Homily for Mass of the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C + Dempsey Medal

17 Jul 2022

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 17 July 2022

It’s a quintessential rags-to-riches tale. Having failed to land a teaching job and needing to support herself and her husband who was still studying, Betsy Sanders took a sales apprentice position in a department store for less than $2.50 an hour. Her ‘temporary’ employment with Nordstrom ended up lasting two decades, by the end of which she had risen to Vice President, as well General Manager of the Southern Californian Division that was by then turning-over a billion dollars in sales a year.[i] Sanders says that the secret to her success was taking seriously Nordstrom’s mission statement: “To provide outstanding service every day, one customer at a time.”[ii] Nordstrom built its brand on highly personalised customer relations; they even provided change rooms and tables for parents with bubs long before such things were commonplace. They understood that their clients were real people with real lives, not just consumers.

Sanders documented her approach to leadership in her 1995 best-seller, Fabled Service. The book recounts the transformative effects of service on both the one serving and the one being served. Interestingly, the most cited witness to her commitment to service wasn’t her inspirational speeches to staff or her excellent business decisions, but her small, quiet, everyday gestures: things like inquiring about an employee’s sick child, answering the phones when staff were busy, or helping serve customers during the holiday rush. Sanders argues that truly great service is about doing ordinary things with extraordinary care, going above and beyond to make people feel valued.

Of course, it’s good business sense. We are more likely to return to a retailer that makes us feel special, greets us warmly, remembers our name and tastes.[iii] Commercial psychologists have identified physical and psychological health benefits for both customer and sales assistant in acts of good service: both experience improved blood pressure, reduced stress and endorphin-driven warm feelings.[iv]

In today’s first reading, Abraham encounters what the sacred author calls ‘The Lord’. Are they one or three? Are they men or angels or gods? Abraham addresses them together as “My Lord” (singular) and they appear and disappear mysteriously. There at Mamre is the very first intimation of the Trinity in the history of humanity (Gen 18:1-10).

Face to face with the mystery of the divine, Abraham’s immediate impulse is to serve. He implores the three-in-one to stay and he and Sarah offer hospitality. The God who would one day dwell with men and enjoy human company demonstrates extraordinary intimacy with this couple who will sire the Chosen People and be ancestors to that God-made-man. No abstract principle, ethereal presence or terrifying force, this God: He is a communion of persons seeking communion with His creatures. And Abraham, the man of faith, responds.

Today’s Gospel is also about being in the presence of God and serving Him (Lk 10:38-42). Jesus was a regular at M&M’s place and clearly loved them both.[v] Yet He seems to be sharp with poor Martha. Like Abraham and Sarah, she’s frantically trying to be hospitable to their esteemed, maybe even divine, guest. Her sister Mary, on the other hand, is caught up in the conversation. Martha assumed the rabbi would take her side. But she—and we—are in for a surprise! Instead of lazy Mary, its workhorse Martha who gets corrected. What are we to make of Jesus’ judgment today? Do we have to pick a side too?

In a sense, yes: we are always deciding where to put our attention and energy, into listening or speaking, being or doing, and sometimes there is good reason to prefer one to the other. More long term, we must also cultivate particular character attributes, whether it’s our Martha side or our Mary side. And if our ultimate destiny is to sit at the Lord’s feet, enraptured by His beauty, truth and goodness overflowing into our souls, then today’s scene is about getting us ready for that heaven,[vi] and warning us against earthly cares that might take us off course.[vii]  

So, yes, sometimes we have to choose to be more Mary than Martha. But as the great readers of today’s text point out, when Jesus says Mary’s is the better part, He does not deny that Martha’s is a good part. St Augustine says that if Jesus were really blaming Martha for her service, we’d all have to give up our care even of the poor—which runs contrary to Jesus’ teaching in many other places. St Teresa of Avila says Martha and Mary must learn to live together, within us and within any community.[viii] And St Thomas Aquinas says that the apostolic life of Martha is a good part, the contemplative life of Mary is the better part, but the balance of both in Jesus is the best part of all![ix] Or to put it another way: while particular times or circumstances mean we have to be more one than the other, still we must aspire to both Martha and Mary, and integrate them as an active listening and thoughtful action.

Martha’s problem, then, is not that she was serving others—which Jesus says we must[x]—but rather that she was doing so distractedly and fretfully. Instead of mindless activism, we need to think through what we should do and why and how best. We should look before we leap. And Martha was not a thoughtless person: at Lazarus’ death she professed the Church’s first creed: “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). So sometimes she got it just right. But like us she could be distracted or fretful. She needed to focus, to be attentive to the Word of God, to be in His presence and listen to Him. That too is service. And it precedes and informs all other Christian service.

