The Right Rev. Eugene T. Sutton
….oh God, and show us what we need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, welcome to our Jamboree here at Washington National Cathedral. We have a few Boy Scouts here who have been wonderfully filling the Cathedral. How many Boy Scouts are here? Can you stand? Let’s all give them a big hand! You may be seated.
At an earlier Eucharist here, after the sermon I was presented with a —I don’t know if this is a merit badge, or a patch? I was hoping it was a merit badge, one that I somehow had missed when I grew up as a Scout. Very happy you’re all here from every part of the nation, whether you’re a Scout or not.
I would like to speak with you for the next several minutes about focus.
When you lose your focus in life, some very bad things can happen. John Maxwell, in his good book, The Leader Within, tells of a family that had grown tired of city life, the traffic, the noise, the congestion. And so they decided to go away and try country life in the wide-open spaces. They intended on raising cattle, so they went to and bought a western ranch. After about a month one of their city friends came to visit them, and he asked them, “What did you name the ranch?” And the father said, “Well, I wanted to call it The Flying W, but my wife liked The Susie Q. My older son liked The Bar J, but then the other son preferred The Lazy Y. So we compromised. We named the ranch The Flying W, Susie Q, Bar J, Lazy Y Ranch!” The visitor asked, “Well, where are the cattle?” The man replied, “Well, we don’t have any. None of them survived the branding.”
That family showed an inability to focus. And in a world laden with choices, that family becomes a portrait for us of where we are as a culture today. We live in an unprecedented era of seemingly endless choices. We have so many things to say ‘yes’ to, and we are encouraged to say ‘yes’ to them all. If only we had more. If only we could participate in more things. If only we could work harder, we could have it all. And in having it all, then we would be happy.
But it’s an emotional program for happiness that cannot possibly work. Jesus came to a certain village to let Martha and Mary know that. He was talking about the need to focus, because in focusing and harnessing and concentrating what we are, who we are, and what we are doing into what is most important. Then, we can actually be more content.
Or as Oscar Wilde once had his characters say in one of his plays, he said, “In this world today there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.”
And so Jesus comes upon a village and there are his old friends, two good people, Martha and Mary. And the Scripture says, “Martha welcomed him into her home.” Already there, I know something’s up in that family system. Martha and Mary live there, presumably also at times, their brother Lazarus. But yet, it’s called “Martha’s home.” It is her home. Do you know Martha? I think I do. I was raised in a home of one older brother, and somehow I had the feeling a lot with my good beloved brother, I had the feeling a lot that when I entered the house, it was his home. He was the responsible one. I should say the more responsible one. I like to think I showed a little responsibility. And it just seemed like, in some way, he was the lord of the manor when it was he and I together. I wondered if Mary didn’t feel that way in Martha’s home that she lived in?
Jesus, having been received, was promptly, I believe, relegated to the living room. You know, that place in the house that is never used until an important guest comes. I picture Jesus in the living room. Martha was there. Conceivably, the disciples were there, but where is Martha? Martha, presumably was in the kitchen because Martha was the responsible one. Martha knew that the world was full of tasks to do, and that none of them would get done unless she was responsible for seeing it done. Martha knew there was dust still on some of those tables. The flowers weren’t properly arranged. Two of the three desserts were not going well. The place mats weren’t exactly right. Who knows where the musicians were! This is not going to go well. Jesus was there. Her Lord, and her friend. She wanted everything to be right, so she set herself to doing the tasks at hand.
Do you know Martha? I think you do. I think you and I are, at times, Martha. And this Martha and Mary scene is not gender-restricted. I know many male Martha’s who are always tinkering around the house, fixing up the old car, mending the fence. They’re always doing things when guests arrive. They’re not quite in the action, and if they are in the place where the action is, so often they are like most males. They’re behind the video camera, observing, but not really in the scene.
And I know as well many male Mary’s, who are perfectly happy to sit in the lap of luxury at someone’s feet, listening to what they are saying and doing nothing. It seems to me that in American culture today, the hardest thing for us to do is nothing. The most difficult thing is to sit, to be quiet, and to be fully present, not only to our God, but to anyone.
