“Jesus Christ, Would you do something about her!”

The first time I told you this story[1], I promised that you’d one day get tired of hearing it, but it’s been two years, so you’ve probably forgotten it by now anyway.  It comes from a book called Dakota, the spiritual memoir of American poet, Kathleen Norris.  At one point, Norris begins to reflect on the tradition of hospitality that Christian monasticism has inherited from our ancient Jewish siblings.  It is seemingly written into the DNA of the monastic tradition that a wayward traveler can always find safe lodging and a meal with monks who are trained to welcome every stranger as if it were Jesus himself knocking on the gate.  Even in the monastery, however, true hospitality is challenging to maintain.  Norris tells the story of an older monk sharing with a younger monk how difficult it is to always be ready to welcome a stranger as if they were Jesus.  “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk said.  “Whatever they are in the world – a prostitute or a prime minister – it is all the same to me. But sometimes, I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh Jesus Christ, is that you again?”

Offering hospitality is difficult, no matter who it is we are welcoming.  Whether it is a new faculty member from up the hill, a new employee at one of our may industrial plants here in town, or a neighbor experiencing homelessness, at Christ Episcopal Church we believe that we too are called to welcome each new person who enters our midst as if they were Jesus, but in our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that actually welcoming Jesus can be challenging.  As I mentioned several weeks ago, offering hospitality to travelers was a given for people in the ancient world.  Life was still very nomadic in those days and the Hyatt hotel chain had yet to be created.  Whether you were travelling for religious, economic, or political reasons, travelers were often dependent upon the kindness of strangers for a place to rest and find nourishment.  It was just a few verses ago when Jesus sent seventy disciples ahead of him to prepare the way with instruction to take nothing extra with them, and to rely on the hospitality of others everywhere they went.  As his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem unfolded, Jesus practiced what he preached; spending a couple of days in many small villages along the way, eating what was served to him, and sleeping where he could find a place to lie down for the night.

On this particular day, Jesus arrived at the home of Martha who welcomed him and his disciples with open arms and a flurry of activity.  Luke doesn’t tell us what all her many tasks were, but we can take some educated guesses.  First, she likely prepared a bowl of clean water, in which the travelers could wash their feet from the dusty road.  Next, she stoked the fire in order to bake fresh bread and prepare the evening meal.  She likely got to work grinding up the chickpeas for hummus, while maybe a servant went to the market to get fresh olives.  Following the Law, the rituals for hand and vessel washing while preparing dinner kept Martha busy enough as she also refreshed the wine and made sure her guests were comfortable.  As the rare single woman who owned her own home in first century Palestine, Martha was most likely used to doing things all on her own, but given the celebrity of her guest this day, surely, she was working harder than usual to make everything extra special.  As she worked, occasionally she glanced at the crowd gathered around Jesus, which was probably a bad idea.  Could nobody see how hard she was working?  Did nobody care?  Who did Mary thinks she was, just sitting there, listening to Jesus as he taught?  As Martha’s resentment grew, she became increasingly distracted, literally in the Greek, dragged about, by her many tasks.

Eventually, Martha became so frustrated with being pulled around by her chores that she lashed out at both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work?  Tell her then to help me.”  Her spirit of hospitality had long-since faded, but it is in this moment that any remaining façade of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home disappeared.  It’s not very hospitable to blame your guest for your sibling’s bad behavior.  It might be even worse to try to drag your guest into the middle of a family dispute.  “Jesus Christ, would you do something about her,” is not the sort of hospitality the Son of God would expect.

It is worth noting that what happens next is not Jesus rebuking Martha for her work.  As I’ve already mentioned, hospitality was an ethical cornerstone in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, this story has long been used to pit women in the church against each other.  If we read Jesus’ words to Martha as an admonition against her busyness, we tend to hear it as Jesus lifting up “the Marys,” those who quietly listen and obey.  While Jesus does say that Mary has chosen the better part, what the issue really seems to be about isn’t pitting those who work against those who pray, as both are required in the Kingdom of God.  Rather, the issue is about where our hearts are focused.

Do you remember back when this journey to Jerusalem first started?  Three different disciples tried to follow Jesus and were sent away.  “There was no time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back.”[2]  This journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death and resurrection, isn’t a trip that can be taken half-heartedly.  It isn’t a journey that can be put on hold.  Jesus requires full commitment from his disciples, and where Martha falls short isn’t in her wanting to serve, but in how her servanthood ultimately distracted her from the bigger mission.  She had originally welcomed Jesus into her home in the hopes that the Good News would be proclaimed in her community, but she lost focus, got dragged about by her many chores, and ended up breaking relationship with her sister and with Jesus.  Mary’s better choice wasn’t that she lived into the role of the silent woman or that she chose to listen to Jesus, but rather, that she decided to focus on the relationship that God had put right in front of her face.  The one thing that Mary found was love, and she lived it out at the feet of Jesus.  Martha may have started out her service in love, but resentment and frustration took over somewhere down line.  I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Martha.  I know that I’ve begun many a project based in the love of God or the love of my neighbor, but at some point, lost focus and ended up frustrated by a lack of help, a lack of affirmation and accolades, or a lack of other people doing what I hadn’t told them I wanted them to do.

Martha is not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do.  She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social constructs, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number.  Like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ.  It isn’t for our own lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we end up being pulled away from him, sometimes literally dragged here and there, by our many tasks.  As the hecticness of the fall looms large, as we fill our calendars to overflowing, I pray that God might gift us with the space to slow down, to let our minds rest at the feet of Jesus, so that we might focus solely on the Kingdom of God and its mission of hospitality, reconciliation, grace, and love.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/true-hospitality-a-sermon/

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=625

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Active Hospitality

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I have been known to be critical of some things in my beloved Episcopal Church.  Yes, Virginia, it is true that one can love something and wish it to be better.  I’ve lamented our adoption of Moral Therapeutic Deism.  I’ve pondered our fear of the name Jesus. I’ve asked a lot of questions about our commitment to evangelism given our slogan “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”  It seems we welcome those who a) can read English, b) can read music, c) can navigate our labyrinthine Prayer Book (and, often, buildings), and d) seek us out in the first place.

Given the ubiquity of The Episcopal Church Welcomes You signage, my disdain for it as an ideal often stays forefront in my mind, and influences the way I engage in the Scriptures.  This was true this morning as I read the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors.  The first thing I noticed is that this story is about Abraham and Saran, not Abram and Sarai.  This means that God has already established the covenant with Abraham.  In fact, God and Abraham have already interacted on a few different occasions.  Beginning in Genesis 12, the story of the deepening relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah teaches us an important lesson about true welcome – hospitality is an active noun.

By the time we get to the Oaks of Mamre, Abraham and God already know each other.  Relationships require work.  One cannot simply sit inside their tent with the flaps closed and expect relationships to grow.  Abraham is out and about, scanning the horizon, looking for guests to welcome, for friends to greet, for relationships to foster.  A sign on the corner that says the Episcopal Church Welcomes You that points to a set of closed red doors on what appears to be a building that hasn’t been occupied in years is not an evangelism tool.  It cannot be a marker of hospitality.  As inheritors of the Abrahamic faith, we are called to be out in our communities acting as signs of the Kingdom, meeting our neighbors, who are know to us because we’ve been out there for a long time, meeting them where they are and inviting them into the feast that has been prepared for them from the beginning.

What makes the Oaks of Mamre story so powerful is that Abraham can recognize God in the three strangers because they are in relationship with one another.  This is why at Christ Church, we’ve made a commitment to getting out into our neighborhood and learning more about it.  Whether it is through meeting our neighbors experiencing homelessness face-to-face, engaging in neighborhood prayer walks, volunteering in our community, serving on local non-profit boards, or some other means, we are making the commitment to be the signs of Christ’s love and light here in Bowling Green such that, when someone new shows up on Sunday morning, maybe we can meet them with a hospitality that is a little more active because there is a relationship already established and a trust already built.

Undivided Attention

Jesus might be the King of kings, but he is also the King of non sequiturs.  All throughout his ministry, Jesus seemingly responds to a direct question by taking someone down a deep, tangential, rabbit hole.  When Philip tells Jesus that some Greeks want to see him, he responds by talking about his death.  When John’s disciples come to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah, he begins to talk about reeds blowing in the wind.  It’s a thing.  In reading the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, I realized that I’ve been under the assumption that what Jesus says to Martha is either a non sequitur or comes out of the blue.

