Finding Our Center
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
We all know people like Martha. She’s a strong character, competent, well-intentioned, somebody who makes things happen. She’s willing to sacrifice, and is not inhibited by social conventions. This is apparent in the story of when Jesus is her dinner guest.
First, Martha welcomes Jesus into her house. A hospitable gesture, to be sure, but something more as well: a defiance of conventional behavior. Jesus is alone with women who are not his relatives; he allows one to serve him, and he teaches the other one. All of these are violations of social norms.
And it’s Martha’s welcome which makes them possible.
This dinner will not be something thrown together, a pickup meal. Martha’s fixing a feast! Before it’s over, every pot and pan in the house will be dirty. But nothing’s too good for Martha’s friend. She moves forward, full steam ahead, to make this evening a triumph of hospitality.
She does so with confidence, confidence born of long experience cooking meals large and small. Martha’s the one her neighbors consult when there’s a wedding reception or a funeral luncheon or some other big deal event to put on. She makes it seem so easy. This strong, competent, unselfish woman is the embodiment of the saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
The world today has many women and men like Martha. They volunteer at schools and hospitals, sit on the boards of non-profit agencies, are active in fraternal orders and community organizations. They work hard at their jobs, and do so because they want to make a difference. They care about their own children and other people’s too. They are the backbone of churches, especially small ones. They are people the pastor counts on. In the pews of this and every church there are women and men like Martha. Much of what happens on earth that’s really meaningful, that touches lives, happens because some Martha gets in there and does it.
Yet today’s Gospel does not show Martha, the friend of Jesus, in the best possible light. She is “distracted with much serving.”
“Distracted with much serving!” It’s easy to see how she gets this way. She’s cooking dinner for an admired guest. The kitchen’s a mess, and the timing is a bit iffy. Her spacey sister doesn’t lend a hand. Martha’s attention is pulled in six directions, and she loses her composure, loses her control.
She needs a hand, but Mary’s out entertaining Jesus. They’re enjoying a glass of wine, some appetizers–the ones Martha’s famous for–while Martha’s slaving away back in the kitchen.
Guest or no guest, Martha wants Mary to help right now, and not just wash the dishes later. But rather than act as her usual direct self, she sidelines her sister, and makes a cranky plea to her guest. Miss Manners would not approve.
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone?” Triangulation is what family therapists call it: trying to influence one person by talking to someone else.
This whining sounds out of character. It is not Martha speaking; it is her distraction. Jesus deftly gets out of the triangle; she offers Martha her sister as a good example, and thus directs Martha to examine her own behavior. But more about that in a moment.
It’s the easiest thing in the world for the Marthas of today to become distracted by their many tasks. For large numbers of people this is nothing exceptional. It is their normal state of existence. They are stressed out, scattered, ready to share their unhappiness with others. They may engage in outbursts like Martha, or try in other ways to throw their weight around. They may seem flat and disengaged, and feel that way. In a world of living color, they have no energy to see in anything more than black and white on a
very narrow screen.
Martha’s distracted by her many tasks. Her relationships–with Jesus, with her sister–suffer as a result. This otherwise admirable person appears as a big headache. All of us suffer when the Marthas of this world are not simply busy, but busy in the wrong way, a way that lacks a center. When Martha-type people are distracted and worried by many things, when they view these things as gigantic and see nothing better, when they experience no places of refreshment, no sabbath time, then all of us pay the price. Lord, have mercy!
Jesus speaks gently to Martha. There’s no sense of rebuke in his voice. He’s reaching out to a dear friend who’s making an unholy fool of herself. He tells Martha there’s only one thing important. Rather than be at the mercy of her distractions, she must recognize her center.
That center is ever present. Instead of nervous energy, she can receive new strength; in place of weariness, a sense of wonder; rather than self-pity, humor about herself; instead of a deadening sense of duty, a lively, light-hearted joy. Martha, the unselfish hostess, must leave behind her distractions and welcome her own center, the Christ who lives within her.
Jesus points to an example right at hand: Martha’s kid sister Mary. Mary is spacey, immature, a bit irresponsible. She’s somebody who could get lost on the way back from taking out the trash. But she does have one thing right: she’s in touch with her center. She may be spacey, but she’s not distracted. Because she has welcomed her center, whatever needs to follow in her life will follow.
It’s not that Martha must imitate her sister in every respect. Something precious would be lost if she were no longer the superior cook, the confident planner of special meals, the person of strong character. Martha need not set aside her work, only her distractions. She must find her center, and let all that she does reflect that discovery.
The Marthas of today must also find their center. If their many tasks are to amount to something more than willfulness, they must choose that better part, and choose it over again each day.
Something of great help to many people who want to find their center is a practice called Centering Prayer. This is a modern version of a centuries-old Christian approach to prayer. I have practiced it for several years and find it beneficial.
[NOTE TO THE PREACHER: A handy index to articles on Centering Prayer is available at http://www.kyrie.com/cp/. A comprehensive Centering Prayer site can be found at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org, and you will find a concise overview of Centering Prayer at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/cntrgpryr.htm.]
While Centering Prayer is not for everyone, many people can learn this practice and persist in it. Centering Prayer releases us from those thoughts that clutter our minds. It offers an alternative to the willfulness that often interferes with prayer. It allows us to encounter the God who is so simple as to be indescribable.
There are other practices, of course, that help us stay centered in Christ, other ways of keeping back interference and remaining centered, connected with what alone is necessary.
And in each of us there is that busy, competent Martha, all too often overburdened and distracted. The role she plays in the world is essential, but she stands in need of joy. Within each of us there is also Mary, a little spacey perhaps, but in touch with that joy. May these sisters live together in peace; may Jesus bless their home with his abiding presence.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2004 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.