Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 21, 2013 (Proper 11, Year C)

Last Friday I went down to Duxbury to hang out with some single women along the waterfront. It’s okay, you can tell Bryna — they were nuns. As you may know, a number of the Sisters of St. Margaret have been attending St. John’s this summer. So I called Sister Adele Marie, the order’s Superior, to ask if I could meet with her to talk about this budding relationship and to take a tour of their newly built convent — which is completely green with geothermal heating and solar panels, by the way. Very impressive. Sister Carolyn gave me the full tour.

I should dispel a few misconceptions before I go on. First, yes, there are Episcopal nuns. Roman Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious orders. There are Episcopal convents and monasteries all across the country including, locally, Arlington and Cambridge. Second, they don’t carry rulers around waiting to smack you. Quite the contrary — they are warm and inviting, some of the sisters have sly senses of humor, and they’re all passionate about their ministry. Third, they’ve owned the property in Duxbury since 1903 so it’s not as if they’re some well-heeled order that lounges along the beachfront all day sipping pina coladas. In fact, while they’re headquartered on the South Shore, they do mission work in Dorchester,  New York City, and Haiti mostly with children and the elderly. Their convent in Port-au-Prince was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake and they’re set up in temporary housing but it hasn’t dampened their steadfast commitment to the people of what is arguably the poorest country in the world.

I guess sisters were on my mind this week between visiting the convent and this gospel passage that tells the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. When Jesus comes to Bethany he is welcomed into the home that Martha shares with Mary. He is invited to come inside and take a load off. He’s been out all day in the hot sun preaching and teaching and he finally gets to relax among friends, have a cool drink, and enjoy a satisfying meal.

Now whenever you’re invited into someone’s home, you know that the host or hostess sets the tone. If the food has been prepped and you’re ushered in to sit and join in some pre-dinner conversation, it’s pretty relaxing. If you walk in and the hosts are still getting dressed or haven’t set out any hors d’oeuvres and suddenly pots and pans are being rattled around, it can be awkward and stressful and you aren’t getting what you really came for which was to enjoy your host’s company.

With Mary and Martha Jesus gets both extremes. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet in the posture of discipleship, engaged in conversation with him while Martha busies herself preparing the meal. Of course Martha starts to resent this and complains to Jesus — which sounds an awful lot like a whiny sibling tattling on the other one. ‘Lord, don’t you care that Mary’s left me to do all the work myself? Tell her to help me.’ Now, I’m not sure if that sounds familiar to any parents but Martha is basically saying ‘It’s not fair!’ Justice is a big theme in most households with young children.

And I love Jesus’ response. What he doesn’t do is try to act like a referee by saying something like. “Okay, to make this fair, Martha, you wash and, Mary, you dry.” You can almost hear the calm tone in his voice as he points beyond the immediate situation to make a larger point. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”

This isn’t to say that Martha’s actions aren’t necessary; it’s not to diminish the hard work that comes with hospitality; things do need to get done. But Jesus points to the heart of the matter, as he always does. We start with our relationship with Jesus and then everything else flows from that. It’s a matter of priorities and in this moment, Mary is quietly listening to and learning from and being inspired by Jesus while Martha is running around stressing out about the meal, the dishes, and the impression she’s making.

And who among us can’t relate to being “worried and distracted by many things?” All you have to do is stop and sit quietly for five minutes and see where your mind goes. Shopping lists and doctor’s appointments and e-mails to answer and relatives to call and dinner to make and sermons to write. Okay I was projecting with that last one. But in full disclosure I came up with this sermon topic in the middle of Morning Prayer while I was supposed to be praying! Distractions come in many forms and as a society we are a distracted lot.

The reality is that we need a balance of prayer and service; a balance between reflection and action; a balance between worship and mission. Which brings us back to the sisters I started with. The monastic life is all about striking this balance. St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism made sure his monks led lives of balance by engaging body, mind, and spirit. Yet it’s the prayer that always fuels the service. And it’s nice to know that we have a good example of this balance just down the shoreline a bit.

The other point here is that Jesus doesn’t measure us by what we do or fail to get done — he loves us simply for who we are. All the rushing around, all the accomplishments don’t make Jesus love us any more. And so it is worth our while to find some time to just stop and enjoy our relationship with Jesus. Which is really what prayer is anyway. And the sisters will tell you that it does get easier; that with some practice you’ll actually be able to clear your mind of all the clutter when you try sitting quietly. Not at first, not in the first few minutes as your mind swirls, but give it time and you’ll get to that point where you can simply revel in relationship with God.

Yes, things still need to get done. Dinner won’t make itself, the kids need to be picked up from camp. But Jesus invites us into a life of holy perspective. A life that flows out of the blessings bestowed upon us. A life that flows out of relationship with the divine. A life that flows directly from the feet of Jesus out into the world.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

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