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I’m not sure how my brain did this, but I guess I’ve never really noticed that what happens immediately before, “Martha, Martha…” is Martha complaining about both her sister and Jesus.  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work be myself?  Tell her then to help me.”  On Monday, I noted that the word Luke uses to describe what is going on in Martha’s mind is only used once in the whole New Testament.  She’s more than distracted, she’s literally being dragged about by her many tasks.  Her brain is so scattered that she gets angry and lashes out against her sister and her Lord.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I can relate.  I’ve been so frazzled as to forget myself and lose appreciation for those around me.  I’m sure that upon reflection, Martha felt bad for what she’d said.  With this new lens at my disposal, I’m beginning to realize that rather than seeing Jesus as, out of thin air, admonishing her for being so busy, upon re-reading the text today, I think what Jesus gets so upset about in this vignette is that her distractions and worries have led to a break in relationship.  It isn’t Jesus saying, “Don’t offer hospitality” or even “Focus only on me and my teaching,” but rather, “Don’t lose sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Martha was offering hospitality to Jesus and his companions so that the Gospel might be proclaimed from her home.  Unfortunately, she got so busy, all she saw in the end was her lazy sister sitting on her butt, not helping.  Mary’s better choice wasn’t listening to Jesus at the expense of her chores, but to choose to stay focused on the relationship that was in front her; to stay engaged despite the many distractions that the world had to offer.  The one thing that Mary chose was love, and she lived that love out at the feet of Jesus.  Martha may have started her chores out of love, but chose resentment and frustration somewhere down the line.  It’s a story I know too well in myself.  I’m guessing you might too.

Distracted

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As is the case with most courses of study, the further I get away from seminary, the less book work I actually remember.  There are a few things that will always stick around.  Tony Lewis’ explanation of the aorist tense by way of the Refectory’s Fiesta Dog is something I will never forget.  As is my favorite Greek phrase, hapax legomenon, a thing once said.  We use this delightful phrase to describe words or phrases in the Bible that appear only once.  A true hapax wouldn’t appear in any other extant ancient Greek text, but it can be narrowed down to a single text, as I will do here, since I don’t have the resources to say for sure, but I can say, with a high level of certainty that Sunday’s Gospel lesson contains at least one of the 686 local hapax legomena in the New Testament.

Luke 10:38-42 is as well known as it is brief.  It describes what is essentially a house church gathering at the home of Martha, who was one of two sisters, Mary and Martha (later, we’ll find out they also have a brother, Lazarus, for whom Jesus cared deeply).  Martha welcomed Jesus into her home and took great pains to be a most gracious host.  The text tells us that while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, Martha was “distracted by her many tasks.”  The Greek words translated as “distracted” is perispao which is a compound word and a hapax legomenon.  Perisapo comes from peri which means “about, around, or because of” and spao which means to draw.

Literally, Martha was drawn about by her many tasks.  She wasn’t just distracted or worried, two words Jesus uses to describe her in the next verse.  She wanted to join her sister at Jesus’ feet, but her mind was being pulled in too many directions: getting the water for foot washing, refilling the wine, baking the bread, and welcoming guests as they entered.  Even her sister’s ability to just sit and listen was tearing Martha apart.

I’ve read a lot of sermons about how we should be more like Mary.  That we should take the time to sit and learn from Jesus.  It seem that even Jesus would have us hear this word, but I don’t buy it.  The two words Jesus uses to describe Martha aren’t actually her affliction. She’s not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do.  She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social pressure, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number.  The reality is that like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ.  It isn’t for lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we are drawn about by our many tasks.  May you be gifted with space to slow down, to let your mind relax, and to simply sit at the feet of Jesus, if only for a moment.

The idol of distraction – a sermon

Sunday’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or read here.


Life is busy.  Whether you are working or retired.  Whether you are the parents of small children or your grandchildren are grown.  Whether your iPhone dings with every text, tweet, and email or if your flip-phone is from the early aughts.  Life is busy and seems to be getting busier with every passing minute. This spring, the Johns Hopkins Health Review published an article entitled “The Cult of Busy,” which argued that “there is a global epidemic of overscheduling and it’s ruining your health.”[1]  Recent studies have shown that the ongoing stress of being too busy can actually shrink your brain’s gray matter.  It can lead to depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, and insomnia, and it is ruining our relationships with our spouses, our children, and our friends.  The Cult of Busy is killing us like a frog in boiling water; we won’t notice it until it is too late.

The worst offender in the Cult of Busy, is, unfortunately, our own selves.  Studies show that while Americans feel busier now than ever before, we actually have more free time than previous generations, and parents are spending more time with their children then they did 40 years ago.  The core problem in the Cult of Busy is the powerful idol of distraction.  There is rarely a time when we are able to be wholly attentive to where we are.  External stimuli are constantly vying for at least a portion of our already over-stretched attention. Every restaurant, waiting room, and even gas pumps now have TVs to distract you from what you’re doing; that is, if your phone and the search for Pokémon aren’t keeping you distracted enough.  Being pulled in multiple directions is a key source of stress and creates what researchers call “toxic time,” time that “slips away in an unrelenting concern that we should be someplace else doing something more.”

