Sunday, July 04, 2021
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Keep Your Eye on the One Thing
By The Rev. Chris Miller
Sunday, July 4, 2021
Reading: Luke 10:38-42

I enjoy watching elite athletes play at the top of their games, especially tennis, golf, baseball, and even hockey. One day eh? The Stanley’s Cup held high by our beloved Leafs!

Researchers have identified some of the common mental processes that mark out elite athletes. Serena Williams in tennis, for instance. One of the most fascinating aspects appears to be a phenomenon known as the “quiet eye.” This is a kind of enhanced visual perception that allows athletes to eliminate any distractions as they plan their next move.

I mentioned Serena Williams. In a BBC article from June 2020, writer David Robson wrote: “If anyone knows how to grab a victory from the jaws of defeat, it’s Serena Williams. Just consider her semi-final against Kim Clijsters at the 2003 Australian Open. At 5-2 down in the final set, she was within a hair’s breadth of losing her place in the tournament. But rather than slipping into despair, she saved two match points before winning the next five games. Somehow, each serve and return landed just where she wanted them to – and she would ultimately go on to win the whole tournament.

A single such feat would be an exceptional occurrence in any career, but Williams has since made similarly breath-taking comebacks at the Australian Open in 2005, at Wimbledon in 2009, and at the China Open in 2014, managing to pull back even when her opponents are serving a match point. In each case, the extreme pressure, rather than causing her to crumble, only seemed to sharpen her concentration.”

Kinesiologist Dr. Joan Vickers began to suspect that the secret of extraordinary performance lay in the way that elite athletes see the world. She hooked a group of professional golfers up to a device that precisely monitored their eye movements as they putted. She found an intriguing correlation: the better the player, the longer and steadier their gaze on the ball just before, and then during, their strike. Novices, by contrast, tended to shift their focus between different areas of the scene for shorter periods of time.” (Now I know what some of my golfing issues are.)

Researchers say there are obviously many other factors that contribute to sporting genius, but the quiet eye, the focus of their gaze, seems to be a key component of their sporting success. [David Robson, “Why Athletes Need a ‘Quiet Eye,’” (6-29-18)]

There are a variety of ways to read the stories in Scripture. This morning’s text is a brief five verses. I want to tell you about one of the ways I interact with a story. I call this connecting with the Bible/with God by asking questions as I read the story. I think you will get the idea. If you have this story in Luke 10:38-42 in front of you, all the better.

Here is the story: “Now as they went on their way, he [Jesus] entered a certain village, (Does a certain village mean any village, an ordinary place? A special place?) where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. (What is it like or what would it be like to welcome Jesus into my home/my life?) She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.

(What was Jesus saying? Was he going over some of the things that had been happening recently? For example, the lawyer’s question about eternal life? The Good Samaritan story? Perhaps he was telling a parable of two? Maybe explaining something about the Kingdom of God?) 

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; (what tasks? Her absorption in being hospitable? Distracted from what? What should she or could she have been doing? Why was she annoyed at Mary seemingly doing nothing? Did she resent this in her sister? Am I ever distracted and worried by things? The moment I asked this question, an answer fills my mind – yes, for sure, absolutely!) so Martha came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care? (His disciples asked the same question of Jesus in the boat when a storm whipped up the waves such that even seasoned fishermen were afraid. They questioned his love, his care, for them? I can understand the terror in a bad storm but what was Martha feeling that she questioned Jesus’ care about her even in the safety of her own house? I think fear or worry can occur anywhere!)

“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.

(What is the One thing? Is this something like having a quiet eye? Was her focus on the wrong things or on too many other things?) Mary has chosen the better part, (What is this better part?) which will not be taken away from her. (Jesus says it won’t be taken from her. Did Martha want to take it away from Mary, knowingly or unknowingly? Do our worries, our particular distractions, sometimes attempt to take us/me away from the better part if I am/we are not alert or careful? That One thing Jesus talks about?)

I hope that was clear enough for you to get an idea of one of the ways I read the Bible. I ask a lot of questions! As you read this text, you will no doubt have some other questions that come to your mind and heart too.

