"Those Nasty Priorities"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/19/1998

Amos 8:1-12; Luke 10:38-42

     Luke's story of Mary and Martha is one that has sparked stimulating debate for centuries concerning the tension between our material world and our spiritual world, between the practical aspects of living and the abstract, sublime world of thought, and between the everyday values that we hold. We have trouble establishing our priorities. Stephen Covey who wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People once said, "The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing." How often during our careful planning we sometimes miss the main thing.

     I remember a snap shot picture of my past. As a child I was standing in my grandmother's kitchen and she said to me, "Dick, I think this will be the last time our family will be together for Thanksgiving dinner." I remember being bothered by her words. We always went to my grandparents' home for Thanksgiving Dinner. I said, "Why, Grandma?" She said, "There is just too much confusion. During the week it is just your Grandfather and me in this house. Then for two days we have everyone here and it has become too much. When you become our age, you will understand."

     I thought about her comments for years. My grandmother could not entertain the family without the china, silver, and the crystal goblets. She had to have the centerpiece -- a large cornucopia filled with gourds, dried corn and apples. She had to have the candles and the linen napkins. Sure there was confusion. Sometimes because of our insistence on the correct presentation, we miss the point of the occasion -- an opportunity for a family reunion. We have numerous experiences where this has happened.

     Weddings, for example, are supposed to be a wonderful celebration when a man and a women express their love to each other in the presence of their relatives and friends. The same kind of confusion that my grandmother experienced often causes people to plunge into various states of emotional frenzy. It appears as a stroke of luck if the primary people are still speaking to each other after the wedding is over. Why is this?

     The bride sometimes will come into my office with an enormous notebook. Her wedding has been in the planning stages for 18 months. She has every stage of the wedding broken down into various time lines. There may be less planning for a liftoff of the space shuttle at the Cape than for some weddings.

     I had a couple in my office this year who volunteered that from the purchase of the engagement ring to the final payment for their honeymoon the wedding will have cost them $28,000. Keep in mind that their outlay of money centers around a 25-minute wedding ceremony. Such financial choices and the need for perfection can move people to emotional states that are far removed from the one of celebration. The main thing can become lost in the juggling of so many other priorities.

     What is so fascinating is that the perfection of any wedding is a matter of chance, not planning. Almost anything can happen at the last minute. Once we experienced a soloist who locked her keys in the car a half hour before the wedding. One time we had a limousine driver who got lost. We had a bride who needed to use the bathroom minutes before the ceremony. With several women helping her lift her dress, she managed to get lipstick on the front of it. Lois rushed to find me and asked if the church had any Whiteout. I told her that because of computers I had not seen a bottle of Whiteout for years. She improvised with chalk and the wedding averted a major crisis.

     Any minister could write a book about events surrounding weddings. From my grandmother's perspective, she was correct, "There often is too much confusion." Thoreau tried to calm the waters of life when he once wrote, "Simply, Simply, Simply."

     None of these experiences is meant to cast criticism on anyone's style. Most of us have had episodes in our lives where we have been in a similar circumstance as Martha. We wanted everything to be nice. We wanted plans to unfold perfectly. After all, Martha was having Jesus come to her home. What would we do if we were entertaining Jesus?

     Sometimes we have felt that Jesus was not as sensitive to Martha as he could have been. And yet, most certainly he was correct with his observation. Notice what Jesus actually did. He was not critical of Martha. He was only reminding her what she was doing to herself. Martha was responding to her own choice with worries and concerns. Mary had chosen something else to do with her time and Jesus was protecting her right to make that choice.

     What is the lesson in this story? Jesus said, "Martha, Martha! You are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one is needed." We need to focus on the meaning of "just one is needed." What is that one thing? It is the main thing that places all the priorities we create in perspective. It is the main thing that allows us to savor the kernels of wheat and with a breath of kindness blow the chaff away.

     For example, we have all known people who really know how to enjoy life. They hold the same level of personal confidence if they are wearing a tuxedo, an evening dress or torn, paint spattered blue jeans. They do not need anyone's approval for them to remain happy. Nor do they need to challenge every point-of-view that appears contrary to their own. They seem to have recognized that everyone has different lessons to remember. They readily share who they are without insisting that others must be like them in order to be loved. Reversals and challenges in life are seen as opportunities to put to use all that God has given them.

     This is a description of someone living in the Kingdom of God minus all the biblical language that we have grown so accustomed to hearing when we describe such a life. When we look at the life of Jesus we will see that he exhibited these same qualities. He was the branch that was still connected to the vine. The main thing of Jesus' mission was to teach us how we could remain attached in our thinking to the same vine everyday of our lives.

     Before we look at this "one thing" Jesus was teaching, let us first ask some basic questions. What made Martha believe that there was a problem? What prevented her from experiencing joy and enthusiasm? What prevented her from "whistling while she worked"? In a more general way, how does disharmony get inside of us?

     Some of you have heard me use the metaphor of the lemon. What do we get when we squeeze a lemon? We get lemon juice of course. Lemon juice comes out because that is what is inside. It does not matter what instrument does the squeezing or what time of day the squeezing takes place. We will always get lemon juice from a lemon. That is the way God made the lemon, the tomato, the orange, and so on.

