July 17, 2016
This is one of the more familiar stories in the bible; Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha is very busy doing the housekeeping chores. A couple stories; newlywed Jennifer called her mother very upset. She explained that her husband Ted wasn't happy with her. “Ted told me I was a terrible housekeeper. I got so angry, I ran into the...uh...what do you call it...oh yeah, the kitchen.” Many of us remember Roseanne, not exactly known as a domestic wizard. She said, “When they comes out with a riding vacuum cleaner, then I'll clean the house.” Oh, and I saw this posted on line, “I keep seeing 'housekeeping schedules' on Pinterest. Here's my housekeeping schedule - do the absolute minimum until someone's coming over, then clean like a crazy person.”
It seems like Martha was the one working like a crazy person in today's gospel. And it seems that often the message on this story is to decide which sister got it right. I'm going to suggest today that there wasn't one right and one wrong, but that they were both honoring the Lord in the best way they knew.
That said, and despite what Jesus said to Martha, I tend to be more of a Martha type. Julie is often telling me it is okay to just sit for awhile. But sitting and listening doesn't come naturally to me. In learning styles, we can see this. Julie can tell you that all children don't learn the same. Even in our family, some learn by listening, some by reading, some by being busy while they listen.... There is no right or wrong but we would be in big trouble if we were all Mary's and no Martha's or vice versa. The work needs to get done. We need some time to think and sort out the important things of life.
I said I identify with Martha, and it is a bit offensive to me that Mary gets praised for, well, doing nothing. Picture the scene. Martha probably spent most of the day cleaning and cooking and now it was time to serve and she was exhausted. And she was after all, doing it for Jesus. It was all being done for Jesus. And while this is not supposed to be the case today but too often is, it was the responsibility of the women to do the preparation and serving. In the Middle East in the 1st century, there was a law of hospitality. When you brought someone into your home or into your tent, you had a moral obligation to provide for them whatever their needs might be. So Martha was busy fulfilling the duties of this law. In light of this, Mary was neglecting her duties. And Martha knew this, and Martha was sure to point it out to Jesus. "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." I'm sure she was confident that Jesus would rebuke Mary and Martha would feel justified. But he didn't. And it is hard to say that he didn't rebuke Martha just a bit, telling her Mary has chosen the better part. That's hard for us doers to hear. But it is a reminder that time spent with Jesus is to be a priority in our lives. It is so easy to find excuses not to spend that 5, 10, 15 minutes with the Lord in prayer and reading and listening and meditating. I know it's hard and most of us probably fail more than we succeed. But it is the better part. Make time. And can't you picture Jesus later in the evening, when the meal is being served and he sinks his teeth into that roast lamb, lavishing Martha with praise for her great skill and service for the group. There is a time and place to sit at the feet of Jesus and a time to do the work for Jesus.
Mary and Martha, while sisters, each had their own personality. We each are created as unique individuals. We each come from different backgrounds, even family members have unique upbringings. Times change, situation change. Judy talked last Sunday about our compulsion to judge. And we aren't good judges because we judge base solely upon the limited information we have; that includes our education, our family situation, our experiences. Our country is in a period of renewed tension. And much of it comes because we all tend to make judgments and they must necessarily be based on our own experiences. Police have to make split second decisions, but not independently of their biases and prejudices ingrained from a young age. Our minority friends, African American, Latino, Hmong also make their decisions based on their own biases and prejudices. And those are going to be different than we middle class white citizens of Litchfield. They just are. My prejudice, largely because I have a Brother-in-law who was a police chief in a suburb of St. Paul and a nephew who currently serves in law enforcement, my prejudice is pro-police. I understand that...and a side note, I very seldom get seated on a jury because of it. I struggle with the other view of the police as bad guy. But about 3 weeks ago, I had a dream...no, not Martin Luther King Jr-esque—but it actually happened. And I got up at 1:30 in the morning to write it down. It left me with a feeling I needed to record. In the dream...and I don't remember a lot of details, but we were living “on the wrong side of the tracks”. Our kids were going to stand up for something they saw as wrong that was happening at graduation. And we knew there was going to be trouble, our neighborhood was going to be under siege from others and also from the police. I knew in my dream that we were in real danger from the police... a feeling I've never had in real life. I woke up with a better, yes just a baby understanding, but a better understanding of what some of our brothers and sisters of other races face...guilty without doing anything wrong. Living in that situation changes so much of how we will react to the police, to authority. I think it is important for us to realize how differently we view the situation than those without our advantages. It comes from generations of misunderstandings. It comes from centuries of mistreatment and mistreating.
