July 18: A Martha Needs a Mary

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

I have just finished the “what can you do for us” inquisition session with the Vestry interviewing me for Rector. Next comes a Eucharist, including a sermon. I walk into the church, to see one of the Vestry members preparing the vessels for Eucharist. She lets me know she’s also the self-anointed Altar Guild dictator, and I needn’t forget it.

I walk toward the altar. She greets me sharply, “Well, I see you are using that Mary and Martha story from last Sunday. I despise that story. I am a Martha, and I get sick and tired of all the Mary’s who just sit around yapping, but don’t lift a hand to help. We’d be better off without them, and I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say so.” Since she’s larger than I am, if I’d had a piece of raw meat, I would have thrown it at her and run. Instead I use my best “emotionless pastoral voice,” and calmly respond: “You’ve thought a lot about this.” She continues to bust the Mary’s of the world. At least the parish paid my expenses for the trip – and I could go home the next day.

This woman is not alone. Christians divide into Mary and Martha camps, thinking Jesus prefers contemplative Mary’s to the driven, frenetic Martha’s of this world. Martha’s generally don’t care for Mary’s. Jesus’ comment to Martha doesn’t help close the separation. Here’s a possible reason.

Jesus and about a hundred followers are coming up the driveway, unannounced. Martha panics and rushes to the kitchen and starts banging pots and pans. Her sister is missing in action. Mary’s in the den, sitting at Jesus’ feet hanging onto his every word. Martha’s disgusted and enlists Jesus’ support to get Mary up and into the kitchen to help her. You know how someone in the Martha mode is – life’s unfair. One works, and one sits. “Do you think you could get out of that chair and help me? I worked all day, too. I can’t fix dinner keep the kids out of trouble, and get a hot meal on the table. Can’t you see I need help?” You have a deadline to meet, and get handed a new project on Friday afternoon, and no one offers to help. Yes, you’ll be a bit cranky.

Martha’s a whirling dervish of activity, panic and irritated at Jesus, especially when he says in front of all those people, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Worry about one thing – what Mary’s found. Lighten up, girl.” No one likes to be called out. Not be distracted, worried? Are you kidding? Martha’s can’t slow down – too much to be done. Besides, no one notices or cares about all that Martha’s have to do – and if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. Jesus invites her to reconsider, and assess what is essential and eternal.

Do you ever get distracted? I do. When I feel I have more to do than I can handle, and I get anxious and irritable, if I’m aware of what’s in my head and heart, I realize I have moved farther from God – distracted by many things, forgetting the better part so I can be present to you, others, the world. Are you aware of any thoughts you’re carrying here today that take you from God? What’s going on in your mind, even now? Do we listen for the movement and voice of God among us? Jesus is not rebuking Martha. He calls her and us first, into the better part – into an intimate relationship of love with the Father, to center and calm ourselves for the life and work at hand. Filled with peace and divine love, then we can get up and go serve, inwardly transformed and outwardly present bearing God’s peace and love for others.

How is Martha to offer hospitality to Messiah? Prepare a nice meal, or let the meal go and be attentive to what he gives? What does a church that is hospitable to Jesus look like? Are we one? Like Martha, churches can become distracted by many things and lose their way. They’re more concerned with themselves and what they like, than with listening to and being present for others outside their sphere. To outsiders we can seem more like an exclusive club rather than a movement of God’s love to all. Why are you here? I hope we are here to center ourselves before Jesus, read scripture together, receive the sacrament and rest in God’s unconditional love, staying long enough to experience your belovedness. Do we leave filled anew with God’s love and life to take into ordinary tasks – like preparing a meal, offering a simple smile to a stranger, seeing where we are needed and going there?

Churches also become distracted by many things. Some look successful on the surface. A pastor of a 12,000 member church, Disney designed campus with coffee shops, stores, and boutiques called time out. His people are happy, but he couldn’t sleep at night. He realized how self-focused this church had become, oblivious to social problems, crime, teen pregnancies and broken homes in the city. He wondered who would miss the church if it folded and disappeared. He suspected some weren’t there to be in relationship with God. They came to have their souls soothed, learn how to have a better life, find religious goods and services. When he called them to maturity, over a third left.[i] We must be clear – and not distracted by many things. Researchers say outsiders can sniff out whether a church cares for them, or whether they feel like all they are is a statistic. The closer we live to Jesus, the more we will fulfill God’s mission through us. The farther we are from God, the more distracted we grow – and lose what’s essential.

Not either/or, but both/and – we need both Mary and Martha. I encourage us to attend to God daily and personally. Then renewed and bathed in God’s unconditional love, we’re ready to be present to others, centered in the “the good, better part.” We are prepared to offer God’s hospitality – to those who come in here and to those God sends across our path in the world. Step back for a moment and think about the connection – listening and doing. Thanks Mary, and thanks Martha.

[i] “Risking our Souls,” in Congregations, Spring 2010, by James P. Wind


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