While the Cult of Busy may be booming in 21st century America, it isn’t exactly new.  People have been distracted and stressed by the pull of expectations since the very beginning.  The Cult of Busy is even at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson which features the Cult’s patron saint, Martha of Bethany.  This story is often told as a way of lifting up the life of contemplative Mary as better than the life of working Martha, but if there were no Martha’s there would be no Altar Guild, no coffee hour, no Family Promise.  Without Martha’s there would be no Church.  No, this isn’t a story that tells us we shouldn’t do anything but sit at the feet of Jesus.  Instead, it is a story about the evils of distraction.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, Martha follows in the footsteps of her ancestor Sarah and sets about the business of making her guests feel welcome.  She likely drew some water for the road weary travels to wash their feet.  Then she got the oven going, preparing to bake some bread for all to share.  Perhaps it was fig season,  Martha would have known that Jesus loved figs, and so she fixed a plate of honey drizzled figs for the good Rabbi.  While she worked, she listened as Jesus taught.  Each time she entered the room with a new plate of olives and cheese, she grew more and more frustrated with her sister, Mary, who was doing nothing but sitting idly by, listening to Jesus.  The distraction of her sister began to gnaw at her.  Martha’s ministry of hospitality, which had started out as joyful, focused work, grew increasingly distracted and annoying.  Pans that were once stacked nicely in the sink started to clang and she banged them around, passive aggressively at first, but in downright anger as the afternoon rolled on.  She was, as Luke tells us, distracted by her many tasks, and finally had enough.

“Jesus Christ! Don’t you care that Mary has left me alone to do all this work?!?”

Her distraction had become overwhelming.  I suspect Jesus knew of her frustration long before Martha’s outburst.  He could smell the burning bread, hear the clanging pots, and noticed as she sighed deeply every time she refreshed the wine.  Jesus had compassion on Martha even as she worshiped the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  I imagine him putting his arm around her shoulder as he said, “Martha, Martha… you are worried and distracted by many things.”  As Luke retells the story, he has Jesus coining a new word for distraction here.  Perhaps he saw that Martha had reached an unprecedented level of distraction and so the regular words wouldn’t do it justice.  The word Jesus used shares the same root as the word for riot or uproar.  Within her soul, there was anxiety, struggle, and even violence, and Jesus knew that this is no way to live one’s life.  When we allow ourselves to become so busy, so distracted, and so worried that our minds become fractured by the many tasks that lie before us, the kingdom of God can easily get lost in the shuffle.

The key to regaining control over time, according to the researchers at Johns Hopkins is, quite simply, do less.  Jesus suggests something more impossibly simple than that.  Jesus tells Martha that “there is need of only one thing,” and that “Mary has chosen the better part.”  Again, I don’t think this admonition to Martha is Jesus setting up the prayerful asceticism of Mary over the diaconal ministry of Martha, but rather, a reminder to all of us that distraction is destructive.  Scholars pull their hair out over this passage because Jesus never tells us what the “one thing” is.  There is no direct antecedent, no further teaching, just “one thing.”  As I thought about this lesson while struggling with the Cult of Busy myself throughout a hectic week, I became more and more convicted that the reason Jesus didn’t have a direct antecedent for his “one thing” is because it isn’t the thing that is important, it is the one.

Jesus did not fuss at Martha because she was engaged in the work of hospitality, but because her ministry of hospitality had become distracted.  She had lost sight of one thing, and was instead distracted by many things.  She was angry with her sister for not helping out; she was frustrated with Jesus for not fussing at Mary; she was upset that there were so many disciples to feed; and she was probably mad at herself for getting so upset.  Mary, on the other hand, had chosen to pay attention solely to Jesus.  She didn’t get distracted by her sister banging the pots and pans in the kitchen.  She paid no mind to the huffing and puffing from the doorway.  Even the smell of bread burning didn’t distract her from the one thing she had chosen to be fully present for: the Son of God sitting in her living room.

