It’s a familiar story, isn’t it, this story of the two sisters, Martha and Mary, and their dinner guest, Jesus. Martha, the anxious host, wants to make sure everything is “just so” for their honored guest. We’re even told that she’s “distracted.” And then she sees her sister, Mary, who is not only not helping out, but instead sitting at Jesus’s feet, basking in his presence, soaking up his wisdom. So she gets a little “peevish” as we say in the South. Noticing this, Jesus invites her out of her anxiety and distraction by calling her to join her sister in this contemplative space, to lay down her anxiety and distraction and find rest and healing and comfort in the presence of God. I don’t think Jesus is criticizing Martha. She’s doing necessary work in the service of the Kingdom, after all. I think instead, Jesus, in a very loving way, is reminding her that full life in the Kingdom invites us to be fully present to the beauty and wisdom of the Kingdom which is embodied in the person of Jesus. Full life in the Kingdom invites us to active engagement and service to others and to prayerful contemplation of how God is calling us to serve.
At least that’s how I’ve always looked at the story. A story about the active and the contemplative, both of which are necessary for a rich and full life in the Kingdom of God. But I want to share another thought about this story that’s occurred to me this week. It’s occurred to me that this story is also about the kinds of service that we’re called to offer. And it also tells us something about Jesus that we don’t often consider, and that is that Jesus had needs. Jesus had real human needs.
We too often imagine Jesus as an other-worldly character, floating above us and beyond us, only appearing to be a flesh and blood human. No needs or desires or longings or fears, no hunger or thirst, no need of friendships or relationships. No real human feelings or emotions. It’s an image of Jesus that many of us grew up with and it’s an image that many Christians today still hold. But you know what? That picture of Jesus is actually an ancient heresy, a heresy called Docetism. Here’s your 25 cent word of the day. Docetism. It’s the belief that Jesus was not really human at all. Just divine. Just God walking around in a human suit. The paradox of Jesus as fully human and fully divine is too much to wrap our minds around, even though every time we say the Nicene Creed, we affirm that very paradox. But make no mistake. The picture we get of Jesus in the gospels is of a fully formed human being. A man who sat at table to eat bread and drink wine. A man whose heart was filled with compassion for the suffering and the poor. A man whose heart would be moved by grief as when he wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. A man whose heart was so moved to anger at the commercialization of the Temple that he threw over the tables of the merchants doing business there. A man who treasured friends, like Martha and Mary and Lazarus and Peter and John, the beloved disciple. Jesus needed these friends, you see. Jesus was also a man who needed to be alone, as we’re told he often went away by himself to pray before coming back to face the crowds. He was a man who experienced fear as when we’re told that in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, he prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Recall, too, that he longed for companionship in the midst of this crisis. He asked his friends to sit with him through the long night. To listen with him. But you’ll also recall that they couldn’t do it. I imagine his disappointment and his feeling of abandonment. And of course, just hours later, as he hangs on the cross, he cries to Heaven, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Can’t we identify with all of these deeply human emotions! So, yes, the gospels give us a picture of a fully formed human being. And, at the same time, of one whose divine nature was constantly unfolding and being revealed. I hope I’m making the case that there’s no room in our understanding of the fullness of Jesus of Nazareth and the fullness of Jesus the Christ, for the heresy of Docetism.
So now let’s get back to our story. Thinking of the real human Jesus, I want to look at this story from another angle, and to do that I want to step back for a minute and talk about another human need, a human need we all share. The need to be heard. But what does that really mean? I think it’s the need to be really and truly listened to and understood. The need for another human being to truly see us and honor us and value us for who we truly are. Maybe even to honor us and value us in spite of ourselves.
