Can you picture it? Recently it all came to its logical conclusion. A crack opened in my carefully constructed, perfect communication system, letting in the ray of light that invited me to be transformed. My iPhone chimed loudly indicating I was receiving a text message from someone who didn’t have the “luxury of the time” to wait for a response to the e-mail he had just sent me, since he needed desperately to send out a response on Twitter to the tweet that had gone out after a “friend of a friend” had placed a controversial posting on her Facebook wall. There it was before me. I saw it. The revealing light. It all had to stop! The gospel utterance of Jesus rang in my ears: “Ken, Ken, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing.”
Inside, part of me protested. “Just one thing? You’ve got to be kidding me, Jesus! Don’t you realize how much is going on in the world? And how much I need to be on top of it all. Things could fall apart if I am not vigilantly attending to everything! What’s that? Those things falling apart are simply meant to get my attention and wake me up spiritually? Although you ARE the “still-speaking God,” you are asking how you can get a word in edgewise over the din of the world in which I have chosen to participate and even foster? You might have a point, Jesus. But I’ve got a call on the other line and a text message that just came in. I’ll have to get back to you!”
The great scholar of world religions, Mircea Eliade, has written that our world has very little access to sacred space. What is sacred space? It is the space where spiritual transformation can happen. It is the space in which only one thing matters and we see all things through that lens and stand firmly on that foundation. In our world, it is usually a place we enter only when tragedy strikes: the death of a parent, spouse, or child. The loss of someone or something we have held dear to us. Our best friend’s breast cancer diagnosis. The agony of our friend whose body is ravaged by AIDS. For us as a country, the September 11th tragedy set us reeling and all things came together. We became brothers and sisters, a family mourning the loss of our loved ones and each other. It was an opportunity for transformation. How did we respond to that opportunity? Can the Gulf tragedy with all its devastating losses that we have only begun to fathom offer us a way into sacred space that we might be transformed, reaching out to repair the damage of our misguided values that have not taken the earth and all of creation into account?
In our gospel lesson, was Mary in that place of sacred space where only one thing mattered? To hear the words of hope, comfort, the love and mercy of God, the release of captives to the law, being present to the Presence of God.
We have probably heard this story many times over and have had several responses and reactions to it. It is a provocative story, to say the least. Our inner Martha’s and Mary’s rise up to justify our behavior, or scoff at the impracticality of Jesus. Is he just another “guy” who doesn’t get how much work is involved in hospitality? Do we defensively need to dismiss the whole story, or dare we hear it as part of the wisdom offered to us? Where is the good news here? How does it offer us hope?
Certainly, the point is not lost that Jesus is the recipient of the great hospitality of Martha. “Martha welcomed him into her home.” He enjoys the fruits of all the work that goes into making a comfortable, inviting, welcoming space. I think of our own hospitality coordination here at Old South and the myriad of people who volunteer each Sunday in so many ways to make Old South inviting and open—affirming of body, mind, and spirit. From first greetings on the street through food and drink and fellowship after worship, the long lists of people who make this happen each Sunday is a kind of miracle unto itself. We need to volunteer and make these things happen. Was Jesus just making an excuse for Mary not “pitching in?” Do we really think he believed Mary shouldn’t help out?
Or was he refusing to approve of behavior he had spotted as potentially troublesome. Rather than being “un-Christian” in his countering of Martha’s request for help, perhaps he was trying to release her from a kind of death-grip on work with no other options available.
Martha was busy, busy, busy. Perhaps she thought she had found the answer! “You can’t go wrong by serving!” Finally, something to count on. It sounds good at first: “you can’t go wrong by serving.” But then it hardens into law and gives us the justification to force that edict upon others. Make no mistake; serving is a much-needed and wonderful thing. But when it becomes the only thing, it can morph into workaholism, a disease the church can foster unless it is open to God’s wisdom of Sabbath and rest. How easy it is to burn out people because they want to do good, and serve others. But Jesus is no enabler of a life out of balance. How can we encourage each other, as Jesus did, to slow down also and take time to be in relationship with God and other persons? To listen and hear, to take Sabbath rest, leaning on the everlasting arms of God? As Henri Nouwen reminds us, “if we are so busy with our “doing’ that we can’t stop regularly and long enough to listen for God, then our lives will remain full, but unfulfilled.” Full, but unfulfilled.
