16th Per Annum 2019 SMC
The story goes that as the United States of America was working hard to be the first country to put a man on the moon, President Kennedy was visiting the NASA space central office. He strode past a man with a bucket and a mop and asked him what work he did there - a rather foolish question it might be said - and the man didn’t reply what it was obvious to say, “Oh, I’m a cleaner.” No, the guy said, “Sir, I help put a man on the moon.” It’s a great story, whether it’s true or not, and always inspires me to think about the bigger picture when performing menial tasks. This person wasn’t just thinking I go to work to mop the floor but knew what he did integral to a much larger operation.
Our Gospel this morning is a great, homely account of our Lord with those whom elsewhere we know to be friends of His (John 11). Two sisters are in the Lord’s presence and both are doing things which are useful and morally good. Martha is cleaning and getting food ready for Jesus, who was bound to be tired given His work schedule and that He didn’t have many people to look after Him. Her sister, Mary of Bethany, is sitting at the feet of Jesus and just listening to Him in a position of awe and reverence. It is Mary, sitting and listening whom the Lord commends for choosing the better part.
Notice the temptations that are present in this ordinary scene: Martha gets distracted. Now, Martha is the salt of the earth and has absolutely fantastic intentions but she’s lost that focus on what’s really important. St Luke tells us she was “distracted.” Let’s ask ourselves, “Have we become distracted from what’s important?” The temptation is to say, “But I’ve had to do this … I’ve had to worry about this.” Yes, Martha would have said exactly the same thing. Jesus says to her: “You worry and fret about so many things.” Is Jesus in that tabernacle saying the same thing to us: “You worry and fret about so many things.”
This story isn’t, you may be disappointed to hear, a Biblical justification for laziness or for sitting at home and watching the TV all day, even if it is EWTN or the God channel. Mary of Bethany sitting at the feet of Jesus does not condone laziness, which is a sin for us to confess when appropriate as we examine our lives, the sin of sloth. St Thomas Aquinas condemns sloth as the “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.” And, my friends, as we consider our obligation to love our neighbour, we must ensure we are playing our part within our blood families and within our church family, so that it operates smoothly and the burden is not placed on the same people who are then forced by our hardness of heart to become frenzied. Nor are we to admire those who behave in constant activity, always something do, busy lives, busy at work. Nor must we let ourselves be slaves to the agendas of others.
Mary and Martha have long been seen as the two sides of the Christian’s life, summed up elsewhere as “ora et labora,” or prayer and work. Even those monks and nuns who spend hours on end praying will have daily tasks to perform, growing vegetables or chopping fire wood for their water heaters. We who are called to live our lives in the world need similarly to balance the demands of it, but have we got the balance right? How many hours do we spend working or shopping or sleeping or eating? How many of those hours are simply lost in nothingness or idleness? Do we tithe the hours of each week? A tenth of 168 hours a week would be nearly 17 hours. Do we give that over to God and no, don’t just say that you give it all to God because that’s not what is meant.
It’s a glorious phrase in that second reading that particularly struck me: “The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory.” We won’t fully grasp the concept of Christ’s presence with us - it’s a mystery - but He is there with us as we do our daily round of chores and these tasks are to point us towards God. Such an heavenly experience in the midst of the ordinary we saw in our first reading from Genesis 18. Notice how we were told it happened in the hottest part of the day, in other words in the middle of the day, when all the chores would be in full flight, when it would be easiest to be consumed in our work - we can’t stop in the middle of the day, we might be tempted to say. Yet, Abraham had to do precisely that: to stop. The author of Genesis tells us that as soon as Abraham “saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed to the ground.” These three men He encounters are indeed Heavenly messengers. In the next chapter, two angels go off to condemn Sodom and to rescue Lot and his family.
Stopping in the middle of things teaches us who’s the boss. Remember the Lord’s warnings about the day of judgement: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking … until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matthew 24:40). Teaching ourselves to stop at particular times to do things the connect us with God rather than waiting to finish the day’s labour teaches us what our own death may be like, and certainly what the day of the Lord’s return will be like. It might be that midday each day you wanted to say the Angelus, the prayer of the Incarnation with which we also begin Morning Prayer each day. It might be that if you have an app like Universalis you wanted to say Midday Prayer, three psalms, the prayer that has vivified the Church for centuries. The rosary would also be a good thing to have about you to consecrate time. Just to stop in the heat of the day.
I’ve commended to you on other occasions the example of St Martin de Porres, whose statue stands in the north aisle, and here again I am sure he will be praying for us. He overcame racial prejudice in that he was not allowed because of his black mum to become a full Dominican brother in the context of the sixteenth and seventeenth century South America where he lived. So he was stuck doing the menial tasks of the assistants. It would have been the easiest thing imaginable for him to be bitter about doing those tasks because he was forced to do so because of racism. But he didn’t become bitter, an embittered heart couldn’t have brought forth such spiritual fruit.
One day St Martin came upon a sick, old bleeding man with open wounds, no doubt beginning to smell. St Martin took him into the monastery, which he’d spent a long time cleaning previously. A fellow monk was horrified that he might make the monastery, their shared home, dirty by bringing this man in. St Martin responded, “Compassion, my dear brother, is preferable to cleanliness.” St Martin went on: “Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create.”
Yes, as Martha served Christ, so we must serve the poor with compassion, serving both in our day to day lives. Yes, as Mary listened to Christ, so we must listen to the poor and be attentive to them in our day to day lives. My friends, interrupt your plans and your days and your tasks with a little charity, with a little prayer. And know that when you mop floors you don’t just clean the few square foot but you contribute to something greater, be it building a family up, or helping the household of God to function, that these may be places of welcome and order. Let the sovereignty of God shine through in all you do. To Him glory for ever and ever. Amen.