Since I don't do this every week any more, I thought I would post the sermon I gave this morning preaching at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, my church home now.
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Let me start at the end of the sermon:
- Jesus is right.
- Mary is important and wise,
- The way of Mary is an essential part of faith.
It wasn’t always that way for me. My knee-jerk reaction for many years when I came to this story in the three-year lectionary cycle was to run the other way. Either that or raise my hand and tell Jesus, -
Um pardon my forwardness, Lord, but you’ve got it wrong. Don’t put Martha down. She cares and is hard at work. It was a lot like the workers who resented the boss’s generosity by giving all the same wage, or that faithful older brother pouting outside the party for the wasteful prodigal. What’s wrong with some recognition for hard work, for faithfulness? What’s so right about sitting in the living room while there’s work to be done?I don’t think mine was a minority opinion and if you’ve been around the church long enough, you’ve heard that before. We clergy types, and Type A (American) Christians will certainly identify with such an opinion.
But when I hit mid-life crisis happened forever separating my journey into the Before and the After. The before- gone. The after- became the here and now. I discovered that it is always today, and that no matter how hard one works, there’s not much more to life than today. No, that wasn’t an infusion of pessimism. In fact, it was the beginning of ultimate optimism. Awareness of the life available to me- and all of us in the here and now became reality.
We live either in the past, nostalgia reigning. Or we look at some future when all will finally fall into place. We do a lot of running and avoiding.
- The business traveler racks up countless frequent flyer miles;
- the parent lives their lost dreams in the life of their children;
- the worker sits in a cubicle watching the clock, getting nervous in anticipation of that first mind-quenching drink of Happy Hour.
Keep busy, avoid, make sure all is well and we can save the world if we only work hard enough.
Into that understanding in mid-life came, again, the story of Mary and Martha. This time something caught me short. The perception of mid-life caught me and I decided to look at the story as more than an isolated incident in the Gospel narrative. What happened before the visit? What comes next? Is Luke trying to help us see something? We hear these stories as isolated events. In reality they are more like episodes in one a TV serial, soap operas or mini-series. It is not helpful to walk in at the middle.
So one day I looked back and noticed that last week was the story of the Good Samaritan; the week before that- the sending of the 70. Up to now, Luke’s been all about serving- working. Martha. Not wanting to spoil any surprises, what happens next? Well, next week is The Lord’s Prayer and the week after that? Don’t lay up treasures on earth.
Mary and Martha released a whole new vision at that point. Like mid-life, this wonderful, challenging story is a bridge between the beginning and the continuation of Jesus’ journey- and ours. It unites the life of God’s people into a unified journey, the past few weeks and the coming weeks joined as one. The actions of service and mission, the call of the Christian life, the Samaritan willing to reach out to help a fellow traveler. Go and do likewise, Jesus tells us. Martha.
Luke then brakes to a halt.
Pay attention, he says. This isn’t here by accident. Now that I have your attention (and probably your anger) at Jesus' dealing with poor old Martha-
Listen!This event, this homey, down-to-earth picture of everyday domestic life in Martha and Mary's house is a bridge. It moves us from the before- the work of mission; to the here and now- being Jesus' people.
Here in the importance of Mary we find what makes the work of Jesus’ people different. It is not the outcome. Social service agencies do more good with far more resources than we can ever have. We give thanks and support them. We do what we can do within our resources to add to their efforts.
But when people of faith do their work something else is present- whether we do it in the church or in the world. Something different, something that comes from within as well as beyond us. By its very presence this something else challenges the ways we have been accepting as normal. It challenges the ways of evil and fear with a power greater than us- and greater than the evil and fear itself. The something different is what we find when we sit with Jesus, spending time in his presence.
Today I stand at quite a distance from that young pastor working hard to make a difference. I say these words about this short, but remarkable story, and the youthful me is aghast. I sound like those who used to put Martha down for her busy-ness.
Yet that is not what Jesus is doing. I believe he is calling all of us who tend to be Marthas to put this faith together. My mid-life epiphany opened the possibility that at the heart of human existence is the spiritual. In the spiritual- in a balanced spiritual life we can find the road out of the endless running, the seemingly infinite ways dreams are squashed, the creep of the minutes in a life that goes nowhere.
Mary and Martha are complimentary ways that need to go together for the life of faith to make sense. Even more- they need to go together to have a life that makes sense in the here and now. The foundation of the faith, this life-- what Jesus calls the “better part” -- is the spiritual. It is, we discover through experience, the essential on which we build a way of life.
There is no one right way to be spiritual, of course. From meditation and mindfulness to yoga or Tai Chi; from the Jesus' Prayer or the weekly experience of the Eucharist to the hymn that sends shivers up our spine, the spiritual is knowing we are part of something greater than ourselves, and connected with our brothers and sisters. The story of Mary and Martha is the bridge that we walk across in the midst of Luke's Gospel that takes us deeper into communion with Jesus.
Mary, without Martha, is self absorption, and self centered righteousness. Martha without Mary leads to burn-out and a feeling that we can do this salvation work by ourselves.
Without Mary, Martha’s work isn’t complete. Without taking the time to sit in the spiritual light, the work will wear us down or become drudgery. Take a look at many people who have a spiritual basis for their lives, who have learned to sit, walk, run in the presence of God, and you will see people energized for what they do. Their spiritual life is not an add-on to their work—their work is an extension of their spiritual.
When we sit with Mary at the feet of Jesus, we discover the power that energizes us to do whatever our vocation might be. In the center of the Spiritual Life we find the love of God in Jesus Christ so we have something to share.