"The Healing of Distraction," a sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

"The Healing of Distraction," a sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

Jul 17, 2016

Passage:Luke 10:38-42

Preacher: The Rev. Claire Cowden

Series: Season After Pentecost

Category: Discipleship

Keywords: centered, distraction, hospitality, ministry, prayer, separation, service



As Jesus & his disciples continue on their way to Jerusalem in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, they come to a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomes them into her home. Jesus & his friends are a bit dusty & road-weary. Martha generously welcomes Jesus & his friends, sees they are in need of refreshment, and sets about the work of hospitality…the service of caring for others in her home.

Martha’s hospitality stands in the direct lineage of Abraham’s hospitality, as we find him welcoming three strangers into his tent in the heat of the day, in today’s reading from Genesis. These three men were also dusty & road-weary, so Abraham offers them a little water, a little bread, a basin in which to wash their dusty feet, and cozy seats under the shade tree.

We notice that Abraham provides much more elaborate hospitality than he first offers. Instead of plain water, he provides a nourishing drink of thick curds & milk. Instead of a little bread, Sarah makes cakes. A servant prepares meat from a choice calf.

Even though Luke does not give us the particulars, it looks like Martha is similarly lavish in her hospitality. She’s caught a bit off guard by the additional guests, so she hurries to make preparations: pulling out & dusting off the floor cushions, laying out towels & bowls of water so the guests can wash their feet & hands, setting additional pots of water to boil, washing & chopping a large quantity of vegetables, wondering which recipe will best stretch the amount of meat & grain she has on hand.

Martha has probably tried to catch her sister Mary’s attention repeatedly since Jesus’ arrival, but Mary is oblivious to Martha’s need. Mary is reveling in Jesus’ presence. She sits at his feet, with rapt attention, listening to all he has to say, watching how he interacts with his disciples and with members of the household, aware that this compelling man has the words & ways of authentic, free, and generous life.

Meanwhile, Martha finally reaches her breaking point, and boils over with complaint - directed, not at her sister, but at Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then, to help me!”

Martha has a legitimate complaint. Most, if not all, of us know exactly what it is like to be Martha in this situation.

Jesus’ answer probably does not soothe Martha, but whether or not Martha marched off in a huff, Jesus’ reply was an invitation for her to pause & re-group. “Martha, Martha, you are worried & 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.”

I want to take a moment to point out what today’s Gospel reading is NOT:

∙It is NOT anti-hospitality. Hospitality is a core virtue all the way through the Gospel of Luke - remember all those shared meals? In Luke’s Gospel, the liberating truth of life with Jesus is often recognized & deeply encountered through shared meals. Don’t all of us who share Sunday breakfast together, as well as Sunday communion, know in our hearts & bones the power of shared meals in Christian community?

∙Neither is this gospel reading primarily about a conflict between “Action” and “Contemplation,” Martha representing the busy, active life, and Mary representing the receptive, prayerful life. Both Action & Contemplation are required in daily Christian life. Prayer & Service or Ministry {literally, the “tasks” and “work” in this passage} are two aspects of a unified Christian life. A frequent refrain in the Gospel of Luke is the phrase, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Prayer and Ministry. Prayer and Service.

When Jesus says that Mary has chosen “the better part” - the Greek literally says, not the better part, but the “good part” - Jesus is saying that Mary has chosen her ministry wisely for that evening. It is her time to listen to Jesus, so that the when the meal is over & Mary helps clean up, she will do so having been grounded in the love of God and more aware of how her table & kitchen ministry connect with her Lord, and with the faith of her heart, mind, and soul.

The problem in today’s gospel reading is Martha’s distraction. The root meaning of the word distraction is the separation of things that should be whole. Something has become separated, leading to a troubled spirit: anxiety, worry, resentment, distress.

Martha, who is skilled & adept at hospitality, has gotten caught up in the
busy-ness of it, in the frustration of not having her sister be her usual, helpful self. Martha’s distress makes a world of sense - at least to me, because I’ve lived there a lot lately, and maybe you have, too.

Maybe Martha needs to put the chopping, boiling, and recipe-hunting on hold for a short while, so that she can re-center herself in Jesus. Haven’t we all been there? so distracted that we go about our work or ministry, forgetting the good it serves? so distracted as to unintentionally undermine its good?

What contributes to your own distraction, to the separation of your Prayer & Service, to your own angst & worry?

Does the terrible news of public violence contribute to your distraction?

If so, find one hopeful piece of news and devote your rapt attention to it, like Mary did at the feet of Jesus. Maybe you can listen to the entire 6 minutes in which Dallas trauma surgeon Dr. Brian Williams discusses his experience of trying with all his might to save Dallas officers, all the while sharing his honest, difficult truth about being a black, professional man in America (1). Take what you hear there into your conversation & prayer.

Perhaps you are deeply grieved by what happened in Nice, France this week.
If so, pay close attention to something like the remarkable story of how the Police in one Danish town have contributed to the healing & social integration of formerly disaffected young, Muslim women & men, the kind who had previously been fleeing to enlist with ISIS. The remarkable turn-around began with two words, “I’m sorry” (2).

Pause… and re-group.
Re-connect with our sure center in Christ, which is what you are doing here today.

Notice, again, the life-saving & life-giving rhythm of this Eucharist.
∙We gather, from our scattered lives, each of us coming in some combination of distracted-Martha & centered-Mary mode.

∙We then hear our story from sacred scripture, and from prayers hundreds & hundreds of years old, and once again a scattered people becomes re-membered, put together anew, as agents of good change & redemptive love for a hurting world right outside our church doors, right outside our front doors.

∙We confess our sins and are forgiven, loved, and freed. So freed, that we share a warm & genuine greeting of Peace with both friend and stranger.

∙We then gather around this dinner table to receive the Body & Blood of Christ, the food and drink of new & unending life in Christ, so that we can go forth into the world, into our many tasks & ministries, centered - peaceful & confident in the truth that we can, and do, and will make a difference for good in this world.

May your Martha distractions be healed.

May the center of your being once again be refreshed, as in this Eucharist you listen to and are fed by Jesus for your vital tasks and ministries in this wounded yet very good world.


IMAGE: JESUS MAFA. Martha and Mary, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved July 16, 2016].

Harper Collins Study Bible: A New Annotated Version by the Society of Biblical Literature, New Revised Standard Version.

Feasting on the Word, Year C, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Proper 11.”