Focus (begins at 24:04)

July 28, 2019

Series: July 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Luke 10:38-42

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. But 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.”


 Mary and Martha, 15 years later.  Adapted from Maren Tirabassi.[i]

 Martha:       Your flowers are beautiful, Mary.

Mary:          Your vegetables are delicious, Martha.

Martha:       The meals we share together – two sisters under one roof - is, indeed, the very best.

Mary:           I couldn’t agree more!

Martha:       You know, Mary, that story still follows us — all these fifteen years later. I am forever the “do-er,” the worker … and the cranky one, the impatient one, the trying-to-be-pretentious-one, the bossy one.

Mary:          Well …?

Martha:       Never mind!

Mary:          And me? I am the mousy one, the slacker, the navel-gazer, the teacher’s pet — yep, the story doesn’t work so well for me either.

Martha:       Do you think that is all anyone will remember about us?

Mary:          Surely not. John tells the story of you going out into the road to meet Jesus when he came after Lazarus’ death and, in the midst of the threat from Jerusalem only five miles away, you called Jesus the “Christ, the Child of God, the One for whom we wait.” No one else spoke with such faith, during Jesus’ life. Your faith is born of heart-searching, not doing the dishes.

Martha:       And you are not just noted for listening and weeping, but you poured perfume on Jesus’ feet, just when Lazarus’ miracle had made us already notorious, already targets. That’s no meditative self-enlightenment — that’s risky, that’s troublemaking pure and simple.

Mary:          Maybe drying his feet with my hair was a little over the top, huh?

Martha:       It certainly got Judas all twisted up.

Mary:          What a look on his face! And on yours.  How proud you were.

Martha:       Jesus did love us both so much, didn’t he?

Mary:          He did … though I also think he loved everyone.

Martha:       Agreed.  But I will tell you what’s even more important — to me, at least.

Mary:          More important than Jesus loving us?

Martha:       Yes. More important than Jesus loving us, is how much we loved him.

Mary:          I do hope they remember that when they read our story.  Meanwhile, is it going to be forever that I will be remembered as too lazy to get up and chop basil?

Martha:       It will be as long as I am remembered as a whiner … and a great cook.

Mary:          I just hope no one remembers my cooking!

Martha:       Trust me they won’t. Or my long prayers.

Mary:          You mean, “Dear God, bless dinner. Amen?”

Martha:       Yes, that one.

Mary:          We really do complement each other so well.

Martha:       Amen to that!

I wanted to start with this story to help us begin to imagine what Mary and Martha may have been like.  When we hear their story from Luke’s Gospel, it is so tempting to give them very narrow stereotypes.  Martha was the do-er, Mary was the be-er.  Martha was about action, Mary was about contemplation.  Martha was wrong, Mary was right.  But I think that is unfair to both women.  This is a very short story – 5 verses!  There is no way we can know everything about them in 5 verses.  So sometimes it is fun to imagine.

Imagining can also free us from the traditional narrative of this story, which goes like this – Martha, who stubbornly cares only about work, is focused on providing for Jesus.  Mary, the lazy one, is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him.  Martha gets upset that Mary is not helping her with the work, so she complains to Jesus, wanting him to make Mary help her.  Instead, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better thing.  All of a sudden, she can’t be seen as lazy, she’s carefully attentive!  With that, the contemplatives among us raise their hands in triumph while the activists slump in defeat.

But there’s a little more going on here than meets the eye … just as there is more to both Mary and Martha than can be captured in this story.  I’m guessing that at least some of you have heard about the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  In it, Chapman describes five different ways that people both give and receive love.

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality time
  • Receiving gifts
  • Acts of service
  • Physical touch

According to Chapman, each of us tends to have one dominant love language out of those five.  He even provides a survey at the back of the book so you can figure out what your love language is.  Two caveats before you rush out to buy the book.  First, his original book is focused on couples … he also has a similar book for singles.  Second, Chapman has no acknowledgement of LGBTQ couples in his book.  My wife and I had quite a time deciding who would take the “wife” survey and who would take the “husband” survey.  Though I struggle with his hetero-normative language and have to make many adaptations for my own life, his theory has been useful for me.

When I took the survey, I discovered that my love language is acts of service.  That was not a surprise to me.  I love to do things, to be active.  It is hard for me to sit still when there are things to be done.  And, that is definitely how I best express my love for others.  If I sweep the house or do the laundry or go grocery shopping so my family doesn’t have to worry about it, that is the best way I know of saying “I love you.”

