This is a sermon I preached a couple of weeks ago about Mary and Martha.
You can listen to it here (and marvel at how slowly I’m managing to speak)
Or you can read it below.
Sermon at Wesley Church Melbourne 16/7/2016
Life can feel very mysterious sometimes. Random, and often terrible, events fill our attention – a coup in Turkey, attacks in Paris, instability in the South China Sea. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it all. Is God somehow speaking through events? There are so many people claiming to speak for God, and other denying His existence altogether. In a culture which has a million and one different view on the subject, how can we know anything about God at all? And, just as importantly, how do we know how to live? What firm place can we stand on?
The Apostle Paul was writing into a similar situation. Colossae, like all the cities of the empire would have been a mayhem of different beliefs. From the homespun piety of the household gods of hearth and home, to the glamour of the imperial cult with its grand rituals and the chance to rub shoulders with the great and the good, a thousand cults would have flourished. But there was a hunger there underneath it all, or perhaps a fear. It was a time when the mystery religions flourished – secret rituals to give the keys to the afterlife, and perhaps control over magical and spiritual powers in the current life as well.
Into this ferment comes the new community of Christians. A tiny, vulnerable group, increasingly alientated even from its original home in the synagogues.
What can they rely upon? In this very hard world in which they find themselves, and make no mistake, the life of the poor in antiquity was hard indeed, how do they know how to live? Oour life is nothing like as hard, but the questions still present themselves today. How shall we live? Where do we stand? What is worthy of trust?
Let’s turn to the gospel reading – the story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha. It’s a story famous for its presentations of two archetypes of the Christian life. Mary, the contemplative, happy to just sit at Jesus’ feet, and Martha, busy, active, helpful Martha.
The story, in summary, is that Jesus shows up at Mary and Martha’s house. While Martha fusses about hospitably, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him talk. Finally, Martha snaps at Jesus. Can’t you make her help me with the preparations?
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replies. “You are anxious about so many things. But only one thing is necessary, which Mary has chosen, and it will not be taken away from her.”
There are two main points to be drawn from this. One theological, and one more practical Let’s start with the theological point.
It’s hard to hear how surprising Jesus’ words are. We are so used to the story that we miss it I thin. What Jesus is saying is that the single most important thing for anyone to do is to be with Jesus. More important than the dinner, more important than the duty of hospitality to guests. It is attention to Jesus himself that is central, and relativises everything else.
It’s an unlikely claim on the face of it – that a conversation with a dusty Jewish rabbi from the unfashionable back blocks of empire could be that important – especially given that the story doesn’t even say what Jesus was talking about! And it becomes even less plausible when you consider the culmination of Jesus’ story – that he was executed as a common criminal. In our world of constant random seeming events, we don’t know what to make of this claim. It would barely have made a ripple in the continual unfolding of events.
However, into this situation, the Apostle Paul has something to say. Who is this man Jesus? He is, says Paul, the image of the invisible God. The firstborn. The one in who all things were created, and who holds all things together. The head of his body, which is the church. The one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The one through whose death God has reconciled all things.
He is, in short, the revelation of God. The answer to the question of what God is like. Into the chaos of our world, with its continual series of disasters and events that seem totally meaningless, God has revealed Godself. God, it turns out, looks like Jesus.
This is a fundamental theological point, the core of the Good News. God reveals Godself in Jesus Christ– and through him, reaches out to all of us in love and reconciliation.
My second point relates to this theological claim, and it means going back to Mary and Martha. This fact about Jesus is why Mary’s choice to sit at his feet is so praised by Jesus. She is giving attention to the central fact about the universe.
But what does this have to say to us today?
A traditional way of reading this story is to see it as two competing archetypes of the Christian walk. Is it a matter of bustling around, doing stuff for God? Or is it a matter of quiet contemplation?
You can see how this has worked out in the history of the church, with some groups focussing on the contemplative and some on the active. For the contemplative life, a community of Trappist monks living in prayer and silence high in the French Alps, content just to sit at Jesus’ feet. For the active life, a social agency of the church – perhaps Wesley Mission, busily doing their best for the poor and marginalised in our society.
It’s a strong temptation to pull apart these two poles of action and contemplation. We like nice clear choices – they help us to know where we stand in what is, as I have frequently remarked, a complex world.
Probably most of us resonate more closely to Mary or Martha, to contemplation or action. I’m a bit of a Martha I think – always busy, distracted by a lot of different things, earnestly trying to do stuff for God.
But perhaps you are more like Mary – just content to sit with Jesus, and finding yourself standing back a little from the anxious bustle around, easily concentrating on the most important things.
However there is, I think, more to this story than this simple division between the contemplative and active lives.
For a start, it is to mis-read the text. Martha is not criticised for being busy – after all, Jesus and the disciples are often very busy indeed in the gospels. Rather it is her anxiety that is challenged by being compared with Mary. She is so full of the anxiety of getting this dinner party sorted out that she has forgotten the primary purpose of the gathering – to be with Jesus. Mary has chosen the fundamental thing here.
In exactly the same way we are too easily tempted to be “anxious about many things.” The changes in our society, the state of the world, the increasing marginalisation of the church in Australian life – and that’s even before we get started on our own private preoccupations.
Our challenge is to have Mary’s grounding – to be know where we stand in the universe, and to be properly attentive to that fact. Then our calling out into the world can take shape. It might be that we are called to be very busy. Or it might be that we are being called to a more contemplative stance. But whatever our call is, we need to become contemplatives in action. How we live must come out of our fundamental grounding in the Good News – that Jesus Christ shows us the truth about the ultimate centre of the universe. That, contrary to appearances, life is not merely a cataract of unrelated, and often awful, experiences, but that Jesus holds all things together and, through him, God has worked, and is working, to reconcile all things to himself. Our stable, trustworthy place to stand in this uncertain world.