Sermon: The Two Sisters
Year C 16th Sunday of the Year (Proper 11) 2007
Mary and Martha of Bethany shared a friendship with Jesus, but they were very different sisters. Their difference comes through in the gospel of John as much as it does in the text today from Luke. Mary was more a muller; Martha a doer. Mary was an introvert who pondered things quietly; Martha the extrovert who thinks out loud and expresses her passion through action.
As this story has been retold down the centuries most commentators have stressed how you need both capacities to be well-rounded spiritually. Mary and Martha are the “yang and yang” of the spirituality. The systole and diastole of the discipleship.
In a way this passage is a commentary on the previous one.
“How can I really live?” The lawyer asked Jesus a few verses earlier. “How can I have the life of heaven, life to the max?”
Jesus asks, “What does the Bible say?”
“Scripture instructs us to love God with every part of ourselves– body, mind, soul, heart…and love our neighbor as if we were that neighbor.”
Jesus said, “That’ it!” (Luke 10:25_37)
The systole and diastole of life, the vertical and horizontal of spirituality, is the upward and inward devotion to God and the outward devotion to fellow humans. If I understand Jesus here, these are really two sides of the same coin. When you try to separate the commands or put them over against one another you have really undermined both. Taking only one would be like only breathing in and never out, or always pumping blood but never getting it returned. It would be death.
James and the elder John wrote that if we say we love God and fail to love the person right in front of us we are mistaken about loving God. (James 2:14-18; I John 4:20-21)
Being finite we may have to alternate between focus devotion to God and attention to the person at our elbow. Maybe it is impossible for us to both simultaneously. You can focus on the book in your lap and that photograph on the wall will be blurry. You can look out the window at the children playing and the needle you are threading will become almost invisible. Both are real parts of your world and your life. You just can’t see both clearly simultaneously.
It is possible to see these three passages in Luke 10 and 11 as unpacking the love God’s law commands.
1.( Luke 10:25-37) The parable of the Good Samaritan focuses on loving our neighbor. It describes how two religious types with their mind on God missed the neighbor in need. And so, Jesus said, a man most Jews would have said didn’t really know God properly ended up keeping God’s law best. This story is about how loving neighbors is so important we ought not to excuse ourselves from action ministry on the grounds of loving God.
2. Luke 11 deals with this other pole of “eternal life”, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. (Luke 11:1-13)
3. Today’s story of Mary and Martha, coming between these two passages, can be seen as a story about balancing both concerns. In fact it may be an examination of how they connect.
Jesus ends the story of the good neighbor who happens to be a Samaritan by telling the lawyer, “go and do.” Martha illustrates that just “going and doing” can leave you worn out, irritable, frustrated. There has to be a time you also “come and sit.”
This week many members will put their devotion into action. Youth heading out to Passport; folks giving blood in the fellowship hall. There will be the Habitat work night. We know what to expect. As one youth said at the end of an exhausting day on a mission trip, “I’m tired, but it’s a good tired.” But if all we did was go, and give, rest up and work some more, we would be more than tired, we would lose focus and get depressed.
Martha is worried about the table linen and whether the pot roast will burn, or if they will run out of dessert. She has quit paying attention to Jesus. She only slows down to complain about what Mary is not doing.
Nobody in their right mind wants the Martha’s of the world to stop preparing meals, repairing the plumping, washing the clothes, taking care of the legal forms, checking the supply cabinet. But should we not overlook the importance of what Mary is doing. In the midst of your doing don’t lose sight of why you are doing and for whom.
Richard Feynman was one of the most brilliant physicists of the last century, a Nobel Prize winner for particle physics, and by all accounts a remarkable teacher.
When he was a young graduate student he was picked to work on the Manhattan Project to build an atomic weapon. What convinced Feynman to join the research was knowing Nazi scientists were working on one too and the fearful implications if they got an atom bomb first.
Looking back on it later he said he forgot the reason for going into the research. When the Nazis were defeated before the bomb was completed, Feynman said the Manhattan project kept right on going. The work had taken on a life of its own. And he said he did not consider at the time the complicated moral question whether to finish a bomb and use it against a nation who was not working on nuclear weapons. The reason they had tackled the problem to start with no longer applied.
He said he learned that sometimes after you get into a job you forget why you took it. Sometimes you may have a valid moral reason for getting involved in a movement, but the movement becomes its own reason. (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman)
Sometimes the busyness of religion keeps us from true devotion. The priest and Levi were busy on that road to the Temple. Their mind may be on preparations for the worship service. We can assume the Samaritan was traveling on business too. He had things to tend to as well. The difference was whether they interrupted their agenda to look at the person God put in front of them.
Doctors can get so busy with charts they overlooks the patient.
Parents can keep kids on task, but never just chill out with them.
“Martha,” Jesus says, “You are sure busy and distracted by all the things you’ve got on your mind. And you think that everybody should be just a busy as you are. But Mary here is showing hospitality by just spending time conversing with me. She is focused on the guest. And after all the one thing needful when you have company is to actually connect with the guest. I am not going to deprive her of our time together to go off in your tail spin.”
Some long weeks I become negative and impatient about ministry. I get irritable even if I rein it in. When cynicism or depression rise, I have come to realize I need to step away from the job. I go pray on my knees in the yard, hands in the dirt or I may go exercise at the Y. Or a walk long will quieten me enough “to be still and know God.” Getting out of the harness is vital for sustained ministry and the renewal of compassion and mercy.
St. Benedict said monks ought to work and think and pray: five hours of work, three hours of study, two hours for prayer every day. Body, mind and soul.
God said “Six days shall you work” (that is the therapy of doing). And the seventh day give it a rest. That day you are to share the joy of the Creator who knows how to rest too. In this sacrament of eternity look at the people who you live with, stop and savor blessings of creation.
Don’t wait till everything is finished to enjoy what already is done. Don’t postpone vacations till you retire. Don’t wait till all the house work is done to sit with the family. Hold to joy in the middle of life’s hurry. Punctuate mission action with stillness in the presence of God.
There are many things to do and so most weeks we have to multi-task. But somewhere at the center of our busy lives we need a still point around which everything else moves. An anchor that keeps us steady in the storm of life’s troubles and anxieties. A center that holds all the parts together.
We are commanded to love our neighbor, but the power that enables us to keep doing that without bitterness or exhaustion comes from the time we spend just being with them, from the times we steal away just to be with God.
Lord God we came aside to hear your word. May the peace of being in your presence linker as we leave this place and so steady us that we may impart your peace to others. Through Christ our Lord, AMEN.