38 Now as Jesus and his disciples went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
The story of Mary and Martha is a story for our time. Martha is highly motivated. Jesus is coming – the house must be tidy and clean, the silver service has to be buffed up, the butter-roasted guinea fowl needs preparing, a suitable desert wine must be chosen to go with the Chocolate and chilli pudding with coconut sorbet.
Maybe not quite how it was – but you get the idea of a lot of effort going into hosting by Martha, in contrast to Mary sitting down to relax with Jesus.
Our culture values effort hard work above almost all else. I think we perhaps value that false God of success most of all, but I believe that the harder people work the more valuable they are seen to be. Martha has a lot to do, she wants to please Jesus by getting all the important jobs done. Her efforts seem highly commendable. Most, if not all, of us gathered here this morning would do the same.
Jesus attitude to Mary and Martha must always come as a shock to us busy Christians. Mary gains her Lord’s approval by just siting and listening.
Although we must not be too hard on poor Martha, we need to see this story in context. Last week we heard the passage immediately before this one: the story of the Good Samaritan. In that story the Priest and the Levite are holy and spiritual, but they walk on by on the other side of the road; the Samaritan, who was religiously in error, a heretic in the eyes of Jesus and his disciples, the Samaritan does the right thing before God by caring for the wounded man by the road side.
We need to see the Good Samaritan and this passage as part of the same story, as creating a bigger picture. Jesus does not say it is all about work, nor does he say it is all about ‘spending time with Jesus’ – its both/and not either/or.
If our spirituality is all about sitting at Jesus feet like Mary, we can become self-indulgent, a faith that is no more than our own therapy.
If our spirituality is all about work like Martha, we end up acting out of a sense of duty – and, like Martha, we end up begrudging our labours. We have all been helped by people who end up making us feel much worse – often this is because our helper is suffering from Martha-syndrome.
What we do for the church and for God should not come from a sense of duty, but from a sense of love. If we are working from duty we may need to take a step back and spend some time, like Mary, sitting with Jesus (metaphorically) to try and remember why we are here…
Trying to get the balance as a church and as individuals is not as easy as it sounds. It requires life-long commitment, self-examination and effort.
As a church we have been doing some self-examination, starting at our Annual Meeting and carrying on through Margaret’s list of priorities that many of you circled.
In order to carry forward these priorities we all need to play a part. Studies show that between 80 and 90 % of people who come to a service for the first time do so because someone personally invited them.
I think we are not very good at this and we are missing out because as well-meaning liberals we don’t like to ‘evangelise’ we don’t believe that our faith makes us better than anyone else, so we don’t like to be holier-than-thou.
But the simple truth is that unless liberal Christians are prepared to tell people that our faith gives us life / inspiration / strength / joy (whatever it is that our faith gives us) then all the outreach will be left to the crazy fundamentalists.
As a church we are small, and that’s OK – it’s easy to get to know everybody and we don’t get lost in the crowd. Except… we do a huge amount in our local community with ESOL and the Wash House and Lewcas (and if you don’t know what these are, come along tomorrow night at 7.30 and you can find out!) but we could do so, so much more with a few more people.
What we have here is good. It’s a good community, doing good things, it is simply selfish not to share it with our neighbours and friends.
In September we will be setting up a group to put our priorities for outreach into action. We are looking for volunteers… It’s not simply yet another committee it will not be a ‘talking shop’ but a group of people prepared to roll up their metaphorical sleeves. For example be on a rota to look after newcomers (and oldcomers) if they are on their own at coffee time after church or help them with the vast piles of hymn books and sheets of paper that are sometimes given out… Or to look out for people who have stopped attending – not to chase after them, but to make sure they are alright. Or to produce and deliver a regular newsletter to help our communication… We have had lots more suggestions involving everything from sharing meals to knocking on doors in the Blackheath Hill development, giving our Children birthday cards and baptism anniversary cards…
But for all this to happen we need you.
All this is exciting, and it’s things that we should be doing, its our responsibility as Christians to reach outside our walls…
But we actually have no choice in the matter. All charities are suffering in the current financial crisis, and the church is no different. The diocese has to cut clergy jobs, and it is the smallest churches that will have their clergy cut first!
I don’t want to be alarmist, but our future is not guaranteed.
I believe we can double the number attending this church. We could do that in less than a year if everyone here pulls their weight to the full.
A handful of mostly illiterate disciples turned the world upside down, we could transform ourselves from a small, slightly struggling church into a thriving, bustling church helping our community and providing a place for reflection and faith for everyone.
But there is more to this passage than just this powerful message.
Looking at the Gospels from our early 21st century perspective we loose much of the power of the events and teachings recorded. Mary sits at Jesus feet – ‘so what?’ we may ask. For the story to regain its full impact we must imagine the culture in which Jesus lived and moved. A culture in which Jesus attitude to Mary was revolutionary.
In Jewish culture, the picture of someone sitting at the feet of another and listening would conjure up the image of a student sitting at the feet of a Rabbi to learn the faith. (In much the same way that people sat in rows of desks listening to someone talk at a chalk-board would conjure to us a image of school or college.) But the important thing for us to remember is that in Jesus time a woman could never, ever become the pupil of a Rabbi. The legal status of women in Jesus time was that of property. Either the property of their parents or relatives, or the property of their husband. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of Laws to protect women, especially when widowed (when women had no one to look after, or own, them they were in real trouble). The Scriptures have many Laws to protect orphans, strangers, and widows.
The Law may have offered protection, but the bottom line was that women were property. And it was seen as a waste of time to educate women. A Rabbi would never take a woman pupil. So it would have been a strange sight indeed, to have a woman sitting at the feet of a renowned teacher.
We can imagine Martha’s rage. There is work to be done, and Mary is not only failing to pull her weight, she is behaving extremely foolishly, and by daring to sit like a disciple, she is behaving scandalously.
Martha is rushing around trying to make this visit as great an occasion as possible, and Mary is being outrageous. She has ideas above her station.
Do we dare to confound expectation and be daring for our faith?
That is our challenge, to transform our lives and our church and our community by being prepared to learn from Jesus and then to act.