Mary and Martha

Sermon by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham

St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, MA

July 17, 2022

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11C)

Genesis 18:1–10a, Colossians 1:15–28, Luke 10:38–42


  “Sweeping” by Tracey Lind

Let me begin by expressing gratitude for the invitation to be among you. It’s always a pleasure and honor to be in the presence of Tracey and Emily. Tracy is a priest I’ve admired and learned from over the years, a great leader in our church, a very smart priest, smart enough to get a guest preacher on a Sunday when the lectionary serves up what I find to be a challenging gospel reading.

Early in my ministry, a professor told me that the Bible is just a story of sibling rivalry, a nod to the fact that we’re all part of the human family, even folks who drive us nuts, folks who can show up in our families and churches. Right from the start, in the book of Genesis, Cain and Abel have a fight about worship, a church fight, if you can imagine such a thing, one that ends in murder, putting current church fights in perspective. Keep reading and you come to Jacob and Esau, or Joseph of technicolor raincoat fame and his murderous brothers, or David’s sons at war with each other. In the gospels, the parable of the Prodigal Son describes the challenging relationship of older and younger son. Today, we meet Mary and Martha, two devoted disciples, two close friends of Jesus, two sisters in a tussle.

Martha, busy getting everything ready, is upset that her sister is not helping, but instead is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Martha does what many of us do in family squabbles. She triangulates. Instead of directly addressing her sister with her concern, she tells Jesus to fix it. Jesus will have none of it, and says to Martha: You’re distracted by many things. Mary chose the better part. If I were Jesus (we can breathe a sigh of relief that that’s not the case) I might have spoken of a variety of gifts or offered some Episcopalian response like “Martha and Mary, you’re both right.” But that’s not what he says. His response raises the fairness index, often making folks mad, making me wonder: “Did Jesus have someone handling communications for him?” Given all that, think with me about what we can learn from this story this morning.

Part of what irritates me about this story is that it taps into my inner Martha. In my 30 years in church, and before that when I worked in advertising and juggled many projects at once, I had a daily and extensive to do list. I derived great gratification (and still do) by crossing things off the list. Sometimes I put innocuous things on the list, like feed the dog, just so I can cross it off. Sometimes I add things to the list I’ve already done, again, so I could cross them off. A worthwhile day was when I’d accomplished a lot, making me feel worthwhile. Tell me I’m not alone here. 

For the past 10 years, I’ve worked with the wider church, helping congregations think about spiritual growth. The work started when I listened to the senior pastor of a huge non-denominational church with tens of thousands of members. The place was great at welcoming people. They had a million programs. It was widely regarded as wildly successful. But as the church continued in its ministry, the leadership realized that people did not seem to be going deeper in faith. Word got out that many members, including leaders, were going elsewhere for teaching that would feed them. The senior pastor came to this realization: More church activity did not mean more spiritual growth. In fact, sometimes church activity got in the way.

So what might Jesus be commending in Mary’s choice? Tracy and I have a friend named Ed Bacon who wrote a book on the 8 habits of love. In that book he tells about a conference he attended. The leader proposed an exercise, asking the group to write a brief autobiography, telling their life story from 3 points of view. He said: Write your life story with you as hero. Then write that story as victim. Then write that story with you as a learner.

I suspect at time we all can see ourselves as hero, someone God is lucky to have on the team. I suspect at times we can all write our story as victim. If you’re like me, you have an emotional shelf on which you place resentments as treasured trophies, often spending time polishing them. But the retreat leader was encouraging folks to see themselves as learners.

In today’s gospel, I suspect Martha saw herself as hero, knocking herself out for Jesus, but resentful that she had to do this work by herself. Have you ever run across people who work tirelessly for the church or some noble cause and totally resent it? I suspect Martha also saw herself as victim, always the one who had to put on dinner. The learner in the story is Mary, who places herself in the presence of Jesus to see what can be learned, maybe to find out what she didn’t know. It’s possible that the word learner or student is synonym for the word disciple. Mary models discipleship. So what does that discipleship look like?

It’s about Mary putting herself in the presence of Jesus. Which is why a focus on the contemplative life is important. There’s a long tradition of that focus in the history of the church. In recent years, thanks be to God, we’ve had people who have helped us think about how the contemplative life applies to modern life. Mystics like Howard Thurman or Thomas Merton or Thomas Keating or Richard Rohr, and folks from other traditions like Abraham Heschel or Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama.

Thomas Keating spoke of the importance of the contemplative life, of a prayer life, which is like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, placing one’s self in the presence of God. Keating cited St. Teresa of Avila who wrote: All difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent. Keating said: This is the conviction that we bring with us from early childhood and apply to everyday life and to our lives in general. It gets stronger as we grow up, unless we are touched by the Gospel and begin the spiritual journey. This journey is a process of dismantling the monumental illusion that God is distant or absent.

In my own journey, I’ve been helped by the ministry of Richard Rohr who claims that contemplative wisdom both supports personal healing and is vital to human and planetary flourishing. He sees a deep relationship between the inner revolution of prayer and the transformation of society.  He said: We have to teach people to integrate their needed activism with a contemplative heart and mind.

What I’ve come to love about these people is that their focus on contemplation, on a life of prayer, on attentiveness to God’s voice in no way ignores the problems of the world and things that need to get done, the healing that needs to happen. It’s neither pie in the sky, nor retreat from the world. Rather, the contemplative focus equips people to contribute to the transformation of our world. I think of how Martin Luther King insisted that those participating in demonstrations have daily prayer and bible reading, When John Lewis was attacked on that bridge in Alabama, he had a backpack that included the Bible and a book of meditations by Howard Thurman.

A book I’ve enjoyed as much as any in recent years is the BOOK OF JOY, a report on a week Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama spent together. They are united not only by great friendship, but by histories of encounters with the cruelest human power, a commitment to justice and peace that got them in tons of good trouble. They engaged with our beautiful and broken world, an engagement that flowed from a deep spirituality, and especially from a commitment to daily prayer. There’s a wonderful passage in the book, where in friendly competition, they compare who prays the most. The Dalai Lama wins, getting up at 3am to pray. Desmond Tutu sleeps in. He gets up at 4am to pray. The point being that the contemplative life, time in silence, time listening to the Holy One, is key to their call to heal the world.

With that in mind, let’s get back to Mary and Martha. Today’s gospel is not the last time we meet them. We hear about them again in John’s gospel, when their brother, Lazarus is on his deathbed. In fact, Lazarus dies. In their pain, their crisis the sisters call on Jesus. Martha comes to Jesus first, sharing her grief, claiming that if Jesus had been present her brother would not have died. Jesus calls her to believe in his power to bring new life. She does. Mary then comes, with similar questions and calls Jesus Lord as she witnesses the resurrection of her beloved brother. Each in her own way express confidence in Jesus’ power to transform. Differences between action and contemplation fade away. Nobody is worrying about who cooked dinner. Their sibling rivalry is a thing of the past, as they recognize Jesus’ power to make all things new, as they learn about that power. As they did, may we set rivalry aside, wherever it surfaces and come to learn about that loving and life-giving power of Jesus to make things new, to make us new. May we be learners, learning to walk in his way which is the way of love.