Ninth Weekend After Pentecost (RCL/C): “M&M”
July 16-17, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran, Manasquan, NJ
Most days I act more like Martha than Mary, so I read this Gospel and want to come to Martha’s defense. Many of us know what it’s like to have company say, “Don’t fuss! Let’s order out for pizza. We don’t want you doing a lot of work.” But when I have time, I would rather cook. And I don’t want to serve store-bought dessert; I want to bake it myself. My sister Sally and I have an ongoing debate about whether we’re going to use paper plates or our mother’s china for holiday meals and family get-togethers. She always votes for paper and I always insist on the “Sunnyvale” china if I’m the one doing the entertaining. (This could have to do with the fact she has 5 children and I have one. She’s done a lot more cooking and a lot more dishes in her lifetime than me .) Some of us simply enjoy setting a pretty table and spending time in the kitchen and we don’t want to be told not to fuss!
I think Martha could have gotten away with her entertaining preferences without mention in St. Luke’s Gospel if she hadn’t complained about her sister Mary’s non-participation. It’s like she said to Jesus, “Has anyone else noticed that I’m doing -- this much” [arms spread as far apart as they can go] and she’s doing – zilch -- nada [thumb and pointer finger glued together].”
Our church friend Waltraut Buser shared with me a wonderful piece she wrote over 25 years ago, entitled “IN DEFENSE OF MARTHA – A Letter from Martha to Jesus.”
Lord, you came to our house with a dozen or so of your followers. Were not your feet tired, were not everyone’s feet tired, and dusty from the road? How eagerly your disciples undid the thongs of their sandals when I brought in the basin filled with clean water! And I could see plainly that all of you were hungry and thirsty. Our big water jug was only half-filled. You know that we have no servant whom I could have sent to the well… Mary had already settled down at your feet, eagerly listening to everything you were saying. There was nobody else to fetch the water but myself. I filled the basin and then put the empty jug on my head and walked to the well. I hoped that Mary would cover the table with a linen sheet and put our earthenware mugs on it, the pretty ones I bought last year at the market in Jerusalem. Or maybe she would mix flour and water and heat the round stone and start making flatbread. But no – when I came back nothing of that sort had been done; even the basin with the dirty dishwater still stood by the door.
Maybe this is my fault, after all. Lord, you know that after our parents’ death the three of us stayed together in this house. Lazarus never married (and I was just as glad about it, but please, Lord, keep this to yourself), and Mary and I kept house. Actually it was I who kept house, mainly, what with being the eldest and being used to helping my mother with chores and looking after my younger sister. I always have been the practical one: I know where the best broom-grass grows; I can untangle the threads on the loom, and know how to tap pottery before buying so that you can hear whether there are hidden cracks. When I mix the dough for flatbread it always comes out just right – not too stiff and not too runny.
Mary will notice a flower that opened overnight. She likes to look at the stars and she even told me that she can hear the wind sing. Had she been a man, like Lazarus, she should have become a scribe. But she is a woman, and I tried to teach her all the womanly things; Lord, I really tried. But Mary never notices when the floor needs sweeping, or when the water jug is empty. Sometimes she will just stand, and look at the clouds, and have this half-smile on her face. When I ask her what in the world she is doing, she will look at me and say: “Oh, I was just thinking…” Lord, what can you be thinking when you look at the clouds? Maybe I should have been stricter with her. There is enough work around here to keep two women busy. Or I could have had it a little bit easier, with Mary doing her share. Lord, is it wrong of me to have these thoughts?
Anyway, when I came back from the well, nothing was done. I wished to honor our guests, and above everybody else I wished to do honor to you, Lord. I wanted to offer you cool sweet water to drink, mixed with some of our wine… and to offer you freshly baked flatbread with goat cheese… Lord, I would have liked to listen to you as much as Mary did. You know this is the truth, Lord. Wouldn’t it have been fair, right, and proper of Mary to help me? Afterwards, we both could have been sitting at your feet and listened to your words. You welcomed my hospitality and yet you said “only one thing is needful”…
What should I have done, Lord? Should I have sat down with Mary and listened to you and leave you and your disciples thirsty and hungry, with the dust of the road on your feet?...
