(Luke 10:38-42 ;Luke 11:1-13 ; “Praying” by Mary Oliver)
Long ago, my church in England was planning an event – I’ve long since forgotten what it was. All I remember: the priest said, well, someone could bring lunch, just a few chicken sandwiches , that would be easy wouldn’t it? This priest knew more about theology than about food preparation: he didn’t realize to get proper chicken sandwiches, someone first had to cook and dismember a chicken – not exactly a 5 minute project on the way out the door !
Jesus and his travelling troupe didn’t get it either. Poor Martha, toiling away- and remember, no freezer, no microwave, no running water– she had to do it all herself, for people who may have known about as much as my priest about what went into preparing a meal. It’s always bugged me that Jesus criticizes Martha and praises Mary, . Being a Mary type, I’m happy Mary’s allowed to sit on on a conversation without having to feel guilty about everything else she should be doing. But does Jesus think people can survive on conversation alone? Where do meals come from?
Happily Luke writes this story up with respect for both Mary and Martha. Martha is, as per one translation, cumbered with too much serving. The word serving translates the Greek diakonein. In Christian parlance, that’s an essential part of ministry, that’s part of the work of the church , that matters too. Jesus’ followers didn’t just preach and pray, They fed the hungry and tended to the sick and helped those in need. So Martha’s culinary efforts matter- they are ministry!
And right after this story, Luke gives us Jesus’ prayer clinic. Notice it’s designed for people who either want to or have to do Martha stuff. Jesus gives them a prayer anyone can memorize, If you can’t read or write- as many couldn’t in his world – you can still learn that prayer. And if you’re busy , it takes only minutes to say.
Some religions have prayers only the priests say- as in the Hindu temples, you’ll hear priests reciting prayers in Sanskrit, an ancient language most Hindus don’t know – in Zoroastrian religions the priests perform liturgies and read scripture in the ancient Avestan language, known only through Zoroastrian sacred texts.
But the Jesus prayer was for the common people. The prayer adapts many Jewish phrases- a reminder that Jesus is Jewish- and the Jewish faith we read in the Torah was also a practical faith- deeds of kindness mattered. Those living lives of service, those busy with family, could still be people of great faith.
So Martha is free to be a Jesus follower as much as Mary- she can say this prayer among the pots and pans.
Brother Lawrence [in Practising the Presence of God] puts it this way:
“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God as in great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
Whether Martha wants to be in the kitchen or has to be there, she can say a prayer as she works or she can make her work into a prayer of self-giving, self-offering. bbThis is what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh gets at , with his concept of “ present moment, wonderful moment”. Even if you have to do chores you can still do them contemplatively, with grace and gratitude.
For some of us that’s harder than others. If you love cooking and even cleaning, if you love doing practical things, you may do quite well at prayerful working. If you find these things rather tedious- if you’d rather read a book or sit and think- it’s hard to give thanks amid the clatter of pots and the din of demands.
Myself , I keep trying to do this – I am getting practice as I find my chores multiplying and with them the needs of aging relatives. Sometimes starting with a reflective cup of coffee, or taking a moment outdoors, or even doing dishes contemplatively helps- as does the practice of giving thanks , even for small things.
It’s what Mary Oliver ‘s getting at- we don’t always get tons of beauty and heaps of inspiration , but we cobble together what we can, all in aid of letting go of our anxieties and our agendas, and hearing another voice within.
So whether you’re a Mary or Martha, you can still pray, in the way that works for you. But why?
What’s with “Ask and you’ll be given” ? Often we don’t get what we ask for, and we get a pile of stuff no one would ask for.
Luke, writing up this prayer clinic, knew this. Even Jesus’ prayers didn’t get him everything he wanted or get him out of what he didn’t want. Nor is the Lord’s Prayer enough to give everyone their daily bread and assurance of bread tomorrow. Nor is everyone saved from the time of trial. I’d go further – nor is anyone saved from the time of trial.
You can pray all you want – and bad things still happen . What on earth is Jesus- or Luke- getting at? The example doesn’t even work- the friend disturbed at midnight has a loaf of bread, and can help. It’s not so simple when we direct our requests to God, Spirit, Universe, wherever you direct them, it’s not like asking for bread and getting it. Often it seems we do get snakes when we asked for fish, and scorpions when we asked for an egg,
Luke doesn’t dive into this perplexing issue- the point is not to figure out things we can’t probably ever figure out, but to believe that there is a loving Presence- use what words you want – who wishes the best for us, as we would for those we love. Even in the middle of the night- when the difficult stuff can feel especially difficult- there is a connection for us with Love, Compassion, a Being or a Presence or -if you prefer- a loving parent- we are cared for – we aren’t alone. We are supported as we discern what we most deeply need for the life we find ourselves living. How this works– we have to live it for ourselves, even amid all our unanswered and probably unanswerable questions.
So how to pray? As we can , where we can, whatever time and space we have or don’t have, whatever words we have or don’t have. And why pray? For the sake of relationship- knowing we’re not just stumbling around in the midnight of our struggles – knowing a presence beyond our own is with us- giving us what we need to get through- be it bread or courage or peace , or just one small ray of light for the next step.
And prayer is for all of us, whether we are Mary or Martha or a bit of both. We can all choose the better part- hearing a voice beyond our own- connecting with Something More- connecting with the Love and Light we need for each challenge, for each grief, And, yes, for each joy.
May it be so. Amen.