Of course, it means making choices, but that’s something we don’t seem to want to do. The beginning of the spiritual life for many of us is not saying ‘yes’ to everything. It’s being able to say ‘no’ to anything so that we can do the one good thing.
If we are trained to believe that life is about looking out for Number One, we need to reorient to look at Number One. What is Number One in your life?
Jesus, facing Martha, said lovingly, ever so gently, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” That Greek word that the new Revised Standard Version says “distracted by many things” is (sounds like marronow), which means literally, “to be drawn in different directions.”
The Church, God bless them, is full of Martha’s. They arrange altar linens. They take care of the flowers. They are mowing the lawn. They’re serving on every committee. They are the Treasurer of the church. They are all those good people who make things happen, and the Church could barely live without. But sometimes the Church is trying to live with them.
You see, for all of Martha’s work, it was not making her happy. It was making her miserable. Can you picture her with me in the kitchen, kneading the bread, the dough? “Hugh, why isn’t my sister helping me? She’s out there just enjoying it all. I wish I could do that too. But who’s going to do this?” And the more she’s working, the more she’s fulfilling the role that she assumed for herself, the more that she was working for her God, her Lord, the more miserable she was becoming. She knew, as all Christians know, that we are all called to a life of service. But how can we know what it is we are to do? How can we serve if we do not know to what service God is calling us? And how can we know unless we lay aside our program for happiness? Our agenda? Our tasks? At various times, just lay them aside, and listen?
Washington National Cathedral is a welcoming place for all people who want to come and listen to what God is saying. We are very clear about our mission here. It’s a three-pronged mission. We are the Cathedral of our own Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Cathedral in the city of Washington. But that’s only a small part of what we are. By a charter of Congress, we are also called the Great Church for National Purposes. And we are that. This space is used for those great national occasions that cause for celebration and mourning. One such occasion is tomorrow, when this place will be filled with mourning at the funeral of Katherine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post.
So, this Church for National Purposes also seated here, …. official seats of the chaplains of the Congress, the Chaplain of the House of Representatives and the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. And I’m very happy to see that Dr. Olgevie is here today, the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate.
But that again is not all that we are called to do. In all the possibilities of what we are called, we have to choose. We have to focus. And that third part of the mission is to be a National House of Prayer for All People. You, represent all people, various faiths, denominations, from every state and different nations. We gather here in this great space corporately to pray in our liturgy.
But also I want to invite you to come privately. I’m the Director of the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, those wonderful prayer and meditation rooms in the crypt level of this Cathedral. It is a place designed for anyone to come and spend time listening, listen for the word of God, in quietness, in solitude, we receive our strength. I would normally invite you to come even after this service, but unfortunately we cannot be open today or tomorrow, in preparation for the great funeral of mourning tomorrow. But at other times, and beginning in September, one such time is every Wednesday morning at 8:00 a.m. A time for listening for God, for whoever is around, to meditate on Scriptures, to be quiet, and then to pray, to be, as Mary, who refused to accept the societal role placed upon her to be in the kitchen where the women were normally relegated. But instead, to say, “I am here because I am a disciple too. I can be where the privileged are. I can be with the men in the living room, listening, sitting at the Lord’s feet.”
When Martha said to Jesus, “Tell my sister to come here in the kitchen with me,”—notice she was angry—but the focus of her anger was her sister; she hadn’t yet realized that the source of the anger was within—Jesus refused. He said, “Mary chose to contemplate, to be in silence, and to listen to me. Mary chose not to assume a role that others placed upon her. Mary has the freedom to choose. And I will not take that away from her. She has chosen the better thing to do.”
“Martha, you are free. Why don’t you choose? Where do you want to be? Yes, I know we need to eat. In fact, I was thinking, later on we could all pitch in and make this meal. But don’t get all out of shape in preparation to this meal. But consider what’s most important, and the meal will take care of itself.”
Do you know Martha? Do you know Mary? I think that you do. My guess is that if you are like most of us in our culture, you need to be out there with Mary. You’re spending a lot of time working, doing the things that are not most important.
Jesus is there. He’s waiting, waiting, waiting for you, waiting for you to say ‘yes’, and to spend time with him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.