Mary and Martha — Sermon for July 21 2013
St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for 9C Pentecost
July 21, 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Gen. 18:1-10a; Ps. 15; Col. 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
There’s a parish in Maine where the clergy often gather for meetings and when we do we are hospitably welcomed and served a delicious meal prepared by a group of people who call themselves The Martha Guild. They want to raise up Martha’s active hospitality, and I’m all for that. Martha has a lot of defenders who don’t particularly care for the set-up in this passage from the Gospel of Luke. Martha has welcomed Jesus into her home, and is doing exactly what her society expects of her, extending hospitality. So what’s the problem?
This passage has sometimes been understood as making a claim of preference for contemplation over action. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. First of all that would set up a false dualism. Action without thought isn’t much good, nor is thinking deep thoughts without ever embodying those thoughts into action. Martha’s problem — and she does have one — is not that she is actively doing something and not sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s not that her work is somehow less important than what Mary’s doing. Martha’s problem is evident in her language. Listen to it again:
“Lord, do you not care that..” [fill in the blank!]
“… my sister has LEFT me…”
“… to do ALL the work”
“… by myself?”
“Tell her then to help me!”
We don’t need an expert in first century family systems dynamics to tell us what’s going on here. She’s triangulating Jesus. She using language of abandonment, and she’s employing some emotional blackmail. Martha’s problem isn’t that she is active. Her problem is that she is reactive. We might even say she’s radioactive! Her mind has been triggered, probably by old thought patterns. We can imagine her inner dialogue, the older sister, ‘I’m always left to do the work, while she sits there …” Mary and Jesus start to hear muttering from the kitchen, cupboard doors slamming, pots landing a little too loudly on the table top, feet thumping across the kitchen floor. She is so out of herself she has likely embarrassed her sister in front of their honored quest. She’s been hooked by her emotions and carried off, and said things she would probably deeply regret later. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”
The text is not saying that Martha should have been doing what Mary was doing to be doing “the one needful thing.” She did not need to put down her work and come and sit. What she needed to do was to unhook herself from her emotions so she would see God in the work she was doing. So she could be fully present and alive to this moment. The fragrance of the basil and rosemary, the feel of the dough in her hands, the soft breeze coming in through the window, the pleasure of the murmur of the voices of her sister and her dear friend Jesus in the other room. Resting in this place does not need words, thought, or theology. Pure awareness, an open heart, and a wordless confession of the wonder are all that is needed.
Now of course sometimes the things that hook us do so because they need attention. For example, last week you may have heard that a state senator in Utah has proposed to eliminate compulsory education on the theory that it will get parents more involved. (!) So you go off on a rant. To your family, your friends, the dog, the tv, the wall, whoever will listen. For 10 minutes. Maybe twenty. And in the process you cut your finger slicing tomatoes. Catching ourselves when our minds get hijacked, and noticing, being a witness to ourselves reacting enables us, rather than reacting, to respond with skillful means. Does this idea have any traction? If so, how might I respond effectively?
So I think the text is telling us something about how our reactivity, what Buddhists call the “monkey mind” that hooks us, spins a narrative and takes us out of the present, gets in our way, and needs our attention on our path of spiritual growth. And it highlights the importance of having a spiritual practice that helps us to train the witness, to see when we are doing that. More about that in a minute.
But for all that this is helpful, notice that the text has just led me into a distraction. Because it tells us that what’s going on with Martha is not the important thing. Our attention should really be on Jesus and Mary. What is Jesus saying to Mary, that is so centrally important? We don’t know! The text tells us that what Jesus is saying to Mary is the one true thing, but we don’t know what it is! There is no sermon on the plain, no discourse, no parable, no teaching set out for us. There is no translated language for Greek scholars to argue about, no teaching to interpret. The text is silent. And we can’t assume this is unimportant because the text tells us that it is “the one true thing.” This thing that is so important. What is it? What are Jesus and Mary talking about? Why didn’t Luke fill in the blanks?