     This metaphor also applies to us. When someone squeezes us, i.e., puts pressure on us, or says something to us that we do not like, or acts toward us in a way that is distasteful, what comes out of us are responses we have created from what we have inside us. If what comes out of us is anxiety, frustration, and anger, those responses have absolutely nothing to do with the person or circumstances that did the squeezing. What comes out of us is exactly what is inside. This happens with every person on the planet every single time. There should be no mystery to this.

     Would Jesus have said anything to Martha had she not complained? Had Martha been filled with joy because she was preparing this meal as her gift to the Lord, Jesus would have been most gracious and appreciative. Martha did not do that. She asked the question from a spirit of separation. She was thinking, "I am being left out! No one wants to help me! Why is it that Mary has the opportunity to be with Jesus while I prepare the meal?" All such thoughts are a call for love. When we cry out that life has been unfair we have forgotten how loved and how precious we are to God.

     The main thing Jesus was referring to in our lesson is the same "main thing" every person needs to understand. Jesus came to heal the belief that we are separated from God. Paul wrote about this when he said, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself." When we understand that we are also part of the vine, there should be no need to play any other music through our instrument. There is no need to feel separation from God while we do our chores or prepare our meals.

     So many of us want to defend Martha. Keep in mind the problem was not with what Martha was doing, but with the feelings she created. Quite often we find ourselves doing something that is absolutely beautiful, generous, and filled with compassion. Our deed came from the heart. What we did was thoughtful. Yet how many times do we find it difficult to release loving deeds to be exactly what they are. Sometimes we add something else that nearly erases the spirit of our loving.

     For example, "I have remembered your birthday and anniversary every year for the last ten. Have you even once sent me a card?" "We have had you to our home for dinner on six occasions. Never once have you returned the favor." "We invited you to each of our daughters' weddings. When your daughter was married last month, we were not invited." "I helped keep your automobile running for the last six years, but when I need an extra pair of hands to build my deck, you are too busy." We could go on and on.

     Such comments can make our compassion and sensitivity nothing more than a transaction of systematically putting other people into a position of owing us something. With such responses we learn that we have attached strings and expectations sometimes without realizing that we have. Again when we feel squeezed, what comes out of us is what is within us.

     God who put the lemon juice inside the lemon put love inside us. Be not mistaken about that. God does not make inferior creations. I have a plaque in my home office that quotes a wise person living in Harlem, New York. It says, "God Don't Make No Junk." We were created just a little lower than the angels. We need to remember that.

     When we become persons who really know how to enjoy and celebrate the incredible gift of life, thinking small thoughts does not, can not and will not happen. We are not worried about what other people are thinking about us. We are not fearful that someone might disapprove of a decision we make. If they do disapprove, so what? They are revealing who they are and nothing more. We may receive their feedback cheerfully. But we will not feel guilty about our choice if we do not. Jesus himself met with a lot of disapproval but he knew how to think big thoughts.

     Perhaps that is why he was defending Mary's right to decide for herself what was important to her. Had Martha been totally at peace with her decision to prepare a meal she could have said, "I am so glad Mary has this time to be with Jesus while I prepare our meal." What she did say, however, caused Jesus to say, "Martha, Martha! You are worried and troubled about so many things, but just one is needed."

     That one thing we must remember is that we are not separated from God. The belief that we are alone and unloved is what causes us to create thoughts that are quite different from the ones God gave us the potential to think. When Jesus was squeezed, only love poured forth. That was abundantly clear while he hung on the cross. Jesus came to tell us and to show us that God made all of us the same way. When we follow him while living our discipleship, we will remember who God created us to be.


     Eternal God, we thank you for the refining elements of life. We have discovered that habits are nothing more than our making the same choice over and over again. We have discovered that attitudes, responses, and ways of thinking have developed the same way. How grateful we are that Jesus taught us a way to change our lives completely. He invited us to live in Heaven now. Help us find the courage to choose peace over frustration, to choose peace over the need to be right, to choose peace over our desires to make others into what we want them to be. Help us learn that the world needs peaceful people to become the leaven for the loaf. As we learn to trust you with the outcome of all things, use us to make your presence visible in all circumstances. Amen.


     All of us thank you this morning, O God, for planting within us the need in all ways and in all things to reach beyond where we are. There are so many occasions when we find ourselves in circumstances wishing that we had more answers, more insights, and more abilities to cope with life's constant changes.

     And yet we can almost hear you saying to us, "If you do not know how to be grateful and good natured toward all the smaller aspects of life, how can you expect to understand where your more challenging experiences might lead you?"

     There are times when we experience the tyranny of little things. There are times when we waste enormous amounts of time and energy with worry over issues of life that simply will not and can not change. All we can do is change our thinking about them so that our worrying stops.

     Perhaps that is your way of helping us grow beyond where we have remained for years. So many of us feel victimized by habits, by attitudes, by coming up with the same responses, that life has lost its excitement. And yet we confess that we have no one else to blame but ourselves. Lead us to help one another to experiment with patience, with kindness, with forgiveness, and with greater trust in you for all things. Lead us onto the paths of righteousness because we are yours. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .