July 21, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year C 2019

How often are you interrupted when you are talking with someone by your cell phone buzzing or dinging with an alert and like Pavlov’s dog responding to the bell that signals a treat is being offered; we begin our inquisitive salivating wondering who or what treat is on the other end of our wireless conditioning? We have become so accustomed to living in the social media world that we don’t know how to be truly present in the real world, with the flesh and blood people who are right in front of us.

Maybe this is just my confession of my own addiction to my cell phone - checking email, the latest news feed, or even the current level of the stock market, but I suspect there may be a few of us who have similar issues. The preoccupation with information seems to leave little time for transformation.

Our Gospel today tells of Jesus visit to Mary and Martha’s home, sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from the dead. They are good friends with Jesus and want to provide a hospitable respite for Jesus on his travels. But the two sisters have very different notions of what that hospitality looks like.

For Martha, hospitality means having the house in order, clean and tidy, putting together a gourmet meal that will feed Jesus hungry appetite. But Mary’s hospitality focuses on actually being present with Jesus, sitting at his feet, listening intently to him, deepening the relationship she has with him through engaging him in conversation – sharing her heart with Jesus rather than simply meeting his physical needs.

Most of us probably can identify with one or both of the sisters. Are you more the Martha type, scurrying around making sure everything in the house is in order and everyone’s glass is full. Or are you more like Mary, plopping down on the couch and sincerely asking your guest, “So, tell me how you’re doing.” And then listening intently.

Jesus clearly prefers Mary’s approach when Martha complains, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” To which Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Are you worried and distracted by many things? I know I often am. It takes real effort to stop my frantic activity and sit quietly and simply listen in the silence. For about ten years I have been practicing a form of prayer called Centering Prayer. It is very different from how I learned to pray as a child or teen-ager, through a variety of formulae that I would use to tell God what I needed, as if God didn’t know already and then how I expected God to answer my prayers, as if I knew better than God what to do in each situation.

Centering prayer is a kind of prayer without words. I know, it sounded counter-intuitive to me the first time I learned about it. But it is simply sitting in the presence of God, silently, intentionally being present with the divine presence that is always present with us, but that we rarely stop long enough to enjoy. It is the most transformative spiritual practice I have ever engaged in and probably the most difficult, because I am much more like Martha, than Mary.

If you are interested in learning about this kind of prayer, also known as contemplative prayer or in some circles, the practice of mindfulness, there is a daily group that meets Monday through Friday in Laurie’s yoga studio from 7 am to practice centering prayer. If that time doesn’t work for you, you can also learn the principles of centering prayer and practice on your own or with your friends or family at your discretion. Please hear this as well, centering prayer is not a panacea that will fix all of your spiritual struggles and transform your life into continual bliss. It will not, and it is difficult work to sit still for twenty minutes and train your mind to be present in the silence. But if my own experience is an indicator, your life will be enriched by the practice and you will be able to find more peace and be more present in the difficulties that inevitably come our way.

We tend to be focused on external things that need to get done, rather than on the interior work that gives meaning to our lives. Now please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying we should all quit our jobs and take up a life of navel-gazing – not at all. But I do believe our culture and our lives are out of balance, and twenty minutes of silence in our day would probably do more for our well-being and even our productivity than anything else I can think. The other caveat I would add is that there are many valid ways to pray and if you do not take up the practice of centering prayer, it doesn’t mean you are lesser than those who do, not in the least. Find a spiritual practice that works for you and do it. That is what is important.

Jesus is inviting Martha to choose the better part. Cleaning and cooking and hosting have their place and are good, but Jesus is inviting her and us not to neglect what our busyness seems to crowd out of our lives, the better part.