Preached at Ascension on July 17.
I don’t know if you grew up in a family like mine, but here’s how a typical Thanksgiving went at our house. My mom was up before the sun to get a humongous turkey in the oven, and then she spent the entire day in the kitchen, enlisting help from us kids or other female relatives. She worked toward the big moment when all the food was transported from the kitchen to the dining table and the feasting began.
And then, after we finished stuffing ourselves well beyond the limits of our stomachs, all the men retired to the living room to watch football on TV. while the women cleared the table and did the dishes.
Somewhere in my high school years, I began to notice that there was something wrong with this picture. How is it that my mom and the women worked themselves ragged all day on this meal, and then when it was finally over, they got stuck doing the clean-up, too, while the men just sat around on their duffs watching TV?
After I started college I became even more aware of gender roles, and I decided that I could no longer participate in this oppressive system of injustice. That year when I came home for Thanksgiving, after the meal was over, with a shot of defiance coursing through my veins, I took a stand.
As the women scurried about clearing the table and washing the dishes, I retired to the living room with the men. I thought I’d get some grief for doing this, but no one seemed to notice or care. So, I sat on the sofa between my brother-in-law and my uncle with the football game blaring on the TV. And, guess what? In no time, I was the only one awake.
There I was, basically alone, watching a game on TV that didn’t interest me in the least, sitting between a couple of snoring old geezers. All the while I could hear chattering voices and explosive laughter coming from the kitchen, and I couldn’t stand it. What were they talking about? What were they laughing about? Enough of this. I was back in the kitchen before the end of the first quarter.
I decided that I made my point, to myself if to no one else. I could go with the men, or I could go with the women. And I went with the women. Not because it was expected of me, but because it was my choice. And, let’s face it, the women were a lot more interesting, and a whole lot more fun!
When I read the story of Martha and Mary, I have flashbacks to my childhood Thanksgivings. Here’s Martha, scurrying about, waiting on everyone and running herself ragged like a good woman should. She was doing exactly what was expected of her in that time and place.
It reminds me of the second miracle of Jesus recorded by Luke in the 4th chapter. The story is just two verses long, and it goes like this: After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. (And then listen for what comes next) Immediately she got up and began to serve them. Seriously?
Well, that’s what was expected of her. Not only was it a gender expectation, but it was also her house and there were definite cultural hospitality standards.
This was also true for Mary and Martha, who were hosting the gathering with Jesus in their home. So, there are layers of expectations at play in this story.
Mary is a woman after my own heart because she bucks the system. She doesn’t seem to give a rat’s petutti about expectations. She wants to hear what Jesus has to say. Jesus is in her house. What an opportunity! She’s not going to waste it in the kitchen. She’s going to sit at his feet and take in every word he has to say.
Now, in fairness to Martha, we also need to consider this story from her perspective. She’s justified to be outraged by her sister’s behavior. Why should she get stuck doing all the work? Maybe she’d like to sit at Jesus’ feet, too, but somebody has to serve all the guests. It’s really not fair. She’s hoping Jesus will notice that and see it her way.
But he doesn’t. He’s actually a little harsh with her. He says, “Martha, you need to chill. What your sister Mary is doing is a lot more important than what you’re doing.” Ouch! Those words had to hurt.
I suppose most of us can identify with either Martha or Mary in this story. Martha, the one who’s busy doing, serving, making sure everyone’s taken care of. And Mary, the one who takes time to be--listening, learning, growing in her relationship with Jesus. How many Marthas do we have with us today? And how many Marys?
If you were here last week, you heard the parable that immediately precedes this story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s narrative -- The Good Samaritan. It’s a story that’s all about doing, serving, and making sure our neighbor is taken care of. Jesus praises such behavior.
And then, *boom* we’re in the story of Mary and Martha, where Jesus praises the one more concerned with being in his presence than the one who’s doing for others. What gives? Is Jesus talking out of both sides of his mouth? It’s either important to be out there doing for others, or it’s important to grow closer to Jesus. So, which is it?
Well, here’s the deal. The life of faith isn’t an either/or proposition. That’s what we call dualism. You’re either this or you’re that. You’re either a Martha or you’re a Mary. You’re either good or you’re bad. You’re either a saint or you’re a sinner. Jesus was either human or he was divine.
Dualistic thought gets you into trouble because the life of faith isn’t that simple. It’s not a matter of either/or. The life of faith is about both/and. It embraces paradox. Jesus is both human and divine at the same time. We’re both saints and sinners. We’re both good and bad at once… And we’re both Mary and Martha.
As people of faith, we long to serve others. We want to help out with Vacation Bible School. We want to sing in the choir, volunteer during the week. We want to help people in need in our community. We want to speak for those who have no voice. We want to stand up for those are being treated unjustly. Following Jesus is all those things, and we want to be people who do.
But we’re often inclined to do, do, do, without taking time to be. There is both an outer life of faith, and an inner life of faith. And in fact, a full life of faith includes both. If we do, do, do without taking time to go inward, not only do we burn out, but we lack direction. We spend all our time running from one project to the next, setting the agenda for our ministry without really taking the time to listen to what God’s calling us to do.
I felt myself struggling with that the week before last when our country was experiencing one senseless violent act after another. More black men were killed by law enforcement officers. Then in the midst of a peaceful demonstration, a crazy man opened fire on the police. It was too much. I’ve been so upset and angry about this stuff that I wanna scream. Enough! Enough! Enough! I can barely catch my breath and then the horrific violence in Nice, France.
My first thought is, what can I do? What can I do to make this stop? When I hear people concluding that all we can do is pray about it, I can’t stand it. We’ve got to do more than just pray! My Martha comes out big time.
But then, I also think about how these acts of violence are calling me to go deeper into myself. How is it that I might also be a part of the problem? How is fear of the other and racism a part of me? How can I listen to people of color and better understand their experience? That’s my Mary.
It’s not a matter of one or the other. The life of faith is both/and. And in fact, the outer life of doing flows from the inner life of being and vice versa. We act and we reflect on our action and based on our reflection we act, and it goes back and forth.
Notice how Jesus was constantly moving from an outer expression of faith to an inner expression of faith throughout the gospels. He recognized that he needed to spend time being in the presence of God. He went inward. And that strengthened him to continue teaching, healing, and proclaiming God’s reign in the world around him.
I think also about a central message of John’s gospel where Jesus tells us again and again the importance of abiding in him. We abide in the vine so that we can bear fruit.
This is certainly true for us as a congregation, as we move forward. Are we drawing upon both inner and outer expressions of faith as we strive to fulfill God’s mission for us? If we neglect one way or the other, we’re not all here. We’re not completely experiencing all that we can as God’s people.
This is also true for us as individuals. If you feel like you’re missing something in your faith life, this may be a key for you. You may be living your faith in an either/or way—either inwardly or outwardly. And when you do that, something’s definitely missing.
Strive to live as a both/and person of faith. Spend time listening to Jesus, sit at his feet, join him at the table, savor his presence. And follow him into the world, serving him by serving others. If your natural tendency is to be like Mary, spend some time cultivating your Martha. If you tend to be more of a Martha kind of person, don’t neglect your Mary.
In today’s lesson, Jesus stuck up for Mary. Within his culture, that was necessary. Mary needed permission to sit at the master’s feet. For us as a congregation, and for you as individuals, what’s the expectation we bring to the life of faith? If you expect it to be about doing, give yourself permission to be. If you expect it to be about basking in the presence of Jesus, give yourself permission to do.
Then you’ll experience what it means to be all in as a follower of Jesus. You’ll be on your way to discovering the breadth, the width and the depth of living fully in Christ.