As we galloped through to the end of term, this week with Pilgrimage Day and end of year Acts of Worship at school, I neglected to post last Sunday’s sermon that I gave in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice. This included my first visit to All Saints, Odiham for the well attended BCP Holy Communion at 8am, and a return to St. Mary’s, Upton Grey for Family Communion.
At Odiham I also caught sight of my first Pokomon Go players, wandering around the church, conversing deeply whilst glued to the phone screens. Up in the air was a more interesting sight – more than 20 Swifts, screaming at length around the church. Interesting how there are so many there, and non that I could see at Upton Grey, yet the houses and local roof spaces that will have provided nest sites, seem quite similar in age and design.
The sermon bares more than a little thanks to Tom Wright, but produced a number of significant responses to whom the thoughts shared came across as very fresh, though apparently at odds with Rudyard Kipling. I didn’t know the reference, but yes indeed, it looks like I am at odds with theme of The Sons of Martha!
This week I spent four days on retreat in rural Devon. Retreats are a time to set aside the work element of whatever ministry it is we have (be we lay or ordained) or the stresses and strains of everyday life, and soak ourselves in God’s presence; to sit at Jesus’ feet.
As I sat in the chapel, I was struck by the smell. It was the smell of wood, the wood of the hand-crafted beams. The place had the smell of a carpenter’s workshop or hands at the end of a day. It was a smell I associate with the presence of Jesus.
The chapel concerned is dedicated to Mary and Martha, the two women who feature in our Gospel story this morning. Their’s is a story not of domestic or sibling rivalries, nor even of models of contemplative and active ways of relating to God, but of re-drawing boundaries, and removing barriers, those that we make for ourselves, and those that society has a habit of imposing on us.
Mary’s place in the story is very simple. She sat at the Lord’s feet, and listened to what he was saying. A very visible demonstration of the importance she was placing on having Jesus stay with her family, a form of hospitality that perhaps we don’t employ enough in our busy, technological world.
It was also a very radical thing to do, for a woman. For Mary was sat in a man’s place. Of her own volition, Mary had crossed an invisible but important boundary in the house, and an equally important social barrier: the kitchen was where women gathered, it was only men that congregated in the public room of the house for discussion. It wasn’t Jesus who had entered the women’s space in the house and showed that such boundaries needed to be taken down, but Mary who had taken that courageous decision for herself by consciously entering Jesus’ domain. She had, if you like, gone on retreat, to sit at Jesus feet.
Martha on the other hand, a woman who I admit to having an affinity with, is locked into providing a different form of hospitality, one which involves a lot of rushing around, preparing, serving and clearing away the food associated with giving people a warm welcome. Perhaps the busy world of our diary’s do not allow enough of this kind of hospitality either.
Martha had taken a role not so much of subservience but of responsibility, but she had done so without the right mind-set, knowing full well that she would rather be with her sister Mary, listening to Jesus, and thus becoming deeply resentful that she felt unable to ditch the dishes and do so. She was using her God-given talents, but not in the right way. When Jesus gently corrects her, he is effectively giving her permission to follow her hearts desire, to use her natural hospitality more effectively, and to sit at Jesus feet.
Responding personally to the proximity of Jesus’ love, wisdom, and justice is perhaps the most important thing we can do in our lives. It is more than likely to result in the need for strenuous and long-term activity in his name, but first we have to listen, and understand clearly what it is that Jesus means to us, and what what it is he wants us to do. We have to set our worries and distractions to one side, and simply be with Jesus.
There are times when we have the inner strength and courage to motivate our own actions and place ourselves in Jesus’ presence, perhaps Sunday by Sunday in places like this. Those are our Mary moments. But there are times when Jesus’ needs to reach into our lives and pre-occupations quite dramatically, and draw us to himself. Those will be Martha moments. One situation is no better than the other, they are simply different, and we should expect both to happen in our lives.
Both Mary and Martha moments involve the breaking down of barriers and boundaries, some created by what society suggests is ‘normal’, and others often based on pride and our misconceptions of what is right, which we all too easily place around ourselves. Both require us to stop worrying about what other people think, and instead do what Jesus wants us to do. Both may seem radical to us. Neither will necessarily come easily.
The world will become a radically different, a more humble, just and loving place, if we sit at Jesus feet.
If we’ve spent time sitting at Jesus feet, we will know when it is right to take time to stop and talk to the neighbour, the stranger, the street-dweller, rather than rushing on by.
If we’ve spent time sitting at Jesus feet, we will know when it is appropriate to set down the tasks we have set ourselves, and try something different. It may mean reaching out to others with a expression of God’s love that reflects what we’ve experienced of that for ourselves; or it may be totally contrary to our natural instincts but will draw others closer to Jesus, and in doing so help us to understand him better.
If we’ve spent time sitting at Jesus feet, we will know that he was on his way to Jerusalem when this incident occurred in the Gospel’s, on his way to break down the barrier of death through the redeeming act of his crucifixion and resurrection. That may compel us to understand that as his redeemed people we too need to sit alongside those who are abused and suffer for crimes they have not committed, or are persecuted for simply being the people God has intended them to be.
As we sit here quietly and reflect on the words Jesus shared with Martha and Mary, and kneel at the altar rail to receive the bread and wine of His redemption, my prayer is that we will be listening for the radical, barrier-breaking instructions that Jesus has for us.