Scripture: Luke 10: 38-42
I was sitting in a staff meeting with our own Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel last Wednesday looking at my calendar and trying to figure out when in the world I was going to fit in writing a sermon before today. There was meeting after meeting scheduled and a newsletter to write and a bulletin to draft and emails and phone calls to return and our first ever pub theology event and an on-going movement for racial justice to engage. Rebecca interrupted my train of thought and said, “What’s the scripture this week?” “I don’t even know,” I said. So we looked. And I read it out loud and we burst out laughing because we are both total bible nerds. I was being soooooo Martha. There is so much to DO! When will I ever find time to sit and pray and write, aka, be Mary listening for God in the world?
Let me just give you a little context on me. I am a J on the Meyers Briggs – structure, to-do lists, calendars, plans, rules, routines, excel sheets – they all make me feel safe and secure. I use an app for my to-do list that currently has 12 sub to-do lists. Thank goodness there are ‘Marys’ in my life. In fact, I’m married to one. When my wife Angela and I did pre-marital counseling with our pastor in New York, we came up with this line about how our partnership works: Angela helps me be in the moment. I help her get to the next one. We function much better as a team.
I bet Mary and Martha do too. This story is often used to vilify one or the other – Mary or Martha. It’s also used as an allegory for a long-standing debate throughout church history about which is more important – prayer and study or service and action. As your bulletin cover puts it, word or works. Frankly, I think this is a silly debate. We need both. In this same chapter of the book of Luke, we have both the story of the Good or Faithful Samaritan that we talked about last week, which is all about action to heal the world, and we have this story where Jesus calls us to attention to him and to the Holy in the world. This is not an either or situation, but a both/and situation. It reminds me of this moment in our city and state that we’re in right now. There is a lot of debate right now about the right way build the Realm of God here on Earth, the right way to get to liberation, the right way build a more racially just society. But as it has been throughout history, it remains. We need all of us to build in Realm of God here, all of us to draw on our own strengths to find freedom for ourselves and be in solidarity with each other. We need both Mary and Martha still.
Overall, I think the core of this scripture is really not about the what – about the various tactics of building the Realm of God, but the quality of attention that shapes them. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”
Another translation of the Greek here is that Mary has chosen the “good portion,” which is not so much a thing as a direction pointing towards the ultimate goodness some of us call God. Mary is focusing on the presence of the Divine right in front of her. The Divine is like a magnet for her attention, a compass pointing her. Jesus is calling out Martha not for getting things done (she was probably making dinner for him, after all), but for her anxiety and distraction and the way she is doing what needs to get done. She is so caught up in her to-do list, she can’t pay attention to this profound embodiment of the Divine right in front of her.
Jesus calls all of us to attention, to attention to his Spirit in the world and in our lives right now. I think he’s saying in this passage, no matter what you are doing, pay attention to me, look for the Divine and follow Her. Build this quality of attention into your whole lives. You can come to church every week, and still not experience God if you are not paying attention. Or you can come to church every week and pay rapt attention, but then go out into the world, into every day interactions with your neighbors and co-workers and the people on the streets and forget that God doesn’t live at church alone, but inside you and inside each of us, inside the people you love easily and inside the people who scare you a bit and who require extra careful attention.
This past week our own beloved Sam Goodrich went in front of the ordination panel here in the UCC. Eighteen people sat in a circle and asked him questions about his spiritual journey, his theology, his sense of call in the world. He had them from the beginning in rapt attention. But by the end, they had stopped asking questions to figure out his readiness for ministry and started asking him questions to learn from him. One minister asked him about metaphors in his work. Sam was a music major in college and played the trumpet. So he talked about his work as a hospice chaplain now like being the base player in a jazz band. His job is to keep a steady rhythm and let the trumpet soloists, the people he visits as a hospice chaplain, take the lead. Then he began to talk about Miles Davis playing trumpet in his recordings of the song Freddie Freeloader. He said Miles Davis’ magic is as much about the notes he plays as it is about the ones he doesn’t and the silences he takes. And I flashed to Mary and Martha as Sam was talking. Martha is like the trumpet’s notes, I thought, but Mary is the necessary silence that makes them move us.
Mary sits at the feet of the Divine in her midst and listens. As the worlds spins by, as the do-lists grow, in the midst of all of it, she sits and listens. Sabbath is the spiritual necessity that teaches us to do that. Sabbath is like training wheels for seeing the Holy in everyday life. It strips all the distractions away so we can reattach to God. No work. No technology. Yes to wine and bread and time with loved ones and silence and nature and bodily pleasure and prayer and candles. Yes to presence. But don’t let it be another thing on your to-do list, like “Oh man, I have to practice Sabbath! When am I going to do that?!” No no no. Trust me, I’ve done that and it defeats the whole point. Sabbath doesn’t have to be a whole day, though you deserve that. It can be ten minutes when you walk the dog that you decide to pay special attention to nature’s creatures and creation’s mystery. It can be a moment of pause every time you get up from your desk at work just to breath and ground yourself. It can be journal time for a few minutes before bed. But take it. Claim your place at the Divine’s feet. Claim your Mary time to point your life in the direction of the Good. Bask in that time as your birthright, as a child of God reveling in God’s goodness. Then you will be able to see, touch and hear the Divine more clearly in each moment you work to build the Ream of God here and now.