Revd Canon Leanne Roberts - Canon Treasurer
I have to confess to some ambivalence when I realized that the Gospel passage set for today is Luke’s recounting of the dinner in Bethany, when Jesus and his friends come to the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus
On the one hand, I have the opportunity to reflect afresh on these two remarkable women – sisters, disciples, friends of our Lord who, with their brother, are the only people mentioned by name in the Gospels as being loved by Jesus.
On the other, I have always felt uncomfortable with the common interpretation of this short passage, which goes something like this: Martha is harried and preoccupied with trivial domesticity; Mary sits at the feet of Jesus instead, close and attentive; Jesus tells Martha to stop complaining and be more like her sister.
How often have we heard something like this is our own lives? ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?’ ‘Look how well Susan behaves/how hard Fred works/how holy Freda appears…’ These comments stick. We take them into ourselves, they make us feel inadequate, lazy, stupid… diminished.
And we carry these comparisons, often made in childhood, throughout our lives. Sometimes they make us give up – ‘if I can’t be as good at this as so-and-so, I won’t bother with it at all’ – and sometimes they drive us to single-minded effort – ‘I will not rest until I prove to mother/father/teacher/colleague that I am good, I am diligent, I am better than you think’.
In this sense, our Gospel – as it tends to do – speaks to the very heart of what it is to be human. But unless we think carefully about it, and see it in its proper context, it can also wrongly affirm our negative experiences and chip away at our self-worth.
Worst of all, it blinds us to the truth at the centre of our faith, which is that we are loved, cherished, accepted, rejoiced in – wholly and eternally – by the one who created us and gave us life and showed us how best to live for God, neighbour, and self.
I was thinking about this in light of this being my last sermon as a Residentiary Canon here at Southwark, a place and a community I love, and for which I give thanks every day.
The downside of working in such a place is that it can be easy to compare oneself negatively with those around me: what a priest I could be, I think, if only I had Andrew’s easy aplomb, Michael’s gentle wisdom, Andrew’s steadfast efficiency, Wendy’s quick-minded experience, Jay’s generous kindness, Thomas’s energetic enthusiasm … and that’s before I start on you, the remarkably talented, faithful people who are the backbone of this Cathedral. What a priest I could be if only I were more like those around me!
But I am the person, the priest that I am. The one God created me to be. With all my foibles, gifts, and all the rest which most of you know only too well. Comparisons can be dangerous and dispiriting. They are always misleading.
And whether we compare ourselves negatively or favourably to others, it can only diminish us, and distract us from the true business of living.
So what do we do with this element of this morning’s Gospel passage? How do we reflect upon Luke’s words, that Jesus says that ‘Mary has chosen the better part’? As always, when considering Scripture, context is key. Remember, we encounter Mary and Martha in the Gospel of John, too. Here, we see a different side to Martha – or perhaps are just allowed to see her more fully, closer to Jesus’s experience of his friend. Lazarus has died, and despite their sending for Jesus some time previously, he has only just arrived.
Martha goes to meet him and, although it’s not explicit in the text, in my imagination she has the kind of anger that commonly comes with grief and loss. ‘Where were you?’, she demands. ‘What took you so long? If you’d come when we asked – we, your trusted and loyal friends – you could have done something. You could have made it right. And now he’s dead. Where were you?’
Martha’s demands, and Mary’s crying, and the loss of his friend Lazarus, make Jesus weep.
And yet it is in this encounter that we see beyond a shadow of a doubt what Luke’s version does not make clear: that Martha, for all her busyness, knows exactly who and what Jesus is: ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ This immediately calls to mind Peter’s declaration in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’.
And so, Martha stands uniquely with Peter in this regard.
The difference is that we built a church on Peter. But Martha? Martha is castigated; she stands for all that is dreary, distracted, and domesticated. And her devoted sister, Mary, often represents another aspect of negative femininity: hysterical, over-emotional, recklessly feeling-full.
Both Martha and Mary push the boundaries, subvert cultural conventions, say and do what is normally the property of men. And we get the sense that Jesus does not only allow this, but delights in it, such that he defends and responds in a way that would have been inconceivable to those around him. For Jesus, women were not to be kept in their ‘proper’ place, subservient, invisible, controlled. And yet these arbitrary separations, lauded by ‘the world’, are still adhered to today, regardless of how we like to think that we have ‘progressed’ in terms of parity and inclusion.
Despite the clarity in the Gospels, we still act as if Mary should not, really, sit at the feet of Jesus, and Martha should not make demands; we still grapple with the idea – and the outworking – of women in positions of power and responsibility and equality, whether in business, or politics, or behind the altar. We, collectively, remain distracted by many things, and fail to prioritise the teaching and example of our Lord.
The ’better part’ of which Jesus speaks is, I believe, to keep our focus on him. In doing so, we can rest in the truth that we are wholly known, never compared favourably or otherwise to those around us, but valued in our entirety as those called to make known, as Paul writes to the Colossians, ‘the riches of the glory of this mystery’. In doing so, the busyness of living is transformed from anxious striving to purposeful focus; from being exhausted and overwhelmed to being sustained and refreshed by divine mercy and acceptance and grace.
This is both individual and collective, speaking to each of us in our unique situations but also as a community here in the Cathedral. Our struggles and our joys, our flaws and our talents, our meanness and our generosity are all held together, worked out, transformed through the love of Jesus into a reflection of his glory.
This is an extraordinary community, and will continue to be so if we support one another, gently pointing towards Jesus Christ, bearing one another’s burdens and learning to love bigger and better.
Thank you for the richness you have given me over the past 11 years. My time here has taught me, chastised me, affirmed me, changed me, and brought me closer to the one who is the source of life itself. For this, for you, I will always be profoundly grateful.
So let us pray, together, for the courage and clarity to choose the better part; let us recognize, with those women and men throughout the ages the One who redeems and saves;
let us, moment by moment, turn our gaze towards Jesus and give him first place in everything; let us come to the altar, hold him in our hands, and allow him to send us out with thankfulness and joy for all we receive in the one in whom all things hold together.
Let us continue – inclusive, faithful, radical – as a beacon of that hope of glory to which all people are called.
Thanks be to you.
Thanks be to God.