Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11 Year C)
This sermon was preached by Fr. Daniel London at Sts. Martha and Mary parochial mission in Trinidad CA on July 21, 2019, in celebration of their matronal feast day.
The Holy Spirit is in this place right now. Just yesterday, several Episcopalians, a few Methodists, some Presbyterians, a couple Roman Catholics, a Native American Buddhist, an alchemist and an atheist and many more gathered here in this church to meditate for several hours in the presence of divine love. We all sensed the warmth of the Holy Spirit in this place. Even the atheist admitted it! And we all felt indebted to this community, Sts. Martha and Mary, for so graciously hosting us in your sacred space that you have made holy and kept holy as a result of your commitment, devotion, friendship, love and prayers. Thank you. Thank you for making this place a beautiful temple of the Holy Spirit.
I also sense the Holy Spirit’s presence in the fact that today’s readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost happen to include the most famous biblical passage of your matronal saints: Martha and Mary. This beloved reading from Luke is not the Gospel passage assigned for your matronal feast day. As some of you may recall from last year, the Gospel assigned for the feast of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus is the Raising of Lazarus in John 11. And your matronal feast day is technically July 29th. We decided, several months ago, to celebrate your feast day today, before I even looked at the readings. And the fact that the proper Gospel reading for today is the story of Jesus at the home of his friends Martha and Mary (a story that we read only once every three years) is not a coincidence. It is divine synchronicity. It is the Holy Spirit’s clever and playful way of winking her eye and saying “Yes” to all of you. It is the Holy Spirit’s way of saying, “You are my friends and I feel at home here with you.”
And if that’s not enough, the book that I introduced and taught yesterday right here to about 20 people from all over Humboldt county is a mystical text from the 14th century called The Cloud of Unknowing which focuses on today’s Gospel passage of Martha and Mary more than any other biblical passage! This anonymous medieval author upholds Sts. Martha and Mary as the great paragons of Christian service and prayer. So let us be encouraged today by the Holy Spirit’s affirmations.
Before we delve into the Gospel reading to unpack its wisdom for us today, I want to first acknowledge some of the words of the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians. Paul says to his friends in Colossae, “You were once estranged and there was some hostility among you, but God took pleasure in reconciling you so that you may be steadfast in faith, strong in hope and mature in Christ.” Again these words were given to us this morning by the Holy Spirit, who I believe is inviting to us to reflect on how far we’ve come this year as a family, as the family of Christ Church Eureka and Sts. Martha and Mary Trinidad. Last year, as some of you may recall, we were mostly strangers to one another and there was a lot of pain and confusion and frustration. But it seems that God has taken pleasure in reconciling us so that we can help each other be steadfast in faith, strong in hope and mature in Christ. And as a collective family, we can encourage one another and cheer each other on, especially as Christ Church approaches its 150th anniversary in 2020 (with the motto “Steadfast and Growing since 1870”) and as Sts. Martha and Mary approaches its 15th anniversary in 2021. May we as a family grow steadfast in faith, strong in hope, and mature in Christ.
Yesterday, I shared with visitors here a medieval Christian understanding of Sts. Martha and Mary which acknowledges the holiness of St. Martha and the active life of service that she represents, but ultimately upholds St. Mary as the ideal follower of Christ and as the exemplar of the contemplative life. I shared that whenever I try to be contemplative and sit still in the presence of God for 5, 10, or 15 minutes, I almost always hear a voice saying, “Hey! You should really be doing something more useful right now. You have so much work to do. Stop this navel-gazing and get to work.” The medieval Christian mystics said that is the voice of our inner Martha, whose complaints and criticisms we must learn to lovingly ignore. There will always be things to be worried and upset about, but only one thing is needed: and that is sitting in the presence of divine love. I still stand by that teaching and offer it to us this morning, especially as we sit together now in the presence of divine love in the holiness of this moment.
However, on this feast day I want to acknowledge that your name is Sts. Martha and Mary, a name that rearranges the traditional order of the sisters, who are usually referred to as Mary and Martha. I remember learning that Bishop Lamb specifically wanted this mission’s name to be Martha first and then Mary. I imagine this is partly because Martha often gets a bad rap and Bishop Lamb wanted to help vindicate her.
Martha often gets a bad rap because Jesus seems to chastise her in our Gospel reading this morning when he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed; and Mary has chosen the better part.” Throughout church history, most Christians have believed that this means Jesus is saying that prayer is more important than action. Perhaps this is true, and yet the book of James and many other teachings of Jesus insist that “Faith without action is dead.” I appreciate how the Episcopal Church’s book for the Calendar of Commemorations understands these words of Jesus in the book’s description of the feast day of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The book, which is called “A Great Cloud of Witnesses,” invites us to understand the words of Jesus as “a defense of that which Mary does best, and a commendation of Martha for what she does best—neither vocation giving grounds for despising the other” (July 29). In other words, Jesus does not chastise Martha for preparing and serving him food (which she does best), rather Jesus invites her to stop condemning her sister for doing what she does best: namely, sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening with an open heart. Jesus invites Martha to let go of her judgmental attitude, to let go of what she believes to be the only real way to serve Jesus. Jesus invites Martha to let go and let Mary be Mary. Jesus also invites Martha to let go so that Martha can find joy and fulfillment in being Martha.
I personally have so much gratitude for the Marthas in my life, for those who embody hard work and service and hospitality and those who help create the conditions and opportunities for the Marys of this world to be Mary. If it weren’t for the Marthas in this world, not much work would get done. If it weren’t for the hard work and hospitality of the Marthas among us here, the gathering of Marys yesterday would not have been possible. In fact, if it weren’t for the hard work and commitment of the Marthas among us here, this mission would have likely closed down last Fall. Although each one of us is a mix of the contemplative Mary and the active Martha, I invite us to reflect with gratitude on the fact that St. Martha seems to have been dominant among you this last year, because she needed to be. The Marthas needed to step up and they did. And I’m sure that Bishop Lamb would be immensely proud of you for living up to your name.
Finally, Martha and Mary are very different in terms of their personality and preferences, but they are still family. Jesus invites them to see their differences as opportunities for learning and growth. I invite us to see our differences in the same way. We will disagree on many things and that is ok. I don’t have to agree with you to love you. I don’t have to agree with to love you. In fact, disagreements can make communities and relationships much stronger, when they are held in love. On the third Sunday of the month before vestry meetings, I like to conclude my sermons with a question that vestry members then discuss at the beginning of our meeting. So my question for us today is: In what ways have you seen differences and disagreements strengthen relationships and communities in your life?
I invite us to consider this question for a few moments in some silence and then perhaps share a couple responses in this safe and sacred space, in this temple of the Holy Spirit where we embrace our Marthas and our Marys as we grow steadfast in faith, strong in hope and mature in Christ. Amen.