Martha and Mary: Contemplation AND Action

Proper 11C’19

21 July 2019

Luke 10.38-42

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

North Little Rock, Arkansas

The Rev. Carey Stone+

 

“Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance”: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.  - (Proverbs 1.5)

I have to say I dearly love all three of our dogs, Elsa, Sela, and Jackson. Elsa and Sela are both Standard Poodles, and Jackson, is a miniature. They are highly intelligent but each one also has individual characteristics that endear them to me.

Elsa is a lover and if anyone ever broke into our home she would probably bark like crazy, and then proceed to lick them to death. Sela, is our protector! She spends a lot of time staying on high alert, and the minute anyone gets anywhere close to the perimeter of our property she goes into a barrage of ear-splitting barking! Jackson, the miniature, we didn’t much care for at first, but he has gradually grown on all of us, especially since he has decided he likes to be held. He’s also the easiest to walk while walking the other two are like being pulled behind a ski boat!

We adopted Sela when she was around 6months old? and she has some peculiar habits and rituals around relieving herself that I won’t go into (you can ask me about them later, if you are interested). One of her habits affects her ability to receive/and give affection. She won’t sit still and let you pet her, or sit in your lap. Instead she gets very excited and anxious and begins to circle you, while waging her tail, and periodically bumps up against you. In order to pet her you have to catch her on one of her revolutions around you and wait until she comes back around. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you tried to pet your luggage at the airport as it comes onto the conveyor down at baggage claim.  You would have to pet it while on the move, and then wait until it comes back around when you could try again.

This is in stark contrast to the other female, Elsa. Elsa, as I mentioned is the lover. She lives to soak up love and to share love. Whenever you sit down, it won’t take long for her to jump up on your lap and to start wearing your epidermis off by constantly licking you. She will then pause, and gaze deeply into your eyes, enamored with you, and if anyone puts an end to the lovefest it will have to be you. She would be perfectly content to stay there for the rest of the day, or at least until supper time!

This personality dynamic with Sela and Elsa, reminds me of the two sisters Mary, and Martha that we read about in today’s Gospel story.  There is the practical and productive Martha, who gets things done, and done right! Before Jesus comes to visit at their house in Bethany, she is on the move getting the meal ready for the gathering with their honored guest, Jesus.

Mary, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found, upon Jesus’ arrival she suddenly appears from a back room and quietly takes a seat at Jesus’ feet (the position of a disciple) and is transfixed as he begins to speak words like she had never heard before – healing and hopeful words. 

Martha’s head is spinning and is stuck with all the work and She is none too pleased about it. She decides to interrupt Jesus and lodge her complaint and it gets personal: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!” ‘Jesus, tell Mary to get off of her Blessed Assurance and come give me a hand, otherwise you’re going to be waiting awhile for dinner!’  Then comes Jesus’ rebuke: “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.” 

Notice that Jesus’ rebuke is not about Martha’s action, but about the way she is going about her work. She is both worried and distracted. I’m sure he was hungry and planned on eating when the meal was ready, but Jesus always looked for teaching moments and this was definitely one of them.

Jesus’ rebuke is not about making action bad and contemplation good but about putting first things first. First and foremost, we are human beings and not human doings, and our first priority is to be with Jesus, to get still both on the inside and the outside and to commune with God, to be in his presence. Here he could slow down long enough to connect with God. This was the pattern of Jesus’ life he would first thing in the morning go to a place of prayer away from the disciples where he could listen to his Father. Former Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu once said, “Most days are busy and I have to pray for an hour a day, but sometimes my days are so busy I have to prayer for three hours!”

Is Jesus praising passivity over action? Not at all. I don’t think you could say Jesus didn’t work hard, but his work flowed from the place of prayer. His doing flowed from his being. Another Archbishop, William Temple said once “To be is infinitely more than to do.” By the way, this quote is on a stained-glass window in Trinity Cathedral. It is saying pretty much the same thing being should come first and the doing will follow.

This is what Martha had lost sight of. She had her priorities misplaced, her doing had gotten disconnected from her being and this led her doing to come out of an empty place of distraction and worry.

We all have different personality types and temperaments. We each have a way this can work for us. Most of us gravitate toward one or the other, we tend to be more Mary or more Martha. If you are more of a Mary you have to make sure you are engaging in ‘true contemplation’ because truly contemplating the love of Christ will result in some type of redemptive action in the world. If you are more like Martha, you have to put contemplation first so that your actions flow out of that place of deep connection with God.

The question for both is still the same, “How can my actions be more connected with the contemplation of God so that my action flows out of my relationship with God? How can I start from a place of absolute love so that my doing is an expression of the love I already have, rather than doing in order to become worthy of love?

Sometimes I want to just grab my dog Sela and force her to be still just for a moment and let me love on her. Sometimes I get smothered by my dog Elsa’s affections and want her to go and do something. In the end it is a balance between the two – Mary and Martha, being and doing, contemplation and action. Let us be with Christ and then follow in his steps. Amen.

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