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notre dame montreal

Sermon preached by Reverend Neil Bramble Chapman

Mary and Martha



When I was 17 I had a girlfriend called Julia and she lived in a house called "Peacehaven." Her house really was a haven of peace. It was a place where I could go and truly feel rested and at peace, a place to get away from it all, put my feet up and relax, where someone would listen to me with understanding and love, rather than at home where I was always being nagged to do my homework and tidy my room!

Julia’s house, "Peacehaven" was certainly a place of tranquillity for me. This was as much down to her mum as anyone else, for Pauline seemed to be an amazing balance between Martha - doing things, looking after the house, being a Mum, a School teacher and Mary - with a deep spirituality and serenity which came from her relationship with God. Somehow, it seemed to me anyway, Pauline managed to be both Mary and Martha, she had struck the right balance in her life.

Maybe that is how it should be for the rest of us, we should seek to find the right balance between the two, being and doing. Traditionally, this passage has been interpreted as extolling the virtues of Mary over Martha, Mary has chosen what is better, Jesus says, the way of listening. But perhaps these ministries complement each other, rather than being in conflict with one another. For without the ministry of Martha, preparing the food and looking after the domestic chores, then Mary would not have been able to exercise her ministry of listening and Jesus may not have found Martha’s house to be such a place where he could sit and exercise his ministry of teaching.

We can understand how Martha feels, hard done by because she is left to do all the hard work, while Mary sits and listens, taking it easy. Mary’s role would even have been considered scandalous, for she was taking the role and posture of a disciple, of a man, and that was not the sort of thing that Martha would want to encourage in her house!

But perhaps what this passage is really saying to us, beyond the initial perception, is that here the two sisters are not simply two different people, different roles, different personalities or different ministries, but two dimensions of ourselves. To use modern language, one represents extroversion, focus on the world and action, while the other represents introversion, a focus on the inner world and contemplation. We need both dimensions, we need to embrace both qualities and realities within ourselves, to be both busy and engaged, whilst at times being passive, waiting, listening, receptive to God. God invites us both to action and contemplation, not as separate activities, but as two sides of the same coin, of Discipleship. We may naturally feel more comfortable in one role over the other, but both are part of what it is to be a disciple.

One of the most profound, yet frequently neglected distinctive characteristics of the Christian life, is that one day in every seven we are called to rest, to cease activity and worship God. Yet how many of us heed this calling to peace and tranquillity? We neglect it at our peril, both spiritually and physically. How many of us regard prayer and Bible study as unproductive, as a waste of time? How many of us think that by standing still and waiting upon God, not doing anything, we may lose standing in the eyes of other people? What are we without our business, our activism, our works? If God stripped away your business, or if changes in health took this away from you, who would you be?

These are the challenges faced by so many I meet in my role as a Hospital Chaplain at Bedford South Wing. After having a limb amputated, the patient has to adapt to a new way of living, often less active than before, or active in a different way. Our activism may become a form of idolatry, serving our needs, our ego, rather than serving God. We consider that through our actions we might grow in standing in the eyes of others, that we gain credit, that we are keeping up with somebody else, making us feel worthy, indispensable, productive, useful, in control, needed. And in the middle of all this activity our soul shrinks, withers and dies, we lose our peacefulness, joy dies and we burnout.

The alternative is to be still, to listen and to hear the voice that Jesus heard in the waters as he was baptised by John, "You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased" and Jesus ministry had not even started when God spoke those words. Jesus was loved by God without doing anything, as we are loved by God, for who we are, not for what we do.

In the face of so much to be done, when we Worship, when we rest and enjoy recreation, we celebrate our belovedness and we relinquish control, surrendering our strivings to the invisible grace of God at work within us, loving us from the foundation of our very being. Our worship and devotion then become just as radical, just as much a discipline, a test of obedience, and carries as much transforming power, as activity and service. For it was not in the bustling market place or among the teeming crowds, but in the desert and in the garden, alone, that Jesus faced dark temptation, heard and wrestled with the deepest voice of God, put self aside and followed the path God laid before him.

We need that right balance of Mary and Martha within us. The fourth century desert monastic, Abba Silvanus, said, "Martha is necessary to Mary, for it was because Martha worked that Mary was able to be praised." The whole idea of the balance and interplay between action and contemplation, between putting ourselves forward in service and then at times being passive and receptive, available to God moving within us, is all part of the natural rhythm of life, part of being fully human. May we, therefore, embrace both the Martha and the Mary within us, welcome them as sisters, as dimensions of ourselves and may we in God’s own way, be drawn out of ourselves into a deeper union with him in Christ, both in service and in contemplation. Amen.