We’ve all seen them sitting in restaurants, the couples or friends who get to a table and whip out their smart phones. I have been one half of one of those couples. We’re pastors, you see. We’re busy and needed and involved and connected. We need to check and see if someone needs us right this minute…or if someone wrote something particularly funny on Facebook.
But seriously, these are tools.
On my iPhone, in the Notes app, I have “to do” lists for church, and for my other part-time ministry, and for home. I have a Goodreads list of books I’ve read, and one of books I’m currently reading, and one of books I want to read, some of which are in my house and some of which I’ve started and put down again and some of which I don’t own yet but heard someone mention and don’t want to forget. Kathryn keeps her “to dos” on Wunderlist. Both of our apps are available across all our devices, which in theory makes us super-efficient and ready for anything. It can also make it harder to just sit and talk.
We try to keep each other honest about this, and we’re pretty good most of the time, but in the wider world we’ve all seen it and wondered what’s happening to relationship when people and things we can’t see take precedence over the people we could touch right this minute.
We think it’s a new problem.
But I wonder.
I wonder if Martha could have enjoyed herself, sitting with Mary, listening to Jesus talk about – well, we don’t know what he talked about that day, do we? We are distracted by the sleight of hand of details about two sisters, one distracted and one attentive, compared now for almost two thousand years as “bad” and “good.” Is Martha really bad? Or is she simply doing what she is convinced she needs to do to be a good person in the world, paying attention in the way that comes most naturally to her?
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “If you love someone but you rarely make yourself available to him or her that is not true love.”[i] As a person who has been known to buzz around madly, but who appreciates the undivided attention of others, I feel that from both directions. Martha might have seen her eagerness to serve as a way of being present and Mary’s inactivity as a hindrance to the hospitality, the availability, they owed a special visitor. Hospitality mattered.
It still matters. I think a lot of us cringe with Martha when Jesus speaks to her, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson softens what we often read as a scolding from Jesus, saying, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.”
Children’s Bible story books picture Martha as the glowering fussbudget looming in a doorway, her face all hard edges, while her sister sits lovely and serene at the feet of Jesus. Martha has been left with the tasks that are usually thankless, and not just in her time and place. She expects to have a partner in her work: her sister. If you’ve ever put a big pot of water on to boil, you know that if the water is high enough and boiling furiously, steam will lift the lid, and in certain cases will take it right off. Martha’s lid is just rising up at the corner. She feels the pressure of frustration and annoyance.
“Can’t you see the work is being left to me? Can’t you see this is unfair? Why is *she* allowed to sit and do nothing? Jesus — !!!”
Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.
Meanwhile, Mary sits, fully present to their guest. “Mary has chosen the better part.”
I’m not a madly practical person, and my approach to domestic arrangements is more intuitive than linear. A few weeks ago, when we had family visiting, I decided to make strawberry shortcake. I got gorgeous berries, and I sliced them up the day before and sprinkled just enough sugar on them to get them sweet and juicy without being *too* sweet. I bought organic whipping cream and made sure we had vanilla and powdered sugar to make it just sweet enough…but not too sweet.
On the day we were to eat the strawberry shortcake, I pulled my copy of the Joy of Cooking out and turned to “shortcake.” I followed the recipe for the correct variation on biscuits. I baked them.
They were inexplicably tiny.
It’s not like I’ve never made biscuits from scratch before, which is to say, I maybe should have known that the size biscuits I cut from the dough would not expand into the size biscuits I pictured in my head. By the time we got to the table, I was convinced I had broken strawberry shortcake for all time.
Fortunately, my #2 Son was at the table. “Mom,” he said, “you can’t get this wrong.”
“On the contrary,” I insisted. I may have said it twice before his gentle but firm nudge got through to me.
Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much …
It’s hard to put down the spoon or the vacuum or the car keys or the scalpel or the holy grail of cookbooks when we have convinced ourselves that we are valued only when we are applying ourselves, behaving responsibly, moving through the world purposefully. It’s hard to put down the broom or the saw or the laptop or the smart phone when we have convinced ourselves that everything depends on us and on doing things perfectly. It’s hard to see, in the middle of things, how we drive ourselves away from love.
It feels like there is a truth in this story, about a busy-ness that misses the point of presence and mindfulness, but telling it that way is pretty hard on the Marthas, and makes it sound like Jesus rejects them…rejects us.
Martha, dear Martha …
Luke’s gospel gives us only these five verses about Martha’s family, but we know from the gospel of John that Jesus was a deep and dear friend to them. At great personal risk, Jesus returned to the home of Martha and Mary after their brother, Lazarus, died.
We also know that Martha was earnest and faithful and frank to a fault, as well as ultimately practical. Her first thought on the opening of her brother’s tomb? How badly it would stink! I imagine Jesus knew this about her very well.
The people who draw pictures of angry, gruff, scowling Martha assume Jesus is lambasting her the same way she is lambasting her sister. In my own spiritual life, I’ve been guilty of doing a fair amount of lambasting, of myself and others, in frustration over situations I simply cannot control and make come out right. Maybe we’ve all done this. But Jesus operated on a higher plane. Sometimes I fear we take his words too seriously, in the sense that we hear them with no animation or humor. We hear them with judgment. But remember: he’s been to this house before. He’s had this conversation before. He knows Martha. He loves Martha.
Thich Nhat Hanh also writes, “When your beloved is suffering, you need to recognize her suffering, anxiety, and worries, and just by doing that, you already offer some relief. Mindfulness relieves suffering because it is filled with understanding and compassion.”
Martha, Martha, haven’t we been over this before? I don’t care about the food, I’m just glad to be here with your family. Take the pot off the boil and come, sit down. We love your cooking, but we love you more.
I hope Martha didn’t storm away. I hope she heard her friend’s love and good humor and sat down beside them. I hope we will stop fretting. I hope we will put down our keys and our spatulas and our smart phones and listen to each other with love. Being present to each other is the better part. Take the pot off the boil. In the name of the One who sat down to dinner with the whole human family. Amen.
(A sermon for St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Mechanicsburg, PA, on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C: Luke 10:38-42.)
[i] Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Riverhead Books, 1995.