The Joy of _________, sermon by Sarah Brock
July 17, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11):
What gives you joy?
This was the question posed to me by a perfect stranger on the bus a few days ago. Granted, it was in the context of ‘to play or not to play’ Pokemon Go. (And if you don’t know what that is yet, let me just say, it’s the reason many people are suddenly walking around looking through their phones and congregating in random locations.) But, it got me thinking. What gives me joy? Am I doing it?
Mary and Martha are two very different women. Mary is portrayed as studious, contemplative, sitting at the feet of the Teacher to listen. Martha, on the other hand, is scrambling with her many tasks, working to offer Jesus the customary hospitality. Perhaps even going a bit above and beyond expectation in her effort to serve. It reads a bit like an early personality test. Are you a Mary or a Martha? Are you more contemplative or more servant? Are you a helper or a thinker? But, the difference between these two women runs much deeper than how they react to a visitor. It runs much deeper than the roles they’ve apparently chosen. The true difference is joy.
Martha takes direct, detail-oriented steps towards the goal she hopes to achieve. Heavily influenced by her upbringing and culture, she seeks to offer Jesus the hospitality that travelers could expect. She rushes around preparing a meal, likely arranging a place for him to rest, and gifts to bestow upon his departure. But, her work lacks focus. Martha allows herself to become distracted by her sister and, as a result, breaks one of the cardinal rules of hospitality by involving Jesus in a family affair.
Personally, I find this story quite concerning. Having a tendency to be a bit of a perfectionist, I don’t like how the story ends for Martha. Despite the sincerity and commitment of her hard work, she ends up holding the short end of the stick. It seems so unfair! In the end, Martha is left with Jesus’ pity: “Martha, Martha” he says to her, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” But, what is that one thing?
We don’t know if Jesus chose to elaborate or explain himself to Mary and there has been much speculation about the meaning behind his reprimand. Is he telling her that her hospitality is too elaborate and she should have prepared only one dish for their meal? Is he suggesting she should be focused on listening to the Word, like Mary? Lucky for me, he doesn’t seem to be criticizing her perfectionism. But, we may never know for sure what he intended to convey. However, knowing what we do about Jesus and the way he saw and loved people beyond just what appears on the surface, I believe that he also saw something deeper in Martha. I can imagine her standing before him, looking frazzled and stressed as she demands that Jesus send her sister to help. But, I think he saw through her harried demeanor to the root of her frustration.
One thing we do know for certain, Jesus once again upsets the status quo by defending Mary’s choice to sit and learn. At a time where women were not allowed to learn from the rabbis, Jesus not only welcomes her, he claims she has “chosen the better part.” And, he stipulates that it not be taken away.
But, once again, Jesus lacks clarity for us. What is the better part? Is it learning? Is it himself? Here is Mary, sitting before him, eagerly absorbing his wisdom and teachings. I imagine she is full of imagination and enthusiasm as she finally has an opportunity to learn. I believe that Jesus saw deeper into her core, as well.
It doesn’t seem to be their chosen work that set these two women apart, but rather their approach. Martha, despite her sincerity and commitment, becomes distracted by the many tasks she sets for herself and her lack of help. Her work, in this instance, is something to endure. Mary, on the other hand, demonstrates risk and an openness to possibility in choosing work that is against the cultural norm. Her work is an expression. The primary difference I see between these women comes down to one thing: joy.
Even though Mary is only present through the eyes of Jesus in this account, I get a sense of joy in her. Her open approach allows her to receive the gifts of her work: wisdom, relationship, love…. I’m sure her list would continue. It’s this joy that seems to be absent in Martha as she goes about her work. Perhaps the problem is that she is only preparing for her guest because somebody has to, and, obviously it’s not going to be Mary. However, I think offering hospitality, especially to a good friend, is something that she typically enjoys. The linearity of her approach to her work has closed her off and she completely misses the gifts it has to offer.
Now, you may be thinking something like, ‘In times such as these, how can we focus on joy?’ It’s certainly a question that has crossed my mind frequently. Baghdad, Louisiana, Minnesota, Turkey, Nice… the list of tragedies that already seems endless just keeps getting longer. It’s easy to get bogged down in a feeling of helplessness and despair over all of the terrible things going on in the world. It’s easy to get distracted and forget about joy.
Just going through my week, I have a tendency to get lost in day to day struggles, even seemingly insignificant ones. Perhaps you’ve had this experience, too. It can be anything from an angry individual at work to just being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks that need to get done. But, there are a couple of ways I’ve found to help me keep the joy in my work.
First, I have a friend who is a great listening ear and often reminds me that we are all children of God. Even in moments when I’m inclined to think otherwise. Though this may seem like a small reminder, it can often have a profound effect on the interactions throughout my day. Coming to church and participating in the community here is another way I’ve found to feed my joy. Coming together around the table nourishes and sustains me for my work through the rest of the week. It feeds my faith, creating a strong foundation from which to face setbacks and the woes of the world. Finally, I try, when I can, to choose work that gives me joy. For the young man I met on the bus, it’s Pokemon Go. For me it’s teaching and sharing my faith, whether through music, or conversation, or serving in worship. These small steps help me to choose the better part like Mary. They help me to be open to all the gifts my work, chosen and necessary, has to offer. They help me to choose joy.
What gives you joy?
Are you doing it?
Whatever your answers may be, I leave you this morning with a blessing:
May the light of your soul guide you. May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart. May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul. May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work. May your work never weary you. May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement. May you be present in what you do.*
*John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: a Book of Celtic Wisdom, 1St ed. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 160. 3