Sunday, July 21, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Back in 1994, I was living in Cleveland, and I was in the midst of a very important decision. I was trying to decide if I was going to move east to go back to school and then seek a career in academia and leave the pulpit behind. It was a huge decision and so I figured some dedicated time in a retreat setting was an excellent idea. And so I set off to the Abbey of the Genesee in western New York state.
This famed abbey is a Trappist Monastery, meaning, among other things, that a general silence is observed all day, except during worship when the monks chant the Psalms. That is the only time words are spoken. Now, all that silence seemed like a great idea in theory. But in practice - it just about drove me crazy. It was hard to share meals with other pilgrims and not make small talk – to say nothing of trying to get someone to pass you the salt. And it was far more difficult that I had anticipated to spend all those hours in my room, reading and sleeping and praying and listening and journaling… in silence.
But just like a good, long, hard work out, when it was all over, I knew that it had been worth it. I came away from those five days with a renewed sense of purpose and direction for my life’s work. I did move east. And when I look back on that experience 25 years ago, I see a direct thread between those five days at Genesee and this day of standing before you. That strange experience of quietude literally brought me here.
So if that is true; and if I now look back upon my time at Genesee with fondness, if I can see how God’s spirit was at work in the midst of that forced downtime, then I have to wonder why I work so hard at avoiding that kind of silent downtime today. I have to wonder why I seek busyness above all else.
We Protestant like to be busy. We call it the Protestant work ethic. We believe in being busy because there is a lot of work to do in the world. Our pilgrim forbears came to these shores to work – to build a new world, a city set upon a hill. Now our Pilgrim forbears didn’t have any patron saints (they didn’t believe in such things), but if they had, then Martha would have been an excellent choice for them.
One day, Jesus was invited to the home of his best friends, siblings named Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. And Martha was a bit like me when I entertain – she felt all the pressures of getting everything just right. On any other day, her sister Mary would have been in the kitchen with her. But on this day, Mary was acting very strangely indeed.
Instead of being in the kitchen, she was sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him teach. That was odd, not just because Martha needed help, but because by sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary had assumed the position of a male in that society. Only men sat at the feet of a rabbi and absorbed his teachings. Perhaps more oddly still, there is an intimacy implied in the Greek text. The word construction implies that Mary sort of wrapped herself around Jesus’s feet; not wanting to let him go. Maybe that upset Martha too.
And so Martha bustled in and out of the room, sort of slamming the plates down on the table and sighing dramatically. She wanted someone – anyone - to ask her what was wrong. But no one did. Finally, when she couldn’t take it anymore, she did the unthinkable and brought the dinner guest into the middle of the argument. Instead of whispering in her sister’s ear: “Get off your butt and get into the kitchen” she addressed the guest: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left all the work to me? Tell her to help me!” But Jesus answered her: “Martha, dear Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; (but) there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
“The better part.” Well, what could that mean?
The most common way to interpret this story is to say that Jesus is making a clear distinction between the contemplative life and the life based in activity, and implies that the contemplative life is far superior. It’s the better part. And I’ve heard a lot of sermons like interpret this passage just like that. These preachers often laud Mary and chide Martha, as if the sum total of Christian duty is to sit around and think about Jesus while the world goes to hell. But that interpretation is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the story that directly precedes this one is the story of the Good Samaritan. And the story of the Good Samaritan is all about doingthe right thing – not just thinking about it.
So if this is not a story about the superiority of the contemplative life over the life of good works, then what is the point? Well, notice that Jesus never actually chides Martha for being busy. Jesus doesn’t tell her to come and sit down and listen for a while. Somebody has to make the meal and that too is worthy work. So Jesus doesn’t disparage the work itself. Instead, Jesus takes notice of Martha’s state of mind. He identifies her problem like this: “Martha, dear Martha,” he says to her, “you areworried and distractedby many things.”
“You are worried and distracted by many things.” The Greek word for distracted has the connotation of being pulled apart or dragged in different directions all at the same time, like being drawn and quartered. And don’t we all know what that feels like! When I get like that; when life and its worries start to pull me apart, then as much as I love you and love this work, there is no joy in it. I can’t keep my focus. I don’t remember my purpose. I’m prone to being overwhelmed and depressed.
So Martha’s problem was not that she was busy. My problem is not that I am busy. My problem, on any given day, is that the “push me, pull you” of life distracts me from the very things that Jesus taught: love of God, love of neighbor, justice for all people, peace and love and laughter and plenty. I forget “the better part.” I forget what it’s like to sit and listen to our rabbi teach.
And I think that what is true for individuals is also true for institutions. How often does the church collectively listen for the voice of the Spirit? Instead what we do when we feel afraid is ORGANIZE. But what we don’t often see about ourselves is how worried and distracted we really are by budgets and buildings and endowment figures and membership rolls and growth projections and key indicators.
But it doesn’t have to be like that here either. At Old South Church in Boston – a venerable UCC congregation, every Board meeting, every committee meeting begins with 30 minutes of prayer and Bible study and human connection. Now, when I read that, I could hardly believe it so I emailed their pastor, Nancy Taylor, who didn’t know me from Adam. We set up a phone call and I asked her if it was really true. And Rev. Taylor told me that people in that once moribund congregation are actually clamoring to serve because for the first time ever they understand in a visceral way the connection between worship and work; between stillness and purpose.
This week is going to be whatever it will be: stressful, busy, burdensome, challenging. We can’t really change that. But we can choose “the better part.” We can choose to stay close to Jesus and all that he taught us.
This summer we’ve been trying a little stillness after the sermons; a time to reflect upon what we’ve heard. We’ve been sitting in silence for 90 seconds or so. But today, we’re going to go a little deeper. Today we will sit and be still for three minutes. There are no assignments during this time. You don’t have to close your eyes. You don’t have to strain to hear. You don’t have to think of something holy. If someone makes a noise, let it roll right over you. Just need to breathe and be present and let whatever happens, happen.
And this is what I hope will happen: that if you’re anxious and worried, you will feel the everlasting arms under you. I hope that you will be able to breathe - deeply. I hope that your shoulders will relax and your brain will quiet down. I hope you will have a glimpse of the nearness of God and your dearness to God - something Jesus once called “the better part.”