21 July 2013
St Mary, Hadlow
May I speak this morning, in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A little while ago my mum said that her younger brother, my uncle, wanted to ask me: “a few questions about Christianity” and would that be OK? As that is sort of my job I said that would be fine.
When I was a child I was aware that this uncle had been something of a militant atheist so the conversation I was expecting to have with him was along the Richard Dawkins line: if science is true then where does that leave religion etc. and I was quite happy to have that conversation.
But when we got together things turned out somewhat differently. He said that he didn’t know whether it was because he was getting older or what but that for some time now he too had been sensing a real longing for God – that he liked to visit churches and soak up the atmosphere and that he felt a longing for something he couldn’t explain.
I said that many people referred to this as the ‘God shaped hole’ – a knowledge that you are missing something important from the middle of your life and, whilst we may often try to fill that longing with lots of other things from demanding jobs through to drink or even drugs or other addictions, ultimately only a relationship with God can satisfy that longing. My uncle was quiet for a moment and then said that when I had mentioned the “God shaped hole” he had become covered in goosebumps and he knew that God was what he wanted above all things. Then he said “But there is such a lot to learn isn’t there?” I said “You can learn as much or as little as you want, but the most important thing is simply to know that you are loved by God and to simply sit in the presence of that love.”
That very human desire to want to learn and to do rather than the counter-cultural desire to simply sit and dwell in the loving presence of God really reminded me of the story of Martha and Mary, which is todays Gospel reading.
As you heard Martha and Mary were sisters and this story radiates a sense of real sibling rivalry, probably dating back to early childhood and captured here for eternity in the pages of the bible.
Actually that should give us pause for thought – if all our less creditable moments were in danger of being recorded and still spoken about in public 2000 years after the event it may make us more careful how we acted.
Anyway, we have Mary and Martha, two rival sisters. As some of you may know I have a slightly younger sister but because we are so different in so many ways we don’t suffer from sibling rivalry because we are not really competing with one another. However Vivienne also has a younger sister and the story there is quite different. When they are not together they are both quite grown up and civilised people but when you put them together, especially if their mother is also there, its like the last 30 years haven’t happened.
So, Jesus visited the house of Mary and Martha at the invitation of Martha. We don’t know where their brother Lazarus was but he is not mentioned in this story. When Jesus entered the house Martha starts bustling around with her many tasks, probably making some drinks, perhaps putting some lunch on, clearing the place up a little and does her sister Mary help her? No, she goes and sits at the feet of the guest and listened to his teaching.
Actually Mary is acting in a way that is more shocking than we may at first realise: she is not just being slightly rude to her busy sister she is breaking many of the cultural mores of the time: only men were supposed to become disciples, sitting and learning from a teacher, women were supposed to do exactly what Martha was doing – keeping out of the way of the conversation and doing the housework. Unfortunately there are some in General Synod who still feel the same way, but let’s not go there right now.
Perhaps understandably Martha gets a little peeved by her sister’s behaviour. She is having to run around and do all the work while her sister simply sits there, acting like a disciple rather than like a proper women. This can’t be fair – and she implore Jesus to make her sister come and help her. As we know Jesus says that he will not send Mary away from his feet and he says: “Mary has choosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.”
Often when one hears this story spoken about the lesson seems to be that we should not tie ourselves up in business or busyness and that it is better to sit in contemplation at the feet of Jesus than it is to be busy doing things in the world. Now, of course, there is a great deal to commend that interpretation and, as I said to my uncle the most important thing is to simply know that you are loved by God and to sit in the presence of that love.
But this is not just about the contrast between being busy and being contemplative. If it were then it may not have a great deal to say to many of us who have no alternative but to lead busy lives. It seems to me that Jesus does not say that Martha is doing the wrong thing by being busy but rather because of her attitude of mind.
If we read the story closely it does not simply say that Martha was busy it says firstly, at verse 40, that she was ‘distracted’ by her many tasks and then, in verse 41, Jesus says that she was “worried and distracted” or “worried and upset” about many things. The stress of her many tasks was distracting her from the presence of Jesus in her house and Mary had taken the better path because she was listening to what Jesus had to say.
I suspect that the majority of us are called to live busy lives in one way or another – we may be running around with busy jobs, or looking after children or being involved in lots of activities and often we can be on the go from morning to evening with little respite.
And when we read the story of Martha and Mary it is easy to feel guilty that we are not simply sitting at the feet of Jesus. But let us not forget that elsewhere in the gospel we are called to action – we are called to be labourers in the harvest field of the Lord, we are called to serve those less fortunate than ourselves and, indeed, we are each called to our own vocations which often make us busy. So it is not our busyness that Jesus seems to be saying is wrong it is the fact that we should not be worried or distracted whilst we are busy, it is our attitude of mind. And this does not just apply to us as individuals – the church, for example, often seems worried or distracted by a host of issues which sometimes seem peripheral to the gospel. Bishop Tom Wright, said that when he was getting a taxi to General Synod once a taxi driver said to him: “If God rose Jesus Christ from the dead, then everthing else is rock ‘n’ roll, innit?” Which seems a useful perspective.
So we, by which I mean we as a church and we as individuals, need to take at least two lessons from the story of Mary and Martha this morning.
Firstly, when we get the time and the opportunity I believe that it is invaluable to the growth of our souls to take time out from our daily lives and to sit in silence in the presence of God. I try and take an annual retreat in a Monastery to do exactly that and I would urge everyone to do something similar if you can.
However in many ways the more important lesson, and the more long term solution, is to find a way to keep our minds on Jesus even in the midst of the busiest of lives and not be overwhelmed by worry or distracted from the reality of his presence among us.
St Therese said that her greatest joy was to discover God amongst the pots and pans – and that is the challenge for us all this morning – to go out of this place and to look for an encounter with the living God in the most mundane circumstances of our lives – to discover God amongst the pots and pans or at our desks or on the streets of Hadlow or wherever we live or work or in the faces of those around us in the busiest of lives.
Although it may sound obvious it is useful to remind ourselves from time to time that God is not just God here in this building on a Sunday morning. As today’s wonderful reading from Colossians reminded us the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus and through him the whole of creation is reconciled to God.
And when we start to think of God not only as the creator of all things but also the force which holds all things together and the force which seeks to draw all things in creation back to himself – although I hesitate to use the phrase – when we start to appreciate the truly cosmic nature of God in Christ then it becomes easier to see God at work not only in the spaces and the times which we designate as holy but to really appreciate that God can be at work anywhere and in anything.
If we aspire to be holy, and that should indeed be the aspiration of the people of God, then, through prayer, we should be cultivating contemplative souls that can keep themselves focussed on God, without distraction or worry, no matter how busy our lives.
Brothers and Sisters: We should each be aiming to sit at the feet of Jesus even while we are doing the pots and pans.