Passionate Spirituality, Proper 11 (C)

[RCL] Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Passionate Spirituality

It’s a brief story, and Jesus delivers the punch line: “Martha, Martha,” he tells his hostess. “You are worried and distracted about many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.”

Everything, therefore, hangs on the one thing that Jesus mentions, the one thing that Mary has chosen and apparently her sister, Martha, has not.

At first it looks as though the one thing that is necessary is to sit at Jesus’ feet, to assume a disciple’s posture; this over even something so useful as bustling about to make your guests feel at home.

It is even possible to set up the two sisters Martha and Mary as examples of different vocations. Mary the contemplative, lucky one that she is can devote herself to prayer, to spiritual practice.  Martha, on the other hand, seems like the rest of us, who struggle with the demands of life in the world, praying on the run, if at all.

The distinction between Mary and Martha, contemplation and action, prayer and service, comes across as a tidy distinction. For that reason alone it should be treated as suspect. Life is rarely neat. Issues of faith are rarely simple.

No, something more is involved here. The story of Jesus as a guest in the home of these women does not justify dividing believers into two classes: spiritual aristocrats and the rest of us. Instead, it challenges all of us, and does so in a way that need not separate us from each other.

What makes Mary of Bethany an example is not that she sits at the feet of Jesus. What makes her sister Martha need her example is not that she labors to accommodate others. What’s at stake lies elsewhere. A contemporary name for it is passionate spirituality.

Passionate spirituality takes many forms. It does not have to be: emotional rather than reasonable, extroverted rather than introverted, or contemporary rather than traditional. What makes someone’s spirituality passionate is prayer, enthusiasm, and boldness. People of passionate spirituality live committed lives. They practice their faith with joy and enthusiasm. Passionate spirituality can spill out through service or study or devotion. It can be apparent in whatever one does.

The problem with Martha is not her hospitality. It is how she does not let her hospitality become a channel for a spirituality marked by passion. Instead, she becomes distracted and complains to Jesus about her sister rather than speaking directly to her sister. While Mary listens to Jesus, Martha presumes to tell him what he must do. It appears that Martha is driven by duty rather than delight. She may be an effective organizer, a great cook, conscientious in all that she does, but she is simply responsible, not inspired, even on the day when Jesus himself comes to dinner. She may even be busy and anxious in an effort not to have to hear what Jesus is saying.

What makes Mary an example is not the simple fact that she listens to Jesus, but that she does so in a way that is passionate and bold. Jesus does not so much commend her behavior as the spirit behind it.

Mary chooses to take some risks. She takes the chance of upsetting her sister: Mary’s not helping, she’s listening. She also risks upsetting plenty of people because she takes the role of disciple, sitting at the teacher’s feet. This is not something women in her society do. It’s a role reserved for men. Still, that’s where she places herself, or rather, where the Spirit leads her.

So, somebody may say, I buy into what you call passionate spirituality. I recognize it as ‘the way to go’ for Christian people. Furthermore I recognize that passionate spirituality does not have to be emotional rather than reasonable, extraverted rather than introverted, or contemporary rather than traditional. How then does it come about?

Passionate spirituality is more God’s gift than it is anything we do. It’s more for us to welcome than for us to achieve. It results from a series of conversions.

Each of us is called repeatedly, invited to turn away from something and toward something else. The conversions that occur in our lives may cause us to turn toward God, toward Christ, toward the Church, toward the poor, toward a life of prayer, toward a certain form of service, toward the world that God loves. These conversions and still others can happen to us in any sort of order, and any of them can occur more than once.

Each of us is invited many times to turn in a new direction. Passionate spirituality happens again and again when we answer these calls and enter into new dimensions of the great gift of life. We cannot make these calls happen. But we can leave ourselves undefended so that we can hear such a call when it does sound forth. Spiritual practices, properly understood, are to a large degree a form of listening.

In this way, prayer, scripture, receiving communion, helping those in need, going on a retreat, these practices and many others are ways for us, like Mary, to sit at Jesus’ feet as a disciple and hear what he wants to tell us.

It was risky for Mary to sit as a disciple at the feet of Jesus in a culture that did not leave room for women to do such a thing.

We may find it risky, for all sorts of reasons, some of them self-imposed, to undertake spiritual practices in a receptive way, to answer the call to continuing conversion, to become aflame with passionate spirituality or what Jesus calls the one thing necessary. We may, after all, find ourselves taken to unexpected places.

