Tag Archives: Mary & Martha & Lazarus

One Thing (a.k.a. NOT Continuous Partial Attention!)

A Sermon for 21 July 2019 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost

A reading from the gospel of Luke 10:38-42. Now, I know this text may sound familiar to many of us. And we immediately may read ourselves into this story. But we’re invited to try to listen anew today. To hear a fresh word from God to us in the reading of this story. Listen.

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


Before jumping into the sermon, I want to read this text again – this time from a version of the bible not quite as familiar. Perhaps this reading will continue to bring fresh insights regarding the story of these archetypal sisters Mary and Martha. Listen again.

“As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” 41-42 The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42, The Message)

This too is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


In 2006, an article in the New York Times told this story. A man arrived at the airport in Paris looking for the driver who was to take him to his hotel. I’m sure the man was excited to be in the city of love. Exhausted from the long flight, but eager to take it all in! A French friend had arranged a taxi driver to pick him up at the airport. And as the traveler spotted the driver who was holding a sign with the traveler’s name on it, the traveler got a little worried. The driver appeared to be talking to himself – with great animation! Carrying on as if a little crazy while standing there holding the name of his rider on a sign. When the traveler fully approached; he realized the man, into whose hands he was about to place his life, wasn’t suffering some psychosis. He just was deep in conversation with whoever was on the other end of the Bluetooth device that was shoved into his ear. Lots of people pass the time at airports on their devices. It’s no big surprise that the driver would be talking as he waited. The thing that disturbed his rider-to-be was that as the traveler pointed to himself that he was indeed the one named on the driver’s sign; the driver motioned to the exit for his rider to follow behind him. Arriving at the car; the driver took the man’s bag, placed it in the back of the taxi, got himself into the car, and kept right on talking to whoever was on the other end of the phone. Reluctantly the rider entered the taxi – willing it all to be alright despite the hour-long ride that lay ahead into the heart of the city. Inching in the taxi away from the busy airport, the rider noticed the driver continuously checking the monitor on the dashboard. Where he thought the GPS map to the hotel would be, the rider noticed the driver was watching a movie. Maneuvering a taxi out of Paris’ busiest airport, animatedly holding an in-depth conversation with someone on the other end of the Bluetooth phone, and all the while watching some sort of movie; the rider realized the age of small cabbie talk was over. He sat back, pulled out his laptop to finish some work, and plugged in his I-Pod to listen to his favorite Stevie Nicks playlist. In the New York Time’s article, the rider notes: “The driver and I had been together for an hour, and between the two of us we (simultaneously) had been doing six different things. He was driving, talking on his phone, and watching a video. I was riding, working on my laptop, and listening to my iPod. There was only one thing we never did: Talk to each other” (https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/01/opinion/01friedman.html).

It was 2006. A full year before the first iPhone hit the market. Years would pass before most of us knew about apps and cloud storage and google assist. Nonetheless, a technologist named Linda Stone already had “labeled the disease of the Internet age ‘continuous partial attention’ — two people doing six things, devoting only partial attention to each one — she remarked: ‘We’re so accessible, we’re inaccessible. We can’t find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves.’” She wrote: “’We want to wear an iPod as much to listen to our own playlists as to block out the rest of the world and protect ourselves from all that noise.’” Stone stated: “’We are everywhere — except where we actually physically are.’” (Ibid.).

If we think we’re the first to live in an age full of so very many distractions, then we may hear the story of Jesus and the two sisters as a cautionary tale about the balance between stopping and going. Doing and being. The contemplative life versus the active, servant life. I’ve heard it all before. If you’re a woman whose spent any time in your life in a Women’s Bible Study, then I bet you’ve heard it all before too. The archetypal energy of Mary – being at the feet of Jesus. Soaking in his wisdom. Quieting herself in the attitude of humble listening. And don’t forget Martha. The archetype of the super woman sister who gets it all done. This is the energy of the good church woman who surpasses those little energizer bunnies in all she is able to do. Whipping up homemade treats for fellowship time. Hosting a visiting youth group in her beautiful home. Serving on all ten church committees – always the first to open the building and the last to lock up after everyone else has gone. Marthas organize church fundraisers, and take homecooked meals to the homebound, and provide sit down dinners after funerals, and sing in the choir – likely as the one assisting the director with any organizational needs. Marthas are the first to say yes to whatever ministry requests the pastor brings their way – which is part of why I LOVE Marthas and know at heart, I’m one myself! And remember we do not have to be women to take on one or the other of these iconic church roles. Men can be Marys – spending their time digging into Scripture as surely as they can be Marthas tending to every last church-task ever needed. If we think we’re the only ones to live in an age where we keep ourselves busy with a zillion different things at once, then we miss the true caution of the story recorded in the gospel of Luke. The time Jesus warmly was welcomed into the home of his good friend Martha.

