February 18th, 2018

One Thing

In the midst of your “many things,” keep doing the “one thing” you know to do.

Luke 10:28-32


We have pictures!

The introductory question on this week’s Bible study sheet read:  “If someone were to look at your (pick one) calendar, financial accounts, social media posts, or emails and texts for the last week, what would that person think is your top priority?”

There would be no question for me the last two weeks. A 10-pound bundle of joy named Arlo has captured Linda’s and my hearts. If you had seen my calendar for the last two weeks, you’d know we were in Honolulu first, where Arlo was born, then in Portland, Oregon, where our son and daughter-in-law attended an ocean science conference. Our bank account was all about food and Uber rides getting to and from Arlo. Virtually every Facebook post was an Arlo photo, and most of my emails, texts, and conversations were Arlo-centric.

Every Uber driver who picked us up knows about our grandson. I went to a Walgreens last Monday to buy birthday candles for my son’s birthday on Tuesday. The lady behind me asked, “Someone having a birthday?” “It’s my son,” I answered, “and we’re here in Portland to babysit our new grandson. Wanna see a picture?”

Arlo was not the only thing in our lives the last two weeks. We loved spending time with Phil and Carlie. We did celebrate Phil’s birthday, albeit with Uber Eats delivery because he wasn’t feeling well. We had a nice Valentine’s Day dinner. We watched the Olympics. We kept up as we could with pastoral care needs at home. I spent time preparing this Sunday’s sermon and this afternoon’s presentation on “Christians and Abraham.”

There were many things, but clearly the “one thing” was Arlo. We planned everything else around time with our grandson.

So much to cover

Much has happened in Luke’s gospel since I last preached three weeks ago. The last sermon I preached was about Jesus launching his ministry in Galilee by preaching in his home synagogue. In that sermon Jesus’ main point was that his Gospel would extend not only beyond Nazareth but beyond the Jews. That led to a murder attempt.

I was in Honolulu in church the next Sunday, in a sanctuary where the main doors were wide open to let in the refreshing mid-70s air from the outside. Many of you were huddled around the fireplace at home during an ice storm. That Sunday the Corinth sermon was on Jesus calling his first disciples.

Last Sunday, Chad Hall preached on Jesus healing the son of a widow in a Galilean town. Chad focused on our response to grief – seeing death for what it is, a tragedy; showing compassion; moving forward not by trying to avoid the pain but by walking through the darkness. We chose that story to represent Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

As we come to Luke 10:38, we find Jesus “on the way” (38). To where? To Jerusalem, where Jesus will lay down his life. It seems so abrupt to move from the beginning of his public ministry to his death. The story of Jesus in the Gospels is kind of like that. We get brief hints of his public life, and then we move to the passion. The church calendar gives us 3-4 months at most to go from Christmas to Easter.

So much to cover! So much happening! It’s sort of a microcosm of your life, isn’t it? There’s always too much going on to do “one thing” well. We find ourselves pulled among so many possibilities for our time and attention. That helps us identify with Martha.

In Martha’s home

38 – As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.

Notice that “Jesus and his disciples” (plural) were traveling together, but Martha “opened her home to him” (singular). This troubled early readers of Luke’s gospel. It bothered them that a single woman would receive Jesus, a single man. I’m not at all sure that the verse means Jesus went to the house by himself, and certainly Martha is not alone. Mary, at minimum, is present. What Luke is highlighting is that the point of the story is the one on one connection between Martha and Jesus.

The connection starts with a commendation. Luke loves stories about hospitality. Martha shines in this opening verse. She is either the oldest sibling, or a widow, but it’s her house, and she makes it available for Jesus.

39 – She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

Most (but not all) commentators connect this family to the Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of John 11-12. If that’s true, all three times we meet Mary in the Gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet. Today’s text is the first. We then find her falling at Jesus’ feet in John 11, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). In the next chapter, she anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume (John 12:3). Always at Jesus’ feet – that shows her humility and adoration of Jesus. She shines as bright as Martha.

Was it unusual for Mary to be in the position of a disciple? Didn’t the rabbis believe it was a waste to instruct women? That may have been true for Jews of Jesus’ day, but I don’t see that issue arising anywhere in the Gospels – except in John 4, where there are other issues (a Samaritan, a questionable reputation). It seems to have been quite common for Jesus to interact with women and men equally.

