The Better Part


Of course, I wasn't there, but there has been some tension again over at the house before Jesus even gets to this suburban Bethany home.

After doing all the shopping and gathering the water from the well early that morning, perhaps Martha has just finished shaking out the old carpet and inhaling its dust before she goes back inside and sweeps out the house.

Her sister Mary goes into the freshly cleaned main room and trims her nails, then sands and smooths out the rough edges while humming tunelessly--tunelessly humming, over and over in "that way" that Martha can't stand to hear. 

Martha begins dinner preparations by building up a fire. She hoists a heavy pot and sets it on a hook over the flames. Though every muscle in her body is sore, she fills the pot with water she carried in a jug from the well. She turns now to making sure that the table looks warm and inviting with fresh bread, fruit and olives. Martha slices vegetables, gets out the wine, puts the meat on the long skewer, gets out the box of "Goat-Helper," which she has hidden away. 

While she is thus engaged cooking dinner, there is a knock on the door, and even though Martha has taken pains to place her door on the "Do Not Knock Registry," a marketer is now asking to speak with the head of the household and mispronounces the name, "Lazarus." While this is happening, the cat pounces through the door with something twitching in its mouth, the water is boiling over, and Mary...Mary is languidly applying a coat of nail polish to her nails in a shade of blue that doesn't exist in nature. She is now whistling tunelessly--endlessly whistling, like that guy you once worked with, trapped on a floor of an office building with nowhere to escape the piercing intrusion into your personal space.

Martha stirs the pot, grabs the cat and whatever it has in its mouth and puts it out the door, when who should be standing in front of her but Jesus.

And that brings us to where we are in today's scripture. "Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying."

Jesus is telling parables and stories, and Mary listens. Martha wants her to come into the kitchen to lift the goat roast off the spit, but Mary chooses to stay and listen at Jesus' feet and does not stir.

Martha burns her hand a little on the spit, and she is overheated and tired from her work. Martha lights candles, puts out the vegetables and calls to Mary for help getting the table ready.

Mary waves her off. She is listening as Jesus talks about the Kin-dom of God.

Well. That Is It. You can almost hear the "snap." Martha steps into the room where Jesus is talking and Mary is lounging. 

Here is where we pick back up with the scripture: "4But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.'"

"But the Lord answered her, '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.'"

This is the sum of the story as presented in Luke. One may well wonder if the next morning will find this particular house closed off with yellow police tape and people walking silently by the windows, looking in.

But here, Jesus points out a couple of the ways in which we lose sight of what is truly important. There is no one among us who has not been worried, and I suspect many people have spent a good amount of time concentrating on worries. Someone once said that worry has been defined as "a small trickle of fear that meanders through the mind until it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained." Worry is incapacitating.

The other way is through distraction. How close is that smart-phone to your hand right now? At no other time in history have there been so many types of instant distractions that channel any number of means of receiving information to us at any time. All of these add up to multitudinous ways in which any kind of central focus can be instantly eroded.

Martha is worried and distracted? Take a number, Martha--we are all waiting at the same counter.

My husband and I went to a neighborhood restaurant for an early dinner out. Seated at a table at the other end of the room was a family. Mom, dad, brother sister. They sat in silence with bowed heads, their hands close together. I made an assumption that they were having a table grace before their meal.

A long silence. Dad shifted in his seat and brought his cell-phone into sight so that is was closer to his line of vision. It turns out that among them were two phones and two tablets, all in use. This family went out to dinner to be together, but chose to spend their time being distracted and removed from one another by busy-ness. Carl and I do it, too--when we break our pact to leave our phones in the car when we go to a restaurant, we find ourselves googling random information--"Average American's savings for retirement." "How many Marx Brothers were there?" "World population growth data." "Is Susan Anton still performing?"

Maybe Martha, as with many of us, needs to know that there is a time for all of our busy-ness, but she...we...cannot lift up our busy-ness as an excuse to miss out on what is important.

Paul Tillich once said, "There are innumerable concerns in our lives and human life generally, which demand attention, devotion, passion. But they do not demand infinite attention, unconditional devotion, ultimate passion. They are important, often very important, for you and me and the whole of humankind. But they are not ultimately important...." And Jesus reminds us that there is only one thing, and that Mary has chosen the better part.

