Many of you will know from articles in either the Miscellany or the Post & Courier, but I am just recently – only two weeks ago – ordained to the the Catholic priesthood, having served for 12 years in the ministry of the Episcopal Church. And of course for the occasion my mother came to stay with us, and you know what that means: cleaning and pressing, the purchasing of flowers, rescheduling the folks who come to clean a couple times a month to come on the very day of her arrival; the lawn mown, driveway blown off, hedges trimmed; the outer layers of grime scraped from the children, and so on. All sorts of preparations, but not because I’m scared of the woman, but because we love her, and wanted to honor her and her coming.
But imagine, having gone through those preparations, we had then been so busy, that we ignored her, had no time for her. For all the cleaning and fixing-up, she would not have felt honored and loved. And had we been so busy that the company of her grandchildren had been denied her – well, then there would have been trouble.
The preparations, the cleaning and cooking, the external and conventional forms of hospitality – they all make sense; they’re natural, good, and appropriate – but they are not, or should not be, ends in themselves. They serve a purpose: they facilitate and lead to fellowship, communion, with a person – that’s the proper end of hospitality. And if the preparations and the expectations get in the way of that communion, then there’s a problem, the tail is wagging the dog.
That’s a long and not particularly subtle introduction to this morning’s Gospel lesson, in which we see just such a dynamic at work. This is such a charming account, because the circumstances are so immediately recognizable to us, because we know Martha’s frustration so well, as she slaves away to honor her important and much-beloved guest with all the gracious customs of Mid-Eastern hospitality: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do all the serving? Tell her to help me. But her frustration earns a gentle rebuke from our Lord, and I think we are right to hear a hint of amusement in his tone: Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.
What matters is communion, time together. Well, Martha’s sin is small. It sprung from a good impulse. She was trying to do something good, something beautiful for Jesus, but in her eagerness she ended up getting things confused, she let the customs of hospitality get in the way of the goal of hospitality, serving got in the way of communion; she confused what was essential with what was merely important.
Well, again, it’s a charming story because it so personally familiar to us. We’ve been there. And not just on the purely human level of negotiating our own housekeeping needs, but also in terms of fellowship with our Lord. Here is our Lord – waiting for us in prayer, waiting for us in holy Scripture, present among us in the Blessed Sacrament; and here are we – running errands, driving carpools, meeting our responsibilities, checking Facebook.
In some respects it’s a very American, very modern problem, isn’t it? In our place and in our time, we are driven to be productive; we want something to show for our time, something measurable – money earned, a problem solved, meals served; at the very least a Facebook status updated! It’s difficult for us to be still at all, but perhaps most especially to be still and silent before our Lord, to put ourselves in his blessed Presence. So many young people I talk to tell me that they do their praying while they’re exercising – which is fine, it’s good to pray, that’s largely the point this morning – but still I have to wonder about this inability to be, or at least the choice not to be, still for just a little while, and at the end have nothing of this world to show for it, this incessant pressure to multitask even our prayer life.
But in our better moments, when we are most truly ourselves, we know better, and we do better. Lovers know better, young or old, they just need to be together, they can talk or not talk, and that togetherness, that communion, serves no other discernible end; it is self-justifying. One of my favorite songwriters, Ron Sexsmith, has song, a love song, that touches on this theme. He sings,Don’t have the run when the pistol’s fired,
It’s alright if we let the meter expire. Where’s the crime in wasting time with you?
Where’s the crime in wasting time? Lovers know better, and children know better, too. We parents plan activities and lessons and play dates, but our children don’t care about the “what” so much as the “who.” They want to be with Mama and Dada. They want presence; they want communion.
Lovers and children know better, but here we are – the Church, the very Bride of Christ. And here we are – by adoption and grace the Children of God. And so often, as with Martha, something gets in the way, and we miss him.
Our ingrained activism, this drive to be productive, is one thing that keeps us from communion, but it may that our activism sometimes serves as a mask for a deeper problem. We are talking about time with our Lord, an attitude of docility and receptivity and joy in his Presence. There is no greater privilege; there should be no greater joy! We can think of Adam and Eve, rejoicing in their Creator’s fellowship when he walked in the garden in the cool of the day. But then things changed. They sinned, rebelled, and when God came, they hid.
Out here, east of Eden, his Presence can be uncomfortable, can’t it? Our Lord still comes among us, but Jesus is a man to be reckoned with. In his light, we see ourselves more clearly, and perhaps we’d rather just dim the light, make like Adam and Eve and hide ourselves in the bushes of our activity. There are things we’d prefer to keep in the dark. So activism, just the general frenetic running to and fro of our daily lives in the world, or even – maybe especially – the busy-ness of good works and service – becomes a kind of cover, a strategy of avoidance of the very One that, like Martha, we are meant to be serving.
But that light that shines so brightly is the light of his love – his seeking, desiring, healing love. You know, earlier this week when I read over the lessons for this morning, it occurred to me that I have always thought of the tragedy of this encounter as being that in her busy-ness, in her inability to let the merely important things slide in order to not lose the essential, Martha robbed herself of time with Jesus. And that’s true enough and tragic enough, but it works the other way, too. In her busy-ness, she robbed her Lord – he wanted to be with her, desired her fellowship and presence, to be with her, just as he did with Mary and Lazarus and Simon the Leper and all the usual crowd at the house in Bethany.
And, in the same way, hard as it is sometimes to believe, he desires us. He’s dying to be with us. In the silence of prayer, on the Altar where he gives himself to us Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. He holds nothing back. And as for those things we are ashamed of, that keep us on some trajectory of avoidance – well, he already knows, and still he loves, and calls us to the confessional for honesty, reconciliation, healing, and ever deeper Communion.
And Presence. The Lord among us. It is not wasted time. It is life. It – He – is the one thing needful; He himself is the better part that will not be taken away. So come, let us adore him.
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