While we were discussing Judy's sermon last Sunday, we discussed how differently we react. I said the I'm not naturally a protester. I said if it was up to me, we'd probably still be British citizens as I am not the revolutionary type. But we obviously needed revolutionary types 240 years ago and perhaps we need them today to open up the channels of communication and expose our biases and prejudices. At the same time, it is important to understand what is being protested and what the solutions proposed may be. Calling for an end to police departments really isn't a workable solution. Creating opportunities for communications between the police and those who feel victimized is. Killing innocents to make your point is not acceptable.
I'm out of my area of expertise here, but I don't believe we can truly be the church without considering how our faith works in the day to day world. And I don't know of anyone here in our sanctuary who is directly affected by any of this. But our worldview, our ways of understanding people who are different from us, our words used in discussing matters like this are all a part of our faith lives. And words do matter. Too often any words we share on the subject makes us either friend or foe. There is too seldom middle ground. And the wrong word to the wrong person leads to violence or death far too often. Scriptures warn us about the power of the tongue; we see it lived out in our society today.
I want to bring it home here, and to do that I want to get back to Mary and Martha. In a way, Mary was a revolutionary. I'm reading a fascinating book by Lillian Daniel called When Spiritual but Not Religious is not Enough. It so happens that Pastor Lillian's subject in the chapter I am reading deals with Mary and Martha. She points out that Martha probably listened as closely to the words of Jesus as Mary did, but being a multi-tasker, carried on with her work as she listened. And I understand that multi-taskers get annoyed with people who only handle one thing at a time. And when Jesus calls Martha distracted, well, let me quote Ms Daniel's wished-for response from Martha, “Don't call me distracted. I'm the only one with any focus around here. Everyone but me has been sitting around for hours. Can't we go do something? Please, can't we just get on with changing the world already? How dare you call me distracted!”
I can imagine that response at least going through the mind of Martha. Called distracted, she claims to be the most focused. What might Jesus have meant by distracted Martha? Again, from the book, “Perhaps Martha was distracted by gender, and gender roles, because they play an important part in this story (in) the historical context. You see, by sitting at Jesus' feet and listening, Mary was breaking a gender rule of the culture. Women weren't supposed to sit at the feet of gurus. Women were supposed to be serving the food.
So maybe Martha was distracted, upset even, by her sister's breaking of the social code. It wasn't that she needed her sister's help in serving all these men their food, but she was confused, maybe even threatened by her sister's behavior.”
I think we can make the connection between that scene at Martha's house and the scenes played out due to the breaking of too often accepted social codes. Jesus was saying to Mary, by honoring her actions, that in the new covenant those gender roles are no more. And it is for the church to lift up that truth. And to lift up the truth that racial stereotypes are no longer acceptable. There is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female in the body of Christ.
Pastor Lillian records her fictional response of Jesus, listen to hear him speak to all sides in the current racial divide we are witnessing, the minority populations reacting to injustices and to the police who may be too fixed in their own biases: “Mary, your place in society may be exhausting and confining, but your place in God's realm is open and restorative. Martha and Mary, there is room for you both, but in this moment, Mary has chosen the better part, because it's brave and its countercultural, and it's daring. Don't hold her back Martha. Don't put her down or make her feel small for doing this.”
Again, we aren't in the middle of the violence here in Lithfield. But we are in the middle of life, and there are people in our own circles of acquaintances who may need a good word of hope from you. There may be a old friend who needs a caring ear to listen. There may be a brave soul standing up for what is right that needs an encouraging word from you. There are people who have lost loved ones, lost home and property who need to know we care. We all have taken on the claim of being Christian, Christ followers. And that brings along a lot of expectations and even burdens that are not truly a part of our faith. We are reminded that our “place in God's realm is open and restorative.” We are free and we are to share with others the Word that sets us all free.
I'm thankful this morning for the Mary's and Martha's in our congregation. Those who make things happen, those who break the mold, those who listen to and learn God's word, those who teach, those who wash windows, those who greet the stranger in our midst. Our missionary friend, Jessica Hasselin posted on her facebook page about this violence paraphrasing the prophet Micah, “Do justly now, love mercy now; Walk humbly now!” That is what we are to be about. Let's leave the judging to God's ultimate wisdom, justice, and grace. Let's control our tongues, now. Let's be more accepting of other views, now. Let's work for peace now. And let's just love our neighbor now. Amen.
Hymn: When Will People Cease Their Fighting 401 PH