St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us


July 21st Pentecost 6, 2019                      John Marsh

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42


It’s not that work didn’t have to be done.

It’s not that Jesus didn’t care about hospitality or teach of its importance.

It’s not that he didn’t care about Martha.

It was just that, perhaps, Martha needed to do it differently or, if this is not to complicate things too much, reading the story from a slant, perhaps, Mary needed to do it differently as well.¹

Within first readings of the story there perhaps needed to be some flexibility in social conventions, gender roles and in choices made allowing for an opportunity not to be missed – an opportunity to slow down, to stop, to listen, to be taught, to be included amongst those called and empowered.

Perhaps Mary seized an opportunity and Martha missed it, or, once again, if we read the story with a slant, perhaps Mary missed something Martha embraced.²

Working within convention, Martha, perhaps obsessing under gender roles, became increasingly consumed by the work before her, increasingly constrained by the demands of the tasks.

She was perhaps stuck within a closed loop of frenetic and frantic behaviour until (thankfully) she ‘broke down’:

Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.

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 from her.” (Luke 10:40-41)

Or if I may paraphrase, ‘Martha, there is work to do, but now is not the time; it is now time to sit, to listen and to learn. The time for work will come but for now, stop and come and join us!’

Within a conventional reading, this passage seems to reinforce the traditional binary divide of ‘being’ and ‘doing’.

Traditionally understood, a divide exists between ‘activists’ who seek to involve themselves with ‘tikkun olam’, the healing of the world (or don’t just sit there, do something!) and those ‘spiritual pilgrims’ who seek to know and to heal themselves’ (or don’t just do something, sit there!).

Often this divide is seen as a spiritual/secular split, but perhaps it is not quite so simple...³

Within the realm of ‘faith’, there are those whose pursuit of justice and the needs of the world has fostered an attitude of ‘Just do it’ – get up and get involved (the active life).

At the same time, the frantic and sometimes frenetic energy of justice pursuits has led others to value the need to be – to be centered, to be grounded, to be spiritually ‘at one with’ (the contemplative life).

This has led each ‘side’, often with reason, to critique the other as misguided.

But what if the ‘psychic spilt’ between action and contemplation or being and doing is an imposed social construct. (Is the room starting to slant a bit?)

As I remarked a few years ago, we take for granted the need for a choice and hence the common debate:

To be is to do – Socrates

To do is to be – Jean Paul Sartre

But what if the ‘split’ is not a division, a cut, but different points of a continuum?

Perhaps the issue lies not in either side of an equation but with the ‘or’, the binary choice of this or that; perhaps what is needed is the dance of ‘this and that’. If we shift our perspective, then maybe we can hear a different song:

‘Do-be, do-be, do’ – Frank Sinatra

Doing and being linked in the rhythm of intentional living: ‘do’ when it is time and ‘be’ when it is time; doing and being with the ‘and’ as a hinge allowing movement, a still point requiring not an either/or choice but choices of this and that depending upon circumstance…⁴

The usual interpretation of Martha and Mary is to elevate the ‘contemplative’ practice of Mary over the ‘work’ of Martha; but what if the passage is not about making a choice between the two? What if the narrative is about the embrace of that consciousness which enables the flexibility and discernment necessary to make the right choice at the right time?⁵

What if what is needed is the engaged rhythm of a song of integration, the tempo of a dance of justice, the balanced movement of wellness because there are many hard core activists who, having burned out, are now seeing therapists and many spiritual seekers forever ‘blissed out’ oblivious to others dying out?

What if what is needed is the paradoxically passionate play of ‘soulful activism’; soulful activism which embraces a compassionate awareness of both the depths of being as well as the concerns and sufferings of other beings?

This is the work and discipline of an ‘interior way’ and the calm persistence of ‘doing justice’ (consider Micah 6:8); this is the soulful way which understands that sometimes silence is the ‘loudest’ form of resistance and ‘the shout’ is sometimes its calm centre.

To understand the nature of this alternative consciousness, let’s consider both words in the phrase.

