Year C, Proper 11 July 17, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
I should go back and count how many times this year I have started a sermon with words like, “What a week!” I fear that patterns of discontent are forming. The horror in Nice. Lord have mercy upon us. A coup attempt in Turkey, a member of NATO? Congress confirmed that the Saudis were involved in 9/11. And did you see the pictures of the police in Baton Rouge in heavier body armor then Marines wore in Fallujah and deploying acoustical weapons mounted on armored cars against peaceful protesters? Do they really think that is going to help bring the temperature down? That this is going to heal our nation?
This is all so upsetting. We can go from furious to despondent to despairing all on one front page of one newspaper. And yes, we are only getting the bad news; the news cycle is voyeuristic-ally addicted to the dramatically devastating, but goodness the volume of that bad news is the worst it has been in my lifetime. (I was born after 1968 which may be the last time it was this bad). Like the bumper sticker teaches, if you are not outraged (or upset or scared or anxious), you are not paying attention.
We need to pay attention. Maybe that is my one sermon. Pay attention! We may not cross the street to avoid things that we find uncomfortable. I have said this before. Repeatedly. Last week, I think. (Although that was right before the cross fell off the top of the church and I am not sue what meaning to make of that). We need to pay attention, engage and take responsibility. We as white folks need to take responsibility for racism. We as Americans need to take responsibility for our Empire. We as Christians need to take responsibility for the world. We need to learn from Mary and Martha.
The teeny-tiny story of Mary and Martha is a treasure trove. It is a call to praise women; it has been a tool to oppress women. It is about hospitality. It is about work and contemplation and priorities. And most of all, it is a snapshot of how life really is, and how Jesus Christ can reach into our lives and make all the difference in the world.
Jesus and His friends come to town and are welcomed by Martha into her home. Well, it would have been in and around her home because this is not just Jesus and His 12 friends, no, He is traveling with the 12 and with 70 (or 72) others. This is a crowd and Martha welcomed them in with real, if not radical, hospitality. Can you imagine the list of things that had to be done. And this is 1st century Palestine, she couldn’t just call the Market of Choice and have another couple of hummus trays delivered. No, she had work to do. Back-breaking, frustrating, anxiety producing work to do in order to welcome the Son of God and His followers into her home.
Martha is traditionally criticized for being a busy body, right? But the thing is, that there in fact was a lot going on to keep a body busy, very busy. No wonder she was “distracted by her many tasks.” Having so many tasks can be incredibly distracting.
Racism and the issues of racial inequality and racial justice are right in the middle of our plate. Competing for airtime with the most contentious election cycle in a generation. And the climate. And income inequality with her wretched cousins poverty, addiction and homelessness. And a world economy teetering atop a pyramid scheme of debt and fuzzy math. Not to mention 15 years of continual, imperial war. And that is just out there. Our own homes and lives and inner worlds offer their own array of tragedies and needs. Pick your poison. The menu of suffering that needs our attention is long.
It is long, isn’t it. Maybe even longer than Martha’s to do list to host 85 for supper. I’ve totally been there. Of course not before the last parish picnic we hosted out in Jasper. (That was Windy). We’ve all had a million things to do, each of them more pressing then the next, each of them (rightfully) demanding our full attention so we weave and bob and dance and juggle, we become “worried and distracted about many things.” And, and in the midst of all of that, while you are there busting your hump doing all that needs to be done (and it does need to be done), there is Mary, sitting on hers listening to Jesus. Do you feel Martha’s pain? Is that your brother or sister who always had something “more important” to be doing than helping out? Or is that just you with that terrible tightness in your chest and your eyes all googly seeing it all yet unable to focus on anything? Anxiety. Goodness, this world is source of so much anxiety.
This story is not about Martha being a busy-body; being all wrong while the prayerful Mary has it all right. Not at all. Of course it is dreadfully important (and entirely hospitable) to stop and take time to sit at the feet of the Master, to pause, to bask in His holy presence. It is also important that dinner be served. That they have water to wash their feet. This is not a holy judgment on which is better, ora (prayer) or labora (work); both need to be done, and desperately. Both are gifts and responsibilities given by God. What this story is holy judgment against worry and distraction. This is a story against anxiety.
