Called to Contemplation and Action
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 21, 2019
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 46; Romans 8; Luke 10:38-42
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”
Before I preach this sermon, I need to know how many here today have been worried about or distracted by anything lately, maybe relationships, money, your to-do list, the climate crisis, refugees, racism, bigotry, the White House and Congress, aging, death, the Red Sox, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your grandparents, the church, the town, did you leave a burner on, what’s for lunch?
Have you been the slightest bit worried or distracted?
Me, too. I confess that I have spent the majority of the past nine months rattling pots and pans in the kitchen, working hard, getting very little sleep, taking almost no days off—worried and distracted by many things as if I were Martha hearing that Jesus and his followers were coming for dinner.
We need to accept this as natural and have compassion for it. Of course, Martha got stressed out and worked hard to put on a good meal—it was for Jesus, for heaven’s sake!
I recognize that my overwork in the past nine months was justified, too. Imagine loving the hills and valleys, woods and fields of Strafford, loving my family and this congregation, loving the tiny red efts in the path and the bear that I caught on top of my compost bin yesterday, loving the mock orange and old fashioned rose and lilac bushes I am trying to transplant from a farmhouse whose history I love, loving the state of Vermont, loving the democratic, egalitarian ideals of the United States of America, loving the teachings and life and church of Jesus and the poetry of the Psalms and music of Bach—imagine loving these things and then one day being told that we have only twelve years to save them all from possible extinction.
It is understandable that I have been a bit Martha-ish, that I have been a bit freaked out and driving myself as hard as my heart, mind, soul and body could go since the day in October when the IPCC climate report came out.
Nor can I honestly say that I regret what I have done. I have been so grateful to have this kitchen to cook in, to have some pots to rattle, to have something I could keep over-busy doing as every week the government of my own beloved country has launched a new assault on the Golden Rule and the love of neighbor, on the poor and vulnerable and struggling and oppressed people and creatures of the world. I am so grateful to have some work to do in the spirit of Martha.
And yet I know it is not the best. It is not what Jesus called “the better part.” It is not sustainable, it is not healthy for me or you or the earth, it is not working with the Holy Spirt, and in fact it is doing violence to all that, as well intentioned as I may be. The 20th Century contemplative spiritual master, the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, explained,
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist… most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by the multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence… It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
This is what Paul is talking about when he says, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Martha was setting her mind on the things of the flesh, the material tasks at hand, and she got resentful and agitated and angry and finally blew up at Jesus and Mary. The violence inside her that Thomas Merton described built up until it exploded at others. It was deadly to the kind of life and peace that Mary was filling with from Jesus.
Imagine if Martha had set her mind on the Spirit, too. Imagine if she had sat for a half hour at Jesus’ feet, her heart wide open taking in his loving presence and his teachings, and then she had gotten up to make the meal, feeling full of the Spirit. What would have happened?
I think I know. I have been teaching contemplative practices in churches for almost twenty-five years now. So many times I have heard people talk about how differently they approach life’s challenges because of centering prayer or heartfulness or welcoming practice. A father of wild teenage boys changes from being driven to anxious distraction and anger like Martha to a peace that surpasses understanding, a root of inner wisdom that intuits how to manage parental situations that in the past would have exploded.
Teachers, spouses, employees, bosses, town officers, referees, I have heard stories from them all. I have seen people on their deathbed shining a beautiful light, comforting and inspiring those around them. If we could watch a video of all the moments transformed by contemplative practice we would be astounded by the difference it has made in the world, we would see how the realm of God is made real on earth by the cumulative effect of those millions of moments.
Jesus knew this. Jesus was so attuned to the workings of the universe that he was called the son of its Creator. No human had ever been so full of the Spirit of love and life and light. Jesus spoke on behalf of that force, he spoke on behalf of this beautiful blue jewel spinning in space trillions of miles from anything like it, where the universe has evolved a living web of infinite complexity and beauty. Jesus knew what it would take to protect all this from being destroyed by human greed and ambition and carelessness, what it would take to protect vulnerable people and creatures from the raging, rattling violence of Martha.
It would take people choosing the better part, choosing the things of the Spirit, listening to it, living by it. The reason why this spiritual, contemplative approach to life is all important is that only by being full of the Spirit as Jesus was, only by having the heart and mind of Christ in us can we fully grasp the oneness of all creation. Loving our neighbor as our self does not make sense until we see as Jesus did that our neighbor truly is our self, that we are all manifestations of the one life of God appearing in myriad forms.
The contemplation of Mary at the feet of Jesus will lead her to have his heart filling her heart, her consciousness lifted to his level of consciousness. This is the spiritual awakening that the earth needs humanity to undergo, because Mary was not going to sit there forever. We see her passionately engaged with the world in other Gospel passages, weeping at her brother’s tomb, pouring precious oil on Jesus’ head in love and gratitude. Imagine Mary getting up and working in the kitchen alongside Martha, with love and kindness flowing through her.
Contemplation is good in itself—every moment spent putting peaceful energy into the world is good—but contemplation also leads to action, action that is transformed by seeing the oneness of all creation and the presence of God in all things, action that has at its core a peace that no amount of pan rattling can shatter.
The clock is ticking on our chance to save human civilization, and new outrages are happening every week. Worries and distractions, losses and wounds, illness and death, all kinds of struggles will come as long as we live. Life demands that we rise and act, but the survival of the species depends on our rising like Mary.
Of course, we will not always succeed, we will fall into our Martha moments. We will feel we cannot take the time to pray, we cannot slow down to breathe and open to the Spirit, but we can learn with practice to increase the number of moments every day when we free ourselves from worry and distraction and set our mind on the things of the Spirit and let it guide and empower us. We can practice mindfulness or heartfulness, meditation or centering prayer, countless ways of sitting at Jesus’ feet, whether in nature or doing needle work or driving to town. Every transformed moment counts, we need every moment of peace and love, because with enough of them, we can reach the tipping point and transform the world.
So thank you for all your Mary moments. I will try to be more of a Mary myself in the months ahead, not just listening to the Spirit but doing what it asks even if that means rattling fewer pans. Wish me luck and grace!
Let us pray together in silence imagining that we are at Jesus’ feet now …