To be soulful is to slow down, to shift gears, to take the time to centre, to consider, to converse, to cogitate or to mull; it is to open to the inter-relationship of all things; to become aware of inter-being, that that which happens to one affects all (and vice versa).⁶

To be soulful is to open to that which we name as god, as love in action.

To be soulful is to take time to consider what we can do.

To be soulful is to till the soil of mutual identity.

Within a continuum, activism is the force of ‘what we can do, we will do’

To be active is to do the work of making justice as real as we can.

To be active is to do the work of shared destiny.

Soulful activism is the force of seeing and doing, of understanding and acting.

Soulful activism is listening for the rhythm of the song and offering the performance of the singer.

Soulful activism is a wisdom movement honoring its origins and its traditions but feeling no need to compete with others for primacy of place.

Soulful activism is a justice movement in service of truth, those processes of compassion ever honoring the wellness of humanity and creation. It involves what Ghandi called ‘Satyagraha’ or ‘truth force’ or ‘soul force’: the open-ended pursuit of being and doing, of acting and resting, of humanity fully alive and living, engaged and engaging, loved and loving.

Soulful activism is the force of non-violent resistance to injustice and dehumanizing forms of praxis. Non-violence is not a tactic; it is a way of life involving how we think, feel and act. Non-violence is not a passive force; it is the active force of compassion in pursuit of justice.

Soulful activism embraces respect for creation and honors the inter-being and interdependence of life.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with Soul Force.”

Soulful activism in its simplest form expresses the commitment that we can change ourselves and we can change the world, that within that commitment we encounter that which many name as god.

Engaging Soulful Activism:¹⁰

Slow down, stop……………………. and then, get involved as circumstances permit

Offer your time, energy and support ……………………. and then listen, pray, meditate

Take time to:                                               and then:

walk, read, study………………………………………. organize, write, converse

Act up and act out.………………………………………………………. do nothing

open to silence……………………… break the silence or be silent depending on context,

                                                        practicing hospitality, practicing stewardship, worship, play and politics

 ¹ This is playful reference to a line from a Mary Dickinson poem, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ Changing position is to change perspective, revealing, perhaps, hitherto obscured truths. See footnote 3

 ² See footnote #4.

 ³ That there is no spiritual/secular split is also astir within the term ‘secular theology’. As John Caputo says, ‘secular theology means that the secular order is not a neutral and transient means to a religious end. The secular order is the realization of the kingdom of god…it means both that theology is realized in secular structures and that secular structures can be traced back to an implicit theology.’ See Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim p.83.

 ⁴ If the hinge allows for movement, all the well, but if the hinge is but the means for slamming the door, locking it shut, then I would advocate becoming unhinged, longing, loving, perhaps with abandon.

⁵  All texts present various readings – those reflecting the usual common-sense hermeneutics, alternative readings revealing other interpretations and counter readings which trip us up by flying in the face of the usual. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic, theologian and marvellous contrarian, provides a counter reading of today’s gospel. In a context in which the superiority of the contemplative path was the common teaching, Eckhart counters with a figurative reading of the text in which he praises Martha for combining both the active and contemplative path while Mary languishes at the feet of Jesus, her faith not robust enough to withstand the work of the world. While his interpretation is different in detail (responsive to his context) we make a similar point, the need to balance both the contemplative and the active path. We each seek to reveal the blind spots of our respective cultures by faithfully playing with sacred text in order to serve faith, hope and love.

 This is the concept of ‘ubuntu’ or ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered a definition in his book No Future Without Forgiveness: ‘A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.’ Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008: ‘One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.’

 ⁷ In the movie Gandhi, this is the response of Gandhi when he hears of the plight of starving farmers in an Indian province.

 ⁸ The only thing absolute about the pursuit of truth is the conviction that, in any decision or action, we may be wrong.

 From the speech I Have a Dream, delivered at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Consider also the following quote from King’s Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967, ‘I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’

 ¹⁰ This is never a fixed list. It is ever adaptive, changing according to the needs of circumstance: context, age, available resources and so on.