The compassionate nature of Jesus tells us that he will not take away from Mary, or from us, the one thing that gives our soul energy and life and the one thing that protects this fragile seedling of hope growing in the midst of the laws, duties, and demands of culture, custom, or family and tribal ways. The laws could suffocate her. Legalistic ideas like: “Women shouldn’t be spending so much time with the men, they will get ideas of leadership into their heads.” “Just sitting there is being lazy. There is work to be done!”
A favorite illustration of this is the story of the pastor who was in prayer when a parishioner knocked rapidly on the door of the study and immediately entered. When the pastor shared that she was doing her morning prayer practice, the parishioner responded, “Oh, good. I was afraid I might be interrupting something important.”
How do we gain the courage to make room for the Spirit of God to breathe freely within us, giving us the foundation from which our action can be renewed and replenished? How can we learn to tend our spiritual lives like the wonderful Old South gardeners who tend our Garden of Eden that brings a harvest of food for Rosie’s place and the glorious prize-winning flower gardens? We learn from them how to spend time nurturing new growth, pulling weeds of distraction when necessary, and gently showering the thirsty green plants with refreshing water.
We live in a world that often equates busyness with importance. A long to-do list, when completed gives us a sense of satisfaction, and even security. If Martha’s security was founded on the performance principle, doing the exact right thing to make the hospitality perfect so she will be acceptable, she herself is in danger of losing her very soul. For the doing is not to earn acceptance, but a return in gratitude for the unsolicited and unearned mercy and love offered by God that surprises us and transforms our lives. As our closing hymn puts it so well, “For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us, most of all that Love has found us, thanks be to God.”
Perhaps Jesus understands that enlisting Mary to help fulfill Martha’s idea of “what is needed” risks taking the very life force of hope and energy that Mary needs at this time. Maybe she needs to hear more fully the words of love and mercy. Maybe she needs to experience more immediately her relationship with Jesus who introduces her to God who loves her without condition.
Jesus had learned in the wilderness temptations that being a child of God is not an earned position. It is a given in creation itself. The tempter kept saying, “If you are the Son of God, … perform this miracle on demand, witness to your social prestige, show off your possessions.” We do not become children of God by doing great acts, earning our way, showing how accomplished we are, or showing off our great power and might. No, we must turn and become like children. There is only one thing necessary: “receive the good news that you re a child of God, in whom God delights, in your very being.” Then go and share this good news with all of creation!
We love your realm, O God. It is a realm of justice and compassion, mercy and love. It has an ultimate claim on our life. It is the one thing we need. It reaches from your future, O God, into our present to offer us hope. Without it we will be distracted, lose heart, or become enslaved to other gods: the gods of fame, fortune, possessions, unchecked power, drugs, alcohol, food, work … all very powerful forces in our world.
How do we counter all these forces? We take time to listen. To be present to the Presence. Our 19th Century neighbor, Henry David Thoreau, helps us when he reflects: “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories, and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the bird sang around or flitted noiseless through the house. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”
The practice of prayer and silence creates open space—space in our hearts and minds, space in our lives, space in which God can anchor and ground us, space in which we can notice and listen for the activity of the Divine in our lives. One thing is necessary: to learn how to be present to the Presence. It is a central spiritual practice from ancient times.
Poet Mary Oliver helps us understand being present and listening in her poem, “Mockingbirds.” Let’s listen to a part of it:
in the green field
were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing
better to do
I mean this
Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
whatever it was I said
I would be doing–
I was standing
at the edge of the field–
I was hurrying
through my own soul,
opening its dark doors–
I was leaning out;
I was listening.
We cannot hurry this spiritual practice, the listening, the being present to the Presence. As Barbara Brown Taylor tells us:
“Let the summer showers of God’s love soak the seeds of your right answers so that they may blossom into right actions and watch the landscape begin to change. Just do it, and find out that when you do, you do live, and live abundantly” … in the presence of the One who was in the beginning, is in this very moment, and will be into Eternity.
May we together encourage each other in our spiritual practice of being present to the Presence of the Eternal One, now and always.