My preaching skills are rusty. Due to a combination of courses and scheduling, it’s been months since I last preached, and tommorrow is my last sermon at St. Mark’s Chapel at CFB Greenwood. Lectionary readings as per the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C. I needed to engage with the gospel from Luke, since I’ve been more of a Martha than a Mary for too long now. Thanks to the commentary of Marilyn Salmon at Working Preacher for helping me think through this text. MP+

“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.’” (Luke 10:41)

Let me start by telling you a dirty little secret about military chaplains. I can’t speak for all of us, but most of us will say that we got into military chaplaincy to escape all the chores, the drudgery, and the day to day worries that beset civilian pastors. Unless you are the senior pastor of some huge church, which leaves most clergy, a minister has to worry about many things that they don’t teach in seminary. The leaking roof, the old furnace, fights over music, the upcoming rummage sale, the sputtering Sunday school, these are all things that can keep a minister so “worried and distracted” that what we are taught to think of as our primary duties – prayer and sermon preparation – get shoved to the back burner and are even forgotten. So it’s no wonder that the call to military chaplaincy seems so enticing to many of us. Who wouldn’t trade the old furnace and the strawberry social planning committee for a life of ministry on a warship or the chance to spend time with the troops while rappelling out of a helicopter? If we’re honest, we padres will say that we wanted to do ministry on the leading, bleeding edge, but in the spirit of that same honesty, we should also say that we wouldn’t have survived as civilian pastors for as long as we did without the folks who worried about the day to day drudgery of keeping the church going.

In my own experience of civilian ministry, I served several congregations which each had a core of workers, both male and female. Most of them weren’t enthusiastic about bible studies or prayer groups or mission trips. They listened to my unnecessarily long, theological sermons with neutral faces and seldom told me what they really thought. A few of them didn’t come to church except for Christmas or Easter, and some of them never darkened the door. But they could work. If you wanted the parking lot and steps cleared of snow on a Saturday, or if you wanted pies baked, or picnics planned, or the garden beds weeded and planted for spring, these were the go-to people. In terms of today’s gospel reading, these people were the Marthas, the ones who did all of the work. But since I’m going, let me tell you another dirty little secret about pastors. If you do a survey of churchland, you’ll find that most ministers would happily trade some of the Marthas in their congregations for a few more Marys. The Marys would go to the bible studies and participate in the prayer groups and do the things that would make the pastor feel that his or her church had, as Jesus says of Mary in today’s gospel, “chosen the better part” (Lk 10:42).

The reason why ministers think this way, wishing for more Marys and fewer Marthas, is because today’s gospel reading, which is well-known, seems to prize one way of being Christian above another. In this reading, Jesus has been invited into the home of two sisters, and one, Mary, has chosen to take the traditional posture of the disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teaching. In contrast, Martha is attending to all the domestic tasks that stem from inviting at least a dozen people into one’s house, and she resents the fact that Mary has left her to all of this work. Rather than siding with Martha, Jesus seems to gently rebuke her, and says, “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” (Lk 10: 41-42). The received wisdom about our Lord’s words to Martha has been that Mary represents what has traditionally been called the contemplative life of prayer, devotion and a certain withdrawal from the world, whereas Martha represents the Active life of work and engagement with the world. According to the Christian tradition, those living the Active life, which was most people, serve and support the few who are called to live the Contemplative life. Thus in the medieval world, for example, the peasants worked to support the monasteries where a spiritual elite were set aside to pray for the world. In traditional churches some of this thinking survives, as the religious professionals, the clergy, are supported by their congregations who for the most part live in the workaday world.

There are several problems with reading the story of Martha and Mary so that the Contemplative is valued more highly than the Active life. First, it is terribly unfair to women, both then and now, as women like Martha do most domestic work, both at home and in the church. A feminist reading of the gospel story might well focus on the fact that Jesus seems to encourage Mary to sit at his feet like any other disciple, thus signalling his refusal to judge women according to the gender roles and restrictions of his day. In fact, Jesus’ treatment of Mary is typical of how our Lord deals with women as persons in their own right. In all four gospels there is never any indication that Jesus ever thinks of women as second class citizens of the kingdom of heaven. However, Jesus also willingly accepted women who wanted to serve and follow him in more traditional roles. As Padre Gord mentioned last Sunday, Luke’s gospel mentions “Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and many others who provided for them out of their own resources” (Lk 8:3). These women who travelled with Jesus and his disciples were performing valuable support roles, making it possible for the gospel to be preached and heard, just as a chapel guild or parish women’s group makes ministry possible today. We also need to remember that work, service and support are roles for men as well as women. In my two years here as a member of the Lion’s club, a mostly male organization, I’ve learned that all those good deeds and charitable gifts are only made possible by long hours preparing meals, catering and working bingo nights.