However, I have encountered a few problems with this love language.  It is very easy during all of my endless tasking for my focus to switch to my own needs, rather than focusing on showing my love for others.  I can get a little obsessive about completing my to-do lists to the point of annoying my family, rather than loving them.  There are times when they would much prefer me to just sit down and focus on them rather than scrubbing the toilets.  My response is usually something like, “But have you seen the toilets?  They’re gross!”  That is no longer about love.

I know Martha never took the survey, but I’m guessing her love language is also acts of service.  Jesus shows up at her house, and she immediately gets to work.  There is so much to get done in order to appropriately welcome Jesus!  Food to prepare, a table to set, some last-minute cleaning … Martha wants to show her love to Jesus by getting things done.

I’m guessing Mary’s love language might have been quality time.  With Jesus in her house, she wants to do nothing more than to sit at his feet listening to him and simply being with him.  That is the best way she knows to show her love to Jesus.

Both sisters are sharing their love for Jesus, simply in different ways.  However, at some point Martha falls into the same trap that I have known, and her tasks become less about love as she gets distracted and her focus shifts to worry.  In fact, when she asks Jesus to make Mary get up and help her, he instead addresses her – pointing out that she has become worried and distracted, and that Mary has chosen the better part.

Let me be clear … Jesus is not saying that acts of service are bad.  That is often how this passage is interpreted - that Jesus must prefer quiet contemplation over active service.  That is just not true.  Time and time again in the scriptures, Jesus calls us to serve one another.  Service is so important.  Instead, Jesus is letting Martha know that her focus is not where it should be.  Mary is one hundred percent focused on Jesus.  Martha is focused on her worry and the distraction of her tasks when Jesus is sitting right there in front of her!

It makes me wonder, if Martha struggles to focus on Jesus when he is sitting in her home, how much more difficult is it for us to focus on Jesus through the many distractions of our lives?  Our call as Christians is to be disciples of Jesus Christ in everything we do.  In all of our relationships, in all of our work, in all of our leisure, in all of our tasks.  We are called to follow Christ always.  To be focused on Christ always.  But there is so much that competes for our focus. 

Lutheran pastor David Lose tells a story about his dad, also a pastor, who always liked to sing the hymns in worship with great gusto.  That would be wonderful, except for the fact that his dad was not a very good singer.  Lose remembers a time in his teenage years when their family moved to a new church in a new town.  This church had a sound system that required his dad to turn his microphone on and off himself, and he often forgot to turn it off during the hymns. 

Lose recalls, “Now my dad was not a great singer. He wasn't tone deaf, it's just that he pretty regularly managed to sing more than a few notes slightly off key. I was 15 at the time, brand new to this church, school, and community, and eager - okay, make that desperate - to make new friends and to be accepted, and so when I heard the sound of my dad singing off-key and louder than everyone else, I would cringe.

This went on fairly regularly for much of the fall. But on one of those Sundays when my dad had again forgotten to turn off the mic so that you could hear his off key-singing above everyone else, and when I was again cringing in embarrassment, my mom noticed what was happening. I'm pretty sure she didn't approve of my reaction, but she didn't frown, or roll her eyes, or do any of the things parents are prone to do when they see their children overreacting to something. Instead, she leaned over to me, smiled understandingly, and then whispered, ‘You know, when your dad is gone, I'll miss his singing.’”[ii]

What his mom heard in her husband’s hymn singing was not the off-key notes, but the total focus on and devotion to God.  He was not worried and distracted by microphones or melody lines, instead he simply wanted to sing his love and praise to God.  That reminds me of the Psalm that we heard this morning.  I’m sure there were other things competing for the attention of the Psalmist, but most important to him was focusing on God and singing God’s praise.

I chose this example because the singing reminded me of the Psalm.  And, let’s face it, I’m a sucker for any story that has to do with music.  However, I could have told a story about anyone doing anything, for all things can be done while focused on God, and our love for God, and God’s love for us.  It is simply a matter of our focus.

I have no doubt that both Martha and Mary loved Jesus dearly.  However, in that moment in their home, only Mary was showing that love with all her heart, soul, and mind as Jesus had taught.  So Jesus called Martha out.  Jesus reminded her that her focus had shifted, and that she was no longer serving out of love.  May that be a reminder to us as well.  Especially when we are feeling worried and distracted, may we turn our focus back to God.  However we show our love - in service, in quality time, in gifts, in touch, in words, may we remain focused always on God.