Listen, and then follow
July 17, 2022
Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
When we first hear this passage it seems as though one of these two women is doing the ‘right thing’ while the other has busied herself with tasks that may not be quite as important. It seems that Martha has been rebuked for caring about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of life…those small acts of service and paying attention to details that are in fact quite necessary for life to go smoothly. And I suppose that there is an argument that can be made that the best, and in fact the only proper response to being in the actual presence of the ‘Jesus, Son of God’, is to sit very quietly and just listen, as you marvel at your good fortune! But again, that is talking from hindsight, as this story occurred some time before the events of Easter. And the very fact there was a cross waiting on Calvary in the near future, tells us that not everyone felt Jesus was in fact anything other than just one more in a long line of self-professed and sure to fail ‘Jewish Messiahs’.
But still it seems that at least those closest to Jesus knew he was more than something special, and that there was no way he could have done all they had seen him do unless he had some special anointing. Therefore, Mary was rightly sitting in awe before him, and Martha, well she may not have been as focused as she should have been. But still…Martha is not hard to relate to…for someone had to take care of all that she was doing!
However, as apparent as that may seem at first, I think there may be another way to view this passage. I think Mary and Martha are actually revealing two aspects of the same thing, two sides of the same coin reflecting how it is that we are supposed to live out our faith-filled and faithful lives. It may not be as cut and dried an ‘either/or’ as it seems, but rather a ‘both/and’. One is not better than the other, rather, each sister is teaching us something in particular about how Jesus is asking us to live faithfully, and in full observance of his call to love one another.
In fact, both Mary and Martha were each participating in what were to become central practices or ‘disciplines’ in the Christian faith. Each sister revealed an aspect of ‘doing’ our faith that has been lifted up and followed from the very birth of the church, and on up until the modern era, where now it can be argued, both of these disciplines have lost some of their prominence in current faith practice. These two Christian practices, or ways of living out our faith, came to be known as the disciplines of meditation and service.
In Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, which was one of our adult study books in the past, he lists three types or categories of Christian disciplines: ‘inward disciplines, outward disciplines, and corporate disciplines’, all of which when practiced, lead us towards a fuller expression of our faith and our visible witness to others. Meditation is one of the inward or personal disciplines or ways to live out our faith, whereas service is an outward discipline, something that we do as Christians, that makes a difference in the world around us. In our passage today Mary was focused on hearing and learning directly from the Lord, meditating on the words and witness of Jesus himself, while her sister Martha sought to serve and to extend hospitality to her guests in the best way she knew how. Neither was more important or better than the other, rather both of these disciplines are critical parts of being faithful in imitation of our Lord and Christ.
Mary’s example, meditation, is the intentional practice of sitting quietly and listening deeply for the voice of God as offered or communicated through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. It requires taking the time to grow still and quiet enough within, as we consciously let the din and bustle of everyday life grow silent for a bit, allowing us to turn our heart’s attention solely on whatever it is that God wants to share with us at that moment.
When it comes to meditation, I know that at least for me I often go to that place quite purposefully, seeking guidance or personal instruction from the Spirit on some matter or other. But often, because I am in such a hurry to yield to the call of life frantically seeking to get me back into everyday busy-ness, I lose patience and start posing potential answers to my questions on my own. Figuring that God probably would want me to do this or that anyway so…so…that must be the answer I was looking for. Which actually cuts off God’s ability to share what it is that truly would guide and lead me into more of a life-giving, peace-fulfilling, and joyful place. Meditation takes patience. It is asking and then spending time listening.
Sometimes the answers come right away, while at other times you may need to commit to carry on in a state of attentive listening while going about your day. Keeping one ear attuned to the work at hand, and the other directed Spirit-ward. In this way you will be ready when the Lord’s answer is revealed, which it will be, and always in God’s good time.
Now if the very idea of ‘meditation’ gives you pause, that’s probably because the practice or discipline of ‘meditation’ has been the victim of some bad, or at least inaccurate press over the past several decades as individuals, on their own various and personal quests for spiritual answers or guidance, tended to brand their search as some form or other of ‘meditation’. Eastern religions, Transcendental Meditation, and forms of New-Age Spirituality all lean heavily upon meditation as a form of individual faith expression. This, coupled with the fact that many are unaware that meditation was a central aspect of faithful expression from the very beginning, has made the practice of Christian meditation less common and in fact somewhat rare today. But in truth it has been there from the very beginning as seen throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, most notably in the Psalms which speak often on the virtues of meditating on the Law or on the goodness of our God.
Christian meditation, according to Foster is simply, ‘The ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word. It is as simple as that…it involves no hidden mysteries, no secret mantras, no mental gymnastics, no…flights into the cosmic consciousness. The truth…is that…God…(our God)…desires our fellowship.’
