July 21, 2013: Mary and Martha Really Need Each Other

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

I don’t know if you’ve noticed. Jesus can sometimes be annoyingly inconsistent. He tells one person to do one thing, and a little later he tells someone else to do the opposite. He tells a Jewish lawyer to take his moral cues from a despised Samaritan. “Go, do like him.” Now Luke tells us Jesus is shifting direction.

We’re at Martha and Mary’s front door. The doorbell rings. Surprise – it’s Jesus dropping by at meal time. Martha welcomes him in. Immediately, she rushes to the kitchen, worried, panicked. She thinks, “What can I whip up for the Lord?” Jesus goes to the den, finds Mary and they begin talking. Martha waits in the kitchen for Mary to come help. She eavesdrops again. Jesus is still talking to Mary. So she starts banging pots and pans. She listens again. Jesus is still talking to Mary. Martha mutters so they will hear her, “What’s so important that Mary can’t get in here and help me?” Either no one’s listening or no one cares. Martha now steps into the den, and in a sweet, calm voice says: “Jesus, my sister, bless her heart, needs to be in the kitchen. Can you send the dear thing in here, PLEASE!” And the fun begins: “Martha, Martha” – Martha squared. Jesus is serious. “You are worried and distracted by many things. You only need one. Mary has chosen it. She’s staying put right here with me.” That’s Jesus’ misdirection. Are we to “go and do,” or “sit and listen?”

I knew a self-acclaimed “Martha.” She didn’t tolerate Marys – and couldn’t figure why Jesus did. “Jesus got it wrong on this one,” she’d say. I feared her enough to look busy when she came around.

I learned this Martha/Mary thing from my mother. Like Luke’s Martha, she thrived in the kitchen. People would call the house for Mom: “I hope you’re not too busy. I’m going home from the hospital tomorrow afternoon.” Mom would spring into action – a pot of soup, a pan of rolls, a casserole, and then complain how no one helps. I’d grab my Bible and read it feverishly when she’d talk like that. I figured Jesus could get me off the hook. Mom was absorbed too: get the job done. If I fell and hurt my arm, she’d say, “Stop the bleeding yourself. I’m busy.” Okay, I exaggerate, but it seemed that way. Feeding others, throwing dinner parties, and preparing meals, was how she expressed love. She was dedicated and appreciated.

That’s Martha in Luke’s story. She shows her love to Jesus by doing the good and faithful host things. After all, Jesus needs to eat. Not taking care of the guest will get you written up by Miss Manners. Martha does what is needed. She’s the Dean of hospitality. It’s in the Torah. No else seems to care – just dear Martha. No wonder my Martha friends get miffed when Jesus gives Mary a shout out.

I can’t imagine Jesus wants us to think Mary is superior to Martha. Both sisters welcome and receive him, but in different ways. Today Martha’s gifts so distract her she can’t see what’s going on. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem to die, and she doesn’t seem to get it. Something is more important than prime rib and a good Cabernet right now. Jesus loves her enough to call her out and get her undivided attention.

We can become so distracted, we fail to realize not everyone sees the world as we do. Out of that place within us of worry and fretting, we don’t realize how we try to control others. Maybe that’s why people are so divided and uncivil these days. Worry, anger and fear shut us down. We fail to listen to each other or pay attention to what matters that’s right in front of us.

What worries and distractions keep you from Jesus right now? Maybe Jesus is so annoyingly inconsistent because people and situations need different responses. Sometimes we need to recognize when we need to act. Other times we need to be quiet, listen and center ourselves in the divine. Martha and Mary need each other.

Contemplation and prayerful reflection – worship is a place we can rest, listen, and refocus. These days fewer people make time to listen for God, which I find to be sad. Even in here, we can feel so rushed, distracted and worried. We think, “Why don’t the 8:00 folks like music?” (or, “Why do those 10:15 people like singing?”) “The preacher’s boring.” “The readings are too long.” “How many will be coming to dinner this evening?” I know – distractions nudge God aside for me too. Yet Jesus faithfully calls us to sit and listen – to the one who loves us. And then do we leave to think about all this until we become re-distracted?  Don’t we pray, “Send us into the world, to love and serve you?” Jesus unites the Martha and Mary within us all.

I met a woman once – well-to-do – well-healed Southern belle. Not a lot of people knew how she supported literacy work in the inner city, with her checkbook, and volunteering as a tutor. I asked her one day, “Why do you write checks and volunteer. Isn’t one enough?” She said, “Funny you should ask. One of my students, a father and grandfather, retired now, had never learned to read. He was embarrassed that his grandchildren might know he couldn’t, and he wanted to be able to read to them. So, he enrolled in our program. He asked – just the other day, ‘Lady, why do you want to come down here and work with someone like me, week after week.’ I told him, ‘On my own, I wouldn’t. I’m here because Jesus sends me.’” And then I begin to understand how Martha needs Mary – and Mary needs Martha. In God’s reign everyone is needed – everyone matters.


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