As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”
“But Martha was distracted by her many tasks”. If I were to ask for a show of hands, I bet that most of you would say that you are Marthas. You have many tasks to accomplish and you are often distracted by them. A few of you, would perhaps say that you are contemplatives, spend time in silence, and are frequently listening for the voice of God. In truth, very few of us are purely Marys or entirely Marthas. We exist somewhere on the spectrum between the two.
When this Gospel reading arises, I’ve often heard preachers say something about the relative value of the choices of Mary and Martha, how both played an important role in the Kingdom. But that’s not really what Jesus says here. He doesn’t say, “We need your orientation toward action Martha, and Mary we need your contemplative nature. Both of you have chosen well.” No, he says, “Martha, Martha (I can’t say that without shaking my head), you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…” Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened, had made the right choice.
But what does that choice really mean. If Jesus entered the village of Bentonville and sat on a bench on the square, I would like to believe that most of us would decide that school and work and vacations weren’t as important as we thought they were and we would take our place on the grass with Mary and listen to what Jesus was saying.
I was tempted this morning to talk with you about the way in which the gospel message was likely to be perceived by its early Christian audience. I think it would have stunned a largely the largely Jewish listeners to learn of a woman who abandoned the traditional “woman’s work” of cleaning and cooking and entertaining and chose instead to drop into the man’s world of religious duties, rabbinical study, theological conversation – and just sitting around. Just sitting wasn’t something women did much of then and don’t do much of now. It’s as if Mary had, instead of doing the dishes after dinner, barged into the library where the men folk had retired to pass around the brandy and cigars. The astonishing thing – is that Jesus, by recognizing that Mary had chosen the better half, was the first to hand her a brandy, light her cigar, and welcome her to the exclusive men’s club. But that’s not the message I’m going to preach. Not that there isn’t work to be done. While almost half of the priests being ordained in the Episcopal Church are women, relatively few occupy senior positions at our larger churches. Still many women in our church occupy leadership roles, our presiding ‘Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the most prominent. I think, as a church, we are beginning to recognize the wisdom in encouraging women to choose “the better part”.
But what I really want to talk about is the way in which Mary and Martha exemplify the two aspects of the Christian life – the contemplative side and the side oriented toward action. I think that in recognizing Mary’s superior choice, Jesus is speaking of something akin to the state of mind known to psychologists as flow – the place where action and awareness converge. The creator of flow theory says that in a state of flow “Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is in harmony.”
Earlier this week it was my great pleasure, within the span of a single hour, to visit with both the youngest and the oldest members of our parish. Chris, the mother of the youngest member, graciously permitted me to hold seven-hour-old David Elijah Adkins, in my arms. Eli, fresh from his mother’s womb and still warmly held in the embrace of God, hadn’t yet learned of the world of distractions. With undivided attention, Eli focused on his mid-morning snooze, his sleep untroubled with thoughts of the tasks that awaited him after his repose. When he gets hungry – his hunger is all there is. And when he tastes his mother’s milk his thoughts are at one with the sweetness of the milk and the growing fullness of his belly. Young Eli isn’t worried and distracted by many things. Eli has need of only one thing – one thing at a time. Eli’s world is at that perfect confluence of body, mind, and spirit – no sense of separation – only unity, in harmony with the Divine.
After leaving the hospital, I stopped by to see Rene, at 80 she is the oldest member of All Saints’ and recovering from a hospital stay. I told her of my visit with young Eli and how he was the newest and youngest member of our parish. Recognizing her senior status, Rene smiled shyly and proudly announced, “Why then, I must be the matriarch.” And I suppose she is.
Rene wanted to talk about prayer and how difficult prayer can be. Rene is a powerful pray-er, and a practitioner of contemplative prayer and meditation. But still being human, having amassed the troubles and concerns that come with walking the face of the earth for eight decades – she still experiences distraction in her desire for communion with God. She has the same struggle that every one of us experience, at least everyone of us who are older than Eli: How can we sit at the feet of Jesus? How can we expect to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen, when we live in a world designed to distract us from finding meaning.
We desire to get back to the womb, back to the loving embrace of the divine presence, back the sacred moment. But we can’t turn the clock back. The closest we can do is stop the clock and bring our attention to the now – to the place where God is most evident. If we come to this place, this church, with the intention of finding God, and spend the time imagining what we might have for lunch, we are less likely to hear God’s voice. But likewise, over lunch, if we fail to taste a perfectly prepared pot roast, because our minds are distracted by the television in front of us, we have missed another opportunity to experience the Divine.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Martha, stop cutting up the vegetables, and come sit with us.” His criticism was that she had not brought her full attention to the task of slicing the cucumbers. Jesus wasn’t such an egotist that he was criticizing Martha for not sitting at his feet listening for the pearls of wisdom to fall from his mouth. No, in comparing the two sisters, Jesus could see that Mary was fully present and Martha was distracted.
Zen Buddhists devote their lifetime learning to develop the stillness and presence of mind necessary to accomplish one thing at a time. Most of us spend our lives doing one thing and thinking of another. When I was in business, a typical morning found me behind the wheel of my pickup, talking to subcontractors on the cell phone, listening to Morning Edition, and wiping up the salsa that had fallen from my breakfast taco. Accomplishing, I’m not sure what, and fully present… to nothing.
One way to begin to sit at the feet of Jesus is to simply be aware of what you are doing at a single moment. When you wake up in the morning, say to yourself, ”I am aware that I am awakening”. Later, “I am aware that I am driving my car.” “I am aware that I am drinking coffee, preparing lunch, walking to the mailbox.” Or perhaps most useful, “I am aware that I am breathing.” As we take note of what we are doing in these moments, we are alive, to our bodies, to those around us, to the presence of God.
Two weeks ago, I spoke of the spiritual renewal that can happen when we come to church. The Eucharist, the fellowship, the music and prayers, that take place on Sunday morning can nurture us and equip us for the ministry that awaits each of us the remaining six days of the week. These things wake us up. However, if we rely solely on the spiritual nourishment of one hour on Sunday morning to sustain us though six days of living in a wilderness of distractions, we will soon find ourselves lost.
What I am suggesting is that the same sense of presence that you bring to the altar to receive communion, is the same sense of presence to bring to every meal, to every conversation, to every task at hand. It is a matter of practicing the presence of God. We practice here, with intention, to experience the divine. If all goes well, we get a taste of what it means to be fully present to the moment, to sit at the feet of Jesus. My prayer is that it is a taste that doesn’t satisfy, but a taste of God that leaves us hungry for more.