Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
5th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 21.07.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
The story of Mary and Martha is one of the better known stories in the gospels. You may remember that we read it and thought about it in a sermon 18 months ago. And Mary and Martha figure prominently in two other stories about Jesus – the raising of their brother Lazarus from the dead and Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet shortly before his crucifixion. Mary and Martha are the nearest we get to seeing of Jesus’ friends beyond the disciples themselves. And today’s encounter with Mary and Martha is certainly one worth revisiting, for its message is so relevant to our times.
A few decades ago we stood on the verge of a brave new world, a world where advances in technology promised us a world of far greater free time, as many of the time-consuming jobs we had to do could be done much quicker by new technology. And with some things that has definitely been the case. The amount of time washing machines save us is enormous. I think of my friends in Africa who had to spend many hours every week scrubbing their clothes by hand to know the truth of that. For some of you here, you grew up knowing the realities of that hard work.
But technology hasn’t created free time. It has instead just increased our expectations of how much we can get done each day. As communication has got easier with email and mobile phones, rather than using the time saved by not having to write letters and post them to relax, instead we have created a culture where communication becomes instantaneous, where the expectation is that you will reply to any email anywhere, anytime. As I prepared this sermon, emails were pinging into my inbox at regular intervals. Should I stop what I was doing to check them and answer them?
And if it is not work emails or phone calls, there is just the regular busyness of life. My guess is that ours is not the only family where breakfast has come to resemble a high-powered logistics meeting: I need to get A to there by 8am so that I can get to my meeting at 9.00am so as to pick up B from there and get them to X.
But the reality is that life has always had the potential to be busy, even two thousand years ago. There has always been the potential to fill our lives doing more things. Which brings us to our story of Martha and Mary.
Martha gets so much right. She, not Mary, is the one who takes the initiative and invites Jesus into their home. She recognises that Jesus is special, and so she wants to welcome him. She does everything that a woman in her time and culture would have been expected to do – cook the food, heat the water over the fire for their guests to be able to wash their hands and feet, prepare the room. With no microwaves, no ovens, no kettles, no hoovers, all of this was hard work and took time. And normally, she could rely on her sister to share the load. But not this day. Mary has downed tools to sit at the feet of Jesus. No wonder Martha is upset. And it all bursts out in an accusatory way against Jesus: “Lord don’t you care my sister isn’t helping? Tell her to help me!”
But Jesus’ response is not an easy one for Martha to hear: Mary, Jesus tells her, has made the better choice.
Martha has done many things right but she has lost sight of the most important thing. Jesus – who is described in our reading from Colossians as the image of the invisible God, the creator of all things, the one in whom all beings find their purpose and worth, the one in whom the fulness of God dwells – has come to tea. What could possibly be more important than spending time with him?
That question can be asked of us too? How much of a priority do we make it to spend time with God? Are we like Martha too easily distracted by all the other demands going on around us? But what ultimately could be more important?
Getting into the habit of creating a regular time for prayer can really help, even if it is just the time that you spend waiting for the kettle to boil, or five minutes grabbed at lunchtime. And if in those times you find yourself besieged by distractions do something radical – turn your phone off. I find myself distracted in addition by all sorts of random thoughts – writing my prayers down helps me to concentrate; other people I know find listening to music, or holding a pebble or cross helps.
Is it time for us to hear the words of Jesus and choose what is better?
Which leads us on to Mary and her choice.
For what Mary chooses to do is not just different. It breaks the cultural rules. In first century Palestine, there were clear boundaries in terms of where men and women should sit. Women were restricted to the back of the house, the kitchen and the yard. The men were restricted to the front of the house, the living room where guests were entertained. Mary was violating this rule. Not only that, she was sat at the feet of Jesus. This was the position a student took up who was wanting to learn from a rabbi, and students of rabbis in those days were never, ever women. Martha appeals to Jesus to censure her sister’s appalling behaviour. Instead he commends it!
Growing in faith, spending time in Jesus’ presence, is open to us all. Not just men, as was the norm in Jesus’ day. Not just to holy types, as it may feel like sometimes today. Jesus welcomes all. And if we are to spend time with him, we may well have to break our culture’s rules too, to break free from the norms of our world.
Those norms that say we should answer our emails at any time of day or night; those norms that say we should always answer the phone; those norms that say there is always something we should be doing.
Are we willing to be misunderstood by others, are we willing to incur the disapproval of others, to choose that which is most important?
There is a third person in this story – Jesus himself. Jesus had been on the road for weeks, travelling from one place to the next. He would have been tired, possibly worn out. He had spoken of the fact that unlike foxes and birds, he had nowhere to lay his head. So the thought of a good meal and a clean bed for the night must have been a very appealing one. And that is exactly what Martha is preparing.
And yet Jesus would rather she simply spent time with him. What matters most to him is relationship. The cooking, the preparation of the room, can wait till later.
Relationship with Christ must come first for us too. We can express our love for God in so many different ways, just as Martha did. We can do so by our singing and praying in church, we can do so by cleaning this beautiful building, we can do so by our caring for others, we can do so by our witness to God’s love in our workplace and community. But when those things become merely duty or ritual, when they become tasks to be completed and we lose sight of the God who longs for relationship with us, it may be time to stop and seek the better way. For above all else, God wants not our service but our love, not our activity but our company.
For many of us today, Jesus’ words to Martha may ring true for us too: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” Time in his presence; time at his feet, listening to him and speaking with him.
A good place to start may be to meditate on that wonderful description of Jesus we heard from our Colossians reading this morning.
For as the book of James promises us, “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”