Passionate spirituality took a biblical farm hand named Amos away from the tending of sycamore trees and make him into a prophet of God. He responded to his call.

Passionate spirituality took a slave from Maryland’s Eastern Shore named Harriet Tubman and made her into the Moses of her people. She responded to her call.

Passionate spirituality took Oscar Romero, a conventional cleric from the tortured country of El Salvador and made him into a voice for the voiceless. He responded to his call.

Each of these, and countless others, was taken to some unexpected place due to embracing the one thing necessary. And each of them would say to us the journey was worth the cost, that it was a flight on eagles’ wings.

Download the sermon for Proper 11C.

Written by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Maryland. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on Lectionary.org. Email: charleshoffacker8@gmail.com

This one thing, 9 Pentecost, Proper 11 (C) – 2013

July 21, 2013

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Just when we think we have the formula all worked out, the path to success all laid out, the one easy answer for earning us an A-plus for discipleship, Jesus goes and throws a wrench into the works. Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, where the point was: Go and do. Love is shown in verbs. Remember? The Samaritan sees, goes, bandages, lifts, takes, gives, pays, promises.

This week we meet a woman who is doing and doing and doing – and all to exercise the virtue of showing hospitality. But this time, doing doesn’t seem to be the key. “Stop and listen” seems to be the right answer. What happened?

Jesus, and perhaps some of his disciples with him, have come to visit Martha and Mary. Martha rolls up her sleeves and goes to work preparing the dinner. She’s gone to the market, purchased fruits and vegetables, and had a nice lamb butchered. She’s cleaned the house, shaken out the rugs, chopped the vegetables, set the bread out to rise, made the salad, and changed her mind three times about which dishes to use. One set is too formal, but the everyday plates seem too plain. She’s put the soup on the fire, but isn’t sure the seasoning is quite right. She’s called Mary in to give it a taste, but so far Mary shows little interest in helping. She knows the lamb could get tough if she puts it in the oven too soon, and she doesn’t want to over-bake the bread. Perhaps it was a mistake to try a new recipe on such an important guest, but since Mary wouldn’t help her decide on the menu, she decided to try it and hope for the best. Should she have gone to the trouble of making seating assignments? Maybe the place cards are a little much, but she wants it to be perfect. Maybe she should switch Mary’s place to farther down the table, since it seems she’s already spending so much time with Jesus.

Martha pokes her head into the living room, hoping to get Mary’s attention, but Mary’s still just sitting and listening to Jesus. Martha goes back to stir the soup, which has started to simmer. So has Martha.

This story can really irk us. And it seems so natural for the story to turn into an exercise in choosing between the two sisters. Whom do we choose, Mary or Martha? Which of the sisters are we most like? Who is more important? More faithful? More valuable? It is so tempting to launch into an enthusiastic defense of Martha, especially with all those Marthas in the pews. Where would we be as the church without the Marthas, those who act and give and plan and budget and do and shop and cook and make bag lunches and organize and sort and throw rummage sales and scrape the wax off of brass candlesticks and wash acolyte robes and make sure there is enough wine in the altar-guild sacristy and unjam the copier and set up the coffee and cut the coffeecake and make the name tags and stuff the folders? All so that the rest of us can be like Mary and listen at the feet of Jesus, and when the workshop or worship is over, we can go enjoy a nutritious meal that, in case we haven’t noticed, someone else has prepared. Our common life in the church is dependent on the activity of many.

Martha wants help. Is that so wrong? “Lord,” she asks, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

We might wish that Jesus had said, “You are absolutely right, Martha. Let’s just all come into the kitchen and help with the dishes. Let’s visit while we put the plates away. Many hands make light work!”

But he doesn’t. Instead he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” She is described in the translation in the New Revised Standard Version as “distracted by her many tasks.” More literally, it would be “she is with much serving”; even more literally, much “deaconing.” Jesus says, “You are worried and distracted about many things. There is need of only one thing.”

We know. We understand. Martha is not just busy. She is not just multitasking. She is not just overbooked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. She is distracted with much serving. Distracted. Distracted by too much. There is need of only one thing. But some days it is so hard to remember what that one thing is.