If you also read the story of the good Samaritan preceding this one and compare them, you might find some fascinating connections. You will notice Jesus met a man, a lawyer, skilled in Scripture but who has trouble hearing the word of God. What does Jesus do? He offers him an example – a Samaritan no less, from the other side of the man’s tracks! Then Jesus visits with a woman so busy serving she does not hear the word from Jesus either. What does Jesus do? He offers her an example – her sister! To the man, Jesus said to go and do; to the woman, to dear Martha, I think/wonder if Jesus was inviting her to sit down with them and listen and learn too!

Neither Matthew nor Mark in their Gospels say anything about Martha and Mary, only Luke. But John in his gospel also knows some things about Martha and Mary. John knows them as sisters of Lazarus (the man Jesus raised from the dead) and locates their home in Bethany near Jerusalem (John 11:1; 12:1-3). In two stories that John tells, the behaviour of the two sisters corresponds to Luke’s description: Martha goes out to meet Jesus, while Mary sits in the house (John 11:20). And at dinner Martha serves and Mary anoints the feet of Jesus (John 12:1-3). In Luke, it is Martha’s house. She welcomes Jesus into the home, and the story centres on her and Jesus. Her sister Mary is described, but she never speaks.

There is also something else in the story that no doubt should not be missed: Luke has Jesus being received into a woman’s home (no mention is made of the brother). He teaches a woman along with the men! Rabbis at that time did not allow women to “sit at their feet,” that is, to be disciples, to be their students. However, when we connect this story with what Luke records in Chapter 8:1-3, Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna and many other women are mentioned as travelling with Jesus and his male disciples as he went here and there teaching about the Kingdom of God. It is clear that men and women were numbered among the disciples! This is not so remarkable now in our 2021 church context, but it was quite radical in Jesus’ time.

Of the two sisters, Martha was the task-oriented one — a type A personality no doubt. It was her house, and she took her responsibilities regarding its upkeep and obviously the matter of hospitality quite seriously. I can imagine her scurrying around, making sure there is enough water for Jesus and those with him to wash the travel dust off their feet, seeing that the table is set properly, that the food is just right. And anything else that should be done in welcoming Jesus into her home. But something was distracting Martha. It must have been obvious especially when Martha calls out Jesus for possibly not caring that Mary has left her to do all the work by herself. I can see poor Martha with a tuft of hair at the edge of her forehead, a bit of perspiration maybe, and in exasperation calling out to Jesus, “Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, dear Martha”, speaks Jesus, not in anger but in kindness and love! “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up about looking after us. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—and it won’t be taken from her.”

What is this One thing? What is this essential thing, this better part that Mary has chosen to do? She is listening to Jesus! What is he teaching them? We are not told. Luke does not have Jesus tell his readers what they were talking about. So, we use our spiritual imaginations, our Spirit-inspired discernment, as we think through what we know of Jesus in the Scriptures and, perhaps, from our own personal experiences too.

Jesus often talked about the kingdom of God: that we are to seek it, to strive for it. In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel (6:33), Jesus says that the kingdom of God and the righteousness of this kingdom is the first thing for a person to want, to desire above anything and everything else. Was Jesus telling his disciples and Mary a parable or two about what the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is like? That place where God’s rule and God’s ways are recognized, and God is obeyed. What did Mary see in the person and the character of Jesus that drew her in to listen to him, to want to learn from him, to be his student?

There is a parable, for instance, (one verse actually) in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells about a treasure hidden in a field. And a man was plowing that field. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, [said Jesus] When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought the field.” Apparently, there was a law that if you owned a plot of land and found a treasure buried there, then it was yours to keep. Imagine the man as a sharecropper or a tenant farming someone else’s land. His plow happens to hit something hard. And guess what, instead of another rock to clear he finds a chest of extremely valuable gold coins. But he knows he can’t have this incredible treasure until he owns the land. So he reburies it again. He decides to sell everything he has in order to buy the field because of the value of the treasure. After he buys the field, he is overjoyed, over the top, because the treasure is now his!

