16th Per Annum 2019
Poor old Martha. Do you not care she says,that my sister is leaving me to do all the serving all by myself? Do you not care? all by myself? tell her to help me! she says. Which of us here can’t think of a time when we’ve felt a bit like Martha does - annoyed, offended, resentful, jealous perhaps, when someone else gets it right, or gets praised or promoted. Sometimes especially if it’s a sister or brother or someone close. And especially when we’ve got a sense that we’ve worked harder, or thought harder, or understood something better or just deserve the reward more. It might happen at school, in our working lives, at home or at church even.
I’m sure most of us will be able to think of times when we’ve felt a bit like this - and it must be at least part of what Martha is going through in this gospel scene. To have done all that preparation for the Lord’s visit, and not only to have done it without help, but then to find her workshy sister Mary getting praised for somehow understanding the situation better. It’s natural for us to feel a certain sympathy for her - her wikipedia article no less suggests that - Saint of the Church as Martha of course is - she is venerated in particular for her quote, ‘maturity, strength, common sense, and concern for others’. These seem good things, don’t they? Proper Christian virtues. And it’s that slight discomfort with this story that draws us in a little further into imagining what the Lord is perhaps trying to get across when he suggests that it is Mary who has chosen the better part.
Because he isn’t condemning hard work here. As a child I was a bit of a daydreamer - some would say I still am - and I used to take a naughty delight in this story because I thought that it perhaps gave me a bit of licence - showed that Jesus approved of daydreaming more than he did of my dad’s frequent demands that I work harder on the farm.
That’s not what Jesus is saying. Indeed we see in the Old Testament reading how Abraham is rewarded for the way he responds energetically to finding himself in the presence of God. It’s a response of hardworking hospitality that Martha would have been proud of - indeed, a story that perhaps inspired her own response to Jesus’ visit. Abraham ran, he hurried, he bowed, he begged; he brought water, washed feet, made bread (or at least had Sarah make the bread for him) - and he stands there, clearly nervous, as the three mysterious men that he addresses as one - my Lord- accept his generous attendance. A Deacon too is meant to be a servant - of the bishop and of the faithful. And Patrick from what I gather has shown in his year at The Good Shepherd and St Mary’s how hard a Pastoral Assistant works. And I’ve been amazed by all the hard work that you all do for congregation and community in our parish - coffee, flowers, Kemble club, fete, Tuesday lunchtimes here - the list goes on. Not to mention the work of showing up, of keeping on praying through hard times as well as good, of listening patiently to one another and the world. So Martha isn’t wrong - we can be sure that the Christian life, lived in the service of our God and of neighbour, will involve hard work, sacrifice, cost, in the most obvious, measurable, senses.
But there are a few things about Martha’s response that shows she is missing something - and the Lord in his gentle way - Martha, Marthahe says - wants us, too, to take these to heart. The first is the way in which we can let practical demands get in the way of our prayer lives, in the way of our personal relationship with God. The way in which we can - and sometimes deliberately do - seek to avoid those quiet, still times that we must take care of in order to pray, to listen, to talk properly to God. Sometimes it’s a great deal harder to be still and know that he is God, than it is to plough on with the washing up or whatever it is we have to do that is definite, practical. tangible. Because we know, sometimes, that things on our hearts are difficult things. And the idea of facing Our Lord with those difficulties, those wounds, those regrets, those unworthy but persistent grievances, is very hard indeed. But we must trust that bringing them before our God - in prayer, at Mass, before the Sacrament, and wherever it is we pray in our daily lives - is what we need to heal us.
Related to this is the temptation we can often feel to try to prove ourselves worthy. What perhaps Mary understands better than Martha here is the love that Jesus has for her regardless of what she offers to him. It’s his love for us - shown on that Cross and present on that altar this afternoon - that is the starting point of our relationship with him. And it’s that realisation that we need to take to heart, that realisation that is the truth about who we are - beloved, that realisation of a divine generosity that in a funny way, makes us ultimately better servants, ultimately better equipped to give of ourselves. Better equipped too, when we see the success or praise that is given to another, to be glad for them in the knowledge that, however unfair this world can seem, all of us are beloved children of God and he wants all of us in our different ways, with our different callings, to grow, to flourish, to become the people he meant us to be, as individuals and as his holy Church. Amen.