What if the point of the story is not to further divide Martha from Mary and Mary from Martha, not to pit the sisters against each other, not to choose either of them, but to choose Jesus? What if this is not a story about choosing between Bible study and outreach ministries, between making time for nightly devotional study and hands-on service to others? What if it’s not a story asking us to choose between being Mary and being Martha, but of keeping our focus on Jesus, choosing Jesus, choosing just one thing he’s asking of us, or offering to us, just now?

But what is the one thing?

Just before he visits Mary and Martha, in the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan as an answer to the lawyer who wants to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law?”

In Luke’s gospel it’s the lawyer, not Jesus as in Matthew and Mark, who gives this summary of the law, this all-encompassing picture of whom and how to love. The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ”

And Jesus says to him, A-plus. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” “Do this,” Jesus says, as if it’s a simple thing – a whole slew of words that mean all encompassing devotion and commitment – all boiled down to one little word: “this.”

But Jesus himself seems to play fast and loose with the math when he answers the question in Matthew, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” “This one,” says Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What’s the one thing? This – and this.

Do this one thing: loving the Lord your God completely, and your neighbor as yourself. The story of the Good Samaritan shows how one loves one’s neighbor with actions of compassion and mercy, going and doing. Then Jesus goes to visit Mary and Martha and we see Mary loving God without distraction, without worry, resting and listening. Do this one thing: choose Jesus, through compassionate action, through single-hearted, focused listening. In this one thing – going and doing and stopping and listening – you will choose Jesus, and love your neighbor as yourself.

But wait, we say. That’s more than one! How will I know which one really? How will I know when it’s time to do and when to sit? When to listen and when to act? When will I meet Jesus in serving the wounded stranger and when in quiet contemplation and prayer?

Do this and you will live. Jesus doesn’t spell it all out, doesn’t give us all the details. But listen one more time to how he helps Martha, or tries to.

Community is important in this story. In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha does the right thing. She invites Jesus into her home. But she doesn’t spend time with Jesus, or with Mary. And at least within the narrative arc of the story as we have it, rather than speak with Mary directly and ask Mary directly for help, Martha does what we are all warned against for the well-being of community. She triangulates. “Jesus, make Mary help me.” It’s a divisive move.

In asking Martha to choose the one needful thing, Jesus invites Martha back into community. He does not command. He does not shame. He invites. He gives a choice. Come into the living room, he says. I want to be with you. Will you choose me? In choosing me, you will also gain back your sister. In choosing me, you may see your way clear to loving yourself, as well as your neighbor.

In her frantic rush, in her distraction by much serving, Martha is showing neither love to Jesus nor love to herself.

Put down the lamb shank, Martha, and come join us by the fire. There is nothing you need to do to earn God’s love, or impress God, or prove anything to God. Nothing. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any less or any more than God already does. Jesus looks upon you with compassion. What if you see yourself through the same compassionate eyes? What if you gaze on yourself with the same love Jesus has for you?

Do this, and you will live.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Means of Grace and Hope of Glory, Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 11 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52 (Track 2: Genesis 18:1-10a and Psalm 15); Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

There is an old vaudeville joke about a man and woman dancing in the Catskills, at a singles resort. “I’m only here for the weekend,” the man says. “I’m dancing as fast as I can,” responds the woman.

Martha is that kind of a woman, dancing around her house as fast as she can, trying to get things ready for her honored guest, and trying in her own way to make the most of their time together.

Our natural sympathies are with Martha. We recognize her condition. Were he expected, the visit of Jesus would probably have sent Martha and Mary scurrying ahead of time in preparation. And that may have been the case. But note also, this text does not give us reason to believe that Jesus was expected when he came to call: “She received him,” it says, which may mean little more than that she opened the door to his knock, not necessarily expecting to see him standing there. If that were the case, then there was much to be done post haste, as hospitality was always the rule of the day and the more unexpected the guest, the more lavish and bountiful the hospitality typically was. Such hospitality is the hallmark of the Jewish home, where even at Passover a spare chair is left for Elijah, should he come to call and partake of the family’s meal.

Martha is a sympathetic sister for our time because she is in the business of activity and anxiety: two chief preoccupations of our age. The Marthas of this world are intent upon doing the right and good thing at the right and good time. We all recognize them because we all have at least some of Martha in us.

