Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 07/17/2016

As a witness for the defense of poor old, hard working Martha allow me to present today’s first reading from Genesis. It is one of the classic biblical texts on the practice and the virtue of hospitality which at the time the Old and the New Testaments were written and organized, specifically had to do with the practice of receiving a guest or a stranger graciously. In the reading from Genesis, that’s exactly what Abraham did as he welcomed the three mysterious visitors and along with Sarah, provided them with food and water and rest. Abraham is presented as a model of biblical hospitality.

In the tradition of the church this story is also interpreted as a revelation of the Trinity but that too has to do with hospitality. The three visitors Abraham welcomes are understood to represent the three persons of the Trinity and they provide him with a glimpse of the triune nature of God. Inspired by that interpretation, one of the best known icons is Andrei Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity, a version of which is on the front of the bulletin today.

It’s an image of God seen as those three people in hospitable relationship because that kind of relationship is understood as being central to who God is. For us, having been created in the image of God, we too are intended to be creatures in relationship, relationship that includes welcome and hospitality. The conclusion then is that just as the essence of God includes hospitality, we aren’t human beings created in God’s image without modeling that same hospitality in our own lives and, like Abraham, in welcoming the stranger we too might welcome the presence of God.

In defense of Martha then, it makes you want to ask Jesus to cut her some slack. It would appear that she was doing exactly what the culture expected of her, graciously welcoming Jesus into her home, doing what she could to provide for a weary traveler just as Abraham did for his three visitors. According to custom, Martha was doing the right thing. Instead of affirming her though, Jesus praised sister Mary for having chosen the better part when she apparently hadn’t done anything to help Martha extend hospitality. Jesus’ response is not what would have been expected.

Now it’s true that Jesus did frequently upset the expected societal and religious norms of the day so you could ask, “Did Jesus think that hospitality wasn’t that important?” The evidence says otherwise though because one of the ways that he challenged the norms was to extend hospitality above and beyond what would have been expected, especially to those who society said didn’t deserve it. He challenged the norm by crossing boundaries and welcoming those thought to be sinners and outsiders thus broadening the call for hospitality, raising the bar on such issues as he often did.

It’s another piece of evidence in support of Martha and in support of hospitality but there’s more. When Jesus sent out the seventy, the gospel reading from a couple of weeks ago, he told them to take nothing with them, no purse, no bag, no sandals, the expectation being that as they travelled from place to place they would be welcomed and provided for, they would be received with hospitality, at least by some. Then, last week with the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, hospitality, or lack thereof, is again part of the agenda.

This isn’t a case of Jesus saying that the societal norms concerning hospitality weren’t important. He clearly endorsed and practiced those norms even going beyond what would have been expected. I also don’t think it’s a matter of Jesus saying that what Mary was doing, sitting and listening at Jesus’ feet, was more important or better than what Martha was doing in providing for him.

This is actually a case where the English translation confuses things a little bit when it says that Mary has chosen the “better” part because that does make it sound like Jesus is making comparisons. The Greek though just says Mary has chosen the good part; good, not better. Comparison might still be implied but the original Greek seems to say that’s not the main point.

This isn’t about words vs. deeds, it isn’t about a contemplative life being better or more important than a life of service because both are important and both are good. This isn’t an either/or message.

I think a key word to consider here is “distracted.” The text says that Martha was distracted by her many tasks and Jesus said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things.” I would guess that all of us could take out the “Martha, Martha,” of that statement and replace it with our own name. In pretty much everything we do, we are distracted by many things.

I read a statement that said that the disease of the internet age is “continuous partial attention” and I can certainly relate to that: “continuous partial attention” although I don’t think you can just blame the internet; other advances in technology have had the same effect. Some of us remember TV before there was remote control so if you wanted to change the channel you actually had to get off the couch, you couldn’t just click from one thing to another making it less likely that you’d be attending to several things rather than just one. Continuous partial attention has been around for a long time, there have always been distractions, it’s just that these days there are even more, making it even easier to be partially attentive.

What we call partial attention now though is multi-tasking and we see it as a good thing, really a necessary skill to be able to function in today’s world even if it means being only partially attentive to a number of things at the same time. Multi-tasking is not inherently bad and it really can be something you have to be able to do in order to function effectively. But I have to think that something is lost when we seldom, if ever give our full attention to just one thing.

We are distracted by many things. What I wonder, in this gospel lesson today, is if Jesus’ gentle reprimand of Martha had to do with the fact that in her busyness she had made Jesus into something of a distraction? Was that the issue? Was that the problem that Jesus was raising? In Martha’s effort to be hospitable was what she was doing more of a distracted chore than it was an act of gracious service focused on Jesus while in the meantime Mary was completely focused on Jesus?

It’s a slightly different way to approach this story and maybe it’s encouragement toward greater self awareness for all the Martha’s out there and every church has them, every church needs them along with their male counterparts. As we seek to serve, Jesus’ words to Martha can be seen as encouragement to be aware of the distractions, especially the fact that we can be distracted in doing good things. Again, what Martha was doing was good, but when it kept her away from that which was most important, that which deserved her full attention, when it got in the way of a relationship with Jesus, it wasn’t so good anymore. She became so distracted by what she was doing and by what her sister wasn’t doing, that she made Jesus himself just another distraction.

I was thinking that this would be a good text to be reminded of at the beginning of Advent. Advent and Christmas are several months away, but every year I encounter people who are overwhelmed by all they have to do to prepare for Christmas so they wind up dreading it and can’t wait for it to be over. What they’re doing is good, trying to make Christmas enjoyable for their loved ones, but when the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus gets lost in the shuffle and what they’re doing becomes a distracted chore, it’s not so good anymore and does call for self awareness concerning what is really important as opposed to the distractions they’ve allowed to become so important.

For many of us, most of us probably, it’s easier to be Martha than it is to be Mary. We’re pretty good at distracting ourselves with busyness and for the most part we’re rewarded for it; others pat us on the back, we pat ourselves on the back for how hard we’re working. We are distracted by many things, many good things, but Jesus reminds us that there is need of only one thing. He reminds us that in a world of continuous partial attention we need to find ways to be intentional about giving our relationship with him our full, undistracted attention.

That relationship is the one thing that is needed and it is the good part. It is the better part and it will not be taken away.


Pastor Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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