He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”
Will you pray with me? Holy and loving God, you are present in our lives, as near as our breath, as close as our hearts. Give us grace to perceive your presence, and to speak with you honestly, lovingly and often; to hear your word for your lives, and having heard, to do. In your own holy name, amen.
Sisters. I know something about sisters, being the fourth of five girls—no brothers. Having four sisters gives me some experience and authority on the subject, I think! With seven people in the household, we all had chores to do. I don’t have to tell any of you about the many jobs that have to be done to keep a house clean, organized and functioning—and of course those get more complicated with more people. I remember emptying wastebaskets at the age of six or so as one of my first tasks—taking the trash bag around the house to the various wastebaskets in bedrooms, bathrooms, the laundry room, the kitchen—and then hauling it out to the garbage. Later I was responsible for mowing the lawn and gardening—which I loved, because I was good at it and also because we had one of the first riding mowers in the neighbourhood and I got to drive it! But trying to get help around any of it---well, my sisters had their own jobs and didn’t think they needed to help me too!
Can you imagine what it must have been like in Jesus’ day to run a household? Talk about a full-time job! The bread—which was a big part of their diet—had to be baked fresh every couple of days, from scratch; marketing had to be done pretty much every day because there was no refrigeration and food didn’t keep for long; meals had to be cooked over fires and in ovens fuelled by charcoal; small gardens of vegetables and herbs had to be planted, weeded, and harvested; goats to be fed and milked; clothes had to be washed by hand (which is probably why they were only washed every few months!); sweeping the floor was done with a straw broom….everything done by hand and many things we do once a week or less had to be done every day.
That was everyday reality for Mary and Martha. And then Jesus drops in with 12 friends—suddenly Mary, Martha and Lazarus had 13 more mouths to feed, 13 more beds to find and arrange, not to mention the usual weeding, feeding, milking, etc. No wonder Martha snapped at Jesus! Here she is, working hard to be sure everything is right for Jesus and the disciples, taking on more chores and tasks—and there’s Mary, sitting and just listening.
I wonder if Martha wasn’t thinking something like, “Great, MARY gets to sit and listen to Jesus. I’d like to do that too, but if I don’t make sure there’s enough bread and go next door to borrow a couple of serving bowls, and get to the shed and milk the goat, there’s not going to be enough for everyone to eat, and that’s not how I want to treat Jesus. Why can’t she help me to get done earlier and then maybe we both can listen to Jesus?” I know I would be thinking something like that!
So—Martha’s pique is understandable, for sure. But listen to what Jesus says. He doesn’t say that what Martha is doing is useless or shouldn’t be done. He does say that Mary has chosen the “better part,” though, and I think that needs some examination.
Often this text has been used to insist that women should be liberated from their traditional roles and freed for study and contemplation. Certainly that is true—prayer and learning and teaching shouldn’t be confined to men only.
But the larger message is that no one should be kept from a closer experience of God because society expects something else from them. Last week we talked about the Good Samaritan, a person on the margins of society who acted as if he were in God’s realm; he did what others did not expect—he cared for someone whom society expected him to ignore and not care for. In today’s reading, Mary, who as a woman would usually be expected to in fact help her sister (I’m guessing Martha is the big sister; don’t you think?) is also transgressing those expectations, behaving in ways not accepted or usual for women in her society—and Jesus defends her.
Most of us, I think, want to take Martha’s part—I know I do, and not just because I’m her namesake—but because we’ve been in her place. We see something we think needs to be done and someone we expect to help us is off doing something that we think is useless or beside the point at that moment. My sisters talking to friends or playing or reading instead of helping me weed the garden irritated the heck out of me.
But I know that I also feel a bit guilty about Martha’s attitude, because I tend to see myself in this scene way too easily. I can see several issues—for one thing, why didn’t Martha talk to Mary herself? Classic triangulation there, where Person A, who has an issue of some kind—anger, annoyance, affection even—with Person B, talks to Person C instead of Person B. More importantly, though, I recognize my own tendency to get caught up in the maintenance kinds of things, to do what is, maybe, mindless and easy instead of the hard and challenging work—making dinner instead of making disciples.
Don’t get me wrong—both are needed. Once people are committed Christians, they need to be fed—or at least to be shown how they can feed themselves, so to speak. We need Marthas to feed people, and Marys to listen to God. Both are needed—one is not better than another. In order to have a good, balanced relationship with God, both personally and in church, we need not only prayer but action. Martin Luther put it this way: "I have so much to do today, I'd better spend an extra hour in prayer."
Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae is emphasizing two things—one is the glory of Christ. That’s the first part of the reading, what is often called a hymn to Christ. But in the second part, he is emphasizing the need for focus on God and God’s teaching, not shifting around to find something more interesting or exciting or, maybe, easier. He talks about the difficulty of this—it’s not easy, he says, but the ultimate reward is beyond words—God’s realm, our presentation “whole and blameless” before God.
Religion, someone once said, is easy—read the Bible, go to church, pray, visit friends in hospital. Faith, however, is more demanding.
In other words, it’s not difficult to go through the forms—to do the expected thing, to act the way others expect you to act. It gives a form and a shape to your life—church on Sunday, Bible study Tuesdays, and Thursday night is choir practice—and helps you look good in your family and friends’ eyes. But to have faith is much harder. It’s about believing, about doing what you do because you have thought and prayed and considered and listened to God and know it is the right thing to do—even if other people don’t think it’s a good thing, or a wise thing.
Mary was acting in that faith—she recognized the presence of God and was available, listening, learning, at his feet as a disciple would be. I think that Martha was jealous of that—that she wanted to be there listening to Jesus too, that she wasn’t just cranky about having to do all the work—maybe because I think that is how I would feel!
The church feast of Mary and Martha—which is celebrated on July 29, coming up next week—is shared between the two sisters to reflect how they balanced each other out, and that the church recognized it. It is entirely appropriate too, that the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, the Philadelphia Eleven, as they were known, were ordained on that day in 1974. One of those eleven women, by the way, was the well-known theologian Carter Hayward.
We need both action and reflection in the church, and in our lives. We need to listen for God’s voice—take that time to just sit and listen and pray—and then take what we have heard and go into the world in the strength of that word and act on it. There was a time in my life when I was making some major decisions and I needed to really talk with God. I would get up very early, before anyone else in the house, make coffee, and then just sit and think and pray. I had long conversations with God in those mornings, about what I was doing, what I needed to do, whether what I had done was the right thing.
There are so many things to distract us from spending time with God in this world—some of them fun, like computers and sports and movies and music; some of them serious such as our paid work and our partner and family. Some of them provide excellent—we think—excuses for not taking the time, such as church work and those simple household chores everyone has to do like paying bills and doing laundry. Sometimes I look at people I know who clearly speak to God regularly and listen for the answers, and I think they must be smarter or better or maybe even more committed to Christ than I am—as many people think of Mary, and so say that Martha was treated unfairly. But the story of Mary and Martha is not about who is better or more committed. Both Mary and Martha were committed to Jesus—Martha offered him hospitality, Mary wanted to learn from him. Luke doesn’t imply that Mary is better than Martha, and Jesus doesn’t say that either. This is about recognizing, knowing, what is important and urgent—when there are so many demands on us, many of them legitimate and moving—and knowing what is truly urgent and necessary, what is really needful, and focusing on those things first. It’s about setting priorities.
Management theory and books are full of ways to set priorities—they are usually in the context of to-do lists or goal-setting. Generally they talk about setting priorities and making time for them each day, or perhaps goal setting and then breaking down those goals into do-able chunks. My favorite is the story of the jar. The idea is that you put the big rocks (or tasks and goals) in first, then the gravel, then the sand, and then water. These represent the various tasks and goals in your life. The point is not that there is always room for one more task. All those items would never have fit if you had tried to put the gravel in, then the sand, then the big rocks. But if you place the biggest, most important items in first—the big rocks—then the less important ones (the gravel), and so on, they will all fit in.
Our relationship with God is the biggest rock there is. Put that in the jar of priorities first; make that time to pray, read, listen and talk to God. It doesn’t matter so much what it looks like, as long as it is time with God. Coffee on the deck first thing in the morning, as I did; a soak in the tub in the evening; time after dinner in a quiet room—they’re all ways to have that time with God. The important thing is to do it.
Does anyone remember the next story in the Gospels about Mary and Martha and Lazarus? Lazarus dies, and Jesus comes back to Bethany. Martha must have really wanted to listen to Jesus too, that day when he was at the house, because she clearly has done some thinking and praying. When Jesus arrives to resurrect Lazarus, Martha and Jesus have an extended theological discussion about Jesus being the messiah—she’s the first to use that term to him—and he treats her as an equal in that discussion. She has learned that time with Jesus is more important than worldly things—important as they may be on a daily basis—and that in order to keep her focus on God, to keep from shifting, as Paul puts it, she needs to take that time to simply BE with God.
Take that time; whatever it looks like for you—but take it, away from any other distractions like driving or a workout, even a devotional. Listen for God speaking to your heart; respond; carry on that conversation with God. Hear what God is saying to you.
And then, having heard it, get up and go out and do what God has for you to do.
Without that time of listening, our activity is busywork. But without action, our listening becomes passive self-absorption. Both are needed.
Pray—and then act.
In the name of the living God, amen.