It's hard to imagine how sitting still can change anything-how staying put can make a difference. Yet sometimes it does. Think of Rosa Parks sitting still in the front of the bus or the young man in Tiananmen Square staying put before so many tanks. We'll never forget them-they made a difference.
Long ago, another person chose to sit still, a choice also with radical implications. While Martha chose to prepare the meal, Mary chose to sit still, to listen to Jesus. To us, Mary's choice may not seem so surprising, so radical; we might even think she was lazy. But, you see, Mary was sitting in the position of a disciple, at the feet of her rabbi, and in the first century that position was reserved only for men. Indeed, in the early first century, women weren't allowed to study the Scriptures; they were forbidden from having public discussions with men. One first-century religious leader wrote, "Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman." Yet, here, Jesus affirmed Mary's choice to sit still, to listen as a disciple, to converse with a rabbi, to learn God's Word.
Later, in another of Luke's writings in the 6th chapter of the Book of Acts, the Christian community will designate two choices of ministry, literally, two types of serving: those who are servants at the table-deacons like Stephen-and those who are servants of the Word-apostles like Peter. Some scholars believe that this text from Luke's Gospel is a vivid affirmation that both choices must be open to women. Indeed, many believe that this was the nature of the earliest church-the discipleship of equals-as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza called it. Jesus affirms Mary's choice as a servant of the Word and declares that what she has chosen will not be taken away from her.
And though Mary's descendants throughout church history haven't always had the choice of learning Scripture and theology, they have continued to witness to the faith. Today, in our world many seminaries have significant numbers of women students, and churches are blessed with women's preaching.
Yes, by sitting still at the feet of Jesus, Mary was making a radical statement. She sat in the position of a disciple, even a partner in the Gospel, and Jesus affirmed her. Yes, by sitting still, Mary also made a radical statement regarding the shape of the Christian life. She calls us to join her, to sit still at times, to listen to God's Word. And, sometimes, whether we're male or female, sitting still is a very radical thing to do. In a culture that rewards workaholics, it's hard to do anything that doesn't produce something. And more often when we're asked the question, "How are you?" we answer with "Busy" than with "Fine" or "Great." We compare our lives by how busy we are. In our culture, it's productivity that's praised, not sitting quietly. In what some have called a hyperactive society, we are compelled always to keep moving, to make ourselves productive, useful. "Don't just sit there, do something!"
Well, Mary chooses instead to sit there, to be still in the presence of Christ, and her choice challenges us to think about our lives. How important is it for us to sit still in the presence of Christ? How often do we take time to sit in worship, to sit in daily prayer, to sit attentively before the Word of God. It's as if Mary is turning the saying on its head, "Don't just do something, sit there!" Oh, to be sure, there's much to be done in our world. The parable of the Good Samaritan appearing immediately prior to this text is Luke's most vivid reminder of how much there is to do. Yet, the story of Mary and Martha is a wonderful balance. It reminds us of the importance of sitting, of listening. Otherwise, our doing becomes a sort of empty activism, and our congregations risk becoming simple social service centers, detached from the Gospel which called them into being.
Some years ago, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas related a story in Christian Century which speaks to this. In a way, the pastor assumes the role of Martha, and Gladys, a member of the education committee, assumes the role of Mary. The pastor, new to the congregation, suggests that the church open a daycare center, and when the education committee considers the proposal, Gladys interrupts, "Why is the church in a daycare business? How would this be a part of the ministry of our church?" Well, the young pastor patiently went over the reasons. "It was a good use of the building. It would attract young families. It was another source of income." And then another committee member chimed in, "Besides, Gladys, you know, that it's getting harder every day to put food on the table. Both husband and wife must have full-time jobs." But Gladys said, "That's not true. You know it's not true. It's not hard for anyone in this church, for anyone in this neighborhood, to put food on the table. There are people, yes, in this town, for whom putting food on the table is quite a challenge. But I haven't heard us talk about them. If we're talking about ministry to them, then I'm in favor of the idea. No, what I think we're talking about is ministry to those for whom it has become harder everyday to have two cars, a VCR, a place at the lake, or a motor home. I just hate to see the church telling these young couples that somehow their marriage will be better, their family life more fulfilling if they could only get some other piece of junk. The church ought to be courageous enough to say, 'That is a lie. Things don't make a marriage or a family.'"
Yes, dear friends, we're called to serve others, to show the love of Christ to everyone, especially the poor and the lonely; yet we also need to take time to listen, to discern how God might be leading us to help one another. Gladys helped her congregation to begin that hard work of listening, of interpreting God's Word and God's direction. She didn't tell them exactly what to do, and we can't tell them either. Yet, she gave an invitation to listen first, to struggle to what God's Word might be saying in that particular context, to interpret God's Word for this time and place so that the work we choose to do might reflect our sense of where God is leading us.
Oh, yes, we want to do things to serve our neighbor. That is our calling as people of God. Yet without time for listening, for sitting still in the presence of Christ, we may miss the mark in the work we're called to do.
Further, dear friends, when we take time to listen, we recognize anew that God is God and we are not. When we take time to listen, we realize we don't have to do it all ourselves. We don't have to take ourselves so seriously. We don't need to fret and stew and worry God's love into existence. Oh, we won't find ourselves just sitting still all day. Taking time to listen will not change our call to be active in love, but it will change our attitude and our perspective. We will still work to love and care for others, but not with that same old frantic outlook. We can let go of the anxious questions: What if I can't do enough? What if I fail? What if I'm not perfect? Well, we're not perfect. None of us is. Only God is perfect, and it is God who is perfectly and mysteriously and powerfully at work in us and in the world. We need to sit still to be reminded of that and to bask in that word.
That's one of the reasons I'm such an advocate for weekly worship, for daily prayer, for small group Bible study. We need those disciplines which help us to sit still, to take time to listen to God's Word and to bask in God's love.
Oh, dear friends, we need the example of Mary, calling us this day to sit and listen. And we need the welcome of Jesus, for as radical as was Mary's choice to sit and listen as a disciple, just as radical was Jesus' choice to welcome and affirm. It was rare for a rabbi to welcome a woman disciple. Still, in the midst of all sorts of pressure not to do so, somehow, Mary felt welcome by Jesus. Even today, you and I encounter pressure, forces that make us feel unwelcome, maybe guilt gets in the way, perhaps we haven't taken much time lately to listen to God, or we haven't cracked open our Bible, haven't closed our eyes to pray. Our guilt says, "Why do you deserve to sit at the feet of Jesus?"
Or maybe we feel the pressure of doubt-we're not sure if anyone will be there when we finally sit down. There are lots of pressures which keep us from sitting down and taking time for prayer. But when that happens, we need to recall this picture of Mary, this picture of Jesus. In spite of so many pressures not to do this, Mary felt welcome to sit as a disciple.
Hold that picture in your mind and remember when you sit down, a dear friend is waiting for you, a loving welcome awaits you. And don't worry, you won't stay sitting for long. In the presence of Christ, our senses are reawakened to the world and all of its needs. We see with the eyes of that Good Samaritan and go in the presence and strength of Christ to love our neighbor.
On this day we give thanks to Mary for this radical reminder to sit for awhile, to listen, to bask in the presence of Christ. And on this day we give thanks and praise to God for the wonderful welcome which always awaits us when we do. Amen.