Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Mary and Martha"

This sermon was given on Sunday, July 22, 2007, which was Proper 11, Year C.

All who are weary and heavy-laden…
All who are stressed-out and worn down,
All who are anxious and frazzled,
All who have had it up to here and can’t take it any more…


And this, you will notice, is not an invitation that will require a heck of a lot of hardwork on the part of the weary, stressed-out, anxious, heavy-laden, worn down, frazzled persons who have had it up to here and can’t take it anymore. Because after all, if these people had to do one more thing, have one more care, one more responsibility, they’d snap.

They’d just snap.

There are moments in our lives when what we need is to be poked and prodded and challenged. There are times in our lives when we need to have our assumptions, stereotypes, and basic attitudes turned utterly and completely on their heads because our God doesn’t take injustice lightly, nor does our God take inhospitability lying down.

But before that, and sometimes even in the midst of that, we need something else, because although we are a complex people, we are not an unchanging people – we are dynamic, fluid, and what we needed yesterday may yet be different from what we need tomorrow.

There are other times when we, the stressed out and heavy-laden, get to come to the feet of the master, summarily drop all of our cares at her feet, and then drop ourselves into a cushy chair with a cold drink at our elbow. But no, not then to vege out as we might do in front of a TV, or a radio, or a video game. No, that is not quite the sort of refreshment that God provides.

No, the kind of couch potato relaxing that may seem so common and natural to us is not really what brings us back to balance, real balance, though we can pretend it does. No because when we’re really balanced we’re ready to meet those rigorous requirements of God’s that encompass truth-telling dead ahead, of taking no bribes to our back, of all manner of hospitality on our right and of all manner of openness to our left – it’s the compass rose of God, and it centered, dead centered right where we are, always, in Love. Those are actions we can easily take part in when we’re at balance. That’s a compass rose we can live by when we’re at peace.

Peace. And the way you get to this peace, the way I get to this peace is to listen to the voice of God.

Now, if that seems to you a Herculean Task, don’t worry, because you’ve already done it dozens, nay thousands of times. Seriously. You have heard the voice of God, and so have I, though we may not have thought of it as such at the time. Lemme say that again so it can sink in, just in case this is a brand new thought. You have heard the voice of God, and so have I, though we may not have thought of it as such at the time. And that’s okay – it doesn’t upset God that other people get the credit.

But how – just for the sake of argument – should we know this voice of God that brings peace, particularly when we’ve never consciously recognized that voice to be of God before? Easy. It’s the one that brings peace. Or at least, in the mist of turmoil and suffering, it brings peace. In the midst of complacency, it tends to bring rather intense challenge. But that’s another story.

But no matter the situation, the voice of God is the voice that councils wisdom, peace, healing, and love. It’s the voice that reminds you and me of what we already wish to be true, sometimes, what we already deeply suspect to be true, what we already know to be true.

But lest you think this voice –whether it comes in the garb of that little voice inside your head, or the words of a friend or a stranger – lest you think this voice is always nice, always polite, please think again.

The voice of God is not always nice, polite, or even pleasant. But it is… caring.

And how could someone be caring, but not nice, polite, or pleasant? Parents – I bet you have some insight on this question.

I know that Martha in that story from the gospel of Luke that we just heard found out the embarrassing way how Jesus could speak with the voice of God and be caring, but not particularly pleasant.

Imagine it with me – Jesus is in their home, teaching. Mary is sitting at his feet, listening to him teach. Her sister, Martha, is busy making the meal – which back then took a heck of a lot of time and labor to produce. Now, ostensibly and according to the culture of the time, it’s Mary who is out of line. After all, this is her home, too, and part of showing hospitality for a woman would have been to be in that kitchen helping Martha. And yet, that is not what she chooses to do. One imagines she had her own reasons for shucking the expectations of her culture to sit and listen to the voice of God. Like, perhaps, that is what she needed to do. And Jesus didn’t say anything about it either way. Didn’t say, good for you, Mary. Didn’t say, get up lazy bones and get into that kitchen. Jesus was busy teaching.

Now, just as Mary made a decision to do what she did, so did Martha. She might have chosen not to cook, and they might have eaten late, and worse things could have happened. Instead she chose do to as she did, and Jesus didn’t say anything about it. He didn’t peek into his kitchen and say, well done, great hospitality. He didn’t call her out and demand to know why she wasn’t listening because he had some important stuff to say. He didn’t say anything. Jesus respected Martha’s decision to do as she would, just as he respected Mary’s.

But then, oh, then… Then Martha comes out. Does she pull Mary aside and demand help? No. She goes to the master. And this is where I always cringe, because it’s like watching a train wreck – you know something awful is going to happen, and yet you can’t look away, and it happens so quickly… “Tell her to come help me!” How embarrassing for Mary, in that moment, put on the spot, to have her sister do that, and how embarrassing still would it have been to have the Rabbi reprimand her.

And yet, Martha created a situation such that someone was going to lose face – and it was going to be either her sister or herself.

And what does Jesus do? Jesus bucks convention and refuses to reprimand Mary, who sits at his feet, listening. He respects Mary’s decision to sit and listen. And honestly, he respects Martha’s decision to be working and cooking, but he doesn’t respect Martha’s need to be a proverbial martyr in the kitchen, nor does he respect Martha’s need to redress Mary for making the decision she needed to make. And since Martha has pushed Jesus to comment on the subject, he’s going to do so honestly – it’s clear from the very conversation they’re having that Mary followed the decision of her heart, and Martha didn’t. And so he says, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

Now, I don’t think this story is here so we can vilify Martha, and glorify Mary. I don’t think this story is here so we can use it as our excuse to never be hospitable, or never cook again, or to always be sitting, waiting, listening. No, because we are a complex and ever changing people. Some days we need to do one thing, and other days we need to do the other.

This story is here – one of the many reasons this story is here – is so that we can realize a few things. One of them is this: God won’t take our choices away from us, no matter how they bring us into balance, or keep us from it, God supports every decision that we make, for ourselves. Another thing we learn is this: God does not unanimously support the bad decisions we make for others – the judgments, the condemnations, the manipulations, and all of the untruths. It seems from this story that we can learn this: God respects our right to lie to ourselves, if that is what we’re really determined to do. However, God balks when we think we have a… God-given right to lie to others, to pull others into our self-delusion.

And so we find how the voice of God can be caring, and yet unpleasant. Caring, and yet not particularly nice. Because of all those lovely and general things we learn from this story of Mary and Martha, one concrete thing we might take away from it is this: when we, like Martha, start feeling resentful about the actions of others, that would be really great time to stop and listen for the voice of God. When we start feeling resentful about the actions of others, that’s a great signal for us that we aren’t getting what we need to feel balanced and at peace, whatever that thing that we need is.

And just like our best imitations of a couch potato doesn’t bring us into balance, neither does complaining to the Rabbi and hoping they will somehow, magically, restore balance.

Reaching balance, achieving peace, like all of our own, personal decisions, is something highly respected by God. And when we tell God that that is what we want to experience next, God will listen, and God will help. But will we be willing to receive that help and take the next, maybe frightening step of doing something different that we’ve done before?


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