Pentecost 9

So the priests of the Burlington Convocation have a weekly breakfast meeting, and so pretty much every Thursday at 7:30am I’m at the Golden Dawn diner down in Burlington with around a dozen of my fellow clerics. One morning a few weeks ago, one priest told us that he had shown up to a meeting a little early, and so he took that time to sit quietly in his car to pray and contemplate. Well, Fr. Salmon and I shared a quick glance, maybe a little shared doubt over the contemplative skills of our fellow priest, but then we both commented that that would be almost impossible for us. It turns out that Fr. Salmon and I are both terrible at sitting still; we need to be moving and doing. It reminded me of the African students at seminary always walking and praying, hence their proverb “When you pray, move your feet.”

The Gospel lesson we just heard, Luke’s telling of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha in Bethany, often gets used to highlight the difference between doing and being, between being busy and being contemplative. I hate that.

“Few things are easier than taking a portion of Scripture, isolating it from its original context, and then using this now rarified, out-of-context pericope to serve as some universal statement. This brief lection from Luke 10:38-42 is a classic example. How many times hasn’t this gospel snippet been used to prove that hearing the word of God is just generally more important than doing and being busy.”[1]

I hate that.  I also hate when people try to make excuses for Martha, as if she needed them.  I’ve heard and read way too many sermons and articles that say, well, Maybe Martha was already having a long day of cleaning and going to the market, and maybe the cat had a hairball or she had a migraine or the car wouldn’t start or whatever or whatever.  Martha lived in a house with her sister and brother, and anyone who has siblings can imagine that one sibling might get fed up with the other pretty quickly, regardless of what’s happening.  Martha doesn’t need an excuse; sisters get to yell at each other.

Anyway, I don’t like approaching the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha as a lesson about if it’s better to be a worker or a listener, as that’s a false dichotomy.  It’s really a lesson about the Christian life as a whole, a lesson in how to gain strength and how to use that strength.

So Jesus shows up at the home of Martha and Mary, also home to Lazarus, their brother, and given the culture of the time and place, a few things have to be done, hospitality had to be offered.  As my friend Fr. Bret Hays points out, “The harsh desert climate of the Near East meant that refusing to offer hospitality to a visitor was tantamount to letting them die, and so a code of hospitality had been a key part of the culture since before the time of Abraham.”[2]  So Martha puts on a roast and Mary sits down with Jesus, a bold move for a woman at the time, but since they most likely had all met before, not totally outrageous.  Mary, though, doesn’t lift a finger to help her sister in the kitchen, and so Martha, driven to distraction, makes the unlikely move of asking Jesus to order Mary into the kitchen.

Jesus doesn’t have any of that, He tells Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”  That saying has been taken as a rebuke, but I take it more as an invitation, more like “Martha, Martha, you’ve used up your strength and you’ve lost the plot, but I’m here.”  Perhaps in Jesus’ other words, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

We are a people who get things done.  To hear the reports of all our different committees at our vestry meetings is to hear a litany of work planned and completed, of the great work on our parish property and in the community, of the stories of lives changed and souls saved, of Christ being proclaimed in word and deed.  But all that work requires strength, both physical and spiritual, and just as Jesus said to a tired and frazzled Martha, He says it to us: “I am your strength, your rest; I am the better portion.”

So come with me into the presence of the Lord and contemplate what He has done for us, and then leave here with the strength to change the world.

[2] Fr. Bret Hays, from his sermon given on the lessons of Proper 11, 2013.

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