Priorities (and how to order them) - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Priorities (and how to order them)

Luke 10: 38-42

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38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.

40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

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Every weekday morning here, at 8.15 am, we have a service of Morning Prayer down in the main crypt chapel.  It is a service that includes the following words:

The night has passed, and the day lies open before us;
Let us pray with one heart and mind.
As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you,
now and for ever.  Amen.

Over the years, that particular prayer has become incredibly important to me at the start of each working day, as a lens through which I see the tasks that lie ahead of me. Firstly, it reminds that, regardless of how full the diary may be, the day really does lie open before me.  Because every day, however busy, is always full of mystery and unknown possibilities.  And I am always able to play some part in shaping the kind of day that it will turn out to be, through the spirit in which I approach its tasks and its challenges.

Secondly, it reminds me to regard each new day is a gift (as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said - 'Today is a gift, that's why it is called the present').  Thirdly, it reminds me that God is present with me throughout the whole of the coming day, if I remember to open my eyes and sense his presence; and finally, and very powerfully, it asks that, regardless of what we face that day, our hearts may be set on fire with God's love.

No day ever turns out quite the way we expect, of course - and most of my good intentions and worthy aspirations come crashing down at some point, because I am a limited human being, as we all are.  But nevertheless, I do find that that simple prayer really does help me to sort out my priorities, for the simple reason that it reminds me of what each new day is for.  Because each day is a gift that will bring with it new opportunities for love and service.  And when I keep that thought in mind, then even the most mundane of tasks can finds its place: that challenging meeting; that difficult person; that boring pile of paperwork.

My late mother-in-law, who was a very devout Christian woman, always found this morning's Gospel reading - the story of Martha and Mary - incredibly challenging.  Because she identified so closely with Martha, that she found its message extremely difficult to hear.  She was one of that generation of women who were expected to give up work when they married (if they could afford to do so), and so the whole of her adult life had been spent cleaning, doing household tasks, and looking after children, which she did with the utmost dedication.  But if I'm honest, I sometimes wondered whether, somewhere along the line, she had lost sight of what those things were actually for.  Let me give you an illustration.

She would insist that we came to visit her, and when we arrived, she would be frantically busy in the kitchen, and usually very stressed out.  Eventually she would present us with a beautifully cooked meal.  We would sit round the table, she would serve the food - and she would then disappear into the kitchen, close the door, and eat her dinner on her own. 

I always found this absolutely baffling, because I had rather assumed that the main point of a shared family meal when you go and stay with relatives whom you haven't seen for a while, was to engage in conversation and catch up with news - but that was the very bit from which she chose to absent herself.  Quite honestly, given the choice, I would have much preferred us all to sit down together and share a bought pizza.  In a strange way, it would actually have felt more welcoming. 

And alongside that, my dear mother-in-law's need to force feed her grandchildren with special treats, sometimes until they were actually ill, would also get out of hand sometimes.  Reflecting on these issues, it occurred to me that, sadly, somewhere amidst her determination to give, and give, and give to others utterly selflessly, her priorities had become somewhat skewed.

So you can probably understand why she so struggled with the story of Martha and Mary.  Just to remind you of its details: Jesus and his disciples enter a village where a woman called Martha welcomes him into her home.  While Martha is busily fussing around with her preparations for these unexpected guests, her sister, Mary, is sitting at Jesus's feet, listening to him.  Martha's sudden interjection reveals the complicated emotional dynamic that is clearly already a feature of their home life, because, exasperated, Martha takes her frustration out on Jesus!  'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.'

Hang on a minute - it was Martha who invited Jesus in, in the first place; and one assumes that the reason why she is now so distracted, busily fussing around with the catering, is because she is very keen to impress him with her hospitality.  The manner in which she refers to her sister, Mary, suggests that her anger and frustration is already a feature of their dysfunctional relationship. 

Indeed, note that she doesn't actually speak to her sister at all herself, but instead tries to manipulate Jesus into doing so on her behalf, clearly attempting to harness his authority in her support.  'Tell her to help me.'  Martha is too bound up in her need to impress to want to spend time with him; and she is too exasperated with her sister to be able to see that the main point of having a guest is not to wow them with the quality of your hospitality but to enjoy their company.  It is Mary, not Martha, who recognises the true significance of having such a very special guest in their midst.

Jesus, of course, is not going to get embroiled in any of Martha's domestic battles or manipulative behaviour; yet his words to her are gentle, not condemnatory: '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.'  You can perhaps understand why my pious mother-in-law really struggled with this story.

The reason why this Biblical story is such a good one is precisely because it is so very insightful.  Our priorities can so easily become distorted - at which point, however praiseworthy our intentions may be, our actions can bring division and dissent and unhappiness, rather than becoming offerings that are made out of love.  That is why for me the saying of the daily office, Morning Prayer, is so very important, because that little discipline jolts me into remembering what really matters at the start of each new day.

Our first reading from Colossians reminds us that all things in heaven and on earth were created, and so contain the essence of the holy within them, because Christ was before all things and is in all things.  Therefore every task that we undertake, however mundane it may seem, is a gift; it contains the essence of holiness.  And that, too, can remind us of our true priorities.  Everything that we do can be hallowed and sanctified, and can remind us that Christ is in our very midst, just as he was there with Martha and Mary - we just need to stop for a moment, and be attentive to the fact, as Mary was.

In the words of George Herbert, now a verse of one of our most famous hymns:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see;
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.

In bringing Poppy here today for baptism, and launching her on her Christian journey, Edwina and Andy are also taking the time to step aside from all the distractions, and complications, and busyness of life with a new baby in it, and the wonders and challenges of family life, to remind themselves of what our true priorities are, and should be. 

Because a life that has God at its centre, is a life that will always have meaning and worth and purpose.  It is a life in which each new day really does come as a gift; and in which everything we do can be fired by the love of God, and enriched with his presence.

And thanks be to God for that.

Amen.

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