On the third Monday of each month, Christ Church provides a worship service at HomePlace and McCarthy Court, over on McCarthy Boulevard. Jane and Melinda assist me over there, and we make a great team. There was a woman who lived at Home Place, a dear, sweet woman, who would warmly greet us when we arrived, and thank us profusely for coming when we left. She would tell us how much it meant to her that we would provide communion. She grew up in St. Louis as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. She was one of four daughters and had a twin sister, who by her telling could not have been more opposite from her. The woman at HomePlace was named Martha; her sister was named Mary. Martha told me on more than one occasion that she loathed the Gospel story we heard today because so many times, Martha is made out to be the wrong choice of the one to follow. There have been countless articles and books written about “being” Martha and Mary. Which one are you? You should be Mary, but you’re acting like Martha. Tsk Tsk… “How do you pay attention to Jesus and not look lazy,” Martha once said to me with a smile. “And when you and your sister, your twin sister, are named Mary and Martha, and your dad preaches on that Scripture… well, every eye in the church is you during that sermon.” My favorite was the two or three times she’d put her hand to her forehead and say, “What were my parents thinking!?!”
Martha moved to Virginia Beach a couple of years ago, but our conversations came flooding back as I was reading the Gospel passage for this week. Martha’s stories about her own life experiences shed some light on all the modern ways we look at this story. We miss many of the implications that made it such a powerful example to Jesus’ followers and those early readers and hearers of Luke’s Gospel.
The revolutionary part of this story is that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. That was a place reserved for disciples, those who would go out and teach what the teacher had taught. And it was usually a role reserved for men. For as much as the Gospels like to tell us all the questions and grumbling that the main 12 disciples did, there is nothing recorded in Luke’s Gospel about their reaction to this situation. Maybe they know Marth and Mary and this is part of what happens with them. Or maybe they are tired of getting rebuked by Jesus and so they don’t want to say anything else.
Either way, there’s this moment that has a woman in equal standing (or sitting, as the case may be…) with the men are disciples of Jesus. And the one person who can’t stand it is her sister, who is sweating it out in the kitchen, making snacks or dinner for everyone. You can hear it, can’t you…
“Jesus! Will you tell my sister to get in here to help me!?” Martha says.
I picture a very chill and relaxed Jesus saying my favorite one-word sentence: “No.” To be honest, I kind of wish that Jesus had been more explicit in his invitation to Martha to sit and join them. But he says something along the lines of “there’s always time to cook and clean. Right now, be like your sister. Sit. Listen.”
I’m reminded of the cover of Sports Illustrated last summer after American Pharaoh won the Triple Crown. They had a beautiful shot of that beautiful horse crossing the finish line. And nearly every single human hand in the picture is holding up their cell phone to capture the moment. (Before you say, “oh… young people today…” remember that they aren’t usually the ones who can afford track-level, finish-line seats. At the Belmont. When there’s a Triple Crown on the line.) Huffington Post called it the saddest picture of American culture in the Twenty-First Century. Instead of living in that historic moment, they watched it through a 5-inch screen.
And instead of sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing what he has to teach her, Martha gets all worked up about being a good hostess. How many times have we (and I’m so, so guilty of this, too!) thought we knew good and well what we were supposed to be doing, but we hadn’t taken the time to be prayerful about it. Is this what I’m suppsosed to be doing? Where do you need me, Lord? And be willing to wait and listen for the answer!
The tragedy of the Mary & Martha story is how our 21st Century interpretation has painted it as an “either/or” kind of choice. We either sit at the feet of Jesus or we are busy with the worries and work of the world. We are either working on those important matters in the world, or we are focusing on Jesus. Now, I want to come to Martha’s defense a little to say that the work of hospitality and welcome, the work of being a parent or a child or a friend or a sibling is important work. The work of giving a voice to the voiceless is important work. And holy work. Sitting in our living room or a quiet chapel or under a tree and pondering Jesus is a nice thing to do, but it doesn’t solve the problems of racial injustice or children who will go to bed hungry in our community tonight. But not taking the time to be in the presence of the Holy, to hear what our God has to say about these things, thinking that we know best and not asking God for guidance and direction… that won’t solve those issues either.
Martin L. Smith is a noted author and teacher of spirituality. He spoke at Sewanee this summer when I was there, and he talked about the importance of the re-marriage of Spirituality and Mission. For too long, he said, we’ve thought about ourselves as being connected to God as Spiritual beings on a human journey, or we have sought to be mission-minded, to advance the Gospel. But we have been miserable at seeing how important it is for those two things to merge together. They have to be seen as interconnected and deeply dependent upon each other!
We cannot do the important work of the Gospel, even the work that the Prophet Amos calls us to in today’s Old Testament reading, we can’t do that work if we don’t’ take the time to sit with Jesus, to listen to Jesus about how he wants us to respond to the needs of the world. Otherwise, we will be so caught up in the busyness of the work that we forget that there is a better way.