Today’s sermon begins just before the 25 minute mark.
Let’s start this sermon with a little audience participation. Here’s the question: having listened to our Scripture reading with whom do you most identify? Who here is Team Mary? Who here is Team Martha?
Here’s the problem with what we just did. We just fell into the trap that people often do with this story–we aligned ourselves with one or the other of the sisters. I know I set it up that way, but the reality is that readers and listeners often gravitate unconsciously towards either Mary or Martha.
Lots of people say I’m Team Mary because Jesus seems to be giving her his blessing and even appears to be scolding Martha a little bit. By the same token some of us feel sympathetic towards Martha and even identify with her. So here’s the thing: The reality is much bigger than simple “good/bad” and “either/or” judgments. Mary and Martha’s story is full of rich gifts if we are willing to look more deeply.
Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus are close friends of Jesus and we hear more about that in John’s Gospel. But for today we hear from Luke that Jesus has been welcomed by Martha into their home. He must feel very familiar with them because he sits right down and begins to teach, with Mary sitting at his feet. But there’s drama: Martha is “distracted by her many tasks.” She has a lot to do to entertain Jesus, who likely has brought a group of disciples with him, as was the custom in that day.
The way the word “distracted” translates from the Greek is “to be pulled apart, pulled around, pulled in many directions” (I think of the expression “whipped around”). So Martha confronts Jesus, asking him to get Mary to help her. The original text here translates as Martha standing over Jesus in an overwhelming, frantic, confrontational way. Jesus isn’t fazed and simply says, “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.”
So that we don’t demonize Martha it may help to understand that repeating a person’s name as Jesus does was a form of speech in that day that was actually very compassionate. From our perspective we may see it as a put down or a rebuke, but it was more likely said in a tender way, much as one might soothe a frightened child by repeating their name. Jesus isn’t so much scolding Martha as he is concerned for the anxiety that is causing her to suffer. The words that describe her anxiety can be translated as “apprehension, catastrophizing, worrying about future dangers, being emotionally upset and distressed.” Clearly, Martha is fighting a painful internal battle and Jesus gets that.
I love Martha, not over and against Mary, but as someone with whom I can identify. She’s a hard worker. She’s highly responsible. She’s probably very organized. She’s extending hospitality which was a huge cultural, and even religious, expectation in her day. But she’s also overwhelmed. Her mind is spinning out of control as she thinks about all that needs to be done. I get that.
Anxiety is my frequent companion, because of the genes I inherited and the environment in which I grew up. I have no doubt that I became a therapist and a yoga teacher in an attempt to work out my own salvation, to slow down the hamsters that can run without ceasing on the hamster wheel of my mind if left unattended.
I’ve achieved some peace as a result of my lifelong studies and the tools I’ve acquired, but I’ve also come to recognize that anxiety is a worthy opponent. It can sap the energy and joy out of us in the blink of an eye. It can keep us from expressing our gifts, from reaching out to others, from knowing the peace and wholeness God greatly longs for us to enjoy.
Anxiety has actually been a mixed blessing for me. I’ve found that I am really good at organizing stuff because my anxious thinking leads me to predict all the ways situations could go wrong and come up with a variety of strategies to organize myself or my environment. It also helps me empathically tune into other people’s pain and burdens. It is, however, NOT a blessing when I feel like my body and mind are going to explode into a million pieces, when I cannot sleep at night, and probably most importantly, when I feel like I am all alone in the universe and everything depends on me.
I could be wrong but I think that at the core of Martha’s pain was that feeling of being so alone and so responsible. Perhaps as anxiety hijacked her imagination she was fantasizing about how everything could go wrong in a heartbeat and she would be to blame. “Martha, Martha.” I have so much empathy and appreciation for you.
And what about Mary? She’s certainly a model of deep devotion to Jesus, someone he lifts up as an example of discipleship. But she might also be that family member or friend whose head is in the clouds, whom we resent for not helping with real, down to earth responsibilities. Faith’s a great thing, but those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves, Mary!
What happens, however, if we stop pitting Mary and Martha, and the action and contemplation they have come to represent, against each other? What if we see their leanings and their gifts as all of one piece? The Gospel writer, Luke, certainly does.
Scholars suggest that we need to hear Mary and Martha’s story as the second half of the Good Samaritan story which immediately precedes it. In that story Jesus not only praises the Samaritan man who takes action, who serves his supposed enemy, a Jew, with great faithfulness and energy, but also ends by saying to his hearers, “Go and do likewise!” And in the Mary and Martha story he talks about the importance of Mary’s contemplation, a gift that will not be taken from her.
The Gospel of Luke is filled with examples of service–the word is diakonia, from which we get the word “deacon.” But it’s also filled with examples of prayer and times of rest. Turns out, at least according to Luke, that action and contemplation are not rivals, but intimate partners in the life of faith.
As I read it, the crux of this story is really Martha’s anxiety. She actually undermines her deep desire to serve by putting Jesus, her guest, on the spot. Anxiety has a way of doing that, of undercutting our best intentions. When it overtakes us we can lose sight of our most cherished values and say and do things we bitterly regret. And as I said earlier, anxiety is a very lonely place, a place in which we feel abandoned to our worst fears, to the larger than life catastrophe fantasies our minds churn out in morbid detail. Anxiety is a place in which we imagine we are separated from God and everything depends on us.
“Journey Inward, Journey Outward” is one of our mantras here at Forest Hill Church. I’ve heard people in the community refer to Forest Hill as “the peace and justice church” and the church that really “walks the walk.” In fact, we are seriously committed to service and radical hospitality. On our recent pilgrimage to Europe Richard and I were privileged to hear a homily by the Pope about the need for unconditional love and service as opposed to doctrinal rigidity. We also visited places that have embraced and served people of every race, religion, and economic status through the centuries. I kept thinking of you all throughout that trip and feeling so proud of the way you embody those same values on the Journey Outward.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The negative news that ceaselessly bombards us weighs us down body and soul. On a more personal level some of us have been traumatized by the fire at Fernway School this week. Others of us continue to struggle with illness, financial concerns, loneliness, injustice and grief. A lot of us worry about what the future holds.
So I’m wondering if we can hear Jesus calling our names. Instead of “Martha, Martha” fill in the blank with your own name and imagine Jesus tenderly calling you to the center, to a place of peaceful connection with him.
That place is always there, but we come and go rather fitfully, often allowing stress, busyness and a distorted sense of our own responsibility to pull us in a million directions.
Perhaps it’s the quiet place you find when you soften your body and come back to your breath, or engage in any physical practice that slows you down.
Perhaps it’s that place of prayer you find when you carve out time each day to be quiet with God.
Perhaps it’s that place you find in nature.
Perhaps it’s in study and prayer groups with other believers.
It may even be when you are serving others because many of us feel closest to God in those moments, although the trick there is to work in a spirit of meditation as opposed to an ego-driven need to please others or be responsible for everything.
In the end, it boils down to a relationship with Christ, in whatever way that works for each of us. It’s having even the tiniest bit of faith that Christ is always calling us to the Journey Inward for the pure joy of connection, but also as a way of equipping us for the Journey Outward.
That invitation is a call to bring all that we are– our doubts, fears, and wounds, as well as our joys and celebrations.
It’s to rest with Christ early and often, knowing that that connection of unconditional love gives us the inspiration and power we need to be of service to the world.
It’s the part that can never be taken from us. Thanks be to God.