As I begin this sermon this morning, a bit of a disclaimer. Just yesterday we buried Martha Bonds. The Bible tells us that God can be a bit of a trickster. Our Martha, Martha Bonds, could also be a bit of a trickster, and I sort of wonder whether God and Martha didn’t conspire to have me preach this Gospel the day after her service. I saw the Gospel assigned for today after we had set the date for Martha’s service, and I just laughed.
Because In all honesty, I really dislike how this Gospel is often preached. These sermons scold the “Marthas” of the congregation for being too focused on their day to day tasks. Spend more time in prayer, they say. Preachers often miss the Biblical truth: Martha was busy getting Jesus’ meal together. That’s not a small detail. For generations women have rolled their eyes at these sermons preached by men who don’t spend enough time in the kitchen. I really wish there was just one more verse in this story that went something like: “and Jesus told the male disciples ‘boys let’s go help Martha get dinner on the table.’”
Our Martha Bonds, in some ways, fit this story from Luke’s Gospel. Many of my memories of Martha involve her back in the sacristy, or up at the altar, preparing the table. Martha spent time in the kitchen preparing meals for her family, which was widely widely defined. So especially this morning, no one is going to tell me that holy work can’t be done in the kitchen. In fact, that is where MOST holy work seems to happen.
Today is not one of the usual sermons about learning to be less of a Martha and more of a Mary. Instead I want to sit with the word our Gospel uses describe Martha of Bethany “distracted.” How well does that word describe so many of us?
How well does “distracted” describe so many of us?
Unchecked, in this century, distractions will only multiply. The sense of hurry, the sense of busy, will only speed up. What practices help you calm your pace? Where do you find your center? What are you doing to slow down?
Lately I’ve been spending time with the work of a Scottish theologian named John Swinton. He’s a Presbyterian, but we’ll forgive him for that because he specializes in the theology of disability. I started reading the theology of disability because we have been slowed down, in this congregation, in our work trying to create more space for disabled and neuro-diverse people. Before the pandemic, we were getting ready to launch a third Sunday service, specifically geared to be more inclusive. The pandemic slowed us way down, and maybe that was a good thing.
In his book, “Becoming Friends with Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship” John Swinton argues that our 21st century emphases on speed and efficiency is part of our problem around welcoming people with disabilities. Think of all of the problematic language around neuro-diversity focused on speed. People whose brains work differently have often been called “slow.” That language is problematic. Swinton encourages us to ask whether instead the surrounding society has become too fast.
The “Three Mile an Hour God?”
He points to the work of a Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, who wrote about a “Three Mile an Hour God.” Koyama points out that the average speed at which a human being walks is three miles an hour. God became incarnate at a time when people walked. Jesus walked everywhere and Jesus walked slowly, John Swinton says,
“Love has a speed…we may choose to stigmatize, alienate, downgrade, and exclude people for taking up too much of our time, for being slow in pace, speech, wit, or intellect, but in the face of the three mile an hour God, such ways of being in the world become revelatory of what it means to love and be fully human…the love of God is inexorably slow. Jesus walked slowly. Love takes time.
I know that my own life is often too fast. I definitely try and move faster than three miles an hour. I find myself frustrated when someone in the grocery store or God-forbid on the highway is taking too much time. We live in a world that prioritizes moving fast.
In such a world, people who have to move at a different pace can help us learn to slow down. If we choose to take the time to recognize the gift of friendship with someone for whom movement, or speech, or thought works differently, that relationship can help us to re-prioritize.
Speed at church is a particular sort of question. I have, at times, prided myself on efficiency in our worship. Poor Mary Chapman can tell you, I often tease her about the length of an anthem from the choir. It’s especially dangerous that we post our sermons online. I can look at the timestamp on Youtube or Spotify know whether I have hit the ideal Episcopal 12 minutes or less.
It’s funny how ingrained this idea about ideal sermon time has become for us among the clergy. The early reformers didn’t say anything about how many minutes a sermon should last, possibly because back then no one had watches with minute hands. The technology didn’t exist until a hundred or so years after Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer. Literally no one was counting minutes.
