Sunday, July 21, 2013

Contemplatives in Action

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 21, 2013

Year C, Proper 11: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Contemplatives in Action
            For the past couple of Sundays our gospel lessons have very much been about “doing.”
            You may remember that two weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus sending out the seventy disciples to all the towns that he intended to visit. The seventy were sent to tell people about Jesus, to offer peace and healing, and to declare, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
            And remember how amazed the disciples were at all that they were able to do. After they return they say to Jesus with a mixture of surprise and amazement, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.”
            The seventy were sent out to do things – to offer peace and healing in Jesus’ name, to declare, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
            And then last week we heard the story of the lawyer who asked Jesus a question, trying to test him.
            The lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            And, the lawyer answers his own question by quoting Scripture, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
            The lawyer knew what he must do. But there was something missing. There was something important he seemed not to know.
            The lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
            The lawyer knew all about doing but he was missing deeper understanding. The lawyer knew all about doing but he lacked the deeper understanding that comes only if we spend time in prayer, in reflection, in contemplation.
            “What must I do?”
            I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of question I ask myself pretty much every day, often many times each day.
            What do I have to do today?
            What should I be doing today?
            Lots of days I make a To-Do List, trying to remember and put on paper all the things I need to do, both for church and in my personal life.            
            And, it is a really satisfying feeling to cross items off the to-do list…phone call made…sermon written…emails answered…conversations had…litter boxes cleaned…dishes put away…on and on, day after day. I even enjoy writing our worship services into the parish register: another service held, another one in the book, something else done.
            I like to be busy so it makes me happy to write up a long to-do list and then cross off the items one by one.
            I bet a lot of you are the same way.
            “What must I do?”
            Well, in today’s gospel lesson we meet someone who I bet liked to keep busy, who kept at least a mental to-do list. Today we meet Martha. “Martha, Martha” who was “distracted by her many tasks.”

            The story of the sisters Mary and Martha appears only in Luke’s gospel. You may remember, though, that they also appear in John’s Gospel when Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead.
            Anyway, in Luke’s story, Jesus comes to visit the two sisters. This kind of thing probably happened a lot. Jesus was a wandering teacher and healer who relied on the hospitality of his friends and followers. And it seems that many of his friends and followers were women who provided him, and his disciples, food and shelter, who offered hospitality.
            On this particular visit, the sisters respond to Jesus’ presence in very different ways.
            Mary sits at the Lord’s feet and listens to him. That posture was a way that Mary acknowledged Jesus’ authority. Mary was a disciple sitting at the feet of her teacher.
            Meanwhile, Martha of course is frustrated that Mary seems to be just… sitting there. Martha’s angry that her sister isn’t offering any help.
            I bet most, if not all of us, sympathize with Martha. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in the situation where somehow we’re the ones doing all the work while the people who could be helping – the people who should be helping - are just sitting around having a great time for themselves.
            But, though we can sympathize with Martha, the truth is that she made a couple of big mistakes that day Jesus came to visit.
            First, despite her best efforts, she broke the rules of hospitality.
            Martha is “distracted by her many tasks.” She’s so distracted that she’s not paying attention to her guest – bad enough but even worse when we remember that her guest is Jesus!
            Then she is even more inhospitable when she tries to drag her honored guest into a fight with her sister. Martha asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work myself? Tell her then to help me.”
            But, Martha’s mistake is much greater than just being inhospitable. Because of her long to-do list, because of her busyness, Martha misses what’s most important. With Jesus right there in her home, Martha misses out on the only thing that’s needed.
            Jesus takes this rather awkward situation and uses it as a teachable moment.
He tells the complaining sister, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
            So, what about us?
            What must we do?
            Jesus told Martha and tells us here today that the only thing that’s really needed – the thing that makes everything else possible – is to be quiet, to be still, and listen for the voice of Jesus.
            First and foremost we’re called to be like Mary. We’re called to be contemplatives – to be people of prayer – to be people who sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.
            But, of course, that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to just sit around all day.
            We are also called to be like Martha. We’re called to be people of action. We’re called to be like the seventy sent out by Jesus to proclaim peace, to offer healing, to love God and to love our neighbor, to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.
            As Christians we are called to be like both Mary and Martha. We’re called to be contemplatives in action.
            By now, most of you have realized that my love of keeping busy extends to church. I really believe that St. Paul’s should be a busy place. My dream is to have at least one service every day of the year. My hope is to have more than just two services on Sundays. My plan is for St. Paul’s to be deeply connected to our surrounding community, so that everyone knows us an oasis in the neighborhood and a church that really helps people. My expectation is that our little food collection container in the back of church will be overflowing every week.
            It’s a long to-do list. I think Martha would approve.
            But, if we’re not like Mary we’re likely to fail. If, first and foremost, we’re not contemplatives, if we’re not people of prayer, if we forget the “one thing,” if we ignore “the better part” then we’ll burn out, eventually turn against each other, and ultimately fail in the work that God has given us to do.
            Long ago the lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            What must we do?
            The answer is first to be like Mary – to be contemplatives – to be people of prayer – to be people who sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.
            And, with that foundation, we’re also called to be like Martha – to be people of action, like the seventy sent out by Jesus to proclaim peace, to offer healing, to love God and love our neighbors, to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.
            We are called to be contemplatives in action.
            So, let’s put that at the top of our to-do lists and begin.
            May it be so.