This invites an important question: how do we engage scripture? We spend a lot of time on Sunday mornings reading the texts, listening to a sermon with someone’s thoughts on a particular aspect of the texts, many of you are participating in our adult education where we explore the text still further. What is our method of engagement? It is important to be intentional about this. To begin with, we try to figure out what’s going on. What’s happening in the narrative, what came before and after, what the social construct is. For example, it helps us to know that in Jesus’ day, Mary sitting at his feet would have been recognized as the posture of a student. And it is helpful to know that students were always male. And it is helpful to know that hospitality was extremely important in that culture. In last week’s gospel text about the Samaritan, it is important to the meaning of the parable to understand the historical enmity between Jews and Samaritans. It’s helpful to know which Epistles were written by Paul and which weren’t. These things help us get at the story’s reason for its telling.
The second means of engagement is theological. The why, what does this mean, what are its meanings for Christianity, for the life of faith. Why is it important, what does it say about Jesus, and God, and how God is at work in the world. With this we are helped, we hope, by generations of scholars, theologians and preachers who make meaning out of the text.
Along with the “what’s going on,” and “what does it mean,” there’s a third way of engaging scripture. This third way is supported by the first two — knowing what’s going on, and its theological significance, but it is not dependent on them but rather transcends and includes them. And this third way of engaging scripture you may feel is not open to you, that you are not qualified for it, you may even have been told somewhere along the way that you don’t have permission. This is engagement with scripture through our own direct experience. We step into the story, we allow it to touch us and move us, we engage it with our imaginations and allow it to reveal itself to us from the inside. I’m even going to suggest that when it comes to scripture, this is the one needful thing, the one for which the others prepare us and help us. Otherwise, we just stay in our heads where the reactive thinking and emotional dialogues run on and on and it doesn’t touch us.
This experiential encounter with scripture is crucial, because scripture describes peoples’ encounter with the living God. To experience this for ourselves, to grasp its deep meaning, we have to enter into it. With this text especially, where we have this great silence. With this we are being invited to engage it imaginatively. The story tells us that what Jesus and Mary are talking about is “the one true thing,” or “the better part.” That should invite our curiosity. What is it Jesus is saying? I suggest that this restraint, this spaciousness of the text is deliberate. we are invited into a different way of knowing. It is a beckoning. We are being invited in, to sit at the feet of Jesus ourselves, to engage our imaginations, to consider what we know about Jesus, and what the lay-up of the story suggests to us. Because it is the wisdom that can’t be told, it has to be experienced.
So what do we imagine is the teaching imbedded in this text? Cynthia Bourgeault gives us that insight that Jesus was a wisdom teacher. Jesus came as a teacher of the transformation of consciousness. And if that is Jesus’ central teaching, it is so not only for Mary and Martha, but also of course for all of us. We can’t do that just by study. We can’t do that by learning stuff. The cognitive is necessary but not sufficient. We have to do it by mindfully living the life of faith. We have to do it by waking up.
Notice that the text itself, this story of Mary and Martha is itself a meditative practice. Right here in the middle of the gospel of Luke. Think of it this way. Like Mary, we are sitting with Jesus in prayer meditation. Stilling our minds, listening to God. And our mind gets distracted, our monkey mind gets carried off by our worries and our own mind’s agenda. And we hope to have the “presence of mind” to be gently called back to the one true thing, to be present to our awakened mind. “Martha, Martha, there is only one thing that is needful.” Or perhaps, because mindful attention doesn’t only happen on a cushion, we enter into the text as Martha, busily going about our work, but now we have been taught. And we can call ourselves to be fully present to the work we’re engaged in it, seeing the holy in everything.
Practicing mindfulness and engaging scripture through experience is to allow ourselves to be taught from the inside out — inside the centered heart of wisdom, and then outward in compassion. And this is where the active and the contemplative meet. All that good work that we do — making beds for our house guests, writing an article for the paper, sitting with a friend in the hospital, share a meal and swap stories at the soup kitchen, performing in the local summer theater — all that good work is not done as an ego project, or a guilt reliever, or an effort to earn salvation for ourselves, or done in the expectation of thanks or gratitude even, but a free and openhearted, full offering of ourselves that comes from the wellspring of life. We know what this feels like. We respond to the needs of the world not with a divided heart, but from place of wholeness, and healing love. That place of wholeness is only found in the centered, present moment of awakened consciousness, which is what Christ came to teach us. This is the one true thing, to experience the living God for ourselves in our lives, and to show forth its joy. AMEN.