The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: July 17, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
It is good to be back with you all. I’m coming back from some weeks away – time spent with family on the West Coast, a week of Family Camp in California, hiking in the Sierra mountains, going to the beach, and looking at lots of wonderful views. I’m rested and restored and more or less back on New York time. But I have to admit, with the news of the world the way it is, a lot of me didn’t want to come back from vacation. Maybe you know what that feels like.
I read the news of the two black men killed by police in Minnesota and Baton Rouge a few days after it happened, and the news of the Dallas shootings of police officers while out on an island in Puget Sound. The horrific terrorist attack in Nice happened while I was on the plane. Only the attempted coup in Turkey was happening in real time for me – all the rest of it I found out about later, and at some remove from reality. And I find I’m pretty reluctant to deal with it all now, coming back. The world was mad before I left, and it is madder still on my return. Or, to say it more accurately, the madness of the world has come much closer now to all of us in our lives, with killings and attacks and crazy politics right in our midst – not just half a world away, or in the pages of history, but here and now. We are living through what many in the world have lived through for ages, and it is frightening and horrible to experience.
And so it is tempting to want to just step away. Which was what I first saw in the gospel story we heard today, the story of Mary and Martha. There are two characters, and so there seem to be two choices to follow. Martha, the busy one, out there and taken up in the practical details of her world. Mary, the quiet one, staying in and sitting at her Lord’s feet and listening. And Jesus commends Mary for her choice, and berates Martha for hers. It is better to be still. So I’ll just be going off on vacation again, then.
I have some precedence for this in our tradition. This contrast of action and contemplation has a long history in the church. This gospel story has sometimes been seen as asking the question, Is it better to pray, or to work? And in this interpretation, when Jesus upholds Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and listen (the posture of a disciple), he upholds the more contemplative, introverted way, the way of retiring away from the world and into the monastery – as if it is better than working about the everyday, ‘mundane’ tasks. That is part of why monasteries often had distinct orders of brothers, those whose job was to pray and study and lofty things like that, and the lay brothers who did all the actual cleaning and cooking and labor of the place.* The idea has lingered on in the belief that the church should be about praying, not about social action in the world. Martha is worldly, Mary is spiritual, and we are supposed to be spiritual.
But this cannot be a very complete interpretation. If what Jesus meant to say was that all of his followers should retire from the work of the world and sit in prayer and contemplation all their days, who would go about feeding the hungry and freeing the oppressed, preaching the gospel and healing the sick – all the things Jesus also instructs us to do? Not to mention provide the hospitality that Jesus himself so often enjoyed in the gospel stories.
So we look at the story more carefully. You notice, Jesus does not say to Martha that she should stop working. He says to her, ‘You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need only of one thing.’ The problem is not the work she is doing, the problem is that Martha is ‘distracted’ – the Greek word translated that way means that she is ‘drawn different ways at the same time.’ There God is in her home, Jesus sitting and teaching, and she cannot stop to listen. She is pulled in too many other directions – by cultural expectations, her sense of duty, her resentment of her sister. Maybe also by her inability to recognize Jesus for who he is, something more than just another wandering mouth to feed. And then to make it worse, Martha tries to distract her sister from Jesus, even to distract Jesus himself from what he is doing: she addresses her complaint to him, not to Mary, trying to embroil him in her irritation – a classic move of triangulation. Jesus’ response to her is one of pity, for he sees that she is missing the one thing that would give her life. Her distraction pulls her away from the best part of all, being in God’s presence and hearing what God would say to her, being in relationship with God.
This story is not the only place where Jesus responds in such a way. To the rich young man who comes to ask how he can be a disciple, Jesus says, sell all you have and follow me. To the one who would go first and bury his father before following him, Jesus says, let the dead bury their own dead. To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says, go and sin no more. Over and over again Jesus says to those he meets, this thing that is blocking you from relationship with me and with my Father, let it go. If it is money and wealth, if it is family ties, if it is your own bad choices or simply your being too darn busy, whatever it is, put it aside and come, be with me. I am the one thing you need – be in my presence first, and let all of that other stuff go.
But is also clear that when people do this in the gospel stories, when they drop their distractions and look at Jesus’ face, follow where Jesus leads, they are not necessarily lifted away from all the things they were doing before. The tax collectors seem to mostly stay tax collectors; the fishermen end up fishing again; Martha probably keeps on cooking and cleaning for those who come to visit. But things are different: the context in which they work changes, or the way they go about their lives changes, or something in their hearts changes, so that they put their focus where it should be first of all, on God. Disciples, in other words, are those who live their lives in the presence of God – not dwelling in anxiety, or fear, or ambition, or any of the other things that might motivate us. Those are distractions, the ‘many things’ that draw us different ways at the same time. What Jesus calls us to is the one thing, the best part, the deepest and most stable ground of all to stand on. He calls us to be and to remain in the presence of God.
In a time when the world really does seem mad, with horrors perpetrated on one another, when it seems like there is more to do than ever to make things right, and less power to do it – that is when we need that stable ground. Here, in God’s presence, we are invited to be still. Here, in God’s presence, we can love one another in a holy way, as children of God in all different colors and bodies. Here, in God’s presence, we can listen and hear the call to do what is necessary to heal this world – the call unique to each one of us, God’s intentions for our lives, our gifts, our resources.
There is much to fear and be worried over in the world today, and in our own lives to boot. Martha, Martha, Jesus says, with pity; my children gathered here today: you are fearful and anxious and pulled apart by too many things. None of that comes from me. The one thing you need is right here before you. Choose the better part and be here with me, in my presence: and my presence, my love, will not be taken away from you. Be here in what is real, and know that I am with you. Amen.
* Actually, that was the hierarchy of social class from the culture bleeding over into the monastery, and then given a theological spin to make it seem legitimate. Later the same spin could be put on women doing the work of the home while men read and discussed complex ideas.