Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
In her memoir, Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas describes passing a ninth-century church in rural France, and hearing nuns chanting songs that had been chanted in that church for centuries. She writes: “if safekeeping has a sound, then surely this was it.” (I kind of felt that way listening to psalms chanted at evensong last night in our chapel.”)
If safekeeping has a space, a gospel image, surely it is the space between Jesus and Mary in today’s gospel. The better part that Mary chooses is holy space, not just literal space but mystical. When Jesus says “Martha, Martha…” I don’t think he is criticizing her for cooking dinner. After all, if someone isn’t doing something in the kitchen, no one eats. I think Jesus chides Martha for crowding out the holy space that Mary engages, a space that should be accessible to all. Martha may do this crowding out by working alone in the kitchen—we may do the same thing with social media, or by trying to keep current on things that don’t matter. (I’m talking, of course, to myself here, but some of you might relate.)
This is one of the best known stories in the gospel. The two sisters are over and over again held up aeconcilable opposites. Jesus holds up Mary, who has chosen the better portion. Mary is a contemplative; Martha a busy bee. Yet without Martha, there would be no Mary. Wherever we place ourselves in the story, we come up lacking. Either we feel deficient because we are not contemplative enough, or because, even if we don’t claim the resentment to which Martha gives voice, we, too, are distracted with many things.
The Mary and Martha story sets forth two types of hospitality: serving and feeding on one hand, and holding space on the other, space for conversation, reflection, study, and contemplation. You might think of churches this way: some congregations might describe themselves as activist; others—like St. Paul’s—draw more heavily from a contemplative tradition. One might be better than the other for you or for me, but if we don’t have both, someone goes hungry, literally or spiritually.
I think there’s another way than this familiar Martha-Mary diochotomy. In today’s first reading, about Abraham’s encounter with God in the form of three visitors, he practices both kinds of hospitality: serving and feeding on one hand, and on the other, creating space for something mystical.
Abraham feeds these holy visitors. He gives them water, asks Sarah to make some bread, serves curds and milk, and kills a fatted calf, which we all know is a symbol of God’s extravagant hospitality. He then looks on from a nearby tree. It’s as if he is Mary, and the three, whom Abraham recognizes as the Lord, comprise the holy one at whose feet Mary sits. The space between them is holy.
The scene is most famously represented in the icon by Andrei Rublev, called The Hospitality of Abraham” or “The Old Testament Trinity.” You have this image on your bulletin cover. There is much to love about it. What strikes me today is the holy space that is created and held in the act of hospitality. We often hear that one of the features of this Abrahamic Trinity is the empty place at the table, a place where we might sit and enter into the divine.
What happens in that space, under those trees?
Under those trees,Abraham hears a fantastical promise: “I will surely return in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” No wonder Sarah, in the next verse, laughs. She’s 99. She gave up trying long ago.
What fantastical, extravagant promises will God make to us? Imagine. In a year’s time, gun violence will be a thing of the past. Housing and healthcare will flow like watercourses in the Negev. Public discourse will be truthful, honest, and kind. Headlines will be empty of reports of murders by and of law enforcement officers. Nah. It’s easier to believe in the promise that a child, an heir and father to a great nation, would be born to a 99-year-old woman.
But fantastical, extravagant promises have been part of Abraham’s relationship with God since the beginning when God said for the first time: “I will make of you a great nation.” And from the beginning, God has asked a lot of Abraham. They have a covenant relationship. This means that when things get difficult in spots—Abraham’s treatment of Sarah in Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah, the sacrifice of Isaac—God is always present with Abraham, and the promise persists. This is true for us and our covenant with God, made in baptism.
God asks a lot of us. I believe God asks us to be activists and contemplatives. God wants all of it. Our action may be as simple as creating or holding space for God to act. Or allowing ourselves to ask hard questions, of ourselves or our neighbors.
Here at St. Paul’s part of our ministry, our witness to the world, is about holding that contemplative space that Abraham creates and into which Mary enters. As things in the world around us hang over us and intrude into our lives calling us to respond and to act, it becomes harder to keep that holy listening space.
In this same week in which the world witnessed the atrocious attack at Nice, and ongoing fear, violence, and instability in Turkey, still reeling from the violence of the weeks before, we celebrated St. Benedict. Benedict teaches us about holy listening. And we are good at that here. If we are to find our way, through our own spiritual practices into that holy space under the oaks of Mamre, we must bring into that space our grief, our lament, our unanswered questions, and our unresolved pain. From that holy place is born wisdom and courage to act.
When I preach at funerals, especially of one who dies an early or painful death, I often suggest that our question ought not be “how could God let this happen?” But rather “What do we do now? How do we go on?”
Maybe what we do now is we cook a meal and serve it to those we love, or to strangers. Maybe we gather at this table or one like it for a holy meal we hope will sustain us in the wilderness. Maybe we hold a contemplative space, listening. Maybe, like Abraham, we do all of this. What extravagant promises will we hear? What will God ask of us?