Many years ago, when I was serving in the Diocese of Delaware, I attended a clergy day in which we were to determine our spiritual personality type. I believe there were four possible personalities that we could be—Mary, Martha, Jonah, and a fourth that I can’t remember. I have absolutely no memory of which spiritual personality type was assigned to me, but I do remember a heated discussion ensuing about Mary and Martha.
Those who were identified as being a “Martha” were quite offended that their practicality, efficiency, and ability to get things done was being criticized and interpreted as something that was less than positive. They asserted that they wouldn’t have to work so hard if the “Marys” of the world would get off their collective backsides and do a little practical work themselves. From their perspective it is all well and good to meditate and pray, but, when all the praying and meditating is done, who is going to make sure there is something to eat. The Marys argued that the Marthas were just not spiritually deep enough and needed to chill out and calm down and go deeper in prayer and contemplation. Yes, we got more than a little sidetracked from the purpose of the clergy day.
And I think that this is what often happens to us too when we read our Gospel reading for this morning. We read this passage as an admonition from Jesus of a “hysterical” woman who is bitter because she has to do all the work and as praise from Jesus for the more “contemplative,” “spiritual,” and therefore “deeper” woman who makes the better choice to sit at Jesus’ feet. When read this way, those who feel more inclined to introspection and contemplation feel vindicated and those who prefer to express their faith through action and work feel confused (after all Jesus is constantly going on about the importance of service), frustrated, judged, and angry. When read this way, a spiritual hierarchy of sorts is created with contemplatives placed higher up on the spiritual hierarchy than people of action. And, when read this way, people are divided and conflict results. I don’t think this is what Jesus was trying to say in this story.
So let’s take another look at the story. Hospitality in Jesus’ time was a primary value of his culture. Hospitality was everything. In inviting Jesus into her home, Martha does the right thing. She bustles about doing that which was her responsibility—preparing a meal for her guests to share. Luke is a man of few words, so we don’t get a lot of description of what was going on as Martha was bustling about, but I think we can make a pretty educated guess. Martha, perhaps with some servants at her side, was cutting, chopping, breading, frying, stirring, basting, kneading, boiling, grilling, washing—all the myriad of tasks that go into providing a meal for a group of people. And in her busyness, she began to feel overwhelmed and to lose sight of why she was doing all this work in the first place.
As is often the case when we start to feel overwhelmed, she looks for something outside of herself upon which she could vent her strong feelings of frustration and fatigue. She looks around and sees her sister, Mary, —calm, cool, collected—sitting at the feet of Jesus and she loses it. She calls Jesus over and complains, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
And Jesus, as he is so good at doing, sees the true problem, Martha’s true problem. It isn’t her busyness. It isn’t that Mary isn’t helping her. Her problem is her anxiety and distraction. Her problem is that she has lost sight of why she invited Jesus into her home in the first place. It wasn’t to feed him. It wasn’t to demonstrate her formidable hospitality skills to the world. It wasn’t to get into Jesus’ good graces. It was to be in his presence. She invited Jesus into her home because he was, well, Jesus. She invited him into her home because he was God incarnate come to be in relationship with her. The problem isn’t her work in the kitchen. The problem is that she is distracted from that which is most important, Jesus, and she tries to draw Mary into her distraction. Jesus doesn’t want Martha to lose sight of him in her distraction, busyness, and worry.
And don’t we do the same? Aren’t we distracted too by our busyness, anxiety, and worry? Don’t we also forget that Jesus is the reason we are here worshipping and serving together? We could be perfectly good people without Christian community. There are many good people in the world who never attend church. We could do plenty of service in the world without Christian community. There are millions of people who offer themselves every day for the service of others who never set foot in a church. We can even be spiritual without Christian community. There are countless resources out there that will teach you how to meditate or to be spiritual in nature. But we gather here at St. Andrew’s. And why do we do that? Because of Jesus. Because we believe that in Jesus God is showing us something about the nature of God, God’s love for us, and how we are to manifest this love in the world.
This is why we persist in coming together for worship, community and fellowship in a world that often sees us as irrelevant or doesn’t even see us at all. This is why we work hard to maintain this community, both our physical space and our relationships with one another. This is why we work to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is why we persist in dreaming of a world governed by love and justice in the face of a world that so often seems devoid of any kind of love or justice. We do this because of Jesus. We persist because of Jesus. We come together because of Jesus. Because in Jesus we know God and God’s love for us. In Jesus we gain the strength we need to persist in a world that would prefer that we give up our dreams of love and justice, God’s dream of love and justice, and go quietly away.
If Jesus isn’t the reason, then we are just distracted and pointlessly busy. And sometimes we forget. Sometimes we get caught up in the weeds and act and behave in ways that imply that we are the reason for this community to exist. We worry more about preserving the historicity of our space than providing functional buildings in which people can be in the presence of Jesus. We worry more about upholding the traditions of our worship and denomination than providing opportunities for worship and prayer that help people right here and right now experience the mystery that is God. We worry more about protecting that which we have, money, buildings and so on than we worry about protecting the vulnerable and marginalized in our world. In short, we forget that the whole reason we exist is Jesus.
God’s kingdom does require us to roll up our sleeves and get to work, just as Martha rolled up her sleeves and got to work, but we don’t do this work by ourselves or for ourselves. We do this work for Jesus and Jesus does this work in and through us. Action is not better than contemplation. Contemplation isn’t better than action. In truth all of us need a little bit of both in our lives. But whether we are in an active mode or a contemplative mode, Jesus needs to be the reason for whatever it is we are doing. If he is at our center, we will have chosen the better part. Amen.