July 23, 2013

Prayer Book Parallels: Daring to Ask


Text: Luke 10:40: “...Tell her to help me!”

Let me just begin with a word of warning. I am about to completely forgo the usual, predictable, expected message on the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany. We all know what that is. Martha is busy with the cares of this world, while pious Mary meditates contemplatively at the feet of Jesus. Martha is who we are, and Mary is who we should be.

Well, I find that message singularly unedifying. Or maybe I should rather say that I think it’s hopelessly simplistic. I don’t think it’s especially useful to think of these two sisters as personality types, or maybe, better, personality archetypes.

For one thing, it’s not really very clear that we can significantly change our personality by sheer force of will. So preaching a message holding up one kind of personality over another probably isn’t all that useful.

Instead I want again to read this lesson through the lens of the Collect of the Day. Take a look at that again; it’s right at the top of the Scripture insert. If there is a single theme in this single sentence; it is this verb: Ask. This is a prayer about asking. It’s a prayer asking God to have mercy on us for what we ask for; to hear what we ask for; to ignore what we ask for, when that’s the better course; and even to grant us the things that we are too foolish, or too stubborn, or too blind, or too proud to ask for.

It’s a prayer about guiding our asking; about forgiving our foolish asking. But most of all it is a prayer that grounds itself on the simple fact that a large part of the relationship we have with God is about what we ask God for.

It might be interesting to reflect a little bit on what God might be asking of us, too; about how we pray about our response to God’s requests. But that is a sermon for another day.

I want to say that Martha, instead of being the patsy in this story, instead of being the set-up for the exemplar of her more pious sister, Martha is a living, breathing example of this collect in action. She may not ask for the right thing, but thanks be to God, Martha is willing to ask for what she wants.

This story may be pointing us in a different direction—at least today, at least for now. It may be pointing us in the direction of reflecting, for a long, lingering moment, on our own lives of prayer. How is your prayer life going? What’s your prayer like? Is it something you engage in willingly? Is it something you have a pattern or a habit for?

And what gets said in your prayer? Is it mostly a laundry list of things you’re worried about? Is it long, reverent silences, or maybe short bursts of quickly distracted attention?

Martha may not get what she wants, and she may not want what she gets. Type A personalities rarely want, or take, advice to be still and be prayerful.

But we can say this: Because she dares to ask, because she makes her direct appeal to Jesus, she gets what she needs. Maybe, just maybe, she is carrying the burden of responsibility and conscientiousness exactly because she’s never asked for help. Maybe, just maybe, the only way she can be released from the prison of her resentment and bitterness toward her seemingly slacker sister is to make her bold request, even if it glances off the hope God has for her.

Because it is exactly by making the request that she opens the possibility for God to respond to her with what she does need, what she really is seeking—even if she is not wise enough or patient enough to know it.

Some of the scholars say that the peculiar form of address here— “Martha, Martha”—something very striking if only because we rarely see Jesus calling anyone by name unless it is a matter of particular importance—is the moment in which Martha is called to discipleship. It’s the moment in which the true calling and work of a disciple is revealed to her; maybe it is even the moment in which she is given permission, and gives permission to herself, to do what is being asked of her, to follow that advice.

I wonder how many times, in response to my own prayer, God has somewhere at the other end of the line saying, “Mark, Mark.” Oh, you poor, stupid boy. Oh, you sweet, dumb thing.

But that is exactly where the actual relationship begins, if I am lucky enough, or exasperated enough, or broken enough to finally listen. That may be how Martha is my example, my guide, my patron saint.

It may be how she is a patron saint for all of us—all of us goal-oriented, success-focused, purpose-driven people. We are, after all, the people who get stuff done. We just got done last week saying it’s more important to show than to tell the story of God’s loving grace toward us.

But it’s that moment when we get to the breaking point, that moment when we have finally spent too much energy going down the wrong path, that moment when we finally ask for help—it’s in that moment that we begin to touch the immensity of our dependence on God. And that is where our discipleship, our reconciliation, our redemption truly begins.

God, give us grace to ask, even if we ask the wrong thing. Give us the courage, give us the exasperation, give us the frustration to finally break down and ask, really ask. And then, gentle God, speak to us in a way we can understand, in a voice we can hear, and in a message that frees us from chasing after our own misapprehended goals and makes us bold to chase after you. Amen.