"Chosen the better part"-Sermon for Proper 11, Luke 10:38-42
So, I have had two recent experiences on outings with St. Julian’s in which I felt my choice to participate was, as Jesus describes Mary’s choice in today’s gospel lesson…choosing the better part. The first was to join our Youth Ministry on their annual summer outing to tube the San Marcos River. The day trip to the river was in the first week of June, which means it was really hot, as we were all suffering through our early summer heat wave…that really still has not broken. Yet, as we were floating down the river, the cool spring fed waters kept those of us floating just above the surface quite comfortable. And, if the sun shining down on us from a cloudless sky threatened that comfort at all, it took only rolling off the tube and into the water to quickly solve the problem. And, as we meandered down the river enjoying the cool temps and the cheer of good company, for getting to spend time with our children at St. Julian’s is always a great blessing in my life…I remember distinctly thinking that, at least for that day, I had, indeed, without a doubt…chosen the better part. For, choosing the cool river over the office, choosing to deepen my connection and friendship with our teens rather than say catching up on emails and getting ahead on the next sermon…was indeed the better part.
And, the second experience was a little longer of an outing…for I am referring to our annual Pilgrimage to Navajoland. And, again, I refer, at least in part, to the weather, for as Central Texas continued to be scorching hot in the 3rd week of June…in the Navajo Nation most days were dappled with light rain and the highs remained in the mid 70’s with the temps dropping into the 50’s at night. If I am making you jealous, it is only to get you to come next year! But, of course, way more than the weather, the better part to which I refer, was the time spent deepening our connection with our Navajo friends; the sense of a job well done that came at the end of each work day remodeling the kitchen at St. Luke’s in the Dessert; knowing the positive difference having that kitchen will mean for the Episcopal Church in Navajoland; beginning and ending each day with worship; creating deeper bonds of affection between the St. Julian’s folk who were able to participate; and, once again, encountering the God of love in the transformative ways that only pilgrimage can provide. For, I come back from Navajoland each time we go fueled and fired up for the good work we get to do together for God and for good right here at St. Julian’s. As on the river in San Marcos, as we gathered at the sheep camp of one of the Navajo priest friends on our last evening there…at sunset…surrounded by mountains in the distance…the temp in the high 60’s…passing a double rainbow on the way there…saying our evening prayers together…I remember, once again, distinctly thinking that being present for that Jesus filled week…with that band of sisters and brothers…was without a doubt…for me…choosing the better part.
And, though I do hope I might be encouraging you to consider joining us on a future pilgrimage or even to get involved in our thriving Youth Ministry, for we always are in need and welcome more wonderful adult sponsors to help mentor, love and grow alongside our young people at St. Julian’s, I am really sharing these profound moments in my own life to think together about what Jesus might be saying not just to his dear friends Martha and Mary…but to each us…about what it means…what it might look like…how we might, in fact, more and more chose, discern…the better part.
Now, to begin with, I think it is easy to get lost in picking a side when we hear this story…team Marth or team Mary. There are those of us who, despite Jesus’ conclusion that sounds like he is siding with Mary, might suggest that Martha’s commitment to hospitality, her desire that all are fed and well cared for, her dogged determination to keep the household organized and moving seamlessly forward…is indeed a good and admirable choice. And, there are those among us, who might be applauding Jesus’ conclusion that, again, sounds like he is siding with Mary. Those among us who deeply appreciate Mary’s willingness to choose sitting at the feet of Jesus over all other things…who cares if dinner gets to the table late while tummies rumble, who cares if the household is a hot mess, who cares who or what might fall through the cracks…for the Rabbi is present and soaking in his words must come first. Choosing team Martha or team Mary has been a battle royal, a favorite past time of Christians from the beginning of the church to our very day…feel free to fight it out later.
But, here’s the thing, I, for one, think both actually chose well…both made a good choice, and Jesus’ use of the word better might even suggest that. For I thought season 3 of Stranger Things was a perfect season of television. It was without a doubt may favorite season of the 4 produced so far…better than the rest…better than the rest. But…but, I also love all 4 seasons that have come out so far. They are all, in my opinion, great. Thus, when suggesting that Mary chose the better part, Jesus is not also suggesting that Martha’s choice was not itself good…maybe it was not better than Mary’s choice…but maybe still good…maybe very good. Friends…for everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A season to work and to play…a season to serve and be served…as season to organize and offer hospitality and feed and be good hosts…and a season to let all of that slide…to focus, instead, all of our time and attention on something else that is oh so important that deserves our attention and is standing before us.
And so, this whole sermon to this point is leading me to set before us today the importance of the spiritual discipline of discernment. That is the importance of cultivating within us a discerning heart and mind that allows us to make choices about how we spend our time, attention, money when we have a choice in the matter. Discernment is a spiritual gift and we all can cultivate it…if we take the time to do so…if we intentionally inhabit practices that lead to wise discernment and thus better choices. So, here are a few thoughts on cultivating the spiritual gift of discernment.
First, discernment is communal…we do the work of discernment together…for wisdom is always located in the community. As I like to say, the wisdom is in the room…in the sharing of ideas…between people who already love and are committed to each other. Thus, it is important to be connected to something larger than yourself…a community of friends and mentors bound together in love…like St. Julian’s. When faced with a difficult choice, when feeling frustrated by efforts that feel unappreciated, it is important to explore those choices and those feelings with those who love you…those who do not judge you…those who have earned your trust…those you have come to know as mature and wise. Sometimes the experience of others brings light and clarity to our own path. And, sometimes just speaking our challenging choices out loud to another person allows us to hear within ourselves, in what is flowing from our own lips, the light and clarity we need to make a better choice. I have almost never regretted a choice made that I was willing to let those I trust examine with me.
Second, discernment is fueled by what we consume. Familiarity with the bible; being actively engaged in a bible study; regular reading from the canon of theological and spiritual writers that make up the tradition of the church…people like Julian; listening attentively to sermons; reflecting on hymn texts and the lyrics of gifted song-writers; watching well researched documentaries; reading well researched biographies; studying history; reading good fiction and poetry; appreciating art and architecture; paying attention to and noting the lessons your hobbies are teaching you…all such things God is speaking to you through, and they create within us a wealth of wisdom and knowledge that once written on our bones is readily available to provide light and clarity to our present circumstances…informing the choices we make in the present to the good. There is little in life that I have genuinely learned from that I have then not used to good results in the choices I make. Our future choices, and more so the ability to choose the better part in some future present moment, is profoundly fueled by what we choose to consume now.
And, third, though more resources surely exist, I will close with what I believe most importantly empowers the gift of discernment…and that is prayer. St. Ignatius Loyola says, “Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God's deepening life in me.” And, God’s deepening life in me…or our intimacy with Christ…is always nurtured in time spent together…in prayer…the willingness to sit with God…to listen and to speak…in contemplation and intercession. For, in doing so, we are inhabited by love. Nothing fills us more fully, more completely with love than standing before God in all of our brokenness and beauty in prayer. And if love, God’s love, that fills our lives through prayer is the place from which any choice is made…it is will always be the better part…for no love suffused choice will ever be wrong.
Friends…for everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven…a season to be like Martha…a season to be like Mary…a season to feed others…a season to be fed ourselves…a season for good work in the office…a season to meander along the river…a season to be home…a season to be on pilgrimage…and all, in their season, are good. Our spiritual work is to discern what is the better part, the very best way to be, for the season of life that stands before each of us uniquely…right now. Amen.