The Center Holds

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time.

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.”

Colossians 1:15-28

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.

He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.


As far as I am aware, there have been two major news stories this week: unimaginable, heartbreaking violence all across the world, and Pokemon Go.

Both have kept Americans glued to their screens, in their different ways. Pokemon Go, a new game for smartphones, has millions of Americans wandering the streets looking for virtual animated characters to catch. As a child of the 90s, I have to admit a sneaking sympathy for Pokemon Go players—I wasn’t ever a huge Pokemon fan, but I’d watch it before school with my brother, and there was no way to escape the phenomenon. The game is pure escapism, of course, but we do need escapism sometimes, and for the most part, it’s getting people outside, meeting each other, and bringing them joy.

Of course, there have been a few bumps along the way, because there’s distracted and then there’s distracted. These are the stories that have mostly made the news—stories about teens being hit by cars or people falling off cliffs while zeroed in on their screen. There’s the harmless distraction of a summer fad, and then there’s dangerous distraction—and it only takes a few seconds of the human brain losing focus to shift from one to the other.

As far as I can tell from my extensive exegesis of Luke’s gospel, playing Pokemon Go was not one of the many distractions facing Martha. Traditionally, preachers have railed against Martha for being too busy in the kitchen, getting dinner ready for Jesus and cleaning the house and setting the table and generally being too wrapped up in her role as hostess instead of paying attention to her guest. There are two things wrong with this complaint: one, it’s flat-out sexist. For eons, women have both been expected to stay in the kitchen and keep the home running smoothly and ridiculed for the amount of time and energy they spend of doing exactly that. It’s a catch-22; poor Martha never stood a chance.

But there’s something even more disturbing about the idea that Martha’s sin lay in choosing cooking over sitting at Jesus’ feet: Luke never talks about Martha cooking. The word cooking is nowhere in this text. Neither is the word kitchen, hostess, cleaning, or meal. Biblical interpreters have entirely made up the idea that Martha was busy in the kitchen, when all it says was that Martha was working. But if a woman’s work is in the kitchen, than that’s where she had to be, preachers assumed. And so this passage has become a kind of stereotyped farce, with the nagging, bustling house frau put squarely in her place for daring to speak up for herself.

Luke does say that Martha was distracted—but not by cooking and cleaning. The word he uses—a word our NRSV translates as “tasks” and “work” is diakonian. Does that sound like any word you know? It’s the root of our word deacon. Diakonian means “service” or even more properly, “ministry.” It means hands-on works of compassion, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and in prison. And everywhere else diakonian is used in the New Testament, our translators choose the word ministry, or service. It is only here, where it is specifically applied to a woman, that it gets watered down into “tasks.” Martha was not distracted by tidying up the house—she was busy with her ministry! We don’t know what that looked like, but we do know of other women in the New Testament who provided food and clothing for widows and orphans. It’s possible Martha was running the first-century equivalent of Food for Thought for her community.

In a way though, the fact that Martha was distracted by her ministry makes Jesus’ response even harder to understand. Shouldn’t she have been encouraged to keep at it? Shouldn’t Jesus have voluntold Mary to get up off her rear and join Martha’s mission committee? Isn’t this the whole point of Jesus’ teachings, that we learn to serve, that we learn diakonian?

It’s a thorny passage, made harder by the fact that Luke gives us so few details to work with—more of a sketch than a story. But the words he does choose are telling—Martha is doing ministry, yes, but she is distracted with it, and worried. The word translated as worried literally means “pulled apart.” Martha is coming to pieces with all the ministry she is trying to do. Can anybody here relate to that feeling of being pulled apart, of being pulled in forty different directions at once? Even when everything you’re doing is good—caring for your family, getting things done at work, serving here at church, planning for the future—it’s easy enough to get distracted and worried, to feel like we are coming to pieces.

It’s no wonder Martha lashes out at her sister, as stressed and overworked as she is. I imagine we’ve all gotten to that point—the twentieth time we’ve had to remind someone to put their dishes in the sink or take the dog for a walk, the fortieth time we’ve had to help someone at work figure out their email password, the hundredth time we’ve had to cancel time off because of some crisis or other. As much as we try to be patient and gracious, the most angelic among us can snap. Lord, tell them to take the garbage out! I can’t do it all around here!