Lord, I have walked fifteen stadia to Jerusalem to find a scribe. I did not want to go to the scribe in Bethany and ask him to write this letter for me. This is a matter between you and me. Lord, there is no peace in my heart, my nights are sleepless, and I catch myself staring at the clouds like Mary, and thinking… thinking… Lord, answer me. Please come back to Bethany soon. Martha (© 1990)
Dear, faithful, practical, caring Martha could have avoided the Lord’s criticism if she just hadn’t complained about Mary being AWOL from the kitchen. But occasional feelings of resentment and mini-meltdowns are a big temptation and occasional pitfall for those blessed with the spiritual gifts of service and of mercy. These are our brothers and sisters who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make ministry happen, and who don’t want or need accolades or applause from the rest of us who are so ably served and may not even realize it. Many folks around here serve when no one else or few others are around: counting the offering, cutting the checks, tracking donations, preparing the funeral luncheons, transporting food, weeding the garden, decorating the bulletin boards, calling Sunday School parents, practicing the anthem, delivering bread, laundering altar linen, putting out the garbage, straightening the pew racks, folding Celebrates, wrapping Christmas presents, teaching children, youth and adults, shopping for back-to-school gift cards, taking our youth on retreats and servant trips, visiting our ailing or struggling or lonely friends in hospital and rehab, in their own homes or wherever they call home.
Jesus’ comment to faithful Martha is a reminder to all of us that our service of neighbor must be rooted in love of God and nourished by God’s gifts of Word & Sacrament, otherwise our service will be stunted and our souls will be depleted. Martha’s comment to Jesus about Mary is a reminder to all of us that basking in and reflecting on God’s love is not enough – we must also act on it, embodying it for others.
Max Lucado wrote a great book we discussed years ago: Cast of Characters: Common People in the Hands of an Uncommon God. It features various people from Scripture, including Martha & Mary (and their brother Lazarus). Lucado reminds us that we need both Marthas and Marys to make a faith family tick:
Every church needs a Martha. Change that. Every church needs a hundred Marthas… Because of Marthas, the church budget gets balanced, the church babies get bounced, and the church building gets built. You don’t appreciate Marthas until a Martha is missing, and then all the Marys and Lazaruses are scrambling around looking for the keys and the thermostats and the overhead projectors.
Marthas are the Energizer bunnies of the church. They keep going and going and going. They store strength like a camel stores water. Since they don’t seek the spotlight, they don’t live off the applause. That’s not to say they don’t need it. They just aren’t addicted to it.
Marthas have a mission. In fact, if Marthas have a weakness, it is their tendency to elevate the mission over the Master…1
Marys are gifted with praise. They don’t just sing; they worship. They don’t simply attend church; they go to offer praise. They don’t just talk about Christ. They radiate Christ.
Marys have one foot in heaven and the other on a cloud. It’s not easy for them to come to earth, but sometimes they need to. Sometimes they need to be reminded that there are bills to be paid and classes to be taught… But don’t remind them too harshly. Marys are precious souls with tender hearts. If they have found a place at the foot of Jesus, don’t ask them to leave. Much better to ask them to pray for you…
Every church desperately needs some Marys.
We need them to pray for our children.
We need them to put passion in our worship.
We need them to write songs of praise and sing songs of glory.
We need them to kneel and weep and lift their hands and pray.
We need them because we tend to forget how much God loves worship. Marys don’t forget. They know that God wants to be known as a father. They know that a father likes nothing more than to have his children sit at his feet and spend time with him.
Marys are good at that.
They, too, must be careful. They must meditate often on Luke 6:46. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do what I say?”
Marys need to remember that service is worship.
Marthas need to remember that worship is service.2
There’s a packet of M&M’s at the exits for everyone to take home today. Get it? M&M: Martha & Mary. May the candy remind us that Martha’s service is sweet. Our service is sweet. Mary’s worship at the Lord’s feet is sweet. So is our worship. Both are necessary and holy.
By the way: Marthas can be flexible. We used paper plates at our last family gathering at the parsonage. Amen
1Max Lucado, Cast of Characters: Common People in the Hands of an Uncommon God. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), p. 59.
2Ibid, p. 61.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham