Homily from service on July 17, 2022 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Please be seated.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be nice? Today’s Gospel recounts the contrasting experiences of Mary and Martha, two sisters, friends of Jesus, who have welcomed Jesus into their home, who are extending to Jesus hospitality, a central theme and the Gospel of Luke, Martha, the head of household it would appear from the description in this text is busying herself offering Jesus the hospitality that would be do a close friend, and an esteemed guest. Her sister, Mary, seated at Jesus’s feet is offering a different kind of reception, a physical presence, and attentiveness. How many of us wouldn’t prefer to be the one seated at the feet of Jesus in conversation, learning directly from the mouth of the beloved teacher. I prefer that to bustling around in the kitchen. And I imagine that many of us would.
But then, who’s going to get the food on the table, or clean the dishes or get the trash out to the curb, or walk the dog or bathe the kids and get them into bed? Or as we are, as we are called in our common life together? Who’s going to host the reception? Or the social hour? Or extend our gifts of time and treasure and talent into the world in service to God’s justice, and peace? How will all of that get done? If we’re all sitting at the feet of Jesus, if we all follow the example of Mary, and no one plays the role that Martha is playing?
Several times a day, I think about how nice it would be to just sit down and take God in. As I busy myself with the tasks of the day, how nice it would be to be Mary. And Jesus seems to agree. When Martha has finally had it, she draws Jesus into her frustration. Don’t you guys see that? I’m the only one doing work. Does it anyone care that Mary’s sitting on the floor exactly where we’d all like to be, but somebody’s got to get dinner on the table. Jesus’s response. Don’t worry, Martha. Mary is where she needs to be. To be sure, I think we all have a little bit of Martha in us. We’re told she has become distracted by her many tasks that she has set for herself. Perhaps in her effort to offer hospitality to Jesus, she has become so preoccupied that she doesn’t fully welcome him. She isn’t fully present to him. And it’s true like so many of us, Martha could possibly benefit from simplifying her active responsibilities, and intentionally free up more time for prayer, or quiet, or reflection or stillness. So something does ring true in Martha’s experience, doesn’t it?
This teaching captures the fragmentation that many of us feel. And if you’re someone who tends toward the officious and reliable if you’re someone whose identity is tied to doing a good job, and delivering this can be a challenging story, it can be uncomfortable. There is something in the plain meaning of this text that we can take to heart. In fact, it’s so close to home that over the centuries, these characters of Mary and Martha the contrast between them grew to symbolize a dichotomy. The dichotomy between the scholastic and the monk between the analytical and the spiritual between work and prayer, between action and content contemplation. So there is truth here. We know it from our experience.
But even so, something just doesn’t sit right, it does not feel like the whole story. Perhaps that’s why this text has been the focus of so much imaginative interpretive attention over the centuries. But before we go there, I just want to put today’s lesson in the larger context within the Gospel of Luke.
You’ll remember that last week we heard the lesson of the expert in the law who tested Jesus, he asked, What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus turned his question back to Him, asking what he thought the answer was. And here’s how he responded. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you should love your neighbor as yourself. This response was followed by the story of the Good Samaritan, who is my neighbor. The story of the Good Samaritan can be seen as a deeper explanation of the second half of this command to love your neighbor as yourself. Immediately following the story of the Good Samaritan, today’s lesson begins. They went on their way and entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. This is the very next verse.
So this story of Mary and Martha is of a piece with the original question from the lawyer. Whereas the Good Samaritan expanded on the second half of the commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. The story of Martha and Mary seems to be a commentary on the first part. What does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind? What does that mean? So we have these two models, Mary, and Martha. Jesus seems to be telling us to follow Mary. Mary has chosen the better part he says, this will not be taken from her. If we follow Mary, though, what happens to God’s dream for peace in the world for justice, what happens to God’s desire for us to offer compassionate care to our neighbors?
So into this space, through the centuries, different interpretations have arisen in recent decades, decades, the last 40 or 50 years led by scholars like Carolyn Bynum, and Elizabeth Schuessler, Firenza. This text has become fertile terrain for feminist theologians, as they work to reconstruct the role of women in Jesus’s community, a presence sadly, which has slipped from the recorded material and the memory of the early church. And this is an interpretive vein well worth mining. This story to it turns out was wildly popular in medieval interpretation.
There were legends written about Mary and Martha, and drawing from the Gospel of John as well, their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha are apostles traveling, sharing the gospel. And one story that even washed up in a boat and more say, in the south of France, Martha is seen as a fierce protector, even defeating a dragon and saving the local people. And it’s an interpretation from this period that I find fascinating for our world today. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk in Germany, offered an interesting reading of Mary and Martha that helps us break through this black and white action, contemplation dualism that can dominate our understanding of this text. Eckhart saw not Mary. But Martha. As the preferred model of God centeredness. Icart sees more Martha not as frustrated or irritated that she is left to do all the work by herself. Instead, he imagines her as speaking out of loving kindness or a lovable form of teasing.
Eckhart here’s Martha expressing a prayer request for Mary that she might realize greater spiritual maturity. You see Mary’s presence at Jesus is His feet is read as an expression of immaturity a sign that Mary is, in the words of a contemporary commentator, seduced by the pleasure of Jesus’s company. This can be read as a symbol for becoming stuck in the emotional constellation of prayer. And in the words of our commentator, Mary’s still needs to learn to integrate her God centeredness with works of compassion, while Martha’s maturity and experience symbolizes the integrated, contemplative. A woman who does not lose her capacity for contemplation when she is fully actively engaged with the worldly work. Martha and Eckhart interpretation has broken through the dichotomy that can so often be read in this text, you can either be a dedicated contemplative, or you can be busy with the world’s work.
Martha in this view, offers an integrated model of loving God, with all her heart and all her soul and all her strength and all her mind and loving her neighbor as herself with practical acts of compassion. Now that’s easy for Eckhart to say. But this is the perennial spiritual challenge to balance reflection with action, contemplation with compassionate activity, nourishing our spirits and making ourselves more available to God through both. I certainly struggled to integrate the two traditional surface level decontextualized readings of this passage Mary is good, Martha is bad. I don’t think that helps us very much. Clearly, each of us each in our own way with our own unique gifts and predispositions. Each of us is called to live into an integrated life of both contemplation and action. This is the potential that Meister Icart has opened up for us. This is the practice of a lifetime Amen.