“Action and Contemplation” Colchester Federated Church, July 21, 2019 (Luke 10:38-42) Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
A Christian theologian I greatly admire is Fr. Richard Rohr—a Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, author, and founder of The Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard and his colleagues seek to help people be compassionate and educated in the Christian tradition while working for positive change in the world. Working for that positive change is based on the awareness of our union with God. Sometimes we might think of people who are devout Christians or even specifically part of religious orders as quite cloistered and hiding themselves away from the world. I’ve been to monasteries where people observe periods of silence throughout the day or even days of silence where they are hidden away from the world in prayer. The center of their lives is contemplation. Other times there are folks who are devout Christians and/or part of religious orders who are out in the streets feeding people, setting up shelters, lobbying our government for social justice causes, or protesting any number of issues that Christians care about. The center of their lives is action.
Why Fr. Richard’s way of living out his faith makes so much sense is because he doesn’t see action and contemplation as an either/or scenario. They don’t have to be opposites. For him, living out his faith is about both action and contemplation. Which is why Fr. Richard founded his Center in New Mexico and intentionally named it The Center for Action and Contemplation. Here’s how their history is described, “We believed that action and contemplation, once thought of as mutually exclusive, must be brought together or neither one would make sense. We wanted to be radical in both senses of the word, simultaneously rooted in tradition and boldly experimental. One of the expressions of the radical nature of our work was our extensive inclusivity, bridging gaps within the spiritual and justice communities, building a rhythm of contemplative prayer and Zen meditation into our days, and even more fundamentally, believing that external behavior should be connected to and supported by inner guidance. We believed . . . that the power to be truly radical comes from trusting entirely in God’s grace and that such trust is the most radical action possible.”
Keep this in mind—our external behavior can be connected to and supported by inner guidance. How we think, talk, and behave out in the world can be connected to who we truly are inside. It’s good to keep in mind this connection between action and contemplation when we hear the story of Mary and Martha in our text from Luke’s Gospel today. At the outset it seems that contemplation wins. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and Luke tells us right away that Martha has a sister named Mary. Mary immediately sits at the feet of Jesus and listens intently to what he’s saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks. We can imagine her preparing a meal, making sure all the clutter that may have been in the house has been put away (since an important guest was over), setting the table—we know how it goes. And the whole time Mary’s just sitting there with Jesus listening and learning, taking in everything he’s saying, spending quality time with him.
Meanwhile, Martha is getting more and more upset. Who knows. Banging pots and pans. Putting down plates a little too hard to see if Mary realizes what is happening here, and comes to help. But no. (As an aside, I have a feeling that Martha is the bossy older sister and Mary is the younger angelic sister, just saying.) Has anyone ever rage cleaned? Cleaning up the house when you’re angry, yelling that you’re not going to pick up everyone’s stuff (as you go around the house picking up everyone’s stuff)?
No matter what Martha does, Mary is not getting the hint. So she comes into the room where Jesus is sitting with her sister Mary at his feet and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Let’s notice a few things here. Martha is calling out Jesus for not shaming Mary into helping her. Talk about being a little passive aggressive and triangulating Jesus. She has an issue with her sister Mary. Yet she wants Jesus to be the one to call her out as opposed to Martha just having a direct conversation with Mary. “Hey, Mary, I’m doing all the work right now to be a good host. Can you help me out, please?” That’s not how the story goes, and so we see that unhealthy communication is going on to say the least.
Martha also refers to herself three times. My sister has left ME to do all the work by MYSELF. Tell her then to help ME. Me, me, me. Martha is so focused on herself. On her wants and needs. That inward focus is helping to build up the resentment inside her. Because right now it’s all about her and her anger toward her sister. She’s not getting outside of herself to see the perspectives of anyone else. And this is the kind of attitude that can lead to really unhealthy people and institutions—when we’re so inward focused and not paying attention to the people with whom we share our lives. It can’t ever be just about our needs. Though it’s understandable because we can imagine that Martha has been in this position before and that’s not helping her to be a very gracious host right now who can focus on her guest, even when that guest is Jesus.
But Jesus knows Martha’s heart. Jesus knows that she’s clearly frustrated. He sees her and understands the internal dialogue that must be churning inside. Jesus responds with, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”
The easy way (or even common way) to interpret this story is that contemplation is better than action. Mary has chosen the better part. End of story. We all need to sit at Jesus’ feet and quietly contemplate. No room for debate here.
This passage has even been used by some to argue against women in ministry. Jesus lifts up Mary who quietly and demurely sits at the man’s feet learning. Not Martha who is a little bossy and too action-oriented. Martha is about service when a woman’s place should be more passive, sitting serenely by Jesus with our full attention on what the man has to say. Gross. But that’s how some folks interpret this passage. Women, know your roles and all that malarkey.
Here’s the thing, we translate what Jesus says into English as Mary has chosen “the better part” whereas Professor James Wallace shares that in Greek that word is actually translated as “good.” Therefore verse 42 should probably read, “Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.” We can understand this as Mary choosing the connection to God. The point is that Mary is connecting with Jesus in this moment and Martha is too distracted to connect with him. Mary is at his feet, listening and learning. While Martha is busy getting everything ready for her guest. But her heart’s not in the right place as she’s doing it. Which is why Jesus says to Martha that you’re worried and distracted by many things. He doesn’t tell her that she can’t be a good host and possibly prepare a meal for him. How is Jesus going to eat otherwise? Somebody had to do some tasks since no one could eat or have a place to sleep or whatever if those tasks weren’t accomplished. And hospitality was huge in their culture. So Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for doing the things that made someone a good host. He gently points out that she’s worried and distracted and being a resentful host because she’s mad at her sister. And how could anyone not feel that?
It’s like when someone prepares a meal for you and you can just feel their love in the food. Maybe they’ve used a secret family recipe. Maybe they ordered out or you’re dining at one of their favorite restaurants and they want to share a special meal. Maybe they cooked outside their comfort zone to accommodate food allergies or diet restrictions or just personal preferences. Whatever the case may be, we can feel when someone has put their heart and soul into providing for us as a guest. And we can sometimes feel when somebody hasn’t or they’re too stressed out to focus on the person right in front of them.
And who is more perceptive than Jesus must have been? He knows that Martha was in their stewing in anger as she was going about her tasks. It’s not that she was doing her tasks that was such a horrible issue. It’s that she was mad and frustrated when all Jesus wanted was to spend time with Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus (who ironically isn’t even mentioned here.) In fact, Luke says that Martha welcomed Jesus into “her home.” Martha appears to be the head of the household, quite unusual indeed.
So the story of Mary and Martha isn’t about action vs. contemplation and contemplation wins. Fr. Richard Rohr is right—we need both action and contemplation in order to be whole and healthy people in this world. And it’s not about women needing to be contemplative (and never action oriented) to not be in leadership roles. It’s a story about how we connect to God, and a gentle reminder to not let distractions weigh us down and make us resentful of those we love. Because people connect to God through action and contemplation. Perhaps we all need both anyway. And the point is that we can live lives centered in God’s grace and gratitude, for every single day that is a gift from God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 “History,” Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org/about-cac/history/
 Luke 10:40, NRSV.
 Luke 10:41-42.
 James A. Wallace, C.SS.R., Homiletical Perspective of Luke 10:38-42 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, 265.