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9th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year C

“The Tyranny of the Urgent”

Readings: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:16-28; Luke 10:38-42

The gospel begins with a homey story about a visit that Jesus makes to two sisters, Mary and Martha. It is Martha, the outgoing sister, who greets Jesus at the door. She welcomes him and invites him in, then bustles around, making a fuss over her visitor, making certain he is made to feel at home. She prepares to serve a meal.

At that point in the story, we meet Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on to his every word. It does not sit well with Martha that she is busy working while Mary is listening to their guest. She complains to Jesus. “Tell her to help me!” Refusing to interfere, instead Jesus says to her, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”

I suspect that many of us can identify with how she is feeling, with her frustration. How would we want the story to end? Do we want Jesus to insist that Mary go and help? Perhaps we would even like to see Jesus say to Mary, “Let’s go into the kitchen and help Martha with this meal. Then you can both come out and listen to my teaching.”

Now I must say, I have always identified with Martha. You see, my middle name is Martha while my older sister’s middle name is Mary. We did, growing up have a rivalry between us as many sisters do. Part of the problem was that I was two years younger than she. No matter how hard I tried, I could not live up to her perfection. Even when it came to looks, she had it made. She had long, honey coloured, naturally curly hair that formed into perfect ringlets. Mine on the other hand was dark and straight, with not even the hint of a curl no matter how hard I tried. When we shared a room together, her half was always as neat as a pin while mine looked as if a cyclone hit it. When we ate ice cream cones, mine dripped all over me, while she daintily licked at it until it was finished. But the worst thing to me was to be reminded constantly by my parents that I should emulate my namesake, Martha, and be more like my older sister.

So often when we listen to this story, what we hear is that there are two ways of doing things, the right way and the wrong way, and Mary was doing the ‘better’ thing. That is not what Jesus is saying. He is saying that we all need to take the time to be hospitable, but hospitality might mean that we should be sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to what he has to say, reflecting on our relationship with God and responding to God.

Notice that Jesus did not call Martha to task about what she was doing. He accepted her service and hospitality. Such things were important to him. But she was 'distracted' with all the serving. It was her distraction from what was important that caused him to respond as he did. Her anxiety about all the details kept her from the most important thing, really enjoying the opportunity to be with Jesus, to spend time together, to talk, and to listen to one another. She was missing out on the best part of friendship because she was obsessed with 'doing' rather than 'being'.

In fact, it is high time that Martha went on strike! Her life is living her. She needs to get a life. Part of the message is that everyone is to be included and no one is to be left aside trapped in a role, which prevents them from participation. Martha is being encouraged to abandon a role in which she sees herself as being held captive to serve the needs of others. She is being challenged to leave behind her martyr complex that has her believing that if she does not do it, no one will.

It is easy to become distracted by many things. What distracts us as individuals? Aging, work, wealth, power? We can be more interested in accumulating wealth or power than in being who we are meant to be. And it is not wealth that is wrong. It is being distracted by wealth that is wrong. The accumulation of wealth can become our whole focus in life. It can distract us from building relationships. It can distract us from assuming our responsibilities. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken to people planning a relative’s funeral only to hear all of the regrets. They regret that they did not spend more time together. They regret that work came first. They regret not spending more time in meaningful conversation.

For me the distraction is only too often the Internet. I am certainly becoming more relaxed about email since my retirement, but why is it that I somehow think that as soon as an email arrives I must read it and respond to it? I have to say, people get anxious about your response. “Did you get my email?” they will say accusingly. One commentator labeled it “the tyranny of the urgent”. When I first started out in ministry, I received mail that had already taken several days to get to me. I took my time about responding. If something truly were urgent, then I received a phone call. But somehow society has given us the idea that the messages that come to us need immediate attention. We get distracted, and I suspect, sometimes use bad judgement in firing off an answer.

What about church? Are there things that distract us and keep us from living out our mission? Do we become so concerned with the building, with its beautiful architecture, with its historical significance, that we forget that the church is the people of God? Do we become obsessed with its deficiencies and become distracted by everything that needs to be done? Do we spend our time raising money for this project or that without considering the greater needs of the community, without considering our mission?

Martha had a wonderful sense of service. She was well organized, and enthusiastic, a wonderful hostess; but service, even sacrifice can be spoiled by self-concern and self-pity. Good works can become a misery to the doer and a tyranny to others. When what we are doing gets to the point that it distracts us then something has gone wrong and we need to do something about it. We need to concern ourselves with being, rather than doing. Those who serve may need to step back from time to time to contemplate, to become more grounded in the faith, to renew their strength. Busily doing ‘good’ may be a distraction from what the church needs at the time.

That is what Jesus told Martha. "One thing is needful," he said. Yes, we are to be servants in the world. That is certainly the message of the Gospel. That is certainly the call of discipleship, a call that Martha understood only too well. What she did not understand was that the assignment begins at the feet of Jesus. Listening to Jesus is not better than serving Jesus, just more needful. We can all benefit by returning to Mary’s place of quietness and strength. Mary knew that it was at the feet of Jesus that she would renew her strength.

It is through the life of prayer that we get in touch and keep in tune with God. We need times of quiet renewal in our lives. It is through Word and Sacrament that we are renewed and revitalized. From our worship we are sent out into our Monday through Saturday journey into the world to serve humanity. There we transmit some small touch of divine love and power to despairing, suffering, lonely people.

The Lord was coming to my house. I wanted everything to be just right, so I scrubbed it from top to bottom. I cleaned and polished until the place shone. Then I laid the table with my best tablecloth. I polished the silver and put out my best china. There were candles and matching napkins. Everything looked quite wonderful.

When Jesus came into my house I greeted him at the door. I lavished attention on him. I made certain the conversation did not lag. He seemed to be most appreciative of our time together. But when he left, I realized that something was bothering me, something I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Then a question arose from somewhere inside me. What did Jesus want from me? Food? Hospitality? I wondered. But then a second question, a more important one, came to me. "What did he want to give me? I felt sure he wanted to give me something. But whatever it was, I didn't give him any opportunity to offer it.
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