Still I’ve heard stories about an old church warden who used to sit with a newspaper folded in the pew and a stop watch. This story is an old one, I’ve heard it from priests who started their careers in the church 30 and 40 years ago. They often talk about the generations of priests before who told the story. Supposedly this warden, if the sermon went over 12 minutes, would loudly open up the newspaper and start reading.
Worship is a “Royal Waste of Time”
Marva Dawn would have told that warden to calm down. Dawn was a professor of worship in Canada. She would have told me to worry less about sermon and anthem length as well. Marva Dawn described worship as “a royal waste of time.” A royal waste of time. It’s a funny way for a church leader to describe what we do, but Dawn chose those words carefully. First: Royal. Dawn tells us that worship is not for us, it isn’t. Worship is for God. We need to remember worship is for God, so we don’t get self-centered and ask, “what am I getting out of this?”
Dawn says she also chose the word “waste” purposefully. We waste time with God. We don’t try to get something out of worship. It is a waste, not something productive. Some of the best time I’ve ever spent was time “wasted” with friends, out hiking, or fishing, or just gathered in my parents’ kitchen. We could all do with wasting a bit more of our time this way. Wasting time is great if you’ve got good company. We waste our time with God, so we can just receive God’s grace, God’s love.
I know that some of you are probably listening to this sermon while driving, or vacuuming, or on a walk with the dog. Hopefully someone is listening while out hiking, or watching the sermon in a tent camping. The reality of the pandemic means that our habits for worship have been scrambled. We can worship wherever we are, and there is something beautiful about that. Don’t get me wrong. I love that I can spend a moment with God even while I listen to a colleague’s sermon as I do laps in the pool.
But if you haven’t been in the church building in awhile, I want to encourage you to come worship in person. Come waste some time in church. There is something about turning your phone off when you walk through the door, smelling the beeswax of the candles, seeing the smiles on the faces of parishioners, receiving the bread and wine made holy.
You don’t get any extra points with God. There’s nothing tangible we receive in this building, “intangible religious benefits” (as the IRS has us put it on giving statements) that’s all we get. But something happens when we engage in the Royal Waste of Time. This hour or so we spend in church, it has the capacity to slow us down.
It’s one of many practices that can slow us down, perhaps slow us down enough that the three mile an hour God has a chance of catching up. Spiritual practices slow us down so we can remember who is supposed to follow whom.
What about Justice?
I know many of us might at times respond: how can you preach about slowing down when there is so much to do? There are so many major issues of injustice. We need to be busy about doing God’s work in the world. Evil isn’t slowing down, how can we?
Here’s the trick: Most of what we face, as a society, can only be faced slowly. The kind of justice we most need won’t come because we spent an hour composing the perfect op-ed, or worse, the perfect tweet. One well executed protest won’t cut it. The kind of justice we seek can only be built over years. The justice of God, like the love of God, moves slowly. God’s justice is the slow work of relationship building. God’s justice leaves no one out. The kind of justice we desire can only be built by unlikely allies spending hours over kitchen tables.
There’s that kitchen table again. Holy work happens in the kitchen. Part of what I admired most about Martha Bonds was that she approached that work in the sacristy, like she approached the work in the kitchen, as a slow practice of being with God and with God’s people. Martha didn’t move fast, especially in recent years. But it was more than that.
While she was doing her work, Martha made time for the folks around her. In the sacristy, she gave advice. In the kitchen, she listened. Martha took the time even while going about her tasks to notice people, to check in on them, to say “I love you.” This church was packed yesterday, more packed than it has been in three years, with people who wanted to say goodbye to Martha. So don’t tell me that work in the kitchen doesn’t count. Don’t tell me that volunteering at church, doing what might be called “busy work” can’t make a difference.
What matters is gently letting go of our sense of hurry. If we can stop seeing our work as a distraction, if we can focus our attention, the division between work and prayer might just fade away. With practice, we can learn to be a Martha, we can intentionally waste time on love.