Perhaps a more helpful way of understanding today’s passage, without ranking one way of being Christian above another, might begin in something Padre Frank said a few weeks ago about another part of Luke’s gospel. In Luke 9, Jesus says some harsh things to would-be disciples who want to put their personal lives before their lives as his followers. To one Jesus says “let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” and to another Jesus says “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:61-62). As Frank said, this is not the gentle loving Jesus we would like to follow, but rather a demanding taskmaster who asks us to make a choice to follow him and who leaves us very little time to make that choice. So, what if we see today’s gospel as being about how we respond to the limited opportunity that Jesus gives us? It’s not that Jesus has all day for us to make up our minds. At the beginning of Luke 10 he says “The kingdom of God has come near to you” and shortly afterwards “the kingdom of God has come near” (Lk 10:10-12) but he never says that the kingdom will wait until we are good and ready. Like the young, off-duty MP who reacted to the Smith house fire last week, or like those here on the Wing who dug deep for Friday’s boot drive for the that family, when the kingdom knocks and God calls, we need to be ready to respond.

Mary’s posture in today’s gospel, sitting at Jesus’ feet, indicates her willingness to be with Jesus in the moment that is given to her. She welcomes her Lord into her home and she opens her heart to what he has to teach and say to her. None of that is to diminish Martha’s role. Hospitality was expected and prized in her culture, and a Messiah and a bunch of disciples need to be feed, like any other houseguests. But how is Martha spending the time she has been given to be near Jesus? I can easily imagine her bustling in the kitchen, angrily banging pots and chopping vegetables in such a way as to signal her impatience and anger with her sister? Could we imagine another way for her to play her role, a way like Mary’s, opening her heart to the nearness of Jesus and to a job that has been made holy because it is both part of her life and also a part of the life of Christ? When St. Paul speaks in his letters about being “in Christ”, I believe he means allowing our Lord to be present with us in our thoughts and actions so that we can know how much he loves and values us, and so we can share that love and value with those around us. We can’t be open to the nearness of Christ if we are, like Martha, “worried and distracted by many things”.

As I look back on the two years that I’ve been here at Greenwood, I realize that I have been “worried and distracted by many things”. I’ve allowed myself to become preoccupied with my physical fitness, with second language training, career courses, and learning new duties and units. Lately there’s been all the stress and preoccupation of a posting and a relocation. I feel that I’ve missed many opportunities to welcome Christ as a guest into my life, to be attentive to him, and to rest in his presence. I’m not talking just about padre things or professional religious things like bible study and prayers, though they are important for all of us, and I haven’t done as much of them as I need to. I’m talking about a sense of openness to God’s son which allows me to stop thinking that it’s all about me and it’s all up to me.

When Jesus tells Martha that her sister has chosen the better part, I don’t think he’s saying that the Contemplative life is better than the Active life. I believe instead that he’s reminding Martha that she too is a loved and valued child of God and that she could see that if she only paused and set aside her own concerns and preoccupations. The same is true of all of us. It’s not about what we do or where we work. Whether you spend your days on a flight deck or in a hangar, in an office or in a home, holiness is out there, waiting to break into your life and into your work. There are no second class Christians. Choosing the better part, being Christian is simply this – to be someone who is open to the presence and love of God’s son in our lives and in our actions. We are only given so many opportunities to practice this, because life is short and life is busy, and the kingdom of God doesn’t hang around and wait for us. So this week, when things get busy or distracting for you, my prayer is that you find the grace to step back and invite Jesus into that moment as your guest and listen to what he might say to you. Please pray the same for me.

0 Responses

  1. Well, I'm sure it was either brilliant … or pure and unadulterated heresy. Either way, it would've been interesting, like watching a train wreck (see your comment re. Lady GaGa).

    See you soon (hopefully).