Thursday, August 1, 2013

of mary and martha

All Saints Episcopal Church
Proper 11, Year C
July 20-21, 2013
Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
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May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

I’m just going to come right out and say it. This passage in Luke’s Gospel drives me CRAZY! Every time I read it I can feel my temper (and therefore my blood pressure) rising. Jesus has just come over to his friends Mary and Martha’s house. Martha’s in the kitchen, slaving away to prepare a meal for Jesus and his disciples, while Mary is hanging out with the boys. At some point, maybe when the pot has boiled over for the third time and one of the dishes has burned, Martha can’t take it anymore. She storms into the room and chides Jesus for not making Mary help her in the kitchen, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40). In my opinion, it’s a completely justified request. But if she is expecting sympathy, she does not get it. In fact, Jesus tells her (in what I’m sure is meant to be an understanding tone), “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 away from her” (vv. 40-41). If I were Martha, my jaw would have dropped in amazement, and then, shaking from rage, I would have thrown up my arms, yelled, “Well then you can make your own dinner!” and stormed out of the house. But I’m not Martha. We don’t know how Martha reacted; that’s where the story ends for us. 

There’s probably no doubt in your minds whose side I’m on. As the oldest of four, I was often in charge of babysitting when my parents went out. Wanting to be a helpful daughter, I would suggest to my siblings that we clean up a little in the living room and kitchen, just straighten up, not scrub the floors or anything too extensive. My thought was that if the four of us worked together, we could get everything picked up in 10-15 minutes and then relax by watching a movie together. That way, we would get to have fun and our parents would come home to a nice, clean, house (and--bonus!--I would look really good in both my siblings’ and my parents’ eyes). But much to my surprise, my siblings didn’t listen to me. No, instead we would get into a yelling match, they would march angrily to their rooms, and I would end up spending an hour or more cleaning the living room and kitchen by myself, grumbling and muttering about how selfish and lazy my brother and sisters were. 

Maybe why the passage bothers me so much is that it feels like Jesus is speaking directly to me. In the process of trying to get my siblings to help me clean, I lost sight of why I wanted to clean in the first place. It started out as something nice for my parents, but it ended up being all about me and what I wanted and how I wanted people to think of me. I can just hear Jesus saying, “Lara, Lara, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

The story of Martha and Mary is sandwiched between Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan and Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. Through the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus has helped an interpreter of the law expand his definition of neighbor. Jesus then instructs the man to “go and do” like the Samaritan.

Go and do. Now that’s a statement I can get behind. I like doing. It makes me feel productive, helpful, needed. Just give me instructions and set me loose! Doing is important. Welcoming friends and especially the stranger by being hospitable is a major theme in the Bible. In addition, Jesus commands us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison--in short, to take care of people in need, our neighbors. If we didn’t go and do, then nothing would ever get done! But if, in the midst of going and doing, we get distracted by praise or discouraged by the hard work it involves, then we lose sight of why we are doing it in the first place. 

We’ve got much in our lives that distracts us. Material things, like cars, phones, clothes, gadgets. Worries: will I get ahead? Will I fit in? Will I get by? The word distracted in Greek means “to draw away” (Strong’s Concordance). All of these distractions draw us away from God, from the source of life and joy. When Martha is preparing dinner, she is more focused on the task than the people she is serving--she is distracted. Mary, on the other hand, while not necessarily being a good sister, is drawn toward Jesus. She chooses to engage with Jesus, to learn all that she can about God. This is why Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 42). Whether or not his friends understand this, he is only on earth for a limited time. Rather than spend hours fixing the perfect meal, he just wants to spend some quality time with his friends, teaching them about God.  

After this passage Jesus goes off to a “certain” place to pray (11:1). Responding to their request, he then teaches his disciples how to pray, a prayer that we continue to pray to this day. Prayer helps us to reorient ourselves, to align ourselves with God. Just as good communication (listening as well as talking) is vital for any earthly relationship, good communication (listening as well as talking) is vital for our relationship with God. When we pray, we thank the Creator for the gift of this life. When we pray, we ask for healing and restoration. When we pray, we remember who and why we are serving others. 

Passages in the Bible are organized very intentionally. The fact that the story of Martha and Mary is nestled between a passage on doing and a passage on praying suggests that doing and praying are equally important. Martha is right in wanting to serve others, but she forgets whom and why she is serving. Mary recognizes that serving is not only about action but also about recognizing why you are serving. This “is the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (10:42).

In my six years with All Saints, I have had many wonderful experiences. I have played with you and prayed with you. I have shared laughter and tears and food with you. I have studied and spoken and sung and served with you. I am a better Christian--a better person--for it. Thank you for the many opportunities you’ve given me to learn about and serve God. 

In this world of many distractions, may we be drawn toward God both in prayer and action, remembering that it ultimately God whom we serve. This, my friends, is the better part, which will never be taken away from us.

This perfectly captures what I imagine Martha's expression might have been (image found here

"Martha and Mary" by He Qi (found here)

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