— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Luke 10:38-42: Amos 8:1-12
A favorite Billy Crystal comedy is City Slickers. The story is about three young men—longtime friends from way back—who annually planned a daring, male-bonding vacation together that would contrast their city life.
The plot of the film revolves around their decision to do a cattle drive together—helping a bunch of seasoned cowboys move a herd of cattle across the big plains of the West with the hope that, in the process, they might get in touch with their more primitive selves, and find out something useful about the meaning of life.
The boss of this cattle drive is a leathery old cowboy named Curly, who lives up to all of our stereotypes about cowboys. He’s mean and he’s tough, and he can do anything with a rope or a whip or a knife. But in his tough and rugged way he’s also very wise.
In one of the more serious scenes of this comedy, Curly is riding alongside one of the city slickers, Mitch—the character played by Billy Crystal—and their conversation turns philosophical.
Against the backdrop of an open sky, rough-hewed mountains, clear streams, and jaggedly beautiful scenery, Mitch turns to Curly and says with longing, “Your life makes sense to you.” To which Curly replies: “You city folk. You worry a lot. How old are you? 38?”
“39,” Mitch says.
“You all come up here about the same age. You spend fifty weeks getting knots in your rope and you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it.”
He pauses a minute, takes a drag or two on his Marlboro cigarette and then he goes on, “You know what the secret to life is?”
“No, what?” says Mitch.
And then Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean nothing.”
“That’s great,” says his Mitch, “but what’s the one thing?”
Curly looks at him for a minute, and says, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
Maybe, you’ve already escaped this summer and gotten the knots out of your own rope; or maybe you can’t wait to get away to get some things straightened out in your head. Or, maybe you’re juggling responsibilities as they are and trying to get your rope around “the one thing” that matters most in your life.
What do you suppose that one thing is?
That seems to be the point of Luke’s story of Jesus and his disciples stopping by the home of Martha and Mary. In fact, in this short story, Jesus says the same thing to Martha that Curly says to Mitch on the cattle drive.
Our pastor, Bob Prim, has been graciously given a four-month sabbatical by you through our Session. In some sense, the purpose of a pastoral sabbatical is to get the knots out of your rope. After nineteen years in pastoral ministry without a break, I took a clinical pastoral education internship for a year that extended into a second year. It actually was part of my denominational change into the PCUSA. During the lunch hour, several interns would run from GBMC to Piedmont Park and back. During one of those runs at about the fourth month, I made the remark to another intern: “If ministers were forced to “unplug” from their church responsibilities for an extended time, both clergy and churches would stay healthier and more alive.”
We all miss Bob, and we all look forward to his “re-entry.” In some ways, these four months are a kind of sabbatical for the church. You’ve got a consistent, different voice for four months. Intentionally, the order of worship has been a bit different while being consistent with the personality of Nacoochee Presbyterian Church.
What’s the “one thing” for Nacoochee Presbyterian Church? How would we prioritize the five most important values for Nacoochee Presbyterian? Bob talked with Walter Daves and me about helping him lead the congregation and session through a Needs–Assessment process sometime after he returns. Actually, the communication inventory will be a start in that direction. What things do we do well? Where are our passion-points in ministry? What things need greater consideration? Where are our weaknesses? …remembering that no congregation can ever meet the needs of everyone or can do everything.
And for each of us personally, what is our one thing? How would we prioritize the five most important values in our lives?
After Martha welcomed Jesus and the others into their home, she did what any hospitable person, then or now, does—prepared something to eat and drink for the guests. Mary sat with the others in the presence of Jesus. Obviously irritated that her sister wasn’t helping her with this hospitality role, she interrupted the conversation in the other room and said, “Master, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has abandoned me in the kitchen? Would you tell her to give me some help? I need some help with this job.”
Jesus responded, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need or time for only one thing…you’ve got your rope in a knot!”
What is the one thing Jesus was talking about? What was the one thing Curly was talking about?