What did Mary hear Jesus saying through this kingdom parable? Did she think that she was like this farmer who stumbled upon treasure? Did she see this treasure as the love of God (for her and for everyone else) centred in this remarkable teacher, Jesus? Was she prepared to let go of everything she had – all her personal desires and dreams – to follow Jesus? What a treasure of love to love!

But what if Mary also heard something else in this parable? Henri Nouwen suggests this is an even deeper way of seeing this parable. What if the farmer plowing the field is actually God? And what if I am the treasure? What if you are the treasure? Did Mary think she was this valuable treasure who was found by this God who is love? There is precedent in Scripture for this we know.  Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus tells a story about a man who left 99 sheep and went to look for the one lost one, which was so valuable to the shepherd. Who was the shepherd? It was God in Jesus! Still another story tells of a woman who lost one of her coins. She swept everywhere, in every nook and cranny all over the house and turned everything upside down to find it because it meant so much to her. Who was the woman in the parable? It was God in Jesus!

Imagine: What if you are the treasure in the field? And Jesus Christ in his all-seeking love does everything he can to show you how treasured you are. He cleans you up so you can live for the purposes for which he designed you. Did Mary come to believe she was such a treasure to Jesus? to God? Is it hard to think of yourself as such a treasure? Friends, it is not hard for Jesus to think of you, of me, that way!

I have a close and dear friend who will tell you she was like Martha in many ways in years gone by. Absorbed in her daily household tasks and in being as hospitable as she could with visitors in her home. But there came a time when she discovered how treasured by God she actually is! When she found the one thing, the better part that won’t be taken from her. Here is her story as she told it:  

I have loved God virtually all my life. I grew up in the Baptist Church, decided to follow Jesus before I was a teenager, and was baptized. I have also worked for The Salvation Army, the Baptists, the Presbyterians and an interdenominational group. And I have been a participant in worship services of an Anglican congregation. For the past 20 years, I have been a member of the United Church. So, I consider myself an ecumenical Christian at heart – united with all in whatever denomination who love and worship God and the risen Jesus Christ in whom God is revealed.

But then something happened to me. About 22 years ago, my love for God and for His Word became my passion. Before, I was more like Martha (of the Mary, Martha, Lazarus family) – you know, like Martha, always and forever doing the chores – first!

But then I became more like Mary, who sat at Jesus' feet whenever she could – and just listened to him teach.

I have also been sitting and listening – listening to God speak in the Scriptures because I l-o-n-g-e-d to know God better, to know God's heart, and to know God's perspective on things more than anything else in the world. So, I devoured the Scripture – all of it – and loved it! I LOVED listening to God!

Then something else happened: God and I became friends! Before this, I knew my standing before God had changed: that God had forgiven me because of Jesus' death on the cross. But after all those earlier years, just before a difficult time in my life, God began to show himself to me in a personal way – through the Scripture!

And this was a great surprise to me – to experience what some call "a personal relationship with God." I did not expect God to get so amazingly personal with me!

Yet this happened just as Jesus said in John 14: "Anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.... and we will come to them and make our home with them." Jesus said he would show himself (or reveal himself) to "anyone," to "whosoever" loves him – even to me too! This was a "wow' for me!

And for over 19 years, God has kept showing himself to me – keeping the conversation going through the Scripture.”

In some difficult times, I have sensed God carrying me through them. And in some bad times, I have experienced God working out good. I have also been hearing how God has been showing himself to others too – in various personal ways that suit each person, in interesting ways that also come back to the Scripture.

l am so wonderfully overwhelmed to be friends with God!

So that is my friend’s story about sitting at God’s feet today, at Jesus’ feet like Mary, and listening to what God has said and is saying.

In the Gospel of John Chapter 17, verse three, Jesus prayed for his disciples, and we are included in Jesus’ prayer. In his prayer, he talked clearly about eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Friends, here is the focus for your gaze, your “quiet eye” for how you see the world. We are called to keep our eye on the one thing, the better part, who is Jesus Christ, sent by the one true and living God.

May it be our daily priority too, like Mary’s, to be a student of Jesus Christ, to listen, to learn, to recognize and believe that we are one of God’s treasures, to know the living God.

May this be so for you and for me. Amen.