Pentecost 6: Stop and listen

6th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green
Genesis 18:1-10a, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

This week has made it very clear to me why Roman Catholic priests are not allowed to marry. Our boy, Oberon has had a tummy bug, which has caused him to be somewhat challenging. My current wife has been in the last week of rehearsals so gone long hours, and I’ve had friends staying from Chile, with their three children, who also proved susceptible to the tummy bug. And to cap it all my darling greyhound Zizi was savagely assaulted just yesterday by a marauding villainous cat, who took his gentle offer of friendship as an opportunity for a violent swipe across the nose. Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. 

This Gospel text was used in earlier times as the basis for prioritising the religious life – think nuns and monks – over the life of ordinary parish clergy. In Joachim of Fiore’s twelfth century representation, it’s monks and nuns, the Benedictines, Franciscans, the Carmelites, the Discalced Carmelites – who populate the eternal city, with so-called ‘secular clergy’ – even then a dirty word – like vicars outside the city walls. Distracted by building works, printing contracts, playgroups and fencing, we, with our congregations are the Marthas of this world. The laity, God help them, in this design, live about 3 miles out in the New Jerusalem’s equivalent of Croydon. There he notes, they will all have their own craft, and simple food and clothing. Sounds heavenly doesn’t it?

Rudyard Kipling, that energetic soul, wrote in our defence a poem called the Sons of Martha, which begins:

THE Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

You might notice Anne East is away in North Wales doing some creative writing. She is our Mary earning the gold stars ‘which will not be taken away from her.’ Have we then chosen the worse part? Do we put works before faith, action before thought? Should we refuse to work, to go on rotas, to make coffee, out of fear of becoming a Martha?

There is though another tradition in the Bible that sees any spirituality, without social concern, as heresy. So the prophet Micah tells us that the Lord requires us only ‘to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God’; Isaiah to ‘learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. St James’ epistle famously says: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress’ and Jesus says, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ St Paul is a little more stark, reminding his new churches that he also works as a tent maker, and those who don’t work, shouldn’t eat. For those of you currently not in employment don’t worry; you’ll still get biscuits with your coffee after the service.  

So perhaps there’s an overstating of the case with this passage. After all it’s simply the case that Mary has sat down to listen, while Martha is fussily getting on with being the perfect hostess and making the house nice. But, again, this is no denigration of hospitality. In the ancient world there is no higher calling, nor any crime greater than betraying it. Many of the direst warnings, Sodom and Gomorrah being one, are related to it, and in our Old Testament reading today, Abraham entertains angels without knowing it, and by his actions brings about the first covenant of the Old Testament.

But to begin with, there may be some very human, very relatable issues going on in today’s Gospel. For a start we’re dealing with sisters, and all sibling relationships all have that whiff of competition; families are wonderful things but habits, learned early in life, are not easily shaken no matter how holy, how sophisticated you become. You can never truly become a priest to your parents, for example, you will always first of all be the darling curly haired cherub or the moody teenager; which may not perfectly encapsulate how you feel about yourself at 40.

So what sister would not feel a smidgeon resentful seeing her sibling with Jesus while she was doing what she felt was necessary? And perhaps to make the point Martha in her outrage had been a little extra zealous in her duties to prove herself and to make her sister’s laziness the more apparent. Mentioning ‘Zeal’ I like Bertrand Russel’s observation: ‘Zeal is a bad mark for a cause. Nobody has zeal about arithmentic. It is not the vaccinationists but the anti-vaccinationists who generate zeal. People are zealous for a cause when they are not quite positive that it’s true.’ Plus ça change.

But there’s also a bigger question about means and ends here. From time to time Rhiannon has cooked dinner for friends. Her usual protocol is for guests to arrive around 7 but not to eat till shortly after 11. Sometime around 10.30 Rhiannon will burst in complaining of not having talked to anyone all night and demanding, midway through a vital discussion of C Company’s flanking attack on Argentinian positions at Goose Green, that I immediately finish off the potato dauphinoise. The dinner is always delicious but we have to move house afterwards because the kitchen is uninhabitable.

Now if creating a culinary masterpiece was your primary objective, this would be fine.  But if actually you wanted to spend a relaxed evening with friends, then a rudimentary slow cooked coq-au-vin, prepared in the morning is a better option, or even a hearty beans-on-toast. The vicarage cook-book is out in the Fall.

I share this allegory, not to take advantage of my wife being away, but to highlight the significance of mistaking ends for means. If the end you want is to spend time with friends, don’t arrange matters so that you’re in a different room from them the entire evening. If you want to spend time with Jesus, don’t run around hoovering and preparing the perfect canapes in the hope of impressing him. And on this subject, it’s perfectly possible to spend an entire life getting yourself, the house, the children ready for a vague end that never happens: to spend your hours, days, weeks, months tidying, cleaning, laundering, getting the admin, the emails done. But for what? If there’s not also that time to be enjoyed, when you are not preparing for the next thing, but simply in the moment, then you’ve put the means before the end.

Equally this applies quite immediately to church. Whether you come for the hymns, the sermons, communion, a moment of quiet, if you’ve ruled yourself out of all those things because you’re on three rotas; something’s gone wrong. And if you’re not getting anything out of church except the feeling of being useful, it’s not enough. That’s not a primary reason for coming to church. There is more on offer! Because actually this story is not an allegory for how the vita contemplativa is a higher calling than the vita activa. But a reminder that we need to stop and listen; that in a world that looks scornfully on those who aren’t busy; that seeks to fill the unforgiving minute with a relentless barrage of notifications, you’ll lose yourself if you cannot sit for a moment with Jesus. That is the better part.

So perhaps Jesus here is just asking what’s really important? Isn’t it just spending time together? And as time is our most valuable commodity, it’s a good indication of how much we value an aspect of our life. Surely, 5 minutes spent in prayer is not 5 minutes wasted. So even if we can’t give our entire lives over to contemplation perhaps we can find time, good time, to commit to prayer. Time that goes beyond a 10 minute slot where 8 minutes are spent looking for matches to light an unnecessary candle. We may even be surprised by what a brief spell of meditation and reflection each day can bring to our lives. Things have been going quite well for the politician who likened prayer to Magic FM in the chilterns.

But neither is that the only important use of our time. Mary sat with Jesus as a friend, and as a teacher. It’s easy to be frivolous with our time, when like the parable of the talents, it’s a gift given to us. We can use it for work, for friendship, for families, to extend ourselves in a thousand ways. We can also waste it, hide in it, watch it pass by. Spend it on Netflix. How you spend your time shows what you really value. Sometimes we might ask ourselves then whether we haven’t been distracted by many things, and whether we have missed the one thing, the better part.

Are we distracted Marthas? Are we present - to our friends – to our God – like Mary?