Jesus wasn’t saying that what Martha was doing was unimportant. It was important. He wasn’t speaking negatively about her discipline. God knows we could all use more of that in our world today. Jesus was talking about the wisdom of being present to the most important things going on around you, or seizing the moment—being alive to the present moment.
Let’s consider the Mary-Martha dilemma. Discourage Martha too much and she might completely abandon her discipline of serving. Encourage Mary too much and she might sit there all day long. The important focus is knowing what to do, and when to do it. The only way to develop this ability—this wisdom—is to be fully present to the moment.
The Greeks have a word for that—kairos. Actually, they have two words and both are translated “time”—kairos and chronos. Chronos has to do with the clock and the sequence of things. If I said, “It’s time for us to sing the closing hymn,” I would be meaning that the next thing for us to do is…. However, when session said, “It’s time for us to get serious about our parking issues and some facility short comings,” which they did, it led the congregation to focus on some important needs.
When we embark on some new venture, whether it’s an exercise program, healthy food venture, a new residence, replacing a needed roof on the house, going to college or graduate school, we consciously or unconsciously ask ourselves, “What’s it going to cost…in dollars, work, discipline, or ingenuity?” The other question that is just as important is, “What will it cost me if I don’t do it?”
Martha was everything good and right. But one thing she was not. She was not present to the moment. She was not present to herself, her feelings of resentment, her need to be needed, nor the opportunity for her to be in the presence of Someone who would not always be with them. “This is the kind of good that does no good,” Richard Rohr has said in his book, The Naked Now.
For several weeks, the New Testament lectionary readings have been in the 10th chapter of Luke. Two weeks back, Jesus was sending out the seventy disciples in twos to tell people the Kingdom of God was on their doorsteps. “Wake up!” Last week’s gospel reading focused on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Today finishes off the 10th chapter with the Martha–Mary event. All three events, however, have to do with the importance of being present to the present—paying attention to what is going on around you. If you don’t, you will miss the most important things in your life.
A few years ago on a seminary campus, a famous experiment was conducted with students. Researchers gathered a group of students and told them they had an assignment. They were to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. However, the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus. Because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry to that building. Unknown to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley coughing and suffering. The students were going to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan. But what would happen, the researchers wondered, when they actually encountered a person in need. Would they be Good Samaritans? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they were not. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man’s body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Being present to the moment means being alive to what is going on around you, being sensitive to the most important needs and events, being in touch with your own thoughts and feelings. It means not getting lured away by things that seem urgent but may not be very important. That’s what’s so hard about the Christian faith. Our Western culture teaches us that if we just try harder or do more, we can grow closer to God…if we are just more diligent, we can better learn how to pray. But it doesn’t work that way. It never works that way. The way is that of losing yourself in order to find yourself—giving up control rather than taking more of it. Being fully present in the moment.
There’s an old saying: “no one catches the wild ass by running, and yet only those who run ever catch the wild ass.” Maybe we can say, “no one comes to God just by loving or suffering, but only those who have loved and suffered seem to come to God more deeply.”
So, maybe you need to check your rope and see just how knotted-up you’ve gotten it. And, maybe you need be aware that “presence is presence is presence.” There’s no substitute for being aware of who you are, what you’re feeling, what’s going on around you, and what the most important, not necessarily the most urgent, need is before you.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.
City Slickers’ Curly said, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean nothing.” And so it is. AMEN.
1 Richard Rohr, The Naked Self (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009), 58.
2 Tom Long, “Meeting the Good Samaritan, “ Day1 broadcast, July 15, 2007, day1.org, from Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27, 100-108
3 Rohr, Ibid, 65.
Luke 10:38-42 (The Message)
Mary and Martha
38-40As 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.”
41-42The 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.”
1This is what the Lord GOD showed me-a basket of summer fruit. 2He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” 4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
7The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
9On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
11The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. 12They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.