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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Martha, Martha

A Sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church,
Milford, DE
Pentecost IV - Proper 11 C

Apparently, this is the summer of The Gospel Greatest Hits.

Last week we heard the well-known and of't preached story of The Good Samaritan. 

This week the story of Mary and Martha - those two wild and crazy girls from Bethany - is on tap. 

I don’t know two other women – sisters – who, in the history of scripture stories about women, have been more seriously stereotyped.

Some sermons – even some of my own in the past – at least try to avoid the whole stereotype thing by encouraging us to find “balance” in our lives. 

When we haven’t been told that to sit at the feet of Jesus is much to be preferred than the busyness of Martha, we’ve all – male and female – been admonished to find ‘balance’ in our lives – between the busyness of work and the demands of family life with the need to nourish and care for our souls.

Which, of course, is good advice. If only if it were that simple, right?

My dear and good friend, Lindsay Hardin Freeman has written a couple of books* about women in scripture. I love the way she portrays Martha.  She writes that Martha has the likely characteristics of being “practical, hardworking, outspoken, domestic, hospitable, faithful, loving and . . . (my particular favorite) . . . 'tenacious’”

She sounds like lots of women I know and love – many in my circle of family and friends.

Lindsay asks that we put ourselves in Martha’s place, and imagine
You are making dinner for Jesus and his friends, which is over a dozen people. You were the one who invited them but it’s a much larger group than you thought.

You can tell they haven’t had a good meal in weeks. They’re ravenous. Andrew and Bartholomew are already nodding off in the corner. Let’s see…. food for fifteen. Fish would be good… we’ll have to get that, and lots of water at the well. Maybe some pickled herring and pretzels. Wine? Someone will have to run and get it. Jesus turned water into wine once, but his mother isn’t here to make him do it now. Figs. Figs would be good after dinner.

Soon the floor becomes more crowded, for in first-century Palestine, it is normal to stretch out on one’s side to eat. You need help. Where is Mary?

Ah, of course: at Jesus’ feet. You tilt your head, showing Mary that you need her. Nothing. You gesture with you hand. No response. So you ask for someone to be the bad cop. “Jesus, tell Mary to help me, would you?”

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replies, “Your distractions overpower you. One thing for dinner is enough; one stew pot is plenty. Mary has chosen the better part.”
Found on the Internet. Can I just say, "UGH!"?
Not moi, of course but some biblical scholar have described this scene as the first recorded incident of ‘mansplaining’ (Although, I wish I had thought of that.)

Okay, you can groan. In Jesus’ day, that was just the way it was. He didn’t know about ‘multitasking’ or I’m sure he might have re- framed what he said to Martha. 

Because, although it was ancient Palestine, I suspect Martha, being 'tenacious' might just  have clocked him with a water jar.

I grew up in a houseful of Martha’s. Those women knew how to multitask. One of my favorite memories from my childhood is that of the women in my family. At one point or another, they all took the same stance which they learned, of course, from their mother, my grandmother.

That stance would be standing in front of the stove, at least three pots going on at once – one in the front in a full boil, the back two on simmer, which she would give an occasional stir.  

She would have had a baby on her hip, a child sitting on the floor at her feet with a step stool as a desk of sorts while she drew on the blank back of an old calendar (which my grandmother and every woman in my family saved for just such a purpose). 

She would also be pulling a third child out from under the table, most likely a kid who had snatched a cookie or something from the pantry or who had had a ‘hit and run’ with another child and was hiding under the table.

Oh, and she did all of that while either reading or reciting a bible verse – the bible propped up on the shelf above the stove – or, perhaps, singing a hymn, and, in the process, teaching us about Jesus and his unconditional love for us. 

She did this not only by telling us and singing for us the stories of Jesus, but by the lives of faith she lived. 

You could miss that last important bit of the story by focusing only on the busyness of the work required of women who are mothers and homemakers and, well, multitaskers. They understood that it was all part of the whole. That caring for children, and cooking for their families and any work that they did outside of the home and studying scripture is ALL the work of ministry.

It’s all about caring for the people of God as a way to serve God.  

The women in my family taught me that a holy life is one that is integrated – the bitter with the sweet, the hard work with the fun, the drudgery with the laughter, the ridiculous with the sublime

Here’s the thing that gets lost in the story of Martha and Mary and the squabbling we imagine and stereotyping to which we fall prey. 

Jesus was doing a very radical thing. 

Not only was he allowing a woman – Mary – to sit at his feet and learn about God along with a roomful of men, he was, in his own way, gently teasing way, inviting Martha to do the same.

I want us to stop and appreciate that for one minute. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age just how outrageous and scandalous that was for him to have done, but it was.
My friend Lindsay notes that 
..... tradition has it that Martha went on to become a missionary, traveling as far as modern-day France, intent on spreading the word about Jesus and protecting his people. Often pictured with a dragon at her feet and an asperges (a container used to splash holy water), she is credited with saving the people of Aix (en Provence) from a dragon hiding on the banks of the Rhone River.

Ah, Martha, Martha. For Jesus, she would do whatever needed to be done: make meals, sweep the floor, shelter the disciples, proclaim Jesus as Lord – even kill dragons.
Many of us do the same sort of multitasking. And, yes, it is important to find a balance in our lives. 

Even more important, however, is to learn what the women in my life knew and taught me: integration

It is possible to do more than two things at once. Don’t let life’s distractions overpower you. 

The trick is this: to understand it as all being connected to each other and to God.

One of my favorite memories of my grandmother was that she would hold up her hand and say, “I have four fingers and a thumb. Each one is different from the other, yet they all belong to the same hand. And, the hand is poorer if one is hurt or injured or lost. Just like a family. Oh, we can adapt and adjust, but we can be so much better if we work together.”

So, here’s a question - or more: How different would your work be if you understood it as part of your ministry? 

Or, if, perhaps you considered that the work you do IS your ministry – that it  is what you do in the world in order to serve God? 

Whatever it is, in whatever profession or industry, if you are doing it because you are using the gifts and skills with which God has graced you and your find satisfaction in it, you are doing the work of ministry.

Perhaps you aren’t in a traditional ‘helping’ industry, but if you think about it, there is something that you do that helps improve the lives of people. 

If you are a manager, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day when you help inspire an employee – professionally and personally.

Perhaps you are called upon - in some big or even seemingly insignificant way - to make an ethical decision or a moral choice. Surely, you are bringing your Christian ethic into the workplace. 

If you are “just” an employee, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day, when you do something small, something seemingly insignificant, which makes a difference either in the life of a fellow employee or even your boss.

If you "just volunteer," you obviously don't do it for the pay. You do it for the satisfaction. 

If you think about the parts of your job that give you the most satisfaction, you will find there some of the gifts and skills which God has given you. You’ll find there your sense of vocation.

I know I know. That’s not what you’ve been told. You’ve probably understood that work has to be hard.

But, what if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you? Does not the Psalmist say, "Delight yourself also in the Lord: and you will receive the desires of your heart?" (Psalm 37:4)

What if your heart’s desire – that which gives you the deepest satisfaction – is, in fact, your vocation, your calling?

Perhaps you are a parent – a grandparent – an aunt or uncle or cousin. I happen to believe with all my heart that family life is a vocation. It’s a calling to a life of sacrificial yet deeply satisfying love. 

It is in the Petri dish of family that we come to know and love ourselves by knowing and loving others – or, sometimes, not. 

Family life is the ultimate balancing act – which is why so many of us fall and get bumps and bruises – and yet somehow, we find what it takes to get back up and multitask and integrate our way back into some semblance of normalcy.

We are all, each in our own way, male and female, both Mary and Martha. Sometimes we need to balance. Sometimes we need to multitask. 

Sometimes, we allow the distractions in life to overpower us.

But the women in my life taught me that we are at our best when we integrate all the different and varied parts of our life into an understanding of ourselves as children of God, one part of the family of God, each doing a part of the work that will make us, and our world, whole. 

And, when we are whole, we are more of the person God created us to be; we are holy.

I have come to believe that the ‘better portion’ scripture talks about is made even better with a little bit of both the Mary and the Martha who lives in us all.


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