A Sermon about Mary and Martha

Our Gospel reading today (Luke 10:38-42) finds Jesus, traveling with a crowd, stopping at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha. There seems to be some problem around the visit, and we experience an exasperated Martha at the end of her rope demanding that the honored guest intervene in a family squabble.

Martha may be demanding that Jesus enforce traditional gender roles; or she may be voicing the often-heard complaint by the “responsible sibling” against a deadbeat one. But Jesus tells Martha that she is distracted by many things and that Mary, who has been sitting at his feet, has chosen the better part.

Many of us, upon hearing this story, stumble into the trap of thinking that the story is about Mary being praised for acting the way a man would act while Martha is belittled for doing the things we all know need to be done, and are often done by women ---- or thinking that this text is about how Jesus values contemplation over action. Frankly, many interpretations of this troubling story have caused hurt. My feeling about the Gospel is that it ought not to be used as a club.

So I don’t think this passage means that Jesus loves my colleague Stuart, who lives out a deep contemplative spirituality, better than Jesus loves me because I have failed centering prayer class three times and took a wrong turn in the labyrinth and got lost. That’s not the Gospel.

Nor does Jesus’ celebration of Mary’s role as disciple demand the denigration of Martha’s role as the one who does mundane chores. That’s not the Gospel either. After all, Jesus sent disciples into Jerusalem to make mundane preparations for the last supper.

So what is going on in this story? To see more clearly, it helps to look at the bigger picture. This scene comes early on in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He previously called some people to follow him, but they were focused elsewhere - one wanted to bury his father first, another wanted to say goodbye to his family first, and a third was not ready to give up his life of comfort.

Those who are following him have shown themselves to lack understanding about what discipleship means. Three weeks ago, the brothers James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish people in Samaria. Two weeks ago, the seventy who were commissioned to go out to cure the sick and receive the hospitality of strangers came back bragging about how demons bowed down to them. So we have seen a variety of instances of disciple and would-be disciple failure.

Meanwhile, last week, a lawyer came and asked a crucial question: what do I need to do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what the scriptures say, and the lawyer correctly answered: Love your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. The two great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor.

At that point, Jesus told a story about how to love your neighbor. Jesus holds up an unlikely hero - a Samaritan, someone Jews did not associate with - as the one who shows us that our neighbor is the one who is in the ditch, and the way to be a neighbor is to attend to the neighbor’s needs, rather than worry about observing customs. So last week’s story is an illustration of the second part of the lawyer’s question and response: In order to inherit eternal life, one must love one’s neighbor with compassionate action.

Now this week, we hear a story illustrating the first part of the lawyer’s question and response: In order to inherit eternal life, one must also love God. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him. She singlemindedly attends to his words. In this story we see another unlikely hero - this time a woman, someone whom convention suggests would not be sitting at the feet of the teacher showing us how to love God.

So, these two stories go together. One is incomplete without the other - Jesus tells the lawyer to go and do, but he indicates that Mary is right to stop and sit. Jesus is not contradicting himself in side-by-side stories. This is a both/and, not an either/or. It was always understood in the Old Testament that it is incumbent on God’s people to both hear and obey. The problem with Martha is that she is not able to hear because she is distracted by what she thinks duty calls for - just like the man who wanted to bury his father before he got around to following Jesus.

Martha got caught in the trap of not being able to discern the urgency of attending to God’s word when it has come near because she was distracted with things that were, in comparison, less important. Jesus is in the house - and so it’s time to listen to Jesus. From the very beginning, Jesus has proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near, it has come, the time is now, and all the conventional rules are overturned.

So, this story needs to be read along with the Good Samaritan story and in light of the previous stories of disciple failure. The Samaritan and Mary are good disciples, in contrast to the disciples who wanted to call fire down from heaven, who bragged about demons bowing down to them, and would-be disciples who would get around to Jesus when they had finished their other, conventional tasks. The good disciple attends to God’s word AND tends to God’s people but must know which is which and what is required when.

And Martha - well, Martha missed her chance to attend to God’s word because she was distracted by attending to conventions, just as the priest and Levite each missed his chance to be a neighbor by attending to conventions, just as the man who wanted to observe the convention of burying his father missed the chance to follow Jesus when he came near.

The final zinger that would have given the story special power to those who first heard it is that Jesus uses two marginal, unlikely people - a Samaritan and a woman - to be models of appropriate disciple behavior. ... Mary loves God and the Samaritan loves neighbor. These are the two great commandments. We, all disciples, whether male or female or insiders or outsiders, are expected to do both.

As it says in Ecclesiastes, or at least it would say if I had written it, for everything there is a season, a time to cook and wash dishes and a time to sit at Jesus’ feet. We promise in our baptismal vows to seek AND serve Christ in all persons - not that some of us will seek while others (who are second class) serve. Like the last part of the serenity prayer, we need the wisdom to know the difference between the time to hear and the time to do.

We need to cultivate the vision to recognize Christ when Christ appears in our lives so to stop and pay attention, just as we need to cultivate eyes of compassion to recognize a wounded neighbor by the side of the road and so to stop and attend to that neighbor’s needs.

How will we recognize Christ when Christ comes near? How do we know what the important, necessary thing is? How do we know when it’s the time to stop and attend to God right now this very minute no matter what else I’m doing?

How, indeed? Our lives are full of distraction. No wonder so many of us identify with Martha. We have appointments, we have work or school, we have friends, we have family, there are millions of messages coming at us every day from every side. How can we not be distracted? Sometimes I think that looking for Jesus in my every day life is like a live-action version of “Where’s Waldo?”

But it can be done. We can and should develop the eyes and ears to see and listen for God just as we can and should develop the eyes of compassion to see the needs of our neighbors. It takes practice - just as it takes practice to be good at piano or golf or our job or being a parent or friend. We have to learn how to stop everything and rest in God’s presence - a little at a time if that’s all we can do. We have to get used to the feeling of stopping and looking and listening and get used to the realization that the world will not end when we ignore its demands in order attend to God.

We learn this through very intentional practices to help us seek and connect with God in silence, in prayer, in meditation, in directed reading, in quiet conversation with a teacher or pastor or friend.

Some of us, like Stuart, are really good at classical contemplative practices like centering prayer, lectio divina, using prayer beads, silent retreats.

Some of us, like me, are more constitutionally doers and have to find other ways to create space in our lives to look and listen for God. I’m not likely to make it through 20 minutes of silence, but I can take three or four during daily prayers. I can chant Psalms or listen to certain kinds of music that help me feel closer to God.

I can’t walk the labyrinth without drifting into making a grocery list, but I can walk along a forest trail or beside the ocean and wonder at the beauty of creation and just get quiet so I can hear God’s whispers about who God is and who I am and what is important right now in this place and at this time. Such practice allows us to learn to look for God, learn to listen for God, learn to be ready from regular exercise of our looking and listening faculties to recognize when God has come near. Just as the regular exercise of our serving and giving muscles help us to recognize a neighbor in a ditch and give us courage to come to that neighbor’s aid.

Life in God is a beautiful dance of quiet and activity, of music and the pauses between notes, of looking and listening, of doing and rejoicing as well as resting in stillness. Jesus came to free us from the world’s demands, those conventional musts and shoulds that distract us from God and separate us from neighbor.

So, like Mary, love God. Like the Samaritan, love neighbor. See and hear. Listen and do. Love and love.

In the name of God: creator, redeemer, sustainer. Amen.