Yet, look again, and you will see that Jesus does not deny the value of what Martha is or of what she is doing. He does not say to her that everything is all right and that there is nothing to do or to worry about. He says to her, in essence, that she has her priorities wrong. He recognizes that Mary knows that she has something to learn from Jesus. He would like Martha to know that as well. He seems to be saying to Martha: “Don’t just do something, sit here, at least for a moment. Listen to me.” He seems to want to slow her dance, to let her mind and soul catch up with her body.

It is not that Martha’s work is unimportant, and it is not that Jesus does not appreciate the work. But Jesus is about priorities; first things first. And he is unambiguous about what comes first here. He said it once before, in his sermon when he warned people about being anxious regarding what they would eat and wear. Remember, he concluded that remarkably practical address with the words “Therefore, do not be anxious … But seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

What was so important about sitting at Jesus’ feet? It seems certain that he had been a visitor before to the home of Martha and Mary. He was a great friend of the family, and we know of his love for their brother, Lazarus. The answer to the question comes in the words that introduce the story, “Now, as they went on their way…” This is the crucial context in which we understand not only this story but our own as well, for if we read the paragraphs and chapters before this we will find that “they” – Jesus and his followers – are on their way to Jerusalem and to the cross. It was Jesus’ last journey, his final earthly pilgrimage, not a day’s outing or excursion or Sunday drive, but a purposeful procession across the pages of history to the sure and certain death on the cross, and into the future which he would claim for God. Somehow, in some way, Mary had caught on to the fact that Jesus’ message on his visit to their house on this afternoon was of such significance, such urgency, that the routine must be interrupted in order to hear it.

It seems doubtful that it was Mary’s regular custom to entertain visitors by sitting at their feet while her sister did all the work. In fact, Martha’s comments suggest that Mary’s behavior was not her typical behavior. But perhaps, somehow, Mary sensed that this was not an ordinary visit. The Lord was passing by, and after he went, things would never be the same again. Mary sensed that the time he had with them was precious and to be savored.

We learn an important lesson from this story in the example of Mary and Martha. The mark of hospitality is the capacity to give. Martha was doubtless very good at that, and she was busy about that very work, giving Jesus a pleasant time, providing for his needs and comforts, organizing his stay under her roof. It is hard work and should be rewarded, as it usually is, with appreciation and gratitude. But just as Jesus interrupts the routine of the household in Bethany, he also interrupts the role, for he is not “guest,” he is now “host.” He is the Lord, and it is he who gives and others who are now invited to receive.

An ancient custom of hospitality in England holds that when a sovereign comes to your house, while in your home, it is no longer yours but his – or particularly at this point in English history, hers. A sovereign becomes the host under any citizen’s roof. It is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is infinitely more difficult to receive than it is to give. It makes one beholden to the giver, and it makes one, in some sense, dependent. Try to give someone something and that person will insist upon returning something to you, wanting things to be even, not wanting to feel obligated. Giving is power; receiving implies need and weakness.

The Marthas of the world are so busy doing good and necessary things that sometimes they don’t have time to realize how deeply they themselves stand in need. When Jesus comes, he reminds us that we need the grace and peace he offers. Rather than be distracted by providing service, or being anxious and troubled about many things, we would do well to slow the dance we are doing, to stop, look, and listen.

This, then, is a parable about giving and receiving, doing and being, and about the presence of Jesus in the midst of the ordinary that becomes extraordinary. It is a parable about priorities, first things first, and it is a parable about two women who in their lives and attitudes give our Lord and his Church an opportunity to teach an important lesson for our time. It is also a parable of our worship, for it reminds us that what happens in our churches – our prayer, our praise, our instruction, and our fellowship – is not what we do for Jesus, entertaining him and busying ourselves with some sort of fast dance. But rather, we slow that dance, we come to “sit at Jesus’ feet,” and we come to receive from him the means of grace and hope of glory.

Written by the Rev. Giovan Venable King
The Rev. Dr. Giovan Venable King serves at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church in San Marino, California, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Among her other ministries, she serves on the Program Group for World Mission and as a judge on the Ecclesiastical Court.

Live and love, Pentecost 8, Proper 11 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Amos 8:1-12 or Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 52 or Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Jesus had special friends. Among them were Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. Some modern scholars think that Lazarus was “the Beloved Disciple” of the Gospel and the Epistle, and the disciple at the foot of the cross. We won’t really know until we are in the next life. Then we can ask!
The story of Mary and Martha and their encounter with Jesus is much loved. In the days when church task forces were called guilds, many a parish had a SS Mary and Martha Guild. Whether the members were asked which saint they wished to follow is an open question.