Amidst all the sensory overload of noise and imagery, the hustle and bustle of never-ending progress, the endless activity of production and consumption, the distracting gadgetry and more, it can seem as if our world is trying to make us forget God. Even more dangerously, we can neglect God not out of pursuit of something less worthy, but in the very acts by which we imagine we are serving Him. We can become spiritual Marthas, telling ourselves that there is just too much godly action required right now and that we will ‘waste time’ sitting with God later. But later may never come. Or when it does, we might realise we’ve been going about serving God in the wrong way.

Martha is active in today’s scene but at Lazarus’ death she is contemplative: Mary is contemplative in today’s scene, but she could be active also. It is Mary who jumps up to greet Jesus when He arrives on the scene of Lazarus’ death and Mary who later anoints the Lord’s feet in preparation for His own death (Jn 11:1-44; 12:1-8). But she knew that Lord and those feet because she had sat before them soaking up Jesus’ words. Our philosophical and spiritual traditions both wisely place a high stock on contemplation. Christ didn’t just tell us to pray, He modelled it Himself.[xi] St Paul recommends that we pray without ceasing (1Thes 5:17). The eremitical and monastic traditions give prayer and contemplation such a high priority that it becomes the whole purpose of life. And while most of us are not called to be desert fathers like Anthony of Egypt or monks like Benedict and Scholastica, their saintly example reminds us of the dangers of being distracted Marthas and the need to cultivate our Mary side, if only to be better Marthas. Our Dempsey medallists today offer stellar examples of the integration of faith and action, of contemplation and service, as they have been volunteers to the sick and needy, sacristans, sacramental coordinators, catechists, and ministers of holy communion, event organisers, choir and committee members, formators and more within their Catholic parishes, agencies and groups, or in witnessing to the world beyond. As today’s Mary-Marthas and James Dempseys, their ordinary acts of extraordinary service, provided to one soul at a time, are what bring people and God close and build up God’s Church today. Congratulations and thank you!

[i] Betsy Sanders, Fabled Service: Ordinary Acts, Extraordinary Service (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc, 1995), vi.

[ii] Nordstrom Mission Statement 2022 | Nordstrom Mission & Vision Analysis (mission-statement.com) See also for example Robert Spector and Breanne O. Reeves, The Nordstrom Way To Customer Experience Excellence: Creating a Values-Driven Service Culture (New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, 2017), xvi-xxiii.

[iii] Serving up a great restaurant customer experience strategy | Deloitte US

[iv] Helpers High The Helper’s High – PubMed (nih.gov); Rodlescia S. Sneed and Sheldon Cohen,’ A Prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults’ in Psychol Aging (2013) 578-586 A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. – PsycNET (apa.org);  Generosity Might Keep Us Healthy – Scientific American

[v] Mt 21:17; 26:6-13; Lk 10:38-42; 24:50; Jn 11:1-14; 12:1-11.

[vi] St Gregory the Great, Moralia on Job 6.

[vii] E.g. Mt 6:24; 13:22; 19:16-24; Mk 4:19; 10:17-25; Lk 8:14; 12:13-21; 16:13,19-31.

[viii] St Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, ch. 4.

[ix] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae IIa IIae 179-88 esp. 182.

[x] Mt 5:42; 20:28; 23:11; 25:35-40; Mk 10:44-45; Lk 3:10-11; 6:27-45; 10:37; 12:33-34; 22;27; Jn 13:12-15.

[xi] Mt 6:9-13; 14:23; 26:36; Mk 1:35-36; 6:41; Lk 9:8; 10:21; 11:1-9; Jn 12:27-28; 17:1-26 etc.

Introduction to Mass of the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C + Dempsey Medal
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 17 July 2022

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Today I have the privilege of presenting the Dempsey Medal, celebrating those who’ve given outstanding service in the Archdiocese. The medal is named after James Dempsey (c.1768-1838), a prominent Catholic lay leader in the early colony. Living through the convict period, when prejudice towards the Catholic population was intense and the faithful lacked regular priestly leadership for 32 years, Dempsey’s efforts to build up the Church were heroic. He offered his home as a place of gathering for the Catholic community, encouraged prayer and catechism, accompanied the condemned to the gallows and, once there were clergy, helped establish the first St Mary’s. Today we award the Archdiocesan medal to others who, like Dempsey, have contributed to building up the Church in Sydney and beyond through their acts of service.

Along with our regulars, I welcome in attendance this year’s Medal recipients, with their families, friends and fellow parishioners, as well as any visitors: a very warm welcome to you all!