Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 10:38-42
The gospel writer Luke gives us some of the more beloved, well-known, and provocative accounts of events in Jesus’ life and ministry. One of those, of course, is the story we heard today, the encounter with Mary and Martha.
Martha was distracted by her many tasks. Doesn’t that accurately describe our own age, hitting the nail on the head of what so often ails us? Distracted by many tasks.
With our various devices pinging us constantly with calls, texts, emails, social media notifications and more, how can we help but be chronically distracted by many things? It takes enormous discipline to keep this constant bombardment at bay. More often perhaps we succumb to it. The distractions endemic in our age wear away at our sense of well-being and mental health. It can weigh so heavily.
I have generally read the story of Mary and Martha as an indictment of being overly active or busy. But engaging this passage anew this week, what leaps off the page for me is not Martha the activist, but Martha who was distracted amidst her many tasks. That is to say, it’s not the tasks themselves, but the distraction that’s at issue. And then, too, the worry that accompanies the distraction.
Luke reports what I take as Jesus’ compassionate observation of Martha’s trouble: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”
We know from experience that we can be quite actively engaged in our work without distraction and worry. Artists and other creative people – and anybody really – can discover themselves to be in the flow of active, creative engagement, being so engrossed in their activity that they lose a sense of time. That’s being quite fully present and contentedly so. Creative flow is the opposite of worry and distraction.
But these days worry and distraction seem to be more the order of the day than being fully present to and with what and who is before us. In fact, there are powers that be which capitalize on keeping us worried and distracted.
Who will save us from this plight? Of course, we know the answer. The one who saves us is the very one whom Mary encountered, when she was sitting at his feet, listening to what he had to say, the one who addressed Martha with understanding words and this other message that Luke reports: “Martha…. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The better part which Mary gravitated to and which was not taken from her is Jesus himself. For as Paul assures us in Romans 8, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can make our lists of that which distracts and worries us, but just the same, nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. That is to say, Christ will not be taken from us.
And here’s further good news for us in our worrisome age of distraction: what Mary enjoyed at Jesus’ feet listening to what he was saying is what we’re doing right now, namely, metaphorically sitting here in this place at Jesus’ feet as we are gathered around him in word and sacrament – listening with rapt attention to Christ’s teaching and the teaching about Christ in gospel proclamation, soaking in the life-giving baptismal waters, reclining, as it were, with our Lord at the table. All in this place comparatively free of distractions in contrast with the usual routines of the other days of our week.
Consider this: what is it that we see and encounter here? The story of Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day by the oaks of Mamre may help us understand what we see here in this place, especially when we apply the Christian imagination to this story from Genesis, our first reading.
The heat of the day may have been for Abraham of old the midday time of siesta, a sabbath rest within the day. It’s amidst such a pause in the day that Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him which became for Abraham a holy encounter, centered on a feast for the mysterious guests who then delivered the promise to Abraham and to Sarah that they would have their desired heir, a son, on whom all the promises of God hinge.
Seen through Christian lenses, we might liken Abraham to Mary, sitting for holy encounter. Indeed, this passage from Genesis was the inspiration for one of the most famous and compelling icons of the Orthodox church tradition, Rublev’s the “Hospitality of Abraham,” or of the Trinity. In the Christian imagination, the three men, later described in Genesis as angels, come to represent the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, seated in an arc around a table at which they feast as in the story from Abraham. The oak tree is in the background of the icon.
That tree may be imagined as the tree of life, the cross of Christ. Christ is the central figure of the three in the icon seated at the table, evocative perhaps of our Eucharistic table, where we share in the life of the Trinity. Sarah prepared cakes of choice flour – our sacramental bread. Abraham had sacrificed a calf, tender and good – suggestive of Christ’s own having been offered up on the cross.
In the Christian imagination, this is what we can fancy that Abraham saw in this holy encounter, resting in the heat of the day. And this is what we also see here in this place, when we sit in our version of sabbath rest in the presence of God in Christ, and in the inspiration of the Spirit.
Beyond what we might see in our holy encounter here, what message is it that we hear when we sit as Jesus’ feet in this place? It might include the echoes of the word of the apostle Paul as we heard in today’s second reading from Colossians. Listen again to this wonderful hymn to Christ from the very earliest Christian community, poetry that also sounds like a creed: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Christ is the head of the body, the church; Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Christ to reconcile to God’s own self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)
Abraham resting under the oaks of Mamre. Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. Paul in a time apart writing a letter to the church extolling the wonders of Christ. We doing likewise here, our sabbath rest gathered around word and sacraments.
All of this is the antidote to our worry and distraction, freeing us to attend to the one needful thing, namely Christ our Lord, who will not be taken from us.
And from this hour of rest at the feet of Jesus, comparatively free of worry and distraction, with our faith here renewed, we return to engagement with the world in the work to which God has called us, namely, to do the tasks of the servant, Martha, in the life-giving, creative flow of the energies of the Spirit.
And what is the work of Martha? To serve our neighbors in need in loving care as Christ loves us. And that we, like Paul, may extend the suffering of Christ through our own suffering for the sake of the world as we also proclaim the gospel in word and deed. Let it be so among us now and always. Amen.