After listening to this morning’s scripture reading about Martha who is worried and distracted by many things in contrast to her sister Mary who sits listening attentively at Jesus’ feet, I just want to say thank God for the Marthas of this world. If not for the Marthas we might not even be sitting in this beautiful sanctuary, it might never have been built. Over the years Martha energy has catered hundreds of church suppers raising thousands of dollars for church budgets not to mention humanitarian aid work all over the world. Martha energy makes things happen and gets things done. If you need any further proof of this, just stop by our Thrift Shop sometime. We would simply not have the church as we know it if not for the Marthas of this world.
Walter Hawkins, who was one of the patriarchs of the first congregation I served, had a great respect for Martha and the way she has been embodied in the work of women in the church for centuries on end. So anytime the story of Mary and Martha would show up in a bible study group, we’d have to listen to Walter extol the virtues of Martha and rant about how angry this passage from scripture made him before we could really dig into the text.
So this morning I wanted to take a page from Walter’s book and say hurray for Martha. Because this morning’s Gospel reading really isn’t so much about how Martha who rushes around and makes the meal for Jesus is wrong and Mary who sits at the foot of Jesus is right. I think it’s more about the necessity of both types of energy and awareness in our lives, so we can live in the world and change the world in a way that is congruent with how sacred energy, life-giving, God-given energy dwells in the world, changing and transforming it.
It’s about how to get our Mary on, in a Martha driven world.
Jesus had been welcomed into the home of Martha and Martha was doing all the things that needed to be done when you’ve invited someone to your home. She was busy taking care of all the details. She was busy doing what has traditionally been known as women’s work.
She’s making sure the spare room is neat and tidy with clean sheets on the bed. She’s putting out the appetizers and making sure everyone has a drink, checking on the roast to make sure it’s not getting overcooked, turning the veggies on to steam and making the cheese sauce to go over them. She’s making sure everything is absolutely perfect for the perfect guest she is receiving.
It’s just that she’s so busy and so efficient, that she’s become distracted from her guest. She has time for all the details, time for getting everything ready, but no real time to actually receive and honour the one that she is hosting.
Lots of us know what this is like don’t we? You plan a big meal, you invite everyone over and after they’ve gone home you realize you haven’t stopped moving all night. You didn’t even get a chance to sit down and ask your friends or family what’s been going on in their lives. You’ve barely tasted the food on your plate and after its all over, you’re exhausted.
Martha is so busy taking care of everybody else, she’s had no time to take care of herself, no time to ask herself what she really wanted from this encounter with her guest. And on top of it all, her sister is sitting there on her backside doing absolutely nothing to help her. Can’t Mary see there’s work to be done?
Now Martha might have quietly taken her sister aside and suggested that she give her a hand. “Could I see you in the kitchen for a moment dear?” But she’s so far over the edge she’s beyond that kind of discretion and direct communication. Instead she marches right to Jesus and gives her sister the what for “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
And there it is, the ugly but truthful moment. Martha has in front of her the one they have come to call the Messiah, an honoured guest and all she can do in his presence is whine and complain about her sister. You just hear it in her voice can’t you? “I’m always doing all the work around here and I never get any appreciation.”
I recognize this moment well, because I have had these moments in my own life. Many of you know I am the youngest of four in my family and the only one who lives close to my mother who lives at Lynn Valley Care Center. I happen to be her only daughter. That means I am the one who visits my mother regularly, takes care of her finances, buys her clothes etc etc etc. And I am happy to do that. In fact it’s a great privilege. But every now and then when my three retired brothers are out on the golf course or relaxing at their respective winter homes in Florida and Mexico or at our family cottage in Northern Ontario and I am here raising my children, doing my paid job and taking care of our mother I get a little bit whinny and I start to complain.
Last week those of us who gathered here heard the well- known story about the good Samaritan and the imperative to “do”our faith in concrete ways, the imperative to come close to those in need and be active in our caring. But today’s reading, which comes right on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel, seems to suggest that if we are not careful about balancing our “doing” with our being we can become self-righteous, judgemental and whinny, like Martha, and like me when I am not taking care of my heart and soul.