Johns Hopkins suggested that we do less.  Jesus recommends that we only do one thing: that we give whatever that one thing is our full and undivided attention, and that we do that one thing to the honor and glory of God for the unbundling of the kingdom.  All you who are Marthas like me can keep on serving at the altar; keep on making sure coffee hour happens; keep on volunteering in the community, but when you do those things, allow yourself to be focused only on the task at hand.  Don’t worship the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  Don’t be distracted by oughts and wants and shoulds, but be fully present where you are.  All you who are Marys can keep on doing the work of prayer; keep on meditating on God’s holy word; keep on listening for the will of God.  Don’t worship the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  Don’t be distracted by oughts and wants and shoulds, but be fully present where you are.  The kingdom of God will grow through the Church when Marthas and Marys each forego the Cult of Busy and give full attention to only that one needful thing, whatever it may be.

[1] Elizabeth Evitts Dickenson, “The Cult of Busy” Johns Hopkins Health Review Spring/Summer 2016 Volume 3 Issue 1. Accessed on 7/14/2016 at http://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/the-cult-of-busy

One Thing

What is the crux of the Christian faith?  Well, that’s not exactly an easy question to answer.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we get something of an answer, but Jesus being Jesus is a bit opaque in his language.  Failing to give us a direct antecedent, we are stuck with an awkward Greek phrase,”henos de estin chreia” which literally translated is “one but is needed,” which is more easily read as “but there is need of only one thing.”  It is complicated, to be sure, and unfortunately, Jesus never tells us what that one thing is; he only tells Martha that Mary has chosen it.

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As I’ve thought about this lesson throughout a hectic week, with a minimum of six tabs open in my browser, four unread emails begging my attention, and a to-do list eight items deep, I’ve become more and more convicted that the reason Jesus didn’t have a direct antecedent for his “one thing” is because it isn’t the thing that is important, it is the one.

Jesus did not fuss at Martha because she was engaged in the work of hospitality, but rather because her hospitality became a distraction.  As distraction, which, as I noted on Monday, was so great as to be unprecedented.  She had lost sight of one thing, and was instead distracted by many things.  She was angry with her sister for not helping out, she was frustrated with Jesus for not fussing at Mary, and so was upset that there were so many disciples to feed.  The bread was probably burning in the oven as the tears from slicing onions ran down her face while the dishes piled up in the sink, and the wine began to run low.  Martha’s brain was in 1,000 different places instead of being focuses on the one thing that should have been of utmost importance: showing hospitality to Jesus.

Mary, on the other hand, had chosen to pay attention solely to Jesus.  She didn’t get distracted by her sister’s passive aggressive banging of pots and pans in the kitchen.  She paid no mind to the huffing and puffing from the doorway.  Even the smell of bread burning didn’t distract her from the one thing she had chosen to be fully present for: the Son of God sitting in her living room.

Unprecedented levels of distraction

Immediately on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany and spend the afternoon with their friends Martha and Mary.  Like the story of the Good Samaritan, this short passage from Luke 10 has taken on a life of its own even in an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture.  While Martha works busily in the kitchen, preparing a meal for her house guests as was required by the hospitality code of the time, Mary is reclining at the feet of Jesus.  I’ll get to the Mary’s choosing the better part later this week, but today, maybe because I associate so strongly with her, I was struck by Martha’s distractions.

Luke uses three different Greek words to describe Martha’s plight.  The narrator tells us that Martha is “perispao” distracted or worried by her “diakonia” her servant or table ministry.  Jesus, responding to her lament against her sister’s apparent laziness, says she is “merimnao” anxious or worried and “thorubazo” troubled and bothered by “polus” many things.  What is most interesting to me is that this final verb, “thorubazo,” is a hapax legomenon.  It is used only once in Scripture.  Martha seems to be experiencing an unprecedented level of distraction.

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Though “thorubazo” is a hapax, it it comes from the root word that means riot or uproar.  Within her soul, there is no rest, only anxiety, struggle, and even violence, and Jesus knows that this is no way to live ones life.  His admonition to Martha isn’t so much Jesus setting up the prayerful asceticism of Mary over the diaconal ministry of Martha, but rather, a reminder to all of us that distraction is destructive.  When we allow ourselves to become so busy and so worried that our minds become fractured, bifurcated at best, by the many tasks that lie before us, the kingdom of God can easily get lost in the shuffle.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  He is single minded on the task ahead, and he invites Martha to join him.  She need not stop preparing the meal, for that is an important part of her ministry, but her mind should be solely focused on her work to the glory of God.

As one who is often distracted and worried, I can understand Martha’s situation.  I often think that I’ve found unprecedented levels of distraction, an in those moments, I know that my usefulness in the kingdom is next to zero.  Would that I could be fully present and single minded to do one task at a time to the glory of God.