excitement during sermons. Here’s a taste: “A bat started flying low while I was preaching. Many people were screaming. Finally some of the men captured the critter. They actually had prayer over him and released him toward the Methodist church.” Here’s another: ““The pastor was ten minutes into his sermon when two police officers came in the service, pointed to a deacon to come out of the pew, handcuffed him and took him away. I thought the amazing thing was that the pastor kept preaching, but I was even more amazed that the deacon’s wife stayed for the entire service.” [from http://thomrainer.com/2013/04/top-ten-actual-stories-of-preaching-distractions/ ]

Distractions happen. They’re a part of life.

But what happens when distraction doesn’t just a momentarily interrupt our lives, but controls it?

What happens when we get so caught up in the trivial things, that we miss out when God turns up right beside us? Martha was so distracted by getting things ready for Jesus, she nearly missed the fact that Jesus was sitting in her living room!

Distraction takes our attention from what matters and puts our focus on things that don’t. Martha is distracted, so she’s not paying attention to what really matters.

I started this sermon by confessing my tendency for procrastination, noticing how different my aimless meanderings can be from a busy, productivity-machine like Martha. But if we realize that her problem is distraction, then maybe we’re not so different after all.

Martha’s brand of distraction is frantic activity, but distraction can also look like procrastination, or it can be financial worries, or family drama, or self-centered ambition, or chasing after the wrong goals. Distraction happens whenever we let something less important take the place of what really matters. It’s easy to get stuck there and live our lives focused on the wrong things.

So what are we supposed to do? What is it that this story teaches us? If Martha has gotten distracted, what is it that Mary did right?

I’m afraid Jesus says very little about Mary. There’s no “10 Easy Steps to being a good disciple.” What he does say about her is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary has chosen what is better.

My gut reaction to that is to think, “well, what did she choose?” What is it that’s better? Tell us more! But you know, I think the important thing here is not what she chose, but the fact that she chose. Mary has chosen what is better.

The antidote to distraction is choice: choosing for ourselves what matters, instead of doing whatever happens to come along. Instead of letting worries and distractions define your day-to-day life, choose to focus on what matters. Choose to choose for yourself. And then you can decide what to do.

Martha didn’t do that. She didn’t decide to ignore Jesus, but she also didn’t decide to pay attention. And so, autopilot kicked in and she got too busy to even think about where she should be.

So please don’t hear me wrong. The point of this sermon, and the point of the story of Mary and Martha, is not to tell you that you’re doing too much and that you should slow down. That may be true, but that’s for you to decide. Here’s the thing, though: you should decide. If you see that you’re doing things you don’t need to be, than decide to be done with those. That’s part of what this story teaches. But, just as important, if you want to serve God by all the things you’re doing, then by all means, choose to do that. Make the choice and enter your work with a deliberate intention to serve God and your neighbors through your actions. That is also a faithful choice.

To bring this back to UBC, I am so grateful for all the people here who do choose to love God and neighbor by their doing. During this past week, people in this congregation have taken meals to friends who were sick, decorated the stage for VBS, greeted people in the parking lot for a funeral service, prepared for and cleaned up after the reception, and written who knows how many emails about every aspect of church life. There are many faithful ways to serve God, and I don’t think the story of Mary and Martha means that doing such things is bad.

But it does suggest we should choose do those things deliberately, or we risk missing the point. Like Martha, we can get so busy serving God that we forget the amazing reality that God is right here with us, right now, in our houses, at our work.

Of course, life will happen. We’ll get preoccupied with our to-do lists, we’ll find ourselves too addicted to our smartphones and newsfeeds, things will happen that knock us off balance and in so many other ways we will come to realize that our lives are moving along on autopilot. And when that happens, I hope we’ll come back again to the story of Mary and Martha.

For the bulletin artwork today, there were many paintings to choose from, since so many artists have depicted the scene in Martha’s house. I’m sure you’ve also imagined it in your own mind. Most of these paintings have an angry, bitter Martha glaring over at a serene, saintly Mary. I didn’t pick one of those, because while that is a scene in the story, I don’t think the story ends there, with distracted Martha, but a few frames later when Martha has been invited to choose to join her sister before Christ. One sits quietly, and one stands with her hands full, but both are invited to choose the most important thing.

It took Martha (like most of us) a little while to get there. But even when she was distracted or preoccupied, Jesus interrupted her busy-ness and called out her name. Not with judgmental scolding, “Martha, Martha, Martha,” but with a calm, steady invitation: “Martha, Martha.” You don’t have to do that; you get to choose. And so do we.

So, choose. Look past the distractions, and take the reins of your life. Listen for the one calmly speaking your name to you, calling you into the fullness of your life, and choose to follow.