SERMON: 6 Pentecost C 7 21 19
Let's cut to the chase. In our Gospel this morning Jesus tells 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."
What do you think he means?
It is a really interesting question because there is so much going on in this story. This is a short Gospel reading--shorter than the other readings this morning--and it tells a simple story. Except there are people involved and there are, shall we say, issues.
How many of you remember Alley Oop? Alley Oop was a comic strip when I was growing up. The title character was a caveman who had been brought to the 20th Century by Doc Wonmug, a scientist with a time machine. I always loved the strip. Alley Oop visited different periods in history carrying a caveman's club that looked like it would fell a tree.
Anyway, I want to offer you a trip in my virtual time machine. Let's get all comfortable and take a trip back about two thousand years to the home of Martha and Mary. Let's say we're chatting with them when they see Jesus walking up the path to their door. "Oh my goodness," they say in unison. "It's Jesus come for a visit."
Now let's think about how things got haywire between the sisters. Because it's pretty obvious that Mary couldn't wait to sit at Jesus feet and hear everything he had to say. Meanwhile Martha thought, "I want to make him comfortable and fix him something to eat."
These competing notions are not at odds in the beginning. We can know this because we're in their home and they aren't squabbling yet. If we go in the front room with Mary and Jesus we see everything's just fine. Jesus is speaking. Mary is listening, perhaps asking a question now and then. But if we go in the kitchen, Martha is realizing that her choice to provide food means she's missing out on the conversation. She blows a gasket and demands that Jesus tell Mary to help her out. It's pretty interesting that Martha didn't just ask Mary herself.
I don't think it would have taken much to get the situation squared away. Martha could have said, "Mary, would you give me a hand in the kitchen so I can be part of the conversation also?" Mary might have said, "You bet," and gone to help. Or she might have said, "Sit with us Martha, and I'll help get the food ready when we're done talking."
That kind of situation confronts us all the time. Can we change course and make a correction to a poor decision? Or are we going to seethe with resentment, like Martha?
But when Martha charged Jesus with resolving the matter she put him in the position to re-prioritize her options. She had chosen to prepare food, Mary had chosen spiritual conversation. Jesus makes it clear, Mary's choice was better.
I read one article about this Gospel reading this week which sided with Martha. She is a devoted follower of Jesus; she just prioritized poorly. Mary made the right choice but left her sister to do all the work. It is easy, in our comfortable seats in my time machine, to see there were easier, less confrontational ways this situation could have been resolved or avoided.
Jesus said Mary made the better choice, chosen the better part. What he is telling Martha is that it is more important that she gets what he has to offer than it is for him to get what she has to offer. Perhaps there will be time for him to enjoy a meal with the sisters. But what really matters is that she hears him and learns from him, as her sister was doing.
I think there is also an implication in this Gospel reading that there was another option open to Martha. This alternative doesn't always get attention, but I think it's pretty important. Because if Martha had been satisfied with the role she had chosen--the one preparing food--she wouldn't have gotten mad at Mary for letting her do all the work. She would have been at peace with her choice.
I suspect that kind of peace was what Jesus was talking about with Mary. Because just as Martha was getting all worked up in the kitchen, not especially enjoying the food service role she had given herself, so could Mary be sitting at Jesus' feet be thinking, "Oh my goodness, I've got to feed the chickens, will he ever finish talking," or maybe even "I really should be in the kitchen helping Martha."
My point is that Jesus regularly explains how we need peace. He offers peace when he encounters people. He declares peace to his followers. And it's not just for those moments in conversation with him that Jesus recommends peace. He thinks we should be at peace all the time.
I was listening to the radio the other day and a caller was explaining how meditation became a fairly common American activity because it was popularized by the Beatles. They went to India to learn about it from the Maharishi. The caller said that people who wanted peace should be peaceful, not angry or militant. The caller quoted the Maharishi as saying, "just as for a forest to be green the trees need to be green, if we want peace we must be at peace." That snippet of radio chatter reminded me of Jesus' propensity to offer peace, even the peace that passes understanding.
This peace business addresses our heart. It informs our every act and thought. It allows us to live our lives at peace, joyfully, gratefully, even though there may be serious concerns or disturbances. This is peace that some have never experienced.
Many think of peace as a kind of armed standoff, where at least two sides aren't actively fighting and hurting one another. But the peace that Jesus is talking about is one that lets us live full and fulfilled lives even though things often do not go as we would want them to go. It is obvious Martha lacked that kind of peace, storming around in the kitchen. Mary we're not sure about.
But while we're thinking about peace, look for a minute at our Hebrew Bible reading. Abraham and Sarah have really been through a lot already, and they are concerned because they have no children to care for them in their old age, which is rapidly approaching. Abraham offers hospitality to three men whom Abraham does not realize are angels of God. As they leave they ask after Sarah and they assert that she will bear a son.
Even with my amazing virtual time machine we cannot directly connect the hospitality and the child. But we also should not put our faith in coincidence. Instead we can look at these more or less connected events and infer that God intended to reward Abraham and Sarah with their hearts' desire because at least in part they had demonstrated their faith in a generous God by being generous themselves with their hospitality.
It would have been easy for them to stay in their tent and not share their food or go to the trouble of welcoming the travelers. Instead they welcomed and cared for the three who turned out to be angels. Coincidence? I don't think so.
These lessons show us the potential for our offering acts of kindness and generosity that parallel God's goodness and generosity in the world. They show us with real examples what it means to love God and love our neighbor. It also shows us what amazing good can come from making the choice to respond to what life brings us in the ways that we have read about today.
A sermon preached July 21, 2019 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector