St Mary’s 21/7/19 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
(Genesis 18.1-10a) Colossians 1.15-28 Luke 10.38-42
It’s a domestic scene, one we can easily relate to. We’ve all been guests in someone else’s home. Or we’ve been hosts and invited others into our home. This is a simple story of when Jesus was welcomed into the home of Martha and Mary. It’s one of many stories we find only in Luke’s Gospel which show his interest in people and what makes them tick. We can recognise ourselves.
As so often, it’s a story you may be so familiar with, and have heard so many sermons about, that it can be hard to hear it fresh, stripped of all that we bring to it.
Commonly we’ve heard it told as a lesson in making sure we’re not over busy but that we make time to pray and read the Bible and listen to God.
Or the story may be used to illustrate Martin Luther’s big message that there’s no point trying to impress with your works, not even with your cooking. If you come to Jesus for justification, to be accepted, you must come empty handed, not with a plate of fairy cakes.
Or you may have heard a mildly feminist sermon which rejoices that Jesus allows a woman to sit and learn and not be confined to the kitchen.
Or you may have heard a strongly feminist sermon which finds no joy here, only the continued patriarchy, as two women defer to the authority of a man and vie for his attention.
But let’s try to start again, assuming nothing. Martha and Mary are two women about whom we know very little. This isn’t Mary the mother of our Lord. They are common names. Luke hasn’t mentioned the sisters before, so we don’t need to know anything about them to get his point.
Of course, we’ve met Jesus before in this Gospel, but let’s try not to make any assumptions about why Jesus is here or what he is doing.
Mary is sitting at his feet. It’s an attitude which recognises Jesus as the teacher and prophet he is known to be. But we’re not told anything about the conversation. We’re not told whether Jesus is here at work, or off duty as it were. Is he in the house to continue his mission, or is he here for a rest and to unwind?
Martha has decided what is needed. She is distracted by her many tasks. And she comes to Jesus to complain. ‘Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?’
All the work? What work? And how did she decide it was necessary? And how would you feel, as a guest, if one of your hosts asked you to take sides with her against the other host?
Martha is out of order here. But you have to love her. She’s working so hard. She probably has a strong sense of duty. She’s very conscious of what is expected culturally. She’s probably the older sister. She thinks she knows what is needed and she will be the martyr in providing it.
I guess you’ve all been in situations where it’s made clear that it would be rude not to eat that wedge of Victoria sponge cake, but it’s the last thing you want to do. I’m reminded of when I went on a mission week to a group of rural parishes not too far from here, as one of a team of theological students. We went to a farmhouse after the Sunday morning service and had an enormous roast beef lunch. Then at 4 o’clock we went to a different farmhouse and were met by the aroma of roast lamb. We did our duty.
The difference between Mary and Martha is that Mary is paying attention to Jesus, whereas Martha has decided she knows what is needed without listening to her guest.
We don’t know what Jesus needed at this moment, except that the priority was not what Martha had in mind. Maybe Jesus was teaching, as has been commonly assumed. Maybe he was nodding off to sleep when Martha came rushing through. Maybe he was off-loading to Mary about the bickering between the 12 disciples.
We just don’t know and because Martha didn’t pause to pay attention, to look and listen, to be centred on the person whose presence she had welcomed, she missed out. She was preoccupied and self-absorbed, unable to receive her guest as a gift to her.
Imagine if you are a steward here at St Mary’s, and whenever a visitor enters the church, whoever it is, without any listening, you just know that they must be marched up the aisle to see the parson’s nose and the green men. This is the absolute priority for every guest.
That’s nonsense isn’t it? And of course our stewards are not like that. They know that some people simply want to sit and be still, others to light a candle, others to see the exhibition, others to talk and in doing so to become a gift to the steward, a lovely encounter.
There are so many ways in which we can learn from this at many levels. The Church of England has been in the spotlight in recent weeks as the focus of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. It is clear that the Church has yet to listen properly to survivors. To stand down its defences, its insurers, its self-protection at the most senior levels, and simply listen, and hear the truth. That would be a gift to the Church. It would be what is owed to the survivors, but ultimately the Church is healthier by making its own action a proper response, not presuming to know in advance what is best.
Our August magazine is now out, and it includes an article on the PCC’s discussion on how we welcome same sex couples at St Mary’s and a proposed decision on whether we may offer services to celebrate their relationships. The Church of England is in the process of producing a teaching document on sexuality. One thing is clear, the Church will not be able to know how it should respond unless it really pays attention to the reality of people’s lives, and the prejudice and misunderstanding that LGBT people face within the Church and without. For too long the Church has assumed it knows what is best for people without properly listening to them.
At St Mary’s we have a Listening Service, where people may come and explore their own issues and difficulties openly and honestly and feel supported in making their own decisions. There’s an excellent team of listeners whose role is to pay attention. They don’t offer solutions. They don’t get busy with a list of tasks. The service is a recognition that the first and most important thing some people need is simply to be heard, confidentially, and without any judgement.
Let’s not think though that the point of the story is to prevent us from work and action. The point is that any tasks we may get busy with follow on from giving attention. This story comes hard after the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan and Mary have in common that they stopped what they were doing, left their own preoccupations, and focused on someone else. The Samaritan was commended as a true neighbour. Mary is supported by Jesus in having chosen the better part.
It’s a hard lesson for Martha, but Jesus only wants the best for her. Notice how he speaks to her, ‘Martha, Martha’. He calls her name twice. He wants her to learn to give attention. She’s in a state. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Look at me. Those jobs don’t matter right now. You’re missing out. Stop, and breathe. And in time it will become clear what work you should do’.
And so we come to worship, always at risk of being preoccupied with our worries and burdens, our minds racing ahead to the tasks of the week. May the Lord give us grace here to pause, to listen, and then to go out with new clarity as we respond to our neighbours.