Our old friends, Mary and Martha (Proper 11C)

Our old friends, Mary and Martha (Proper 11C)

Date: Sunday 21 July 2019 | Speaker: The Rev’d Clare Barrie

We’re encountering two old friends this week – the sisters, Mary and Martha. We know them well. We’ve visited their home many times over the years, and pondered the complexities of Martha’s hospitality and Mary’s listening heart, dwelling in the loving regard of Jesus.

A quick and simple reading of this story suggests that we all live our lives a bit like Martha, but we ought to be a bit more like Mary. We’ve all heard a sermon like that I’m sure. Poor Martha generally doesn’t come out of it looking great.

But that quick and simple reading is not faithful to the real complexity of this story or its context. 

What Mary did was extraordinary – or rather, what Jesus encouraged her to do. In sitting at his feet, memorising his teaching, she was taking up the role of a disciple of Jesus. That was not a role that would have been open to women at the time. Discipleship was a male thing, the Jewish rabbis taught only men, the women were restricted in their level of education and activity. 

But Jesus challenges this as he challenged many boundaries and conventions. Jesus vindicates Mary’s choice to sit at his feet – and the story becomes not so much about Martha doing the wrong thing as it is about Mary stepping out of tradition, convention, expectation, culture, and daring to respond to Jesus. Jesus makes a point of affirming that, and Luke makes a point of recording it.

Remember also the story we entered into last week: Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer who asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and Jesus’ response was to tell the story of the good Samaritan – a story of love in action, love reaching out and working hard to care for a stranger in desperate need. So the gospel moves immediately from that ideal to Mary’s listening… The Samaritan’s action and involvement is the background to the prayerfulness of Mary, who sat still at Jesus’ feet and listened.

For followers of Jesus, Mary and the Samaritan show us the two great “relationships” in story form: to love God with your whole heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself. These two kinds of love take us towards the heart of God, and towards the heart of the world around us. 

These stories hold contemplation and action together – both are essential in the journey of faith, and essential to each other.

This is more than just a nice idea… neurologists have been studying the brains of people who meditate – whether Christian contemplation, or Buddhist meditation or in other faith practices – and making some extraordinary findings. One neurologist, Dr Andrew Newburg of the University of Pennsylvania, has been scanning the brains of people while praying for 20 years. In one study, he had Michael Baime, a fellow doctor who’s practiced Tibetan Buddhist meditation daily for more than 40 years, meditate while he scanned his brain. 

In his words, 

“When Baime meditated in Newberg’s brain scanner, …as expected, his frontal lobes, the parts of the brain that manage focused attention, lit up on the screen: Meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime’s parietal lobes went dark.

“This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world,” he explains. “When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area.”

Newberg found that result not only with Baime, but also with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe.” (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104310443)

It makes complete sense to me that there is a physiological link between the prayer of resting in Christ’s love, and the way we live out that love towards the world. A deep link between the two great loves that together, affect us at a cellular level: love for God, and love for neighbour. And in fact, many writers believe that these two loves are inseparable – they feed each other – each makes the other possible. 

So, as Christians if we hope to engage in any action that meets a social need around us or addresses a justice issue in a way that is truly motivated by love, then that action needs to spring out of a self-identity that is being transformed by sitting and resting in the love of Jesus. Martha needs to be shaped by Mary, and Mary needs to live out her love in Martha.

We all like to think we act for the good of others, most of the time, more or less. But the reality is that we all have needs and those needs are woven through our motives in any action we take. We all need love, and approval, and intimacy in our lives; we all carry fears and anxieties and hurts and anger. And we are all shaped by our society’s notions of success and the illusions of control. All of these things are like inner voices which can shape our motives and responses in any given moment. They are like an undertow which can pull us off course.

But all of these voices are part of what contemplative writers call the ‘false self’, and that’s tremendously hopeful because what this means is they don’t define us. They are a real part of all of us, for sure, but they are not our real and whole identity. Our baptism defines us as children of God, friends of Jesus.

But it is a life-long journey of transformation to learn to act more and more out of that real and whole identity, and to learn to recognise and settle all those other voices and motives at work within us. We are each responsible for ourselves before God, and have a unique path of grace to walk. 

As Christians we stand in a rich faith tradition and we have a great wealth of resources at our fingertips to support us in this journey of growth into a mature, authentic spirituality. We have all kinds of spiritual practices that help shape us and open us up to the love and grace of God. 

The eucharist is an example – coming and standing alongside brothers and sisters in faith with our empty hands held out to receive the gift of Christ. That is a profoundly countercultural stance. Another set of spiritual practices is types of giving – of our time, our finances, our skills and talents, to help others around us and support the life of the community. More privately, we have practices like spiritual direction or companionship, where we are invited to spend time with a trusted person who ponders with us on how it’s going with our soul, our faith, in our daily lives. 

And sitting behind and under all of this, we need a prayer pattern of some kind that isn’t all driven by requests or busy words, but includes times of silence and stillness – contemplative prayer or Christian meditation. 

Simply put, contemplation is entering a deeper silence in God’s presence, and letting go of our habitual thoughts, sensations, and feelings in order to open up our awareness of God’s love for us. It is a way of praying with our bodies – letting our breath and our posture bring us into the present moment. Some people find using a single word or a phrase a helpful anchor that helps to keep the mind still – a way to let the inner noise pass by and return to stillness.

Prayers of petition or intercession are important, where we pray for the needs of others and ourselves, but that kind of prayer doesn’t change us. It doesn’t transform our consciousness and our identity in the significant and lasting way that contemplative prayer can, so that the way we live and act springs more and more out of love and freedom, rather than out of all the things that bind us.

This is the life of grace and freedom to which we are all welcomed at our baptism. However we choose to respond, just as Harper was baptised and marked with the cross last week, Christ has marked each one of us and sealed us with the Holy Spirit and opened the door to a journey of ever deepening love and wholeness in the eyes of God. 

May we be like both Mary and the Samaritan, our hearts open to God, and our hands open to the world around us.