The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 17, 2016
For four years, I played in the Longhorn Band at the University of Texas. Yes, that was me, carrying a tuba, sweating like a pig in orange polyester on game day. It was all worth it, I suppose. The Longhorn Band was where I came to know my lovely wife. I know, the level of cuteness is just nauseating.
Anyway, the Athletic Department at UT did not permit the Longhorn Band to practice on the field in the football stadium. The grass was far too pristine, far too holy, to be sullied by the likes of us. If there is a god at UT, it’s the grass on the football field. But, once a year, just once, we were allowed one brief rehearsal on that precious, precious grass. But we couldn’t wear our shoes. We all had to go barefoot. We called it, “naked feet rehearsal.” Because, as the Athletic Department told us, if we were to rehearse on the field in our shoes we would tear up their precious grass.
That was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. On that very field, giant men weighing three hundred pounds and wearing cleats would be running, kicking, and smashing into each other. But somehow, somehow, that wouldn’t hurt the grass. A bunch of nerds carrying clarinets and trumpets and tubas though, well, the grass would never be able to recover. We didn’t make the rules, we just had to follow them.
Some rules are good, and some rules are dumb. And if I know anything about Jesus, it’s that he challenges the dumb rules.
See, that’s the deep truth in this story about Mary, Martha, and Jesus. On the surface, we think this story is about Mary being the more “spiritual” one and Martha is the “busy body.” But there’s something deeper going on. In the ancient world, women were not permitted to sit at the feet of any teacher to hear what they had to say. Women could not be disciples of anybody. The rule was that they had to prepare the food and to provide for the men.
Martha doesn’t gripe at Jesus because Mary is just loafing around while she’s getting lunch ready. Martha gripes at Jesus because Mary is breaking the rules. She’s upsetting the social order. Just her presence at the feet of Jesus is subversive. It undermines the whole social structure of the day. That’s where the men were supposed to be. In a sense, Mary’s presence at the feet of Jesus was the first “sit-in.” Mary refuses to follow the rules that cordoned women off into a corner of the house. Mary refuses to do what was expected of her. Mary chose the better part. Mary threw custom and social structure to the wind because she had discovered the one and only thing that mattered.
One of the reasons, I think, that we are held back in our spiritual lives is that we create little rules for ourselves. And more often than not, they’re dumb rules. We put our priorities in the wrong places. Think about it – what Martha was doing, preparing the food, was not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. People have got to eat. But it’s not what truly matters. She was adhering to fabricated social norms rather than listening to Jesus.
I know what it’s like. I follow social expectations before attending to my spiritual life. I’ll get around to saying my prayers, but after I answer this email. Because other people expect me to answer email. Then that email becomes another email. That email becomes looking at the calendar. It becomes making a phone call. That phone call takes twenty minutes and before I know it, it’s time to pick up the kid or go to lunch or go to sleep and my prayers are left unsaid. I’ve heard people tell it to me this way. I’ll go to church again, when my kids are old enough to be quiet, because we don’t want to upset church etiquette by having squirmy kids in the pews. I’ll go to church when this election is over so I don’t have to hear anything I don’t want to hear. I’ll start reading the bible, but only after I buy a new one that looks real nice. We make these false promises to ourselves, we follow these nonsensical social niceties rather than seeing that the one and only thing that maters, is a life with God. We tell God, I’ll work on my spiritual life, but first let me take care of me.
But these silly little rules will only drive us further from God. And before we know it, our lives will be over. We will find ourselves at the end, wondering if we had ever really known God. We put off getting to know God while our kids were infants, then toddlers, then adolescents, then teenagers, then they’re in college, then you have grandkids. And before you know it, we’ll be on our death bed, marveling that the days were long but the years were short. And that somehow, in the midst of all, we forgot that God was present.
And there it is. Mary realized that God was present, in her very midst. And that no rule, no social structure, nothing was going to get in the way of her hearing the words of life from the Lord Jesus.
Don’t forget – Jesus is present in your life all the time. The Holy Spirit dwells in your heart, we just miss it because we’re so distracted by our many tasks. The only thing that matters is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Praying. Receiving the sacraments. Being in a Christian community. That is what matters. The food that we prepare will last us for a while. But we’ll get hungry again. Regardless of how many times you do the dishes, there will always be more dishes. And the laundry, oh geez, the laundry will never stop. But the bread of life, what Jesus has to offer, will never go away.
If you are following some silly little rule that is stopping you from coming into a closer relationship with Jesus, get rid of that rule. Oh I can’t go to church, because people will think that I’m too goody-two shoes. Oh I can’t pray, because everybody else will think I’m some sort of evangelical. Oh I can’t read the bible, because somebody will think I’m a bible thumper or a fundamentalist.
Running your life by what other people of think of you is a recipe for your own spiritual disaster. Comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t let somebody else sitting at the feet of Jesus stop you from doing the same. Don’t worry that the roast might be burning, that the noodles might be getting cold, and that the fancy little guest soaps haven’t been set out yet. Don’t let some silly little niceties stop you from worshipping Jesus. [Sometimes we think that our biggest temptations that draw us from God are greed, and power, and money. That’s true. But more often than not, the devil is in the distractions. It’s typically not the big sins that draw us from the love of God. It’s usually just a whole bunch of little rules that get in the way. And sooner or later, it’s those little rules that become all you care about.]
Churches do this, too. Especially in the Episcopal Church, we have rubrics, canons, constitutions, customs, and traditions, all keeping things in good order. But those rubrics, canons, constitutions, customs, and traditions are not the words of life. Jesus is the word of life. We don’t worship the Prayer Book, we worship God with the Prayer Book. We don’t follow a set menu for coffee hour, we gather in Jesus’ name while coffee happens to be served. We don’t have a vision for a new church building because churches build buildings. We have a vision to build a new church building because we wish to glorify God. It is so tempting for the church community to be Martha and to cast judgment on Mary. For the rule followers to wag a finger at the rule breakers. Notice how Martha tries to publicly shame Mary in front of the whole group of disciples. If Martha had really needed the help, she probably would’ve gone up to Mary quietly and asked her. But Martha wants to be right, and Martha wants to make a big show of it, which, I think, is what Jesus disapproves of. It’s not that Martha needs help, it’s that Martha is trying to humiliate Mary for not following the rules. And Martha wants everybody else to know that following the rules is the most important thing. This is the sickness that we have in our communities. We publicly shame whole groups of people for breaking “the rules,” which only turns around to be our own indictment.
But Mary wishes to know Jesus. And that is the most important thing. And knowing Jesus will sometimes get you into trouble. Women will set at the feet of Jesus. People who were outside will now be on the inside. Strangers will become friends. Because Jesus has no time for rules that separate God from his people. So when you are seeking to know God better, don’t let anything stand in the way. There is no rule or custom or tradition that can stop you from knowing Jesus