The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Time to be Mary
Today is my last Sunday with you for a while. I will be away for four weeks, starting tomorrow. The clergy filling in for me are Melissa Lamkin, who will be with you the first two Sundays and is the chaplain of the school at Trinity Wall Street; and Cheryl Parris, who will be with you for the second two weeks and has ties to Trinity Wall St, as well. Both are wonderful priests and I’m grateful they are able to be here. Father Newcomb, our Rector Emeritus, will be my back-up for any pastoral emergencies that come up–hopefully none. As I say every time I’m about to go away, Please keep your emergencies to a minimum!
My family and I will be on the road, and then with my extended family in a very small town in Colorado. Some of you know this, but my family on my mother’s side had, through marriage, a Mormon connection (this was about 100 years ago), and bought some property in the highest incorporated town in the United States–Alma, Colorado–just in case the end of the world should come. I’m not sure how exactly being high on an uninhabitable mountain would help in such circumstances, but I believe the thinking was, Jesus would come get you and it would be better to be up high and easy for him to find. Any case, I’m grateful for their religious fanaticism because now I have a place to go enjoy my family and this beautiful world.
This is not the first time I’ve set out on vacation just after this reading in our Gospel about Mary and Martha, and so (because of it falling at this time of the year) I always see in it a call away from the hectic life in which we find ourselves much of the year, and to something different, something quieter, slower, and yet equally important.
Mary and Martha were close friends of Jesus, along with their brother Lazarus. All of them appear a number of times in the Gospels and throughout the church year. We just recently read the story where Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, a gesture that foreshadowed his burial. That was on the fifth Sunday of Lent, on the cusp of Holy Week. Also in Lent we sometimes read where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead as his sisters Mary and Martha stand by, expectantly waiting. This, too, anticipates Jesus’ death and burial.
And then here, in high summer, a more prosaic encounter, chronologically in the Gospels, the first of Jesus’ meetings with these three siblings.
Jesus on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem stops in Bethany, at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha gets busy cooking and preparing a meal for him and his disciples. Meanwhile her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet–the posture of a disciple to a teacher–listening to what he has to teach. Martha out of the corner of her eye catches a glimpse of Mary off there in the other room, seeming to her idle, and she comes in and tells Jesus to make her sister get up and help her. But he refuses. In fact, he goes so far as to praise Mary for her supposed idleness. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he says.
Among Christians who hear this passage, sisters with sisters tend to really connect with it. The last time this came up just before I left on vacation, I was also (like now) preparing to meet my extended family, including my older sister. Inigo was a baby then, I was a new mother. When we arrived in Missouri where we were all meeting that year, I recall my sister and her family rolling up in their minivan. I was sitting on the front porch of my aunt’s farmhouse feeding Inigo, and as I sat there, I watched my sister unpack her car. It was like watching one of those clown cars; things kept rolling out, provisions of all kinds: homemade jams, a couple pies, a sewing bag, a cooler of meat and spices, a first-aid kit, gifts for our host, five matching suitcases, all of this packed so artfully that there was still room for everyone’s pre-packed travel supplies and games.
It was one of my first experiences as a new mother realizing how unprepared I was for the task, but not my first time feeling very much the inadequate younger sister. But parents here know, non-parents, too: Life soon demands that we become dutiful Marthas whether it comes naturally or not. And so, eight years later, I have to make myself stop, and remember what it was like to be Mary. To sit, to think, to listen, not to worry about where I’m supposed to be or whether I’m doing enough or whether what I’m doing is good enough.
It is of absolute importance for our spiritual health to find every now and again our Mary side. I think the church has us read this story here because maybe now we can do that. Grace in the Christian tradition is love that isn’t tied to who we are or what we do, but to our being, and simply that. To apprehend that, as we can only do in moments of stillness and rest, is to be well on the way on our spiritual journey.
So work when you must, and diligently, BUT I hope you make time to sit, to listen, and to remember, Grace is effortless. And there for us all. Amen.