And even though Jesus calls what Mary is doing, ‘the most important thing’, the fact remains that meditation is just not a part of many people’s faith practice today. It is obvious that Jesus felt there was a need to focus in on this aspect of our relationship with the Lord. Only God can reveal just how loving God is, only the Lord can reveal Godself. Only God can reveal to your heart that the essence and driving energy behind all of life is in fact love rather than hate, and that his will calls for peaceful, harmonic, and just coexistence, rather than strife and endless struggle.
So, our friend Mary took that moment to sit at the feet of Jesus and to listen as he taught. There to listen and to absorb that energy of love that inspires and challenges to the core…the same energy available to us, that we might become better people by sharing it, and perhaps transforming the lives of all who hear it.
But what about Martha? What about this sister of Mary who spent the whole time during Jesus’ visit to her home scurrying around and serving her guests to the absolute best of her ability? This one, who was cooking, cleaning, and making absolutely sure that the needs of her guests were met to the best of her ability. What was she doing, and how does she fit into our story as a faithful follower of Jesus?
Foster starts his chapter on the Discipline of Service with a quote from Bernard of Clair Vaux, a French Abbot who lived in the eleventh century. Bernard stated that one must, ‘Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.’ Now a ‘scepter’ is a baton or a staff which signifies royal or imperial power. This statement by Bernard is fascinating in itself, as he was the one asked to preach at the start of the Second Crusade in 1143 after the siege of Edessa, a campaign which ultimately failed miserably and for which he alone was blamed.
Be that as it may, the essence of what Bernard was saying was that the work of a follower after Christ, was accomplished not with great power and authority, but rather out in the fields toiling alongside of others in the garden of common human life and community. Mary’s sister Martha was out there toiling in that same garden day long!
At this point we may need to take a look at our understanding of ‘service’, and in particular at service as a discipline. We need to look closely at the difference between serving for one’s own sake or ‘Self-serving’ service, and serving for the sake of others, or what Richard Foster calls ‘true service’. We have looked at this before and it is important to our understanding today because there is a huge difference between the two. Service that is self-serving, is service we do when, where, to whom, and ‘if’ we feel like it. It is service that is often done with an eye towards boosting our own self-image or our reputation in the eyes of others around us. Self-serving service is doing things for others conditionally, always making sure we will get something in return for our efforts, not wasting our time on someone or something we feel is not worthy of our attention.
‘True service’ or righteous service on the other hand is service done not for our own sake, but rather simply because the Spirit within has asked us to do it, regardless of who it benefits, or how much time it may take, or even if it is not seen by anyone. And also importantly, regardless of what it might cost us materially or otherwise. In service that is self-serving, we retain the right to ‘choose to serve’. In the second, in true service, we surrender that right and instead become a servant of the Lord himself. Letting the Lord decide for us as to how we should spend down the capital of our own goodness, kindness or, perhaps even our ‘treasure’. In true service we give up the right to decide if, how, when, or how much when following Christ’s call in our hearts to serve.
Foster points out that nothing disciplines our own selfish desires like true service towards others, and that nothing transforms those selfish desires more than ‘hidden service’. He notes that our inner self struggles with giving in general, but that it really has a hard time with hidden service, with things that we do for others, usually at some cost to ourselves, that may not be seen or noticed by anyone else whatsoever. However, it is in this way of living visibly for others, that we draw closest to the example lived out for us by Jesus.
So, in her busyness and frantic preparations, Martha was serving, however her actions may have been missing the grace of humility. Perhaps the Lord was trying to reveal that although what she was doing was indeed proper, loving and needed…worrying and fretting about what Mary was not doing in helping her, was a distraction. The discipline of service is about our own response to God’s call, not about whether or not someone else should be serving alongside of us as well.
Both of these disciplines are a critical part of the way we are called to live out our faith. Meditation, that quietly listens for the guiding voice of the Spirit deep within, and the outward display of that same grace in unconditional Service extended towards others. Our passage today reveals that it is not Mary or Martha, but rather Mary and Martha, both of them showing us ways in which we are to live out our lives in reflection of the one in whose image we are created, the image of unconditional love. As the author of Ecclesiastes said, ‘There is a time to listen…and…a time for every purpose under Heaven.’
In sitting quietly before our Lord and in listening for the call to serve others in specific ways we are empowered, rightly guided, and prepared to go and do that service. Equipped and provided for by the One who promised to provide for all our needs if we would but seek first the righteousness and justice of our God.
So, listen, and then follow…follow the lead of one who goes before us towards that day when all shall faithfully conspire together to tend the garden of Creation in true fellowship and blessed harmony.