A research study in Boston once recruited 39 people who indicated a willingness to take part in a meditation class. The group was divided in two. Twenty of them were offered a weekly meditation class and sent home with recordings to help them practice what they were learning while the other 19 were told they had been put on a waiting list for the course. After 8 weeks all 39 were invited into the lab for a purported experiment to examine their memory and other cognitive abilities. What was really being tested was whether or not 8 weeks of meditation made any difference when it came to showing compassion towards the suffering.
So they had each participant enter a waiting room where there were three chairs, two of which were already occupied. The participant naturally took the empty chair. Then they sent in a fourth person who was on crutches and wearing a cast. This fourth person let out an audible sigh when they saw there was no seat as they leaned up against the wall to wait. The first two people who were in on the experiment ignored the person on crutches leaving the participant in the compassion study to decide if they would give up their seat. The results were striking. Only 16 percent of the non-meditating group gave up their seat, but 50% of those who had been meditating for 8 weeks gave up theirs. What is particularly remarkable is that this happened in a situation which is known to inhibit considerate behaviour, a situation in which others are ignoring a person in distress, otherwise known as the bystander effect.
What the researchers claimed is that the meditators were more compassionate because meditation heightens ones awareness and makes you more attentive to those around you and to our interconnectedness with one another. What I wonder is if the meditators had more time for others because they had taken the time to tend and be present to their own deepest selves.
Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. It’s an indication that Jesus is treating her as a student, honouring her as one who is worthy of learning about the Torah. It’s another indication of his radical message of inclusion. But another way of looking at this story could be to suggest that she was listening not just to what Jesus was teaching her about, but she was listening to Jesus himself, being attentive to the presence of the Christ, that presence that we say each and every week in this church is both within us and among us; that inner compass that points us in the right direction and holds us in line with God’s intentions for us and for our world.
The Christ-presence within us is really a reflection of our truest selves, that part of us that came into the world with us when we were born.
Martha is busy and distracted and completely disconnected from the Christ presence in her house. She has opened her door and welcomed Jesus in and then completely ignored what it is he has to offer her. It happens doesn’t it? We become distracted from the Christ presence within us. We become pulled away, busy and worried about too many things. And sometimes when that happens, like Martha, we become stuck in that “what about me and my needs?” way of being. We burn out, we become judgemental and self-righteous. We lose our effectiveness as vessels of love in the world. We might be getting things done, but we wreak havoc on others and on ourselves along the way. And what we do manage to create is simply not as abundant and life giving as it could be.
We all know that food made and served with love and attention, hospitality that is offered with grace, is made and offered differently than food and hospitality offered in haste and unawareness. Food made and served with love tastes differently. It nourishes us more deeply.
When Mary sits in silence at the feet of Jesus, that presence that directs and influences her life she’s not worrying about and busy with what she’s going to feed him and where he’s going to sleep because she is too busy feasting at the banquet before her, drinking deeply of sacred presence. She’s tapping into that life-giving energy that doesn’t just enable us to serve the world, it enables us to serve in a way that nourishes us as it nourishes other the source that enables her to give to the world without being drained of every last ounce of her being, because her giving flows out of divine abundance.
One of the things I love about this story of Martha and Mary is that when Martha opens the door and welcomes Jesus into her house, he sees what’s really going on inside. Nothing is hidden. He sees her distraction. He sees her exhaustion. He sees what it is she really needs. He tells her like it is. Martha, Martha, you are so worried and so distracted by so many things. Have you forgotten what life is really all about? Sit down. Sit down and rest. Sit down and be present. Sit down and rest. Stop doing and spend some time just being, just receiving, just tending your weary soul.
In the exchange between Martha and Jesus you get the sense these two have an intimate relationship with one another. Afterall it isn’t just anyone that comes into your house to whom you reveal your family dysfunction to is it? You wouldn’t complain to just anyone that your sister or your brother, your husband or your wife, your parents or your kids were driving you crazy would you?
Most of us would only let the people that we really trust and that really love us for who we are see what really goes on inside our homes.
And it’s only the people that really love and trust us that can hold a mirror up to us and tell us like it is.
That’s what’s really going on in this story I think. Jesus is telling Martha like it is and he’s doing it because what he wants for her what is best for her. And he’s doing it because he knows the good that she is doing in the world could be even better, if it was coming from a more abundant and more grace-filled place.
Martha energy gets things done in the world. Martha energy that is grounded in Christ presence accomplishes even more.
So when we have become too busy and distracted by many things, its time for us to get our Mary on, to sit and listen, to be attentive and receive.