Mary wanted to know about Jesus, to get to know him and to learn from him. While she was doing this, Martha was left with the household chores, including hospitality to this journeying teacher who had arrived on their doorstep. You can imagine Martha preparing the bedroom, fussing in the kitchen, grumbling and mumbling to herself that she has to do all the work while her sister plays up to their famous guest. Finally Martha can bear it no longer. Imagine her bursting onto the scene to the surprise of Jesus and her sister, and then letting loose her resentment about her sister’s laziness to Jesus, not caring what impression she was making.

This is not an unfamiliar scene. We’ve all been chided for shirking our duties, often by a partner, or parent, or child. What is odd is the reply Jesus gives to the irate Martha: “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.”

Some years before the careful historian St. Luke wrote this account, St. Paul wrote to the infant church in Philippi telling them “The Lord is near; do not be anxious, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”

You may well be thinking by now “easier said than done.” It is so easy for us to relegate the difficult parts of faith into the “other-worldly” compartment, that section of our memory where we store quaint ideas and strange phenomenon; things we don’t think we will experience in everyday life. We follow Martha.

“You are worried and distracted by many things.” Aren’t we all? Certainly life is a good deal more complex than it was two thousand years ago. Computers and the Internet open up to the youngest members of our families a world of discord and a multitude of influences, many of which leave us feeling distracted and lost. Mary’s answer, to go and spend time getting to know Jesus, listening to Jesus and learning from Jesus, seems suspiciously simplistic, particularly to Episcopalians. After all, we fancy that we are sophisticated, educated, and in the know about most things.

Consider the way that St. Paul fleshes out the “don’t worry” advice Jesus gives to Martha. “Do not be anxious,” he writes to Christians who are misunderstood, reviled, and even persecuted for their faith. He writes to men and women who try to work out the practicalities of living the faith in a hostile world, among, for the most part, gentiles, to whom religion is rather like crossing one’s fingers or not walking under ladders. Worshipping a pantheon of gods who play with humans and are unreliable guides at best, the neighbors of the Christian community in Philippi looked askance at these members of a Jewish sect who believed in a moral God, a faithful God, and a redeeming God.

Neither Jesus nor St. Paul advised worried people to make the sign against the evil eye, cross their fingers, or avoid walking under ladders. Jesus tells Martha that she has things back to front. Mary has the better part because she first goes to Jesus. St. Paul reminds the PhilippianChristians that “The Lord is near.” It means the same. If together our hearts are fixed where true joy is to be found, if “we make (our) requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving,” the peace of God will be ours.

An old revivalist hymn tells us to “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” An old image that can be helpful is that we are to nail our hopes, joys, fears, and worries onto the cross, where they die to all that complicates them. Having died, behold they live anew.

This reference to the cross brings us to the “thanksgiving” St. Paul mentions. That word is the root of the word Eucharist. The Eucharist takes us in a time machine, backward, to the Upper Room, to Calvary, to the Empty Tomb and Resurrection, to the Ascension, and then forward to the end times when the nations of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord Christ. In other words, every time we join in the “thanksgiving,” we are reminded that God is in control and that God’s purposes are working out as year succeeds to year. The Church, the churches, and we, the people of God, are in God’s hands, in God’s purpose, and in God’s pleasure.

When we despair because of what happens in the church, in our parish, in our homes, in effect we “do a Martha.” We rush around in mind or body trying to get things done, trying to fix things, as if God has left it all up to us and retired! Instead we are called, with Mary of Bethany, to live “in” Christ, to get to know him, corporately and individually; to learn from Jesus and to live in Jesus, in whose face we see God. We are to bring to God all we are and all the complexity of life and begin there. Above all, in our thanksgiving, as we eat and drink with God, we are to be renewed, to gain confidence, to live and love and rejoice, because underneath are the everlasting arms.

It is in intentionally “practicing the presence of God” that we receive “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” Our Presiding Bishop concludes her letters with the word “Shalom.” The word means “peace.” Our peace is not the absence of discord, worry, or sickness. Rather God’s peace enables us to “live and love” despite “the changes and chances of this fleeting world” as the old collect puts it. Mary was right!

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, West Virginia. E-mail: anthony.clavier@gmail.com.