The news of the world…So much worry. So much distraction. So much anxiety in the world being reflected back to us and it is so hard not to take it in. Or I come to the office and I look at my desk (a source of anxiety itself), and I see the to do list that takes up a couple of 4×6 cards. The anxiety that produces! And I am not talking about clinical anxiety, something far too many of us struggle with, I am talking about the personal and societal anxiety produced and exacerbated by encountering and engaging so many different things, all at the same time, so many of them important and stressful and horrible and not having the resources or abilities to manage it all within our selves or in the little realm we are responsible for.
That is where Martha was. She was stuck in the spiral of having so much to do and not knowing how to get it done, worried and distracted to the point of hurling accusations at Jesus! “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Who hasn’t said something like that at some time in our lives? I hear my own voice echoing “The world is falling apart and you are worried about Pokemon?” Anxiety.
And Jesus tells Martha that there is need of only one thing. Maybe that is our lesson for this season of our civilization. One thing. One thing at a time. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. Take a step and know that you have arrived exactly where you are. Then take another step, and you have arrived again exactly where you are. One thing at a time. One teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy baby step at a time towards the Kingdom of God. Maybe that’s the one thing.
What Jesus Christ teaches us, most directly in His Passion and Resurrection, is that no, we can’t change much in the world or in other people (we can’t even change ourselves, our own nature, we are who we are, get used to it). We do, however, have immense capacity to change our relationship with the world. We have an incredible ability to alter our reactions to the world. Our actions in the world.
I think of the revolutionary hospitality of Dorothy Day. What she did was feed homeless people. She provided housing for maybe a couple of dozen folks at a time. And her writings, her newspaper The Catholic Worker, that spread some important ideas and connected some good people, but what she really and radically did was one thing. That one thing? She gave what she had to the person in front of her who needed it. Nothing more. Nothing less. And sometimes all she had to give was her attention. (And sometimes that is all that was really needed). And that is revolution against the principalities and powers of the world who deluge us with every form of hurt. One thing at a time, one need satisfied, one wound bound, one heart gladdened is the Kingdom of God happening. That is how we save the world (and ourselves in it). It is also a good way to deal with your mother-in-law next time she visits: one thing at a time.
We can’t change the world. We can’t change the people who are doing evil. We can’t change those too scared to too numb to do anything but suffer through as it is. We can’t do much to change ourselves and our propensity for anxiety or depression. But we can change how we react to the world. How we respond to the world.
On Friday Larry Weinerman from WhiteBird came to talk at the village about our drug policy. Complicated stuff. One thing he said was that crisis workers don’t run towards a crisis. They walk. You are not going to be much help if you arrive on scene huffing and puffing and spun up from a sprint. Crisis workers need to be grounded in order to help. The anxiety produced by all of it, all of it pouring in leaves us huffing an puffing and ungrounded and unable to help.
“Mary has chosen the better part…” Mary offered the hospitality befitting a prophet: listening. She stopped and listened. She stopped and gave a gift, the gift of her attention and I can only dream of the gift she received in kind, the consolation of God at whose feet she sat. And then I imagine she got up and helped her sister provide the rest of the hospitality that a prophet and 84 of his closest friends also required. Good food, cool, fresh water and the gracious and friendly welcome we all hope to receive when entering someone’s home. But maybe before all of that, she said, “Martha, you look flustered. Why don’t you sit here with Him for a bit and I’ll run down to the well. It’ll do you a world of good.” And it would have.
When do you sit at God’s feet? When you are flustered, when anxiety grips your center, when you are overwhelmed by the sins of the world or the length of the to do list. Or you are faced with unexpected guests, how do you satisfy the need of that one thing? Where is your place at the feet of God? How do you practice Christianity in a way that helps you fulfill your responsibilities in the world?
Come to church. Open your heart and your mind in common prayer at this table. Pick up your bible at home. We’re 10 chapters into the Gospel of St. Luke. Catch up! Come learn about the gift of silence in contemplative prayer every Friday morning and evening. Or learn Lectio Divina, a contemplative form of scripture reading with Evan, one of our newer members, starting next Sunday at 9:15. Pick up a good book and with intention, read it. Or a good cup of tea and intentionally pause and drink it. Or learn to not pick up your phone and read the news before you even get out of bed. Get up, start your day with quiet, or a talk with the spouse or kids or cat; the news and email will hold for an hour. Come talk to me about it. There is nothing a priest wants to hear more than the question, “How do I become a better Christian?” And the answer is practice, practice, practice. Come and talk, we’ll find a way. We have to.
The world is scary right now. Scarier that it has been for many of us. Do not worry. Do not be distracted. Do not be anxious. Choose the better part, and God’s will will be done. AMEN.