If the Martha and Mary story were about preparation, we could really help Martha. We would share grandmother’s organizing tips, our favorite make ahead recipes. We could be with her, helping, or text her, call her, skype, and share tips via television, magazine, Pinterest, and the latest blogs. We could show her how to be more organized and efficient with her time. Martha could learn how to prepare meals that would serve a multitude, or how to freeze portions for use in other imaginative and delicious meals at a later time, all with perfect presentation. We could help Martha with her busy-ness. If only she had been a little more prepared….
Mary. If only Mary weren’t such an image of perfection. She walked right into the room and sat down. And that is what Jesus said was exactly the right thing to do. Imagine that. Sitting and doing nothing was the right thing to do. She did nothing! That’s it? This gospel is about perfection? … about doing nothing. Now that’s some good news with which to live. After all, we have a very busy life.
Our message from Luke today is not about preparation or perfection. And, unfortunately, it isn’t about doing nothing. When Martha asked Jesus to reprimand her sister, the Greek word lets us know that Martha really did expect him to tell Mary to help her sister. We use language like this. If I say, “wouldn’t you like to go shopping with me today?” you would know that I am expecting you to say yes. If I say, “you don’t want to see that movie, do you?” I am thinking that you will say “no, I’d rather see the other one with you.” We want each other to agree or disagree, and we frame our questions accordingly, just like Martha did.
Jesus’ reply was a radical departure from what was expected; it was radical in the rules of hospitality. We remember that hospitality was extremely important in our old world culture. Being a good host or hostess brought honor to a family. Knowing what to do was a measure of you and your family. Welcoming a visitor required hard work and preparation, and accepting someone into your home meant that we would be responsible for our guest’s life. We know that providing a welcoming, comfortable home takes time and energy (if not hours on Facebook and Pinterest). Jesus wasn’t disparaging Martha’s talents in this area. He doesn’t comment on Martha’s efficiency or on the meal that she was preparing. He stops her in her busy-ness, and said that she was distracted by many things. By being distracted she was overlooking that which was important. The many distractions of our lives keep us from the one important thing. That one, important thing is sitting at the feet of our Lord. Jesus told Martha, by the example of Mary, that being in God’s presence and listening to Him – sitting at his feet – is the one thing, the most important thing.
In 1871 – almost 150 years ago, Charles Spurgeon, a famous English preacher, wrote and spoke these words:
It is an unspeakable mercy that the one thing needful is a very simple one. Little child, thou couldst not climb the mountain, but thou canst sit down at Jesus’ feet; thou canst not understand hard doctrine, but thou canst love him who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Unlearned man, thou who hast no time to acquire earthly lore, if the one thing needful were something that belonged only to the learned, alas for thee; but if thou canst not teach, it is not needful that thou shouldst, it is only needful that thou shouldst learn. Take the Incarnate Wisdom to be thy Master, and sit as a little child at his feet to learn with all thine heart. That is all he asks of thee. (Oct 15, 1871)
Charles Spurgeon certainly does not understand what it is that we have to do today. Yes, my friends, I suspect that he does. He did not have the many things that we do to help us with our work: he did not have a hi-intensity lamp by which to see his writing; there was neither ball point pen nor computer keyboard nor auto-complete nor internet. None of us were there to tell him how to get things done. And yet, Charles Spurgeon tells us what grace there is in our ability to sit, as children, at Jesus’ feet. We have everything we need, right now, to be able to be in the presence of Jesus. Our embodied selves are all that we need.
We forget sometimes, when we are so very busy, that we do not get our value from being busy. We do not have value because of what we do. We have value because we are children of God and we are made in God’s image. That is the radical and life changing good news that Jesus presents us today. Being is enough. You and I, just being, are children of God. And as children of God, the most important thing is for us to sit at God’s feet and listen. (almost whisper) Listen. Yes, there is work to do, yes humankind has found ways to be busy for over two thousand years, but the most important thing is to abide in the presence of our Lord. It is radical good news that you and I, just being, are children of God. We are made in God’s image.
The reading from Colossians ties into this state of being. In Colossians we hear that “Jesus is the image of the invisible God…. The mystery is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The ongoing mystery of our faith is “Christ in us,” Christ who died that we might have life, embodied to us who are made in the image of God. The face that we see in the mirror every day is made in the image of God. It is beautiful, and it is enough. The person who lives in a cardboard box on the streets of Rochester was made in the image of God. That person, too, is a child of God. Babies in neonatal intensive care, persons disfigured by tragedy, and the oldest and most frail of humankind – are all images of the face of God.
It becomes our challenge as children of God, to stop and listen. But the kids don’t want to get up, I am exhausted, I have to prepare that report, I’m late for work, I have to put dinner on the table…Martha. Stop. Listen.
Surely it takes a lot to stop and listen to God and to have God transform our lives. Remember our gospel from a few weeks ago. Military leader Naaman, Naaman with the itchy skin condition, was cured by bathing in a local river. Naaman was mad that God didn’t wave God’s hand and perform some sort of magic in order to do heal him. He wanted wizardry, but a received a miracle out of an ordinary action. Transformation occurred in a man’s life by doing something ordinary, yet unexpected. Today Martha was doing what was ordinary and what was expected of her to do. The unexpected would have been for Martha to sit down, to put aside HER expectations of Jesus, and simply to sit at his feet. We are called, men and women, to do the same.
What, in the ordinary parts of our lives, will invite us to sit at the feet of Jesus, if only for a few moments? How might we today take the well intentioned action of Mary, her deep hospitality, and combine it with the posture of Mary? Some years ago, a little prayer book caught my attention. The Augustine prayer book gave instructions for daily morning prayer, that “immediately upon waking” we might pray. Immediately. “I can’t do that!” Well, yes, we all can. What if, upon waking, you were to say the Lord’s Prayer? Or something even more simple: “Thank you, Lord, for this new day. Be with me today, Lord. Help me hear your voice in all that I do.” “Thank you. Be with me.” Teach me to abide with you.
What happens in a prayer, even a simple prayer such as this one? We have invoked the presence of God, have asked God to be with us. We have taken a posture as Mary did, at the foot of our Lord, and put ourselves in a position to listen to God all day. We have given up our busy-ness just for a moment, and have turned our very being over to the care of God. We have put ourselves in the presence of God. And God, who yearns for relationship with us, responds. God responds in ways that we do not expect. Our problems have not left. We still have to go to work, or school, or stay quietly at home, and be a good steward with our lives. But God transforms our lives, not with a magic hand, but with a presence that lingers. The Lord is here.
I close with the words from a modern pen, words from Brother Curtis Almquist, of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.
In our culture at this time, I suspect that most of us need to do less rather than more. The blur of our life begins to clear as we slow down and abide with contentment in the day and the place and the life we’ve been given, which is a gift. And God intends for it to be good. (7/19/13)