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The 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Luke 10:38-42

I usually don’t do “Show & Tell” as part of a sermon, but this rather ornate certificate, which normally lives on a wall of my home office, is relevant to today’s Gospel reading. It certifies that I was maade an “Officer of the Order of the Sons of Martha”. It says that this was granted “For distinguished service to the profession of Engineering and the Ontario public whom it serves”. I’m actually quite proud of this distinction. In my time as an engineer it was awarded by my peers for many years’ work on the process by which engineers (particularly those who come to Canada from elsewhere) are licensed in Ontario. The Order is restricted to a maximum of one hundred living Officers and Companions. And, like the biblical Martha, one becomes a member of this small group by having been worried and distracted by many things, for a long time, on behalf of the engineering profession and the public. (Incidentally, one of my engineering colleagues noted that I ought to be concerned about being known as a son of Martha, since his reading of Holy Scripture clearly indicated that the lady in question did not have a husband! Also, as more and more women enter the engineering profession, and some become members of the Order, the name has now been changed to the Engineering Order of Honour. And I have a far less ornate certificate for that!)

The Order’s name comes from a (not very good) poem by Rudyard Kipling, titled The Sons of Martha which uses the biblical story of Mary and Martha to contrast two kinds of people; the practical ones who become artisans and engineers, and the dreamers, who study philosophy, and literature (and probably theology). I said it’s not particularly good poetry, (not much of Kipling is!), but let me quote the first two verses:

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part; / But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart. / And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest, / Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock. / It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock. / It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain. / Tally, transport and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

Kipling goes on to describe precisely the work which the Sons of Martha do, which is all of it; quarry mountains, build roads and bridges, generate power, run the trains, mine minerals, feed the hungry, and keep all the nuts and bolts tight and in their proper places so that the world will function smoothly. Kipling ends with the verse,

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessed – they know the angels are on their side. / They know in them is the Grace confessed, and for them are the mercies multiplied. / They sit at the Feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs. / They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons.

You can think what you like of Kipling’s theology, but clearly he is on the side of the “doers” rather than the “contemplators”. But is that really fair?

You see, what Martha did not realize, out in the kitchen, putting together the big dinner – with sweat on her forehead and flour all over her apron – was that her sister Mary, cooly sitting at the feet of Jesus, lost in wonder, was being just as effortful as she was. “Say what?” all of us who are children of Martha exclaim. “She’s sitting there, soaking up all that religion, never budging to lift a finger, not even to set the table – and you expect us to believe she’s working? Seems to me she’s so heavenly minded that she’s no earthly good,” all of us doers would say!
But Mary wasn’t lazy – it’s just that Mary’s effort was in the form of presence and availability to Jesus. She could have, like Martha, been present in the house but unavailable. She could have been present at the feet of Jesus, but worrying about the casserole running over, or the lamb burning on the barbecue, or wondering just how many disciples there were and how much they would eat; she would have been unavailable. She might have been at the feet of Jesus, but her heart and mind would have stayed in the kitchen.

Presence and availability are born of total concentration. What is required is the setting aside of self. This means putting aside our own agendas – as wonderful and necessary we tell ourselves these are – in order to be present and available to another person, or to God. It means not being divided – not thinking of what you are going to say next while the other is speaking; not balancing the checkbook or glancing at the newspaper or stirring the soup while someone is talking to you over the telephone. And if the other in your conversation is God, it means not sending up a few prayers while dodging in and out of rush hour traffic and calling it “prayer time” or devotion under fire.

We all know that such presence and availability do not come easily; that is why Mary at the feet of Jesus was working as hard as Martha in the kitchen. There is nothing natural about setting aside my time, my heart, my mind, to be present and available to a spouse, a friend or colleague, to a person in trouble, to a child; or to God. It requires discipline. It says, in effect: “I care about you, and there is absolutely nothing more important to me at this time than you. I am totally available to hear what you have to say.”

Believe me, that requires effort. It requires effort to put aside my self-centeredness, to make myself vulnerable enough to actually encounter the other and to enter his or her reality. And if that other is God, who wants to encounter me in prayer, it means the effort of laying my inner core totally open to God.

Being present and available to Jesus as Mary was is the essence of prayer, and it is in this kind of holy encounter that we often discover the living water of the Holy Spirit welling up within us. It requires practice. Repetition, through presence and availability in prayer, is the key to spiritual growth. To come and sit before Jesus, listening to his Word, and allowing the spring of the Spirit to bubble up, is a practice to be nurtured whether one is feeling spiritual or not. Faithfulness through repetition, independent of the state of our feelings, make growth in prayer possible. Like Mary, we need to choose the better part, and sit quietly listening at the feet of Jesus, and stop worrying and being distracted by what might be happening in the kitchen.

But (there is always a but), but what about last week’s Gospel, the parable of the Good Samaritan? Isn’t that a call to action? The Good Samaritan wasn’t like the priest and the Levite, walking the road saying their prayers and ignoring the one in the ditch. The Samaritan saw a need, didn’t get all spiritual about it, did what needed to be done. Like Martha, who had Jesus and his disciples drop in, and saw the need of feeding them. Would it really have served God for the Samaritan to sit quietly in prayer while the one in the ditch died? Would Jesus really been served if Martha had also quietly sat at his feet, listening, and at the end of the day left Jesus and the disciples hungry?

I don’t think it’s an accident that these two stories, one a call to charitable action, the other a call to quiet contemplation, follow one another in Luke’s Gospel. What are we to be, doers who see a need that they can help with and do so; or contemplators, who sit quietly in the presence of God in prayer while nothing gets done? Who are we to be, children of Martha or children of Mary? I suspect if we asked Jesus, “Am I to be like Martha or Mary,” he might say – “Yes!”

We are to be like both – both are part of the life of the Christian. Consider for a moment; what sort of world would it be if all of us spend all our time in contemplation and prayer – and let the world and the needs of others go hang? And what would our work in the world and our service to others mean if it came only out of a need to be busy – to be doing something – and was totally unconnected to any life of the spirit, prayer, or rootedness in God? A life of only spirituality without service ultimately becomes totally selfish. And a life of only service with no spiritual underpinnings ultimately becomes meaningless.

There is a good parallel in what we do here, on a Sunday. You come here, and you expect to be nourished by hearing the word of God read and preached, and to be fed with the food of Holy Communion. Your expectation is that others will do the reading and preaching, and that others will prepare the table at which you will eat. But if you do not leave here ready to go into the world to serve others, ready to live your Christian faith in deed, then nothing much has been accomplished by your being here. Likewise, if those of us who read and preach and prepare the meal for you do not have some place where we can sit at the feet of the Lord, if what we do for you is not grounded in spiritual discipline and prayer, then it ultimately becomes routine without meaning.

We are each called to be Mary and Martha. We are to contemplate and pray, and we are to be busy doing the work of the Lord. It is not a question of either/or, it is a question of balance.

Copyright ©2022 by Gerry Mueller