40 – But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”

I am not sure Luke intends humor here, but I think it’s funny. This is sibling rivalry, first of all, and it feels like normal family life. “I’m doing all the work. Tell her to help me!” The other thing that I find amusing is the accusation that Jesus doesn’t care. That sounds like our prayers as well. “Do you not know what’s going on, God? And if you do know, do you care?”

Several words in this verse are important. First, Martha was “distracted.” It’s a compound word in Greek that indicates being pulled not just in two directions but many. A literal translation is also an idiom in our culture – she was “jerked around.”

Specifically, she was jerked around by “much service.” “Service” is the familiar diakonia. It’s the same word that later is used of the work of deacons, and some find here the basis for women as servant-leaders in the church. Luke is certainly intentional about the place of women in Jesus’ community. But here she’s doing what most cultures consider “women’s work” – the work of hospitality. Remember, it’s her home. Mary may well live there, or maybe she’s just visiting. But Martha, the owner and hostess, is planning and sweating.

There’s some alliteration in Greek that displays her passion. It might sound this way in English:  “Lord, do you not mind that my sister has abandoned me to manage by myself?” She calls Jesus “Lord,” which indicates her respect for him, but let’s be honest – she’s ticked. She’s so mad she’s lecturing Jesus – “Tell her to get in here beside me and do some of the work.”

The NIV says Martha wants Mary to “help” her, but the Greek verb is complex, with seven syllables – sunantilambanomai. It’s more than just “help.” It means to work beside and take initiative – to notice what needs doing and offer help that exactly corresponds to the need.

It’s the kind of thing the Marthas of this world do so well. They don’t have to be told what to do. They notice what needs doing and jump right in and get it done, without being instructed or supervised. Martha is not only frustrated that Mary’s not helping at this moment. Martha has allowed her resentment of her sister to build up because Mary’s always like this. If she helps, it’s late help, it’s begrudging help, it’s help that has to be checked up on. “Lord, I’m tired of Mary always being Mary. This is your moment to instruct her to be more like me!”

41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things….

I read the double use of her name as tender from Jesus – not scolding or condescending. He gets her. He’s not excusing Mary, but he is showing that there’s a corresponding and very persistent weakness in Martha as well. This moment has exposed something. She serves a lot and gives a lot and does it well. But inside she seethes with resentment and frustration.

“Worried” is a word Jesus uses often in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Perhaps the best known passage is in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says not to worry about clothes or food or tomorrow (Matthew 6:25-34, also Luke 12:22-34). Notice these are all important things – even necessities. You do have to eat, you do have to wear clothes; you don’t have to worry about them.

She’s not just “worried,” though. Martha is “upset.” This word means “terrified, panic-stricken.” It actually implies audible panic – uproar. Martha was not the kind of person to keep silent about her worries. They exploded into words. When Martha ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. She wants Mary not only to be helping her; she wants Mary to be as anxious as she is about what needs to be done. Her form of misery loves miserable company.

42 – …but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Once again, there is variation in early Greek manuscripts, so there’s some uncertainty about the exact meaning of Jesus’ conclusion. Does he want to focus on “a few things” or “one thing”? Also, the word “better” is really better translated “good” – not necessarily valuing Mary’s choice as one-up over Martha, but valuing both.

The bottom line is that Jesus tells Martha, “No.” He will not instruct Mary to leave him and go help Martha. Mary has chosen something “good” in the best sense of the word. Jesus isn’t devaluing service, but he absolutely refuses to devalue listening to God’s word. My sense is that if Mary had said, “Jesus, tell Martha to get out of the kitchen and get in here at your feet,” Jesus would have answered, “No. Martha has chosen something good, and it won’t be taken from her.” The “one thing” for both Mary and Martha needed to be their guest – listening to him, serving him, not focusing on what someone else was doing or not doing.

The problem with Martha

We tend to want stories like this to do too much – to neatly lay out our priorities, or to add another layer of confidence that we have it right. We also want to know what happens next, and how this story might have changed Martha into the Martha of John 11.

Remember, though, our focus this spring is on stories that are “uniquely Luke.” Luke is not interested in the other stories about this family. He never even mentions Lazarus or Jesus raising him. He doesn’t even name the town of Bethany. Luke’s not interested in any of that.

What matters to Luke is what Martha says to Jesus and how Jesus answers. Mary never even speaks in this text. Sometimes when you’re criticized, the best thing is to say nothing. Maybe the best thing for Martha would have been to say nothing.

Or maybe not. Sometimes it’s healthy to just get it out. I’m sure Martha was embarrassed in hindsight, and she probably wouldn’t like to know we’re still talking about her outburst 2000 years later. But perhaps verbalizing her frustration was the best thing. Had she bottled it up, her resentful self-righteousness would have grown only deeper.

