By Rev. Joan Kessler
Luke 10: 38-42
I used to have an Aunt Mary. She was my great aunt, actually, on my Dad’s side of the family. Aunty Mary would come to visit the family most summers from her home in Windsor. And family legend has it that any time there were dishes to be done, Mary would disappear…usually off to the washroom. So, in my Dad’s family, any time you left your task before it was finished, you were called an “Auntie Mary”, all in good fun, and I hadn’t thought of this story until this week as I was reflecting on our gospel reading for today.
So often we hear this story as a tension between two women who we believe to be sisters and Jesus seems to stoke the fire of sibling rivalry with not just his presence but his response to Martha. This is a story all about Martha. It is Martha’s house, Martha’s guests, Martha’s party. And her sister Mary is not raising one finger to help her. Martha wants this gathering to be perfect for Jesus and his friends. She is feeling overwhelmed and preoccupied with all the provisions for suitable hospitality. Martha accuses Jesus of not caring about her feelings and the fact that Mary is doing nothing to help and gets to sit and listen to Jesus tell of his travels and his teachings. And Jesus responds with words that can be heard in many different ways.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can easily hear Jesus’ words of care and concern for Martha as a bit… erm… patronizing. When I am making a serious point or trying to articulate how I feel about something and another tells me to calm down or not worry, it’s an angry and frustrated kind of feeling that comes over me. Jesus’ words feel like they minimize feelings rather than just showing compassion and empathy. Maybe you know this experience firsthand. Martha is fulfilling her duty in that moment. Perhaps she is not so much busy as she is distracted and therefore unable to be present in the moment. Martha would have been looking at her to-do-list, always leaping ahead to the “next thing” without ever living in the present moment and enjoying and experiencing the gifts Jesus brought to her household that day… rest and restoration… peace and solace.
Having heard this story many times before, a story that I cherish and identify with both women from time to time, I find myself defending Martha. We tend to interpret this story often has the tendency to dismiss those who work tirelessly and live a vocation of hospitality by comparing them unfavorably to the more contemplative and introspective devotional practices of faith. Mary is often the one who seems to “win” this contest with Jesus as the judge; the one who chooses the right thing to the exclusion of Martha. But what I think Jesus is really saying when we go deeper into his words to the overwhelmed and overworked sister is that he is concerned for her emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing; that her work has driven her to distraction and has robbed her of the opportunity to be present to the moment. Jesus does not call her out as being wrong or irrational, he merely says that we will not stop Mary from sitting, reflecting and learning. Last week’s parable of the good neighbor and “go and do likewise” is replaced with the moral of the Mary and Martha story… “you are missing the point.”
This past week, we saw with our own eyes the images captured by the space telescope. It took a quarter-century of work by scientists from some 14 countries to make the telescope a reality and show us what the cosmos looks like. And it is beyond our wildest dreams. They show a depth to the universe and beyond, like a window through time. The images of galaxies as they existed some 13 billion years ago, not long after the beginning of time with light travelling through space ever since. It makes me feel very small like a tiny grain a sand in the big scheme of cosmic things. I think Jesus would have been fascinated by these images and would have affirmed what he already knew that we are part of a cosmic story so much bigger than our own circumstances. That we are not inconsequential. And this is the message Jesus leaves with an overworked Martha: be open to moments of awe and wonder.
The Mary and Martha story is just a snippet. It takes up only a few short lines, mere moments to retell and we choose either Mary or Martha to side with. But there are bigger questions at play. I wonder if Martha ever took time to question her place in her ancient world. What did she dream her life to be? Jesus calls us remember that there are bigger, loving forces at work all around us and beyond us. We can look at these pictures of the cosmos with awe and wonder but we can’t look at them without recognizing the ways we are part of a bigger web of meaning and interconnectedness. Did Martha ever stop her work long enough to notice the stars that hung in the sky above her and ask what is this busyness all about?
These are rather existential questions for a summer Sunday before we start a Sabbath pause but I can’t help but think the timing is impeccable. Let us all consider the nature of our busyness and reflect on the point of it all. Take time to work and time to reflect and don’t miss the present moment because of a to-do-list.
I want to leave you with an excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet, who frames the nature of Work as not something we do to receive payment but something that tells us about who we are, our relationship with God, the Earth, and with one another…
On Work (Kahlil Gibran - 1883-1931)
Then a ploughman said, Speak to us of Work.
And he answered, saying:
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when the dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.
You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness, you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love,
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.
Work is love made visible.
I pray for us all a wonderful time of rest from our labours these next three weeks. Honour your work in whatever shape it reveals and the meaning it brings you. Take time to look up at the sky and remember we are each but one bit of stardust. Peace be with you friends until we are together again.