Reader beware. The words at the close of the parable directly before the story of Martha clanging the pans in the kitchen while her sister leaves her alone to tend every last detail for the impromptu dinner party featuring the Ultimate Host. Right before the gospel of Luke tells of Jesus commending Mary for having chosen wisely, the gospel of Luke records the final words of the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Go and DO likewise,” Jesus tells a lawyer who wants to know what love looks like (Luke 10:37). Do, Jesus says! So that we most certainly miss the point if we think Jesus turns right around to head into the presence of Mary and Martha in order to chastise Martha for the doing of discipleship. The story of Mary and Martha is not at all about some ancient dichotomy between being and doing. Resting and going. Listening and putting God’s love into action. The story of Mary and Martha is about how we are. The state in which we exist whether we are soaking in beautiful words of Scripture or scrubbing pans after the latest church potluck. Are we in a state of continuous partial attention? Or are we razor-sharp focused on the one thing right before us? Are we truly where we are when we’re there – consenting to be on the red X under our feet? Or are we fragmented all over the place – doing a bunch of different things at once? Are we thinking about the past and worried about the future, or are we fully in the here and now?

One thing only is essential,” Jesus proclaims in the second version I read of this gospel of Luke story (Luke 10:42a, The Message). One thing.

Continuous partial attention – which may look a little different in Jesus’ day than it does in our digital world. Nonetheless, continuous partial attention – like prepping the table while you’re trying to pour beverages for everyone and watching the pot over the stove and trying to overhear the conversation in the other room and checking the recipe to see which ingredient needs to be added next. Continuous partial attention like driving a taxi cab and talking with someone else and watching a movie on the dash board all at the same time is about as disastrous as sitting down to pray while you try to catch the breaking news on the television, sip your morning beverage, and wonder what you need to pull out of the freezer for dinner. It’s about as disastrous as picking up a call from your friend while the dog’s scratching at the door to come inside, the child or grandchild is pulling at your leg for a snack, and your trying to sort the stack of mail that has overtaken the kitchen counter.

One thing, Jesus says. One thing. Why? Because in addition to the obvious strain continuous partial attention has upon our brains and our bodies, listen to what happens. Not only in the home back in that little village of Jesus’ day, but also in the cars and homes and spaces in which we find ourselves every day today. Alienation. Dis-connection. The breaking of true relationship. Martha’s distracted doing separates her from Jesus. It puts her at odds with her sister. It makes her into some angry monster no one really wants to be around. We are made to be in right relationship with God, others, and our very selves. But all our distracted doing – all our continuous partial attention breaks right relationship. It takes us from True Presence to zap the joy right out of our heres and nows.

One thing only is needed. One thing. Do this and rightly Live.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit. Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Prepared to Die

A Sermon for 13 March 2016 – Fifth Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 12:1-8. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

So here we are: one week before all the passion and pomp of Holy Week. Next Sunday that amazing rehearsal of events we cherish begins! . . . The gospel of John has us on another day this last Sunday during the season of Lent: six days before the Passover. In other words, Sunday before the Friday of Jesus’ death. His last week among us before his crucifixion and beyond. . . . A lot can happen in one week. A lot will happen to Jesus, the Christ, in his last week. It’s something we so often miss. Things happen TO Jesus his last week and he lets it. We know he goes about doing a thing or two himself. Depending on which gospel you read, Jesus goes about everything from entering Jerusalem triumphantly, but humbly riding on a donkey as one would do in a time of peace, not on a horse heading out for war. Jesus weeps over this city – the ancient site of his nation’s religion and sovereignty. Jesus drives money changers out of the Temple his last week – according to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There’s his whole thing with that fig tree he tries to use as a lesson on fruitful faith. He prepares for and sits at table one last time with his closest disciples and friends. And then he goes out to the garden. Where in the chill of the night, he pleads his case before God.

I imagine Jesus loved life. Every bit of it – from being in a human body, to connecting with other human bodies, to enjoying the beauty of this gorgeous world, to healing and helping whoever he could. Letting go of that’s not an easy process – not even for our God in-flesh in Christ, at least according to the gospel’s record of his prayers in Gethsemane. This is the point in Jesus’ life on earth as one of us when he really, really, really must trust in-full in God. He’s lived his lifetime letting go of his own desires in order to accomplish the work of God among us. And now, one last time, he must do what his words to Mary Magdalene will be after his resurrection. “Do not cling to me,” the Risen Christ speaks in the garden of Easter morn (John 20:17). . . . Do not cling to your life is the message Jesus first must drink in the garden of Gethsemane. Do not hold fast to your own desires, Lord Christ. Rather, let it be. Let it be with you according to the Way of the Creator of the universe. The pattern for all is life, death, then something new. . . . The gospels tell us that his struggle that Gethsemane night finally dissipates. He is ready to let events happen to him. Which is the meaning of the word passion – the pascal mystery of Christ. “Thy will be done,” at last he utters (Luke 22:42). Just in time for a guard, led by his beloved disciple Judas, to come take him away. He is ready.

According to the gospel of John, Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus – knew. It should have come as no surprise really. He’d been telling them all along that it would be the path. And then, what he did there in Bethany just one chapter prior to the story we hear today, seals his fate – at least according to the gospel of John, which alone tells of Jesus’ raising of the dead man Lazarus. (And yes, I checked! The Greek word used for it IS the same that is used of the Risen Christ on Easter morning.) . . . The council was incensed. So many started to believe this Jesus really was somebody that the council felt the nation was threatened. He’d have to be put to death. That’s the only way they believed it all would end up ok. The worst failure of imagination on earth. They could not see another way for it all to be. . . . Mary knew.

Imagine what was going on in her heart. We know that she and her siblings deeply loved Jesus. We’re not sure how they met – perhaps he stayed often at their house on his way to and from Jerusalem. What we do know is Jesus had been with them before. We also know that they all treasured each other very much. Imagine your dear old friend returns to your home, just a bit after he’s given you back your dead brother. You’ve heard the rumors, so you know this act is it. The higher ups will be on his tail until they nail him; you know. AND you know you are absolutely grateful – grateful for the gift of bringing your brother back from death. Mary and Martha’s lives depended on their brother Lazarus. We don’t hear of husbands or other surviving male relatives. They needed him alive for their own lives to carry on. Imagine the well of thankfulness stirring in Mary’s soul. Imagine the pit of sorrow stuck in her throat because she knew her brother’s life meant her Lord’s death. At the feet of such an extravagant gift, she seeks to give back an equally extravagant gift. At some point in the meal, Mary bends before Jesus. She takes out a huge amount of the most glorious, most fragrant, most expensive perfumed nard. She holds Jesus’ feet in her hands, rubbing the oils into what must have been calloused, aching feet from taking him all over their country and back. Tenderly she prepares these feet for the last steps they will take. The cold of the pit he’ll be held in at Caiaphas’ house. The pain of the nails that will rip through them. The dew they’ll at last feel again in the resurrection garden. Maybe she couldn’t know each step those feet yet would trod, but in an act of extravagant care, she does her part to prepare her Lord to die. She does not cling – she cannot. For she just has learned in the death of her brother how fleeting life is. How out of our hands life on this earth really is.

It’s what he’s been trying to show every step of his journey. It’s the path we’re invited onto as he pleads, “Come follow me.” It’s the only way that ensures life – this way of self-emptying, of letting go, that something new can begin. It’s the only way that makes of our days anything important. Anything valuable. Anything of significance for anyone else in this world. The Way of self-giving love. Of setting aside our own way, and joining Christ in the prayer, “Thy will be done, O God. Let your pattern of life, death, and new life be cherished and trusted by us.” . . . That doesn’t mean our losses will be easy. Letting go – not clinging is so very hard for human beings. As we were reminded in our Wednesday night class this week: it’s ok to feel however you feel – it’s ok to cry in the face of death. AND, at the very same time, we’re invited to look beyond that moment. To see the Way of our God. . . . It struck me in a new way at one our retreats this past fall. Did God put the pattern all around us in this whole world to show us? Spring ALWAYS follows winter. Something new always grows. Always – no matter how severe the winter – no matter where you go on this planet. It might be more intense in some spots, but maybe, just maybe our Creator was trying to show us from the very first blade of grass on this earth. Maybe, just maybe, our work here is to be prepared. Prepared to move through the pattern of dying to self for God’s ways to be seen in us. Of holding on to everything – our lives, our families, our relationships with each other, even the stuff in our closets at home – never clinging. Hands open ready to let go and behold the unfathomable ways God can work. Maybe, just maybe like Jesus, and this Mary kneeling at his feet; we’re invited to heed the Risen Christ’s command: do not cling. For God makes a Way!

As we enter these final days of Lent and all the passion of Holy Week that’s yet to come, may we find ourselves a little more ready this year.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen!

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)