I worked very hard on this sermon. I’ve spent a long time thinking about it.
Most of it was a waste.
Because I spent a very long time mulling over this Gospel text, of Jesus and Martha and Mary. I worked very hard to understand the story. But not because it’s some complex thing. No, the trouble is, it’s actually rather simple. It’s a story with, like, one plot point. So my effort to understand was not deciphering some crazy esoteric text, but rather, to think about how I might make this very simple text come alive in some fresh way. How I might use it to point out something new, something exciting, something we haven’t all heard a thousand times before.
Because that’s my job, right? That’s what the preacher is supposed to do. That’s my task, my role this morning. I’m supposed to come up with something good, something true, something real. To preach well is to point to Christ, and Christ is not boring. But the more I thought, the more I plugged away at this problem, the more I realized that I had nothing. Nothing fresh, anyway. Nothing alive.
For the preacher, the antidote to this problem is supposed to be prayer. Prayer, encounter with the eternal, the infinite, the Living God, should yield…well, something. And I have been praying! But it’s been harder than normal lately. Less intuitive. I’ve felt overwhelmed by work. I’ve felt stressed. I’ve felt incompetent, and discouraged by that feeling, I’ve tried even harder to work my way out of it, to push through and do something right, something where I wouldn’t be left with lingering doubts and anxieties over whether I’m good at anything.
So, more pushing. More striving. More petition to God to accomplish what I’d set out to do.
And with each passing moment of nothing, more frustration building. I began to feel more and more irritated, not just with my fruitless preaching endeavor, but with my other recent work too. I found more to criticize and more to compensate for. Simple mistakes made me angry and sad, innocent remarks cut deep as a warped perception took hold. These things multiplied with ferocity, and undermined my sense of self, my identity as a person who can at least do something worthwhile in this world. Something to justify myself.
Because I felt trapped. I was not experiencing the horrors of persecution, the intense burning of martyrdom. Most of us don’t. But I still felt trapped, still felt weighed down, by little things. The small, day-to-day ordinary work of life was becoming a bigger and bigger weight. No, I wasn’t experiencing the dramatic trauma of being attacked by a bear; more like being stung by a bee. And then another. And then another.
I’ve been stung once in my life. I was a kid, badly playing a sport I didn’t like with peers I didn’t like. Bees were all over, buzzing around open garbage bins laden with sticky sugar from discarded soda cans and ice cream. Halftime, and we sat in the thick misery of the Midwestern summer air. Something buzzed around my jaw. I idly moved my hand to brush it away, and it stung, and I became, in a small way, intimately familiar with the transition from irritation to pain.
One bee sting is, for most people, no real danger, no lasting harm. But bees can swarm. The mundane obligations, irritations, and frustrations of life can gather, and build, and menace with a deadly force. My work, my assigned tasks, none of them particularly arduous, had gone from mundane, to tedious, to irritating, to contemptuous and painful. I felt desperate and frustrated and lonely, and all the while, the thing that was supposed to carry me through, the thing I’m supposed to be doing even in this very moment, prayer, encounter with the Living God, was being swallowed up. I’d try, but nothing would come. Not when there was work to do, and I couldn’t check my anxieties about that work at the door.
I worked very hard on this sermon. Most of it was a waste. Because to become so embroiled in work that my ability to receive, to open myself to encounter with Christ is lost, all while trying to preach about Martha and Mary, is absurd. That’s the point! That’s the whole point. Like I said, it’s not a very complicated story. Jesus arrives at their home. Mary sits at Jesus’s feet, while Martha does the normal, expected work of receiving a guest. She becomes frustrated, irritated at the tasks, feeling isolated in them, and brings this up to Jesus. He gently responds that, while Martha has caught herself up in many things, Mary has chosen the one thing, the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.
This is not some tirade of Jesus against the mundane work of life. Everyone, including Jesus and Martha and Mary, has been called to some fruitful, ordinary work. This is a gentle but honest reminder that the work we do is not an end to itself, that our daily tasks, even very good and important ones, are not themselves eternal, and so derive their worth from how much they facilitate that encounter with Jesus, the eternal living God. This is especially a reminder that the holy work of doing what is necessary to welcome and invite Christ into our midst is just as subject to this confusion; perhaps more so, as it is extremely easy to conflate the most directly “godly” work with God.
To pray is to welcome God, to open oneself to encounter with God. This often involves work, real work. But the work of prayer, the work of welcoming and opening oneself to God, can become very frustrating, and discouraging, and distracting. We can become anxious about whether this work is up to snuff. We can become annoyed by others who seem to be having a much easier go of things. We can become isolated, lonely in a task that seems increasingly insurmountable, that seems like it’s supposed to be easy and joyful, and because of that, we feel even less competent, even less on top of things, and feel that the only way to solve that is to push harder, berating ourselves all along the way.
The message here, I think, is not that work is bad. Even the most contemplative among us must work. Mary is not to be held up as a paragon of aloof whimsy, free from the world, borne along by a scolded and unappreciated Martha. No. The message is that work serves an end. Even the holiest work of your life is not your purpose. It facilitates your purpose, and your purpose is encounter. Greeting. The welcoming of the eternal, living God into your midst. If a holy disciple of Christ needed this reminder, we need it all the more. If a person steeped in a Jewish culture that mandated sabbath and jubilee needed this reminder, people steeped in an American culture of bootstrap-pulling and 24/7 work emails need it all the more.
Work is important, a vital part of the experience of being human. And it will be taken away from you. If you hold it loosely, this will be painless. But grip your work too tightly, and this taking will be strenuous and painful. Open your hand. Open yourself. Take the risk of being emptied, and you will be filled. The One thing, the better part, is here, and it will not be taken away from you.
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