Let me tell you a story. One summer, while I was still in seminary, I served as a chaplain at the Travis County Jail in Austin. The jail was a place for people serving less than a year’s time for relatively minor offenses and also a place of transit for those convicted of more serious offenses who were on their way into the Texas prison system. A big part of the chaplain’s job was to spend time with inmates who asked for a pastoral visit. I was very new at this and so always had a little anxiety at what I would find on these pastoral visits with inmates whose backgrounds and life experiences were so different from mine. So one day I walked into the pastor’s meeting space to find an inmate who, to me at least, looked like he was out of place in jail. A clean cut, well put-together man who, as we began to talk, told me a little about himself. He had an insurance business, a wife and two young children whom he really loved, and a home he owned in a very middle-class part of town. I didn’t know why he was in jail, but just based on what he said about his past, I assumed it was for some minor offense. That thought was seemingly confirmed when he told me he was getting ready to leave the jail. “Congratulations”, I said, a little over-eagerly, “That’s great news. I know you’re looking forward to getting home to your wife and kids.” But as I spoke those words, his face fell, and he looked like I had punched him in the gut. He was leaving jail, all right. But not returning to his comfortable middle-class home. No, he was on his way to Huntsville, TX. Big prison. And he was going to be there for the next 45 years. It turns out this nice looking man was a multiple sex offender. He had been convicted of terrible crimes, crimes that filled him with guilt and shame, crimes for which not only would he be punished, so would his wife and children. His shame would become their shame. And that was completely undeserved for those innocent dear ones. As he told his story, I could see that in my anxiety to cheer him up, my anxiety to be “helpful”, in my failure to truly listen to this anguished human being, I had only deepened his misery. What this human being needed in that moment was to be heard by another human being. Better to have just been still. No judgment. No agenda. Better to make room for the Holy Spirit to be present in the space between us. This man just needed me to listen to him. And at that I had failed.
Talk about a lesson. That day I learned the lesson that sometimes the greatest service we can offer another human being, no matter if they are living in jail or not, no matter what their background or lived experience is, is to simply listen. To be present. To create a space where they can be heard and understood. To create a space where healing and comfort might be found, if only even for a moment. To create a space where the Holy Spirit might be present. Sometimes, you know, the sincerest bit of gratitude we can receive from another person is when they say, “Thank you for listening to me.”
I don’t know what Jesus was saying to Mary that day as she sat with him. I’ve always assumed, and maybe you have too, that he was sharing a bit of wisdom that Mary was raptly attentive to. But what if Jesus was simply talking to Mary as a friend, in the way friends talk to each other. What if Jesus, weary from his busy and stressful work, weary from the intense pressure he was always under from his opponents, weary from the challenges of leading this counter-cultural movement, uncertain, perhaps even filled with doubt, about where this was all headed, what if he was simply looking for some company to rest in? What if Jesus was simply looking for a listening ear and an understanding heart? If that’s the case, you see, both Martha and Mary were meeting Jesus’s needs—Martha meeting his needs for nourishment and sustenance, Martha meeting his physical needs. And Mary meeting Jesus’s very human emotional and spiritual needs. The need to be heard and understood and valued. The need for spiritual friendship if you will. And Mary took herself seriously enough to have the courage to offer that to her Lord.
Today, on this very day and all month, my old friends at St Thomas Church are hosting 35 men in the program called Congregations for the Homeless. They have been doing this every month of July since 1994 when the program was founded. Men experiencing homelessness come into the program and for a month at a time take up residence with the congregation whose turn it is that month to host. At St Thomas, the men are provided with a comfortable place to sleep and relax, shower facilities, and with food to prepare their own breakfasts and lunches as they go out each day to search for work or to go to work at a job until they get back on their feet. The men then return to the church in the evening where a hot, fresh meal prepared by members of the community awaits them. Folks from the parish come to serve the meal and then sit and share the meal with the men, play cards with them, shoot basketball, or help them work on a computer. But mostly this is about listening. About providing a space where a fellow human being who happens to be in great crisis can be heard, can be understood, can be valued as a beloved child of God. It’s a witness of true Christian hospitality. Christians meeting physical needs and spiritual needs just like Martha and Mary.
So that’s my takeaway from this familiar story. Service can be both active and contemplative. And both meet real human needs. Do you have a friend who needs a listening ear? A friend or a loved one or an acquaintance for whom you could make space so they might be heard? Is there a ministry here at Epiphany where you could offer your time to just listen? Listening—real listening—isn’t hard. But it does require us to get our egos out of the way. It requires us not to be distracted by thinking about our response to what we’re hearing but instead to focus on what we’re actually hearing and focus on the dear one who is saying it.
Maybe it’s you who needs a listening ear. Maybe it’s you who needs a Christian friend to make space for you in the midst of a challenging time. Please don’t be shy about asking for what you need. Be brave. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer another person is the opportunity to be of service. The gift of knowing that you trust them enough to ask for their time. You know, we each carry a piece of Martha and a piece of Mary in our hearts. And one of the reasons why each one of us are here today, although we might not consciously put it this way, is that like Martha and Mary, we want to make a hospitable home in our hearts for Jesus. We want to welcome him and serve him just as he welcomes and serves us.