Figuring out what is ultimately important--that's the challenge of the Gospel. Jesus talks over and over about "the Kin-dom of God" and here we are, believing that we are to be the hands of Christ on earth as it comes upon us.

Or are we not ready to transfer our membership from the Cult of the Busy? Martha's an acolyte, that's for sure. But aren't we all? 

When did "busy-ness" become such a virtue that we are almost wired to let people know that we are participating at full speed in our own busy-ness whenever we are asked the question, "How are you?" How often do you respond by assuring the person who just asked you a simple question, with, "Oh, I am sooo busy right now?" Or you might elaborate by describing several of the things that are calling your attention. Or, you might lead with a pre-emptive strike; "I'm sorry to be late, I'm just crazy-busy right now. It just doesn't stop."

And we are busy people. We are sure to pass our "virtue" on to the next generation as parents shepherd kids to extra-extracurricular activities, teaching them about the importance of being busy. For the most part, our work keeps us cocooned indoors, focused on our electronic devices and proud of the productivity that keeps us from being fully alive and paying attention to the world around us.

I confess I am one of those people. We have a cabin over 8,000 feet in the sky nestled in the mountains of Big Bear, California. I bring work up there to do, and sometimes I realize that I forgot to walk outdoors into the cool evening breeze and just appreciate the abundance of stars in the night sky. My thoughts shift immediately as I step off the front porch and gaze upward and simply connect. A telescope balances at the ready on a tripod to show me the fullness of the moon. Or when the moon is a sliver in the sky or not yet in sight, the darkness is a black canvas for the multitude of stars that dot the skies framing Sugarloaf Mountain.

The Kin-dom of God is truly at hand. If only I gave those words, written in a starry-font over my head, my full attention.

It is easy to make fun of Martha and Mary (and I certainly take the bait when this passage comes up). But Martha is a woman who knows how to serve and by what methods to get things done. Mary is a person who takes time to reflect. Mary got it right this time, but another time, it will be Martha, and Mary sorely needs to learn how to get into the work around her and be of help.

Jesus is telling something to us through Martha. We are busy, worried and distracted people. We race ahead in our busy-ness, but we forget to pay attention to what really matters all around us. The Kin-dom of God is at hand. That is the truly important thing, and it has to do with helping to work towards a place of justice for all.

The more optimistic among us believe that we are slowly but surely moving on the road towards that place of justice. And then come the setbacks that challenge our optimism.

We can become deaf to the reality that racism is and remains a major obstacle to equality in our time. Over the past few years, we have seen case after case of violent deaths of mostly young African-American men (and women as well) at the hands of law enforcement. When the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court, people of color felt rightfully marginalized. The Black Lives Matter movement is a tangible reminder of the anger and prejudice that our country continues to experience.

It is disarming--after celebrating the almost unbelievable moment of inclusion for LGBT people in the Supreme Court decision to grant marriage equality--that roughly 200 bills in various states have been introduced and some passed to tear away at the civil rights of LGBT people, with particular venom aimed at transgender people, and much of it done in the name of "religious freedom."

We sometimes just have to stop and listen in the busy-ness of our lives, to where we are in that Kin-dom of God--that place of justice that Jesus spoke of during a twilight dinner to a listening Mary. 

If we do choose the better part and take time to listen carefully to the message that Jesus gave to Martha and Mary, indeed to each one of us since he left that house in Bethany, we might see how the history of violent prejudice on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, immigration and more, leads on to splitting the peace in our communities.

The frenetic pace and the quick sound-bites of this current political season in our country, where competing messages are targeted at us, begs us to listen to what it is that's being communicated and find a moment for being quiet and for listening. Do those messages mirror what we believe to be the message of Jesus? Reflecting on where we are today, will they lead us to a place of justice and inclusion for all? 

William Barclay once said, "There are two great days in a person's life--the day we are born and the day we discover why."

And so maybe this week is about finding our equilibrium, for our own good as well as for the well-being of our community. Stop. Turn around and listen. Feel with your heart what leads you towards building a just community and a whole world. Take the time to listen to what is important--beyond filled schedules, over-bookings and meetings about meetings that remind us we are busy and skilled folks. 

And...of course, the "better part" is Jesus himself. We are people who profess to be followers of Jesus just like Martha and Mary, so that we can also say that we too have chosen the better part--as bringers of the vision of a Kin-dom of God that values all of God's people.