So let’s get it straight. The problem with Martha is not that her love language is serving. The problem with Martha is not that she interrupts Jesus. The problem with Martha is not that she’s not in the living room listening to Jesus. Jesus never scolds her for that.

The problem with Martha is that she has allowed herself to become worried and panic-stricken. That’s what Jesus says about her. He says it lovingly and publicly, but he says it. Her worry spilled over into resentment and rebuke, but it was the worry that was the root. Her gift of hospitality morphed into obsession that everything be done just right, on time. She fell apart before anything burned or the meal was disorganized or anyone noticed dust on the mantle.

Martha needed to remember the “one thing” that would matter most. She had forgotten that hospitality is about the guest, not the host. Maybe Mary should have been helping all along in the kitchen, but she shouldn’t do it just to enable Martha’s obsession. It was Martha’s attitude that exposed an underlying problem – not so much with what she was doing, but why she was doing it.

Nina’s search for God

I had an interesting and surprising conversation about this text in Portland this week. Thursday afternoon, Phil was at our hotel because he still wasn’t feeling well, and I went out to get him a few things. I took the light rail from Phil’s hotel to Target, then I planned to walk back to our hotel. As I rode the train and walked, I was listening to a sermon on this text. When I approached the checkout at Target, I apologized to the cashier, who looked to be a 30-something African American lady. “I didn’t mean to be rude,” I said, removing the ear buds.

“What are you listening to?” she asked. “Well, I’m a pastor,” I answered, “and I’m preaching a sermon this Sunday about how one sister was doing all the work while the other sister was listening to Jesus.”

Her next question took me off guard. “What if you want to listen to Jesus but he never says anything?” There were people in line behind me, but honestly, I didn’t have a good one-liner for her. I mumbled something about trying different churches to see if one could help.

Later, when Linda texted about something else she needed from Target, I realized the Lord had given me an opportunity to reboot that conversation. Nina was still at the checkout. I wrote down “Pastor Bob Thompson” and my cell number, inviting her to call or text me later.

Later that evening, Nina spilled out her story over the phone for about 30 minutes. She had moved away from home about 20 years ago, seeking a fresh start in life. But she found discrimination was rampant in Portland and just about the time she was making progress, the 2008 recession hit. She had tried many times to reach out to God, but heard only silence. Except twice. Twice in her life there has been someone who showed up, listened, and helped.

So we’ve started an email exchange. I told Nina I didn’t believe it was an accident that I came into Target with my earbuds. I’d like to be the third time in her life God showed up – not necessarily in the form of a change of circumstance, but in a person who cared about her.

So what are the lessons I take from Mary, Martha, and Nina?

First, be thankful. Be thankful that you, in the Bible belt, do have choices of churches where the Bible is taught and applied. You have two good choices right here at Corinth at 11:00 on Sunday morning. And speaking of being thankful, I want to thank you for being here on a Sunday morning. You’re doing what Mary was doing – setting aside other things to focus on the one thing – paying attention to Jesus. Thank you.

Second, be present. Jesus will speak to you. He will show up. He will not necessarily do it on cue, and many people in the Bible waited years… decades… generations to hear a word from God. But when you have a chance to hear him, take advantage. Listen up. And be present with others. Who knows when a Nina will cross your path, just waiting for someone to help her hear God? I think of that young man in Parkland, Florida, who slaughtered students and teachers this week. It could have been me or you or countless others who ignored him when he needed someone to be present and care for him as a human being.

Third, be honest. We all have moments when our buried emotions rise to the surface. We can all think of ways we could have said it better. Now that I’ve thought through the situation Martha faced, I can tell you what I wish she had said. “Lord, I’m frustrated right now. It feels like I’m doing this by myself. But maybe I’ve put too much pressure on myself. I’ve been thinking we’d all eat in about 30 minutes. Does that timeline work for you? And is there anything I’m obsessing about that you’d like me to let go? I really want to listen to you about what’s important.”

You might say you’d like to ask that question of Jesus and get his answer out loud, and I’m guessing that won’t happen with you. But I want to say to you that just voicing those words as a prayer is the honesty that the Lord wants from you as a starting point. If you don’t hear him right away, keep listening and keep moving forward with what you know to do next. In the midst of your “many things,” keep doing the “one thing” you know to do – looking to him, trusting him, yielding to him, responding to his presence. He’ll show up – it might just not be when and how you expected. Amen.

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