Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2013
If you heard the gospel reading of the Good Samaritan last week, you may have left with a sense of “I’ve got it… go and DO likewise… go and DO.” Maybe you even opened your eyes more in the last week for opportunities to DO. The story of the Good Samaritan always leaves me feeling like I’m clear about my direction… I just need to do what the Samaritan did… pay attention to the needs around me and be ready to respond. Why then, do we follow that text with the gospel from today? If we follow the logic from last week, it would seem that Martha’s doing is like the Samaritan who does the right thing. Why then, does Jesus commend Mary for not doing? It’s very confusing.
I always thought I knew this story pretty well. Somehow I missed the meaning in the answer to Martha’s question before now. I’ve certainly heard the words many times, but I didn’t really hear what Jesus said. He tells Martha she is “worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Only one thing?? Really?? Doesn’t he know about multitasking? This is not a very productive answer to Martha’s question. Doesn’t he want dinner? For the first time, as I read and studied this text I heard the call to focus. In a day where many are doing at least two (and sometimes more) things at once, the idea of focusing our attention on one thing seems strange. Aren’t we more valuable if we can do many things at once?
I did not get the gift of hospitality. I don’t even pretend that it comes easily to me. I often confuse it with doing a lot of stuff rather than giving someone my attention. I tend to believe that if I do everything right, I can make someone feel welcome. Here is what I am hearing in this text… nothing makes a person feel more welcome than attending to them, listening to them, and receiving them as they are. That requires focus on our part. Jesus isn’t telling Martha that cooking dinner is wrong, he is saying that as she worries and tries to do everything, she is missing that he is right there in front of her. We can certainly explain this and say that he didn’t call ahead, he just showed up and if she had known he was coming, she would have put something in the crock-pot. But Jesus isn’t talking about the food she is cooking, he is asking her to see what is in front of her and to focus on the one thing.
The trouble is that we may not be sure what the “one thing” is. There is a scene in the movie City Slickers where Mitch is in the throes of mid-life and trying to figure out how to find more joy in his life. Curly, the tough old cowboy, has some simple advice for Mitch:
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that…
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: That's what you have to find out.
I’m not sure if Curly got his wisdom from Jesus or not, but Jesus is clearly advising Martha to be present to that one thing which matters more than any task.
Several years ago, Stephen Covey brought to our attention the tendency to focus on things that are “urgent but not important”. By urgent, he isn’t referring to heart attacks or car accidents, but those things that seem really pressing and want our attention NOW, but may not be contributing to the greater good we are seeking. There are other ways to focus our attention and Covey invites us to be clear about the big picture, of what is ultimately important so that we don’t lose sight of what really matters. For those of us who LOVE to check things off our list, this can be a problem. Those lists seem awfully urgent, but how often do we cross things off our list only to discover that we didn’t really get to the things that mattered? We may feel better in the short term, but we are likely to be disappointed in the longer term. There is some balance required here and part of that balance is about not losing sight of what matters most.
Jesus never seems to lose sight of that. His choice to focus on what really matters takes him away from crowds at times to rest, finds him healing someone on the Sabbath, or sitting with friends when there is work to be done. He knows who he is and what he is about in the world. The one thing is always present for him and his life flows from being grounded in that one thing. It is so clear that his life mattered. His relentless focus on God enabled him to know when to act, when to be, and always where to place his attention.
Do any of you struggle to simply be where you are? Robert Farrar Capon says, “We spend a lot of time wishing we were elsewhere and otherwise.” Or as Carrie Fisher put it, “Having a wonderful time. Wish I were here.”
Often the part of us that isn’t present to where we are is busy worrying about where we are not. We can spend so much time worrying, and worry produces almost no benefit to anyone. Jesus says clearly, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” What a bummer to realize that we spent all those hours worrying only to discover we missed Christ who is right in front of us.
I live with a Mary. I am often jealous that the Mary I live with can just be present anywhere she is. I struggle to just be present. I work hard at being, but it is rarely pretty. Often when we process this difference together, I realize that my real struggle is focusing on what is most important in any given moment. I get so caught up in the details that I miss what is right in front of me. It seems like an important spiritual practice for those of us who struggle to focus on the one thing. Realizing this, I’ve started asking again, when was I present today? When did I see Christ right in front of me?
I wonder if the issue in the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of distraction. Did the two people pass by because they were too preoccupied to really see the man in need? I get so caught up in my lists and pulled in so many directions that I can miss the opportunity in front of me. What if both of these stories are about seeing Christ standing in front of us? What if they call us to attend to Christ in each person we meet? What if the one thing is that Christ is right here, now? Would that change anything? Would it change how we live? Would it change how we interact with each other? Would it change how we attend to ourselves?
I’ve been reading a book called Cabin Fever by Tom Montgomery Fate. Tom is trying to find a balance between his life in the city as a husband and father and taking time to savor the quiet of nature in a cabin in the woods. He lives with Thoreau’s Walden as a guide and refers to it often. One day Tom takes his four-year-old son to preschool and watches the boy immediately immerse himself in Legos. As Tom observes his son playing, he asks himself, “When did I first begin to lose my faith in the moment I was living in? When did my life first start to feel like a sprawling to-do list?” (p. 22) Reflecting on that, he turns to Walden and reads “We should be blessed if we lived in the present always and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.” (p. 24)
I am really struck by how Jesus invites Martha into the community as a response to her resentment. He invites her to see that she is God’s beloved child. Period. Her value is not measured by what she does. How many of us need to hear that we are not what we do? Our value is not wholly determined by our actions. Certainly, we have the opportunity every day to be kind, to show compassion, to share hope with others. Working hard to the point of resentment isn’t what God asks of us. Maintaining our focus on God in all things is what God asks of us. It’s something we practice more than master. It’s something we grow into each day.
I think St. Michael’s often finds that sweet spot – the balance between Mary and Martha. Certainly some of us are more prone to be Mary and others to be Martha. But as a whole, we are a congregation that prays and waits, that acts and works hard. All of that makes us who we are. If we simply worked ourselves to death, we would be empty. If we only waited and prayed, we would be lethargic. The Christian life is both. The question isn’t which. It is more a question of when. If we asked Jesus should we act or contemplate, he would likely say, “yes”. The question that is larger than “when to act and when to pray” is, “can we see Christ in front of us right now?”
We are God’s beloved children. Christ is here now. That is our one thing.