A Sermon preached on July 17th, Pentecost IX at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Genesis 18: 1 – 10a, Colossians 1: 15 – 28, Luke 10: 38 – 42
I am not entirely sure that I like today’s Gospel. I feel a little too like Martha, often distracted by many tasks and things, prone to checking my Smartphone whenever it rings, or buzzes or beeps, and sometimes even when it doesn’t. So Jesus’ criticism comes a little close. It makes me worry that, like Martha, I may be missing the one thing I need. What might that one thing be that Jesus mentions, the one thing that Mary has chosen and apparently her sister, Martha, has not?
I have heard the two sisters Martha and Mary often used as examples of different vocations. Mary then stands for prayer and spiritual practice, for contemplation. Martha, on the other hand, stands for action and service. So much so, that she struggles with all the demands of life in the world, perhaps only praying on the run, if at all. This distinction between Mary and Martha, between contemplation and action, between prayer and service, comes across as a very tidy distinction. For that reason alone it should be treated as suspicious. Life is rarely neat. Issues of faith are rarely simple. Christianity is hardly ever a matter of “either/or,” but much more often a case of “both/and.” Contemplation or action, prayer or service is a false contrast and it is definitely not Anglican. Our spirituality, our practice is rooted in Benedictine spirituality and the Benedictine motto is “Ora et Labora,” pray and work.
Why do I say that our practice is rooted in Benedictine spirituality? As most of you know from your history lessons, even before the Church of England severed its ties with Rome, all the monasteries in England were dissolved, including the many Benedictine monastic houses. But many of our cathedrals, including Canterbury, were Benedictine foundations. And Henry VIII even turned some former Benedictine monasteries – Chester, Gloucester, Peterborough - into new cathedrals. So as the monks became canons, and the old abbot often became the cathedral dean, much of the Benedictine ethos remained and the cathedrals influenced the newly independent English Church as it tried to find its new, “Anglican” identity. The other Benedictine influence is on our pattern of worship. Thomas Cranmer took the daily monastic offices of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline and turned them into our two daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, Matins and Evensong. In recent years, our Church has put Midday Prayer and Compline back again, and for our opening prayers at our Vestry meetings we are currently using Daily Prayer for All Seasons, a modern reworking of the eight Benedictine monastic offices. So yes, Benedictine spirituality and practice really is part of our Anglican DNA.
This week was also Saint Benedict’s feast day. It is his rule, his book of precepts written in the 6th century, that forms the basis for what we call Benedictine spirituality, and the spirit of St. Benedict's Rule is summed up in the traditional motto ora et labora, pray and work. Prayer and work were for him inseparable, one was not possible without the other. “And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,” he wrote in the prologue to the rule. A monastery was to be a “school for the service of the Lord,” and the pattern of work and reading; prayer and worship established by the rule was what would help the monks, and all others who use this structure, to learn and grow into that service.
Benedict’s Rule refers to the regular, structured daily worship as the “Work of God” or Opus Dei in Latin – which is not just a conservative, semi-secret catholic society! The purpose of the worship was, and still is, to “bring our tribute of praise to our Creator and to glorify him.” Benedict was careful not to restrict God’s presence to churches and chapels – “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that "the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place" (Prov. 15:3). But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God.”
But, while it looks as if Benedict agrees with Jesus, and he should, that Mary’s choice of listening to our Savior is the “better part, which will not be taken away from her,” he still places a high value on daily work, which in the 6th century was mostly daily manual labor. Just as prayer was work, so work could be an opportunity for prayer and study. According to Rule 48, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, all should be occupied at certain times in manual labor, and again at fixed hours in sacred reading. ….. Let all things be done with moderation, however, for the sake of the faint-hearted.”
Now one thing I have never seen here at St. Augustine’s is idleness, on the contrary. We are busy, and I believe we are mostly busy with God’s work. But we live in times where we are susceptible to multiple distractions. There is always a task to be done, and we – I – are in danger of multi-tasking our way from fully experiencing anything were doing. Being busy does not necessarily make us more successful; but too often our accomplishments and self -worth are measured by how busy we are. That goes for churches too – when the number of programs, ministries, and forums become a measure of success.
Now I am not arguing for only offering one Sunday service a week, and nothing more. I am not letting the hospitality, Sunday school, outreach or formation teams off the hook. Everything you do is God’s work too. But I am arguing – using St. Benedict’s words – for “doing all things with moderation,” for balance. And I think that is the point Jesus is making to Martha too. The issue is not that she is working – probably by providing Jesus, his disciples, and her sister with food and drink as a good host – but that she is worried and distracted by the many things she is doing, she has lost sight of their purpose. She is so annoyed in fact that we can see a very early attempt at triangulation, when she complains to Jesus about her sister: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus avoids that trap as elegantly as he avoids the traps that Pharisees, Scribes and lawyers set him. Martha, he says “there is need of only one thing.”
The Gospel reading invites us to stop being busy long enough to be present with ourselves and with God. The passage also invites us to recall or notice where we seek and find God in our lives and in our work. I try to take a time out now and again to focus. Just two weekends ago I went to a nearby retreat center –Franciscan, not Benedictine - for a day retreat, mostly spent in silence. You don’t have to go to a religious house to do this. You can use your summer vacation, as a Sabbath time, as an opportunity to come closer to God.
Benedict’s rule and Jesus’ lesson for Martha are all about balance and purpose. About ensuring that we do not lose sight of who we work for or why we pray, about ensuring that we have the energy, focus, and the power we need for all of God’s work: ora et labora, prayer and action, worship and service for one reason and purpose only, to the glory of God.