Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 21st July 2013
21 July 2013 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The little story of Mary and Martha we heard for the gospel reading just now offends any sense of decency and fair play. It leaves us wondering. How dare Jesus support the idle Mary and encourage her in her dreamy wistfulness when poor old decent Martha is struggling to put the food on the table? And why didn’t he lend her a hand? I hope he at least helped with the washing up.
Now, I suppose, to be fair, this sense of outrage is the fruit of a particular English middle class upbringing in the 1950s. Your reaction might be quite different. Though, I suspect not.
Prominent in the gospels are the stories of Jesus being anointed with perfumed oil and a woman wiping his feet with her hair. In St John’s Gospel, the woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. That is in chapter 12 of St John’s Gospel. In the previous chapter, we have heard St John’s long account of an event not described in the other gospels, where we see Jesus engaging directly and personally with these same people, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, who are not amongst his foremost disciples but of whom he is clearly particularly fond. When Jesus approached the home of the dead Lazarus and saw the grief of those mourning his loss, we are told that Jesus wept.
We cannot be sure that Mary and Martha in our own Gospel reading today are the two sisters of Lazarus, though it seems overwhelmingly likely, but it is fascinating that this is the only account in the gospels of Jesus relaxing at home among friends without his band of disciples. It is all the more important therefore that we consider what its meaning might be, for it is certain that St Luke recorded the account in his gospel not to amuse us or fascinate us or even outrage us, but to teach us something of importance that we need to understand.
The story begins with Martha’s outreach and her hospitality. Jesus entered a certain village and Martha welcomed him into her own home. The way she later speaks to Jesus suggests that this is by no means the first time. They are familiar. They know each other well. Indeed in the great account in St John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, Martha says to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ That feels quite sharp. She goes on to express confidence in him but there is no escaping the asperity in the tone. That same sharpness is there in our story today when Martha questions Jesus, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ Of course, she is fussed because she is busy around the house preparing the food and making everything ready while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him.
Our Lord’s reaction is genuinely surprising, ‘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.’ This is not the only surprising and challenging thing he says in the presence of Mary and Martha. After Mary has poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, and Judas complains about the cost and how it could be put to better use feeding the poor, Jesus says, ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Traditionally the Church has understood this little story as reflecting two different vocations for people called to the religious life: the vocation on the one hand, after the example of Mary, to a contemplative life in an enclosed community focusing all one’s attention on the divine office and prayer; and on the other hand the vocation, after the example of Martha, to an active life of Christian work in the world, works of mercy, such as healing the sick, educating children, tending the dying.
Not long ago I visited St Hugh’s at Parkminster, a flourishing Carthusian monastery, a Charterhouse, in Sussex, and spent an hour or two in a spare cell. The monks live together in the monastery but spend almost all their time alone. Apart from attending some liturgies in the monastery Church and exercising together once a month, the monks each in their own cell remain cloistered. The cell is on two floors and has a small garden, but is innocent of all luxury. Each monk’s food is placed in a wall-safe that allows no personal exchange. The intention and purpose of this way of life is to enable the pure contemplation of God and commitment to him. It may seem strange to most of us in the world but this way of life is well-established and will not fade away. The monastery is almost full. That life is unimaginable for most of us and many of those attempting it fall by the wayside. It is a rare and special vocation.
An equally radical vocation is that of St Francis and those who follow his way. St Francis in the early 13th century gave up everything of this world’s riches and ambition and striving and distraction and abandoned himself to the work of God. Many in our own day follow that way. And his friary in Assisi is a great place of pilgrimage and prayer. Although many follow that way, the Franciscan too is a comparatively rare vocation.
However, it seems clear to me that there is something in this story of Mary and Martha for all of us. It cannot mean that we should give up housework, preparing food for our families and friends and neighbours, or maintaining standards of decency. There is a Martha time for all of us. But there must also be a Mary time: a time of contemplation, of meditation, of quiet attention to God as revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.
This attention will be focused in times of public worship like these when our Lord is present to us in Word and Sacrament. And we should give absolute priority in our busy lives to regular weekly acts of public worship.
But it also requires us to spend time apart daily, when we study the Word of God and spend time in silent contemplation as well as vocalised prayer. If this way is unfamiliar, there are many helps available in bible reading notes and brief daily liturgies on line for example on the Church of England website. And can we make time in busy lives? I am absolutely confident that our lives are better, that more of real worth can be achieved, if we do make time and give priority to a time every day of real focus on the Lord who loves us.
How might we think of the process of silent contemplation of the love of God? We make prayer hard work. I imagine you have never thought of a basking sea-lion as an ideal image, simply lying there warmed by the rays of the sun. But I find it helps. Nothing to do but simply bask in the warmth of God’s love. An ideal summer of passivity in God.
‘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.’