Faith United Methodist Church

July 17, 2016

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  Luke 10:38-42, Colossians 1:15-20a

Prayer for Illumination:

Holy God, you care for our needs with your compassionate presence and teachings. Holy God, be our Guest, accept our seeking presence, and bless us with understanding. Amen.

Sermon:                   Mary or Martha? Who’s the Saint?

Here in New England we are products of our Puritan past ~ what we call the Puritan work ethic. My father exemplified this for me, more than anyone else. When I was growing up he would leave for work at 6am and work an eight-hour day for New England Telephone. He was a lineman, so his work was outside in the summer heat or the winter cold. He spent his days in manholes or on telephone poles installing and repairing telephone lines.

Dinner in our house was always promptly at 5pm so Dad could eat and still have a few hours of daylight to do his second job, caretaker of the United Methodist Campground where we lived. In the summer he would be mowing lawns, watering flowers, cleaning bathrooms and doing minor repairs until dusk. In the winter he would plow snow or crank up the heater in his woodshop and work on projects that would benefit next year’s camping season ~ new picnic tables, new street lights, that sort of thing. He would have agreed with Aristotle’s words, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work,” had he read them. Dad didn’t read books or have any favorite TV shows. He didn’t have hobbies so much as he had work. My Dad was a Martha.

My Mom was (and still is) more of a Mary. She enjoys reading for pleasure and learning. She keeps up to date on her favorite TV shows. She enjoys concerts and museums. Vacuuming will be postponed in favor of seeing a good movie. Sharing food is more about the company than about the meal ~ although she is a very good cook!

I like to think that my parents were role models in balance for me. (Although one might say that, with their differences, it is not surprising that their marriage ended.) I like to think I have a little bit of Martha and a little bit of Mary in me. I know how to work hard when a job needs to get done, but I can appreciate a chance to relax and let down. A day of reading on the couch is not a wasted day.

So I have a some trouble understanding Jesus when he says to Martha, who is complaining about her sister’s lack of help in the kitchen, “Mary has chosen the better part…” Jesus essentially dismisses all the hard work done by Martha. It’s not easy putting on a dinner party ~ as those of us who’ve done Dine Around Nine know ~ and Martha wanted things to be special for their friend, Jesus. Mary wasn’t necessarily doing anything wrong, but who’s to say that Mary’s way is the better way. Doesn’t Martha get any credit?

There is a book called, “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World,” that explores the tension between these two sisters. It is true that we live in a world that values accomplishment. We love rags to riches stories. Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart are two “Marthas” who have the fame and fortune to back it up. “Marys” are often portrayed as dreamers with their heads in the clouds ~ artists, writers, musicians ~ who play around while the rest of us get the real work done. The American myth is anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and Marthas know how to do just that.

But what about Marys? Marys are the ones who teach us how to be mindful. While Marthas develop high blood pressure Marys practice meditation. Marys remind the Marthas of the world how important it is to take a breath, look around, and give thanks.

Is Mary the saint while Martha is the drudge? Is Martha the saint while Mary is irresponsible and unreliable? I don’t think the question is quite as simple as that.

One thing we know about Jesus is that he liked to use the element of surprise in his teaching. His parables were often shocking. Those who work through the heat of the day get the same pay as those who worked only an hour. A man, finding treasure in a field, sells all his positions to buy that field. Bridesmaids who run out of oil for their lamps during their long wait for the groom get locked out of the party. These are all pretty drastic responses to everyday circumstances.

Given this teaching technique of Jesus’ I wonder if Jesus is emphasizing Mary’s devotion to make a point. As Kate Huey put it, “Martha’s task-oriented approach to hospitality distracts her from the actual person she is welcoming, while Mary’s focus on Jesus is single-minded.” Women of Mary and Martha’s day were not usually welcome in the men’s sphere…..which included the sphere of learning. That Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him was an unusual act for a woman. Jesus tells Martha (and us) that sitting at his feet and listening carefully is as essential as providing a good meal and welcoming our guests.

We need Marys and we need Marthas. The Marthas of the church do amazing things. Again, in the words of Kate Huey, “…think about what the church would do and be without these folks, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when they’re needed to be pouring the coffee and putting out the baked goods. What would happen to church potlucks and, by extension, the gathering of food items for food pantries, the work to combat hunger and feed the world? And what about our hospitality ministry, when we don’t go into church and pray until we have stood out there, by our door, and made sure that everyone has received a warm greeting and a welcome to our worship? Is that what this story of Mary and Martha means, that sitting and listening and praying and learning are more important, more valuable, more holy than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? I don’t think so.”

I think this is a teaching about balance. We need to take action and serve others and busy ourselves with the needs of the world AND we need to be nurtured by times of reflection and quiet, of simply being with God.   We need both Marys and Marthas and, perhaps, we each need to nurture a little bit of Mary and a little bit of Martha within ourselves.

Henri Nouwen once wrote that our lives, while full, are often unfulfilled. “Our occupations and preoccupations,” he said, “fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives.” Let us serve and be served. Let us teach and be taught. Let us work and rest. And let us recognize the gifts within and around us, the Marys and the Marthas we bump into every day. Thanks be to God for these everyday saints. Amen.