“The Better Part”

PENTECOST 9C – 17th July, 2016 – St Barnabas’, Carlisle-Rivervale & All Saints’, Belmont

+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Households do not run themselves, Mma Ramotswe had often observed: there is shopping, [cooking,] cleaning, repairing and organising to do – and all of these, for some reason, seemed to be the responsibility of women, or almost always.
“She thought that only one of these functions could not be descried as a chore. No matter how much one tried to take a positive view of cleaning – no matter how frequently one told oneself that sweeping and dusting had their moments, it was difficult to see the whole business as anything but a use of time that could be more profitably and enjoyably spent doing something more satisfying. Even organising, which sounded as if it could be interesting, was really all about telling other members of the household what to do, checking up to see that they had done it, and asking them to do it when it transpired – as it usually did – that they had not got round to doing it yet. No, shopping was the sole item in the positive column of those household accounts.”
– Alexander McCall Smith, The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, p 294
I suspect I hear Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts echoed by most of the female portion of this morning’s congregation  And even more, I know I’m hearing a similar “vibe” from Martha in this morning’s Gospel reading.
Jesus has come to visit Bethany, a few kilometres outside Jerusalem; and he and his disciples are enjoying a bit of R&R in the home of Martha and Mary – and presumably of Lazarus, whom we only encounter in John’s Gospel. All very well for the blokes; but not a lot of fun for Martha, who suddenly needs to serve lunch to a minimum of sixteen people. It’ll take a bit more than another cup of water in the soup to provide enough for them all. She’s probably had to race off to the shops for extra provisions – such a hurry making even the one normally positive household task unpleasant.
And as she rushes around getting the meal ready, Martha – undoubtedly the elder child! – realises that she’s getting no help from her “useless” sister, Mary. Looking around, she finds Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word, completely oblivious to Martha’s frantic activity.
Martha can only stand it for so long, trying to get Mary’s attention by waving her hands and raising her eyebrows to heaven, before she explodes. And it’s not Mary to whom she protests – it’s Jesus himself. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
Just saying it probably feels a little better. But Jesus is no use toher at all at this moment.
Can you imagine her reaction to Jesus’ “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 away from her.”
It’s all right for you and your lazy bunch of male followers, Jesus! But I’m sure you’ll be expecting a meal any minute now. And hospitality is what it’s all about. The food won’t cook itself; and I’ll bet you blokes won’t all offer a hand with the dishes afterwards, either! And, anyway, we’re always being told that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. So why isn’t Mary helping. You tell her, Lord!
It’s probably just as well St Luke doesn’t tell us Martha’s actual response: it would probably have to be censored and carry the warning: “Strong Language”!

Undoubtedly, there must be times of busyness. Meals don’t cook themselves; dishes are not self-washing; nor floors self-sweeping (unless you’ve got one of those “robot vacuum cleaners”). Housework has to be done. Not to mention that income has generally to be earned by hard work. We can’t all be filthy rich and waited on hand and foot by a vast army of servants while we spend all our time praying, meditating and “sitting at Jesus’ feet”.
Perhaps the trouble is that Jesus is – as usual! – right!

I am grateful for times of withdrawal and retreat, as I had a few weeks ago at New Norcia. And I try hard to make time for regular prayer and Scripture reading and reflection – as must we all if we are to live and grow as Christians. But I, too, have work to do; a living to make; and chores to do. I’m grateful that KT does a lot around the house which makes my work and ministry possible. But I’m also keen to ensure that she has plenty of time to grow in her own faith. She has the privilege, for instance, of listening to me preach!
Each of us has to work to find our own balance of work and leisure; of busyness and rest; of ministry and of worship, prayer and reflection.
I believe the Rule of St Benedict – that by which the monks of New Norcia live – divides every day into three: prayer, work and rest. And that balance is one which most of us find hard to maintain. Yet, if we are to “choose the better part”, we will need to make real effort to – much as I hate the word – “prioritise” times of rest and refreshment.
Many of my clergy friends – and I probably should include myself here – find it hard to commit to taking time out for annual leave. A few years ago, when the Diocesan Secretary wrote to all the clergy encouraging them to use up their accumulated leave, the very first letter he signed was to the Archbishop!
Like Martha, we often feel ourselves to be too “important”, too “indispensable”, to be away from the parish. Thirty-three years, including a couple of doses of Long Service leave, many weeks of annual leave and a couple of significant bouts of sick leave have taught me that no parish has ever collapsed due to my absence. Much as that can be a blow to my pride.
And I have found that when I spend more time “sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he is saying”, my “work” is more balanced and more effective. I suspect that listening to Jesus helps me better to listen to people and to pray for and with people.
In the twenty-first century, life is probably not really any busier than it was in the first. It wasn’t easy then; nor is it now. But I suspect we live with more distractions. We have many more “labour-saving devices”, and – theoretically – more leisure. But I’m not really convinced about our having “more time”.
In the reading from the prophet Amos this morning, we heard of traders desperate for the end of the Sabbath:
“When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?
Our society has all but done away with the Sabbath – be that Saturday, Sunday or whatever. Seven-day trading, twenty-four-hour trading, sporting events most evenings and all weekend: and the challenges of maintaining family life have become much harder.

I’m not advocating a return to the sad days of “the Lord’s Day Observance Society”, or the deadly dull and boring Sundays of my childhood. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.”
We simply need times of rest, relaxation, refreshment and retreat. We need, while having to deal with the “many tasks” of Martha, to take the time – to give ourselves the gift of time – with Jesus, to seek the balance which includes and even favours “the better part”.
I finish with a couple of verses from a somewhat dated, perhaps slightly too pious, hymn I learned in my childhood:
Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.

Choose “the better part”!
The Lord be with you!

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