Between Martha & Mary
When asked what surprised him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama answered, “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices his money to recuperate his health. And then he’s so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never lived.”
Long before Internet, reality shows, or other mindless distractions Jesus taught us something about living in the present, in mindfulness. It comes from Luke’s gospel; what happens in that space between two sisters named Martha and Mary.
In the ancient world, hospitality was a big deal. Since there were no hotels like we have today, travelers relied on families, friends, and even strangers to welcome them in for some respite from their journey.
When someone dropped by, it was commonplace for everyone to stop what they were doing to help out, and make that person feel right at home. This seems to be the case when Jesus stops by to see Mary and Martha, the sisters of his dear friend Lazarus.
As the story suggests, Martha expected her sister to help prepare a meal for their guest, and not plop down at Jesus’s feet while she did all the work. I get why Martha complains. There’s an imbalance in the way it’s supposed to work.
When Kathleen returned to college, I took over a lot of the duties she did. She didn’t ask me to do this, I stepped in because stuff needed to get done. During this time, I had a few Martha moments – banging pots and sighing loud enough for the neighbors to hear – because I wanted my kids to help get supper ready. Who could blame Martha for doing the same?
Having said that, I also identify with Mary who jumps at the chance to sit at Jesus’ feet, taking on the posture of a disciple. If given the opportunity I’d exchange sweating over a hot stove to learn directly from him.
I’m curious to know which sister you are more like. The striving Martha who busies herself with the practicalities of life. Or the mindful Mary, who understands the importance of being present. Maybe you are a little of both, like me; constantly striving to find the divine presence in your everyday life. Of course, there’s a third person in this story.
In the space between Martha and Mary is Jesus who accepted the invitation to find refreshment in their home. I’m convinced Martha wants this moment to be perfect for her special guest.
But when she complains about her lazy sister, Jesus just smiles and says, “Martha, Martha, Martha. Stop getting so anxious and distracted.” Although we don’t know how Martha reacted to Jesus’ answer, I’m sure it’s not what one wants to hear when the pot is boiling over and the bread is burning.
Now, I’ve heard a number of sermons that make Martha out to be the bad person in this story. But I don’t think Jesus sees her that way. Luke does not suggest Jesus is upset by her busyness. After all, he wants to eat, and someone has to prepare the meal.
Phil Hooper suggests Jesus says these things to his hostess because she’s worked herself into "a state of anxious distraction" over something as basic as lunch.
Have you ever thrown a dinner party, only to spend the entire time in the kitchen making sure everything goes according to plan, and still everything goes wrong? I have. Ask my wife why I am no longer able to use our outdoor grill.
If we only focus on Martha’s frustration, then we miss the bigger point. True hospitality isn’t about making a perfect meal. It’s about being fully present. Martha’s focus is on her sister when it ought to be on Jesus. For he is the One who gives our work meaning and significance.
Jesus calls out Martha, not to chastise her actions but to awaken her heart. He knows that all the cooking and cleaning and the tending to the small, daily things can open the door of possibility for the divine in-breaking of God in our lives. (Hooper)
But if we’re not paying attention, when our work is not done mindfully of God’s ever-present love, then we might miss it. And we’ll miss the peace and wisdom that comes with it.
Mary’s actions teach us that our presence, our full attention, is the most important thing we can bring to the table.
Jesus doesn’t want us to lose our focus of him … in the many things that worry and distract us in our daily life. Take a moment to think about the “many things” out there distracting us. Not just the big stuff like the pandemic, our politics, and prejudices that still plague our communities. But the little stuff too. I mean how many times have you been distracted during this message?
Just as we need God’s full attention and presence on us, so too does God need ours. The best way to do this is by keeping our focus on Jesus. This is what Mary does. She takes the opportunity to be in God’s grace and glory by being present with Jesus. As Luke states, Mary has chosen the better part.
Again, Jesus isn’t trying to make Mary out to better than Martha. That’s not his style. He’s inviting Martha, and all of us, to enter that sacred space where God comes to meet us in real life. The dichotomy between the two sisters isn’t either/or. It’s both/and. We are both Martha. And Mary. Our needs are both internal and external. Christ both sustains us. And summons us to be his heart and hands in the world.
One of my favorite church stories is about St. Bonaventure - a man who struggled to accept his call to be a monk. Because of his crappy attitude, he was given the job of washing the dishes after every meal.
Bonaventure made it very clear to his Abbot and the other monks, that he hated and despised this task. Yet it was there among all the messiness that this saint developed a deeper understanding of his calling. And more importantly, made a deeper connection to Christ who had called him to serve.
Bonaventure’s story shows us that service comes in all forms. Some more glamorous than others. But it’s all needed in the kingdom of heaven. We often see monotonous tasks like doing the dishes, or dusting, or folding the laundry as annoying necessities rather than acts of holiness.
But not Bonaventure. Like Martha and Mary, his commitment teaches us that “The path to sainthood does not lie in showy ostentation, in external honors and achievements, but in the mundane, humdrum tasks of daily living.”
In a pile of dirty dishes, in the hunger of a crying child, in the sewing and mending, in this sacred space, God comes to meet us and make real change happen. To quote Tish Warren, “God is forming us into a new people. And the place for that formation is the small moments of today.”
Divine transformation is carried out in real life, where we dwell with God and one another. But if we are distracted, and not fully focused on the One who transforms us, then we might just miss it. And miss out on all that God wants to give us.
As you go out into the world, may you never lose sight of Christ in your midst. He’s not just in the busy work, but he’s also in the homeless man at the off ramp; in the addict passed out in the park; and in the elderly widow who’s terrified to go out into the world.
When we are able to see Christ in these heavenly bodies, then we will be able to see Christ within us; transforming us from inside out.
The crisis and challenges that worry and distract us are the very places where God comes to claim us and call us and bless us with love. That love, my friend, is the good part of life that Jesus says, will never be taken away.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010.
Hooper, Phil. Trick Question. episcopalchurch.org. July 10, 2022 (accessed July 15, 2022).
Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy of the Ordinary: sacred practices of everyday life. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 2016.
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”