Jesus’s response to Martha may be scolding, but it is tinged with compassionate good humor. Martha, Martha, he says, much the same way the Brady Bunch crew would say Marcia, Marcia, Marcia. Martha, he says, there is a better way, a way that doesn’t involve being pulled in a million directions at once, a way that doesn’t tear you to pieces. Mary has found it, and it won’t be taken from her—and you can hear in that an invitation—it’s open to you too, Martha.

That “better part” is from the same root word as “worried.” While Martha has been pulled to pieces, Mary has found the one piece that matters most—sharing in the fellowship of Jesus.

It is a shame that we don’t get to hear what happens next with Jesus, Mary and Martha. I hope that Martha joined them that evening, and that they all had a long talk and laughed a lot. And I also hope that when Jesus left—because he must have, eventually—that Mary got up and helped Martha with all that ministry, and that Martha was able to serve with more joy and focus, remembering that Jesus is the piece that holds all the other pieces together.

We are distracted and worried—sometimes by silly things like Pokemon Go or how the Reds are doing—sometimes by important things like our children and our marriages and our jobs, or the needs of our community and how we can help. None of these things are bad; we don’t need to ignore them in order to follow Jesus. But it does help to remember that Jesus is at the center of all of it, loving us through our worries and distractions and holding us together when we begin to be pulled apart. If your load feels too heavy—if you feel like you are being pulled apart—take a cue from Mary, and rest at Jesus’ feet, even just for a moment. Take a minute to pray, to breathe. If you feel you are about to snap, sit. If things are really bad, sit on the floor if you can. I swear it helps.

You’re probably familiar with the acronym WWJD—what would Jesus do? There’s a corollary to that I find very helpful when I start to get worked up—WJC—would Jesus care? Would Jesus care about this thing that has me going round in circles? If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to step back, out of the madness, away from the circus, and go sit at his feet again and remember what’s important to Jesus should be what’s important to us. Rinse and repeat this process as needed.

Day to day, this gets me through. It keeps me from getting wound up about traffic jams and dirty dishes and whether or not my hair is behaving. But some days, it’s not just me that’s being pulled into a million pieces. It feels like the whole world is being torn apart.

This is where the other half of the news stories this week comes in: 84 people murdered, literally mowed down, at a festival in France; an attempted military coup in grieving Turkey; fear, anger, despair, and confusion in America over how deeply racism affects our communities. And then of course the millions of stories of violence and fear which do not make the news because they are not new, but go on and on and on and on seemingly without end.

In the face of such overwhelming news, “worried and distracted” seems like the sane response, and the advice to take a few breaths and pray about it woefully inadequate—although, if I had my way, I would make everyone on this planet sit down and breathe for two minutes. I swear it would help.

Our epistle reading this morning offers a response to my friend’s sense that the world is coming to pieces. We read the first part of Colossians last week—when Paul shared how he was praying for the church at Colossae, how impressed he was with their faith. Next week, we’ll find out why he’s so eager to share his own faith with them—it turns out they are worried and distracted too, pulled to pieces by different visions of what it means to be Christian, about which holy days to celebrate and what they can eat and who they should worship. In our reading from this morning, Paul writes to share with them what he knows about Jesus, borrowing the language of one of our earliest known Christian hymns.

This is what Paul says to a worried and distracted people, a people who are coming apart at the seams: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.

He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

That is one of the boldest claims in all of scripture, as far as I’m concerned. In Christ all things hold together. This is what Mary knew, and what Martha, I hope, learned. It is not our task to hold everything together. We are not the Saviors of this universe. That position has been filled.

Jesus is everywhere, and at the center of all things, holding them together, holding us together. It may not seem like it, when we see so much chaos, so much madness. But this is what we believe: that Jesus existed before the world, and through him it was brought lovingly into being and declared good. And this is also what we believe: that Jesus will exist long after rage and guilt and fear and bigotry and hatred have burnt themselves out, that Jesus is holding us together until then, is sending peace and mercy and courage and compassion and love out into the world through us, that, as Ann Lamott says, grace will bat last.

This week was full of distractions. Next week will be too. So will the week after that. Some of those distractions will be fun and joyful. Some will be tedious but necessary. Some will deeply important. Some will break your heart.

But, as you tend to all these distractions, do not let yourself be pulled to pieces, but return to Christ, who is wrapping his arms around the world, holding it gently as it mourns. Remember that there is one piece that is the most important, and that is sharing in fellowship with Christ, knowing and showing Christ’s love, remembering that in Christ all things hold together.

In the name of Christ, who rules the cosmos and sits beside us in these pews, Amen.

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