The shortest verse in the bible is, “Jesus wept.” He wept for the world, for our sins, and for the downtrodden; let us do likewise. That’s the shortest sermon in the world.
But seriously, this morning I would like us to look at the gospel passage about Martha and Mary in a little bit different light. But it will be short, due to the oppressive heat.
Certainly Jesus—who traveled, taught, cured, fed, raised from the dead, and sent the seventy to do likewise—would have agreed that the practical meeting of human need along the way was crucial and unrelenting. Perhaps what is being highlighted in today’s gospel is the conflict that those in ministry, lay and ordained, experience between doing and being, between “productive” work and quiet listening. It is each person’s task to discern the time and quantity of attention best suited for each; the time for hurrying, the time for waiting; the moment to act and the signal that more contemplation is needed in decision making.
And while we acknowledge that it never seems as though enough can be done to alleviate suffering in our world, we should also remember that Jesus withdrew for times of quiet prayer and inactivity in the midst of strenuous ministering to crowds and individual people clamoring for his attention. Luke 4:42 tells us that “At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place.” He saw and modeled a balance that included a time to pull back as well as periods in which to work tirelessly.
The biblical concept of time is much different from the Western idea of time as a measurable quantity. The guideline Jesus would have been working from has more to do with the quality of certain times. This referred to an attempt to live each moment as unique and precious within the rhythm of a life dedicated to God. How wonderful if this quality of making Christ present among ourselves and for others could be multiplied by all the moments in a day, each day, for each of us.
When people are hungry, and without resources, it is time to act. Mary W. Anderson wrote in The Christian Century (7/1/1998), “Hospitality is an art form…Theologically speaking, the purpose of hospitality is to prepare a welcoming space for encounters with God’s word. It’s not that God’s word cannot be heard in barren, inhospitable places or circumstances. God is not so limited but we are.
“God can speak in any situation, but we, frail creatures, cannot always hear. The Bible witnesses to the struggle of the Hebrews in the wilderness where they were so preoccupied with the lack of creature comforts that they constantly complained about God and (God’s servant) Moses. (There are days when I know just how Moses felt!) “To keep their attention, to keep them moving, to keep them faithful, God often found himself preparing dinners of manna and quail. Only then, when fed, could they hear the word (and then carry out their mission). So it is with us. We need to be fed with God’s word and prayer, so that we can carry out our mission and not get cranky, as did our friend Martha.”
Being present and available to Jesus as Mary was comprises the essence of prayer, and it is in this holy encounter that we often discover the living water of the Spirit welling up within us.
A story is told that a gentle nun was well known for her prayer life. Once a novice came to her and asked her how she had reached the point at which her prayer became constant. “Looking back,” said the nun, “it seems that the prayer has always been deed in my heart. Once it was like an underground spring covered by a great stone. Then one day Jesus came along and removed the stone. The spring has been bubbling up ever since.”
Repetition, through presence and availability in prayer is the key to spiritual growth. To go and sit before Jesus, listening to his word and allowing the spring of the Spirit to bubble up is a practice that needs to be nurtured—whether one is feeling “moved by the Spirit,” or not. It is a spiritual discipline that is necessary to a serene and productive Christian life.
Sister Wendy Beckett once pointed out that Saint Francis de Sales became renowned for his patience, perhaps the distinctive mark of his holiness. “But he was born violently impatient, and it took years of struggle and sacrifice, of wrestling with his instinctive irritation and anger, before he mellowed into his eventual gentleness. It was his union with God in prayer, his longing to be made different, that made it possible for God to transform him.” She stressed that God will do the work, but we must be there for it to be done, and prayer is, above all, that “being there.”
Presence and availability are born of focus, of concentration. What is required, therefore, is the setting aside of self. This means the bracketing of our agendas—as wonderful and necessary as we tell ourselves they are—to be present and available to God or to another person.
It means not being divided—not thinking of what we are going to say while the other person is talking; not balancing our checkbook while listening on the phone, not texting and reading emails on your phone the whole time you are at dinner with a loved one; not sending up a few prayers in the midst of rush-hour confusion out of frustration and anger and calling it “prayer time.”
Rather, being present to God is about setting aside a time in our heart and our mind for one purpose: receiving. That is why Martha is gently rebuked for her impatience with her sister. What Martha was doing in the kitchen was the epitome of hospitality, a practice that is lifted up throughout the Old and New Testaments. Hospitality was lifted up in serving friends, yes, but more than that—hospitality to the stranger, or as stated in Deuteronomy, even hospitality to the foreigner who dwells in your land. Think about that in light of what is going on today.
Friends, Jesus didn’t scold Martha for doing good works. His gently chiding her was because she was self-righteous about it. What became obvious was that she had not spent the time in prayer and study of God’s Word, which is what the nuns I mentioned were talking about. It’s about getting things in proper order. Because when we are prepared spiritually, we will be able to serve generously without becoming self-righteous, and getting mad at others. Jesus saw Martha’s frustration and pointed out what she was lacking.
However, know this: Martha was no less devoted to Jesus than Mary was; but she failed to see the way of receiving him that would please him most and prepare her to serve him the best—giving full attention to “kneeling” at Jesus’ feet, as did Mary.
May we go and do likewise. Amen.
*Sermon resource: Synthesis, Proper 11, July 21, 2019, “Postscript.”