“What’s a Martha to Do?”
Luke 10:38-42, Romans 8:38-39
March 17, 2019 – First Congregational Church of Meredith NH
Rev. Dr. Cathryn Turrentine
When I was a little girl, I went to church with my grandmother. She was a devout Southern Baptist, and a lot of what I know about God and church and living faithfully, I learned from her. She took me to church every time the doors opened. She taught me to put something in the offering plate whenever I was there, and she quizzed me on the children’s Bible verse each week, to make sure I learned it. She taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. It seemed she was always busy with church work of one kind or another.
My grandmother was busy outside of church, too. She was employed full-time, and yet she still sewed all my dresses. She believed that cleanliness was next to godliness, so her house was always spotlessly clean. She made elaborate meals at every holiday and she said she never really enjoyed them herself till the next day, when she ate leftovers, because she had been so busy cooking and serving and cleaning up on the holiday itself.
My grandmother was hard-working and dependable because she believed that this is what God expects of all of us. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” she would say. If you asked her whether she was saved by faith or by works, she would answer “faith” every time, but I think that deep-down, she suspected that God loved her for her hard work. Whatever her theology, she was first and foremost a faithful Christian who earnestly tried to do what she thought God expected her to do.
Does she sound like anyone you know? Anyone in this church?
One Sunday, I sat next to my grandmother in church and listened to a sermon about today’s Gospel text – the story of Mary and Martha. The preacher went on and on about how shortsighted Martha was for being so busy when Jesus was right there in the house, and he praised Mary for setting aside household tasks to listen to the Lord. From the time the scripture was read until the end of the sermon, I could feel my grandmother beside me, getting angrier and angrier. Finally, she clinched her teeth and whispered, “Martha doesn’t get enough credit, if you ask me. Somebody’s got to do all that work!”
My grandmother’s name was Ouida Ethel, but in her heart, she was a Martha. I like that image, actually. Martha was a strong and important woman. It was MARTHA’s home that Jesus came to in this story, not Mary’s and – interestingly – not the home of a man, as Luke tells it. Martha was the host for Jesus and the disciples for who-knows-how-many days. Now, we live in a beautiful vacation community, so I’m sure some of you have hosted crowds of friends and family on vacation. So you know how much work this is. Imagine all the preparations for 13 people coming to stay at your house for the next week or so.
Jesus and all those disciples depended on Martha to get the work done, just as my grandmother’s church depended on her and others like her to keep the church running. And I would bet that, like my grandmother, Martha usually enjoyed being the one you could depend on. Like my grandmother, Martha probably believed that this is what God expected of her. Like my grandmother, Martha probably suspected that God loved her BECAUSE she was always busy.
But on this particular day, Martha had had enough. Her lazy sister Mary was getting all of Jesus’ attention, and Martha was stuck in the kitchen with all those dishes and no help.
As we think about this story, we should begin with a reminder. Even though both Mary and Martha are women, this is not just a story for women, any more than the Prodigal Son is only a story for men. Bible stories are for all of us in one way or another, men and women alike.
I think that we – ALL of us – need to understand the story of Mary and Martha on two levels: the congregational level and the personal level. As a congregation, I think we would do well to listen to my grandmother, the Gospel according to Ouida Ethel: “Martha doesn’t get enough credit if you ask me,” she said. “Somebody’s got to do all that work.”
Let’s look at that one part at a time. Part 1: Martha doesn’t get enough credit. Every church depends on its Marthas, men and women alike, to get things done. You know who they are. You know who always shows up when work is to be done around here. You know who can be counted on to hand out bulletins or cook the meal or wash the dishes or set up the chairs or make the accounts balance. As a church, we need to be sure that the Marthas who keep things running get the recognition and thanks that they deserve. Saying “thank you” says I see you. I notice your work. I appreciate your faithfulness. This church couldn’t run without you.
But remember, there is a second half to the Gospel according to Ouida Ethel. Part 2 is: Somebody’s got to do all that work. As a congregation, we need to do more than say thanks. We need to spread the work around so that no one is stuck with any of it all the time. You know, it’s not just Mary who avoided the housework. Peter and James and John – ALL of Jesus’ disciples – could have made a bed or lent a hand with the dishes so that even Martha could have some time with Jesus.
This is especially true if we want our church to grow. I had a pastor once who said, “People join churches because they want a spiritual experience, and what we give them is committee work instead. No wonder they leave!” Put another way, people join churches because they feel the need to sit at Jesus’ feet, as Mary did, and instead, churches ask them to do the housework, like Martha. As we look to the future, we have to be sure to balance the necessary work of the church with the spiritual experiences that refresh and renew us all, or we will burn out newcomers and old-timers alike.
That’s how I hear this story at a congregational level. But we need to think about it at a personal level, too.
It’s tempting to say, “Jesus got it wrong, just this once. Martha’s the real heroine of this story. Everyone in that house is depending on her.”
As much as I want to defend Martha – as much as I HAVE defended her here this morning – I have to tell you that I don’t think Jesus got it wrong. But I do think that the preacher who annoyed my grandmother all those years ago got it wrong. His mistake, I think, was to take Mary and Martha as polar opposites: one person who did everything right and the other who got it all wrong.
But you know, don’t you, that none of us is perfect and none of us is perfectly sinful. We all have both strengths and weaknesses; we all have days when we make the right choices and days when we seem to live in our blind spots. So, when we read Bible stories we shouldn’t identify with just one of the characters, and certainly not with the hero of the story. Instead we need to listen for the ways that ALL the characters apply to our lives. We need to remember that we ALL have BOTH a spiritual Mary side and a busy, distracted Martha side.
On the one hand, we all yearn to hear God speak directly to us. No matter how busy we are, we are all Mary. And on the other hand, all of us have our Martha tasks to do, and sometimes we get caught up in them, as Martha did.
If we can see ourselves as whole people who embody both of the sides of this story, then we can hear it not as an accusation against Martha but as an invitation to all of us. God whispers to us, “It’s okay to come out of the kitchen and sit for a while.” God gives us permission to take a break and invites us to enter the conversation – that is, to pray.
God calls to us to sit peacefully and wait to hear what God has to say to us today. That’s what Mary did. The Bible tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.” God invites even Marthas (maybe ESPECIALLY Marthas) to look up from the distractions of the world for a while and enter the eternal conversation about life and death and love and truth. Be still … and feel the holiness that is all around us.
It is such an enticing invitation, isn’t it? – to sit a while and talk with God. But for all of us there will still be days when our work or our worries get the best of us anyway. We all get distracted by the daily-ness of our lives sometimes. Does the Bible suggest that God loves us LESS for all of our busy-ness? Of course not!
The good news for Marthas – for all of us – is in the passage from Romans that we heard a moment ago.
For I am convinced that neither death—nor LIFE—nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Being distracted by our tasks may keep US from seeking GOD sometimes, but it cannot keep GOD from seeking US. God loves us in the busy-ness of our daily lives. God loves us even when we make ourselves busier than we need to be, and God loves us in spite of the fact that we sometimes think it is our busy-ness that makes us good. We cannot keep God from loving us.
So, what’s a Martha to do with this story? Jesus says, make time for the Mary that is in all our hearts, and Paul says, trust God to love the Martha that is in there, too.
And, as a Martha myself, I say, thanks be to God for this grace!