In the world of spiritual care, there is an oft-quoted adage. It seems especially common in the world of hospital chaplaincy:
“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
I first heard it from the novelist John Green, whose experience as a hospital chaplain shaped his authorial approach to empathy. During my own months as a chaplain intern last Fall, this deceptively simple reminder kept me centered in the demands of my role. While I in fact did, and said, and asked many things, it was ultimately just standing or sitting there in loving availability that God would use to open a healing space in a patient’s experience.
Allowing ourselves to be loved by God, as Jesus did, also requires some degree of just sitting there, as Mary of Bethany did in Jesus’ presence. But consenting to this transformation at the core of our being is anything but passive: it is our single greatest challenge. To the world, that process looks like nothing. But to Jesus, it is the one thing necessary.
Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation. Paul Borgman points to parallel structure. This story is right after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] The lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right, am I not? I know and follow the law. I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. Jesus says: “Go, and do likewise.”[iii]Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to God’s Word like Mary, and do it like the Samaritan.[iv]
How are you relating to Jesus? Like the lawyer and Martha, where are you anxious? How are trying to justify yourself? What good is getting in the way?
Galatians 1: 13 – 24
Psalm 139: 1 – 14
Luke 10: 38 – 42
If truth be told, I don’t much like this passage from the Gospel of Luke about Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable. I hear it as the great Martha put down, with Jesus saying, in effect, “Martha, I like your sister Mary better!”And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some people to others, And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some activities, or rather no activity, to others, or rather any activity. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers contemplation to action. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that you can only be in relationship with Jesus when you are sitting at his feet, rather than making him dinner. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that when I get busy, doing any number of things, Jesus likes me less, than when I am quiet, and still. And that makes me really, really uncomfortable, because probably like you, I have a zillion things on my to do list, and even when I am supposed to be, I can’t always be quiet and still.
But is that what is really going on here? Is Jesus really making these invidious distinctions between Martha and Mary? Between busyness and stillness? Between housework and hospitality? Between action and contemplation? That’s what we’ve been told over the years, but is it really the case?
One of my favorite things to do on a summer day is to go to that place where the primal elements of earth, air, fire and water come together in a most exhilarating way, and where we can step out into the edge of the infinite—and perhaps get a bit of vanity tan while we’re at it. I love going to the seashore. When I go alone, I’m often drawn to contemplation of the primal elements, how those fundamental entities of physics can add up to all this—quarks, gluons, photons, electrons, bosons, etc. And how the “all of this” of our experience is but a speck in the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos.
And to ponder the sailboats in the distance, how the interplay of volumes and masses and forces allows the boats to remain on the surface of the water, how the force of the wind is matched to the resistance of a sail to move the boat from one place to another. How the wind itself is set in motion by the fire of the sun. How the wind and tides set the ocean waves in motion and how chaos is unleashed when they meet the resistance of dry land. How life itself emerged from the chaos of the sea. Quite by chance—or not quite by chance…
In this sermon, originally preached on July 18, 2004, Br. Jonathan Maury unfolds the texts appointed for this week, Genesis 18:1-10a(10b-14) and Luke 10:38-42, in order to suggest how God invites us, like Abraham and Martha and George Herbert before us, not only to hospitality, but also to “sit and eat”
When first glimpsed over the flat, scrub-covered land, it appeared quite small. Gradually, though, this was revealed as an optical illusion created by its isolation in the vast expanse before us. As the truck driven by our host Father Gabriel moved closer and closer, its immense height and expanse became clear. Its proportions seemed to be as those of legend and folklore. Its spreading boughs created a shelter from the lightly falling rain. We had arrived at one of the nearly two-dozen out stations in Father’s cure, at a gathering place of Christians for worship and fellowship in rural Zimbabwe. As pilgrims, guests and strangers, we had come to the great tree—to a place of meeting and hospitality with God…
When first glimpsed over the flat, scrub-covered land, it appeared quite small. Gradually though this was revealed as an optical illusion created by its isolation in the vast expanse before us. As the truck driven by our host Father Gabriel moved closer and closer, its immense height and expanse became clear. Its proportions seemed to be as those of legend and folklore.