Week Three of the Sermon Series: Luke 10:38-42...
I know all about what it means to have a younger sister. I’ve got two of them. And for this reason, I’m pretty sure Martha’s the oldest sister and Mary is younger. I’m not comparing myself to a Martha mind you – don’t be so quick to judge. But I am an older sister and I know what it means to feel alone.
Isn’t that strange? To have siblings living in the same house as you, and to feel alone? Sisters are supposed to be your best friends. And mine are, by the grace of God. We all made it through high school and now we’re all friends. But that doesn’t mean at one time or another, our sisterhood didn’t make us feel alone. That’s what happens when sisters disagree on matters of the house and how to life’s gonna get lived. Jealousy rules the roost.
Now, I gotta tell you, my father was the only man in my house and he was faced with four Pittman women. You can imagine how that fared. Needless to say, my dad never made any decisions regarding the family. Mom would pick what’s for dinner cause she was cookin’ it anyway. Each evening each of the daughters would announce what her schedule was for that night and demand to be driven around. My dad would suggest that we should help mom clean up in the kitchen, but that usually amounted to mass hysteria because somebody was late and had to go, somebody had a test the next day, somebody was too short to put away the dishes and somebody always ended up in tears. I think my dad ended up cleaning the kitchen.
Not on holidays though. True to our matriarchal heritage, the women took to the kitchen. First would appear the appetizers: little water chestnuts wrapped in bacon, cheese balls with crackers, pickles and okra and olives and shrimp. The main course would probably be a large turkey with stuffing and green beans or brussel spouts and rolls with homemade jelly, probably some sort of salad and of course mashed potatoes with brown gravy. Dessert came hours later as everyone was always too stuffed to eat immediately after our meal. So we would partake of the cherry pie, pumpkin pie, rhubarb pie and angel fruit cake (for anyone watching their weight) later in the day. The women produced the food. Except me. Cooking food was of no interest to me, still isn’t, and so I’d take to the living room to hear about politics or sports (which I don’t even like) or I’d hear the latest theatre gossip or about what’s going on with the businesses or what second cousin so-n-so is doing now - all depending on who the guests were at the house. And if all that conversation became boring, I’d read.
When my sister Amy got old enough to join the cooks in the kitchen, she would complain that I wasn’t helping, that I was just sitting around sipping on sparkling grape juice not doing anything while she rolled the crescent rolls or tried her hand at a homemade pie crust. Maybe she was right, but usually my mom would say to my sister, “Well do you really want her cooking?” and she’d call me in to stir the gravy. I’d smoosh out the hot bubbles with the spoon as the gravy boiled in the pan and wonder about the book I’d left and whether Atticus was going to be able to get Tom Robinson out of jail.
As we got older, we took to fighting over cars. We had one to share, the Green Bomb, a 1980 Buick Century and technically it was mine, I was older. That car was a disaster but we’d fight over who got control of it come Friday night. I’d take the higher road insisting that I was older and the car was mine after all until my parents starting giving Amy their car to use which was at least made in the 90’s and had air conditioning and a tape player and was obviously not a fair decision. I was older, I should get to drive their nicer car – give Amy the Green Bomb!
And back and forth it was – who wasn’t helping out with chores, who wasn’t being nice enough, who was misbehaving at dinner, who got the good car, etc. etc. etc. It didn’t really end until my sister got divorced and I stopped believing that life would be fair. The need for equality and everybody putting in their share, their effort, their dues went out the window. Life wasn’t going to be fair so we were going to have to support each other.
Some say the story of Mary and Martha, is a study on attitude. Martha is nervous and uptight with her tasks, with her duty, with Jesus. Mary is focused, calm, receiving the ample love of God. If the two characteristics of people who belong to the covenant of God are to love God and give that love to others, then they cannot be separated. For without receiving what God gives, we see giving to others as undesirable, a burden, something we have to do. Or worse, our self-righteousness produces anger at those who we feel are not doing their part. Attitude issues. Nervous, over-wrought, judgmental, bitter, work-a-holic attitudes. “I’d love to go sit with Jesus and get out of this kitchen, but somebody’s gotta get dinner on the table…” Martha may have muttered. Attitude.
Some describe the story of Mary and Martha as a clash of the temperaments: the active person versus the contemplative person, the busybody versus the quiet listener, the practical versus the spiritual.
My grandma is offended by this interpretation. In fact, she’s offended by the whole Mary Martha text. I remember her telling me so when I was in high school. “There’s gotta be a Martha!” she exclaimed. “Otherwise nobody’d eat!” and she’d serve me some cottage cheese. But my grandma is a very practical person. She has the gift of hospitality and so does my mother. So when their children and grandchildren come home, the feast is prepared. “Do you want chicken with avocado tonight, Ann or Aunt Martha’s spaghetti?” Yep, my Great Aunt was named Martha. Not a joke.
But if hospitality’s a gift of God, it’s gotta be used properly. So some scholars say the Mary Martha story is one that illustrates the wrong type of kindness. We find mercy in the Good Samaritan story, good kindness, but in Martha’s story, kindness is appropriated according to her need, not Jesus’. He was tired from traveling, was on his way to Jerusalem to die, he needed quiet, he needed time with good friends, he wanted a simple meal (not some grand feast) and he wanted time to talk. To give him those things would have been to show him mercy. Putting on all the airs was to extend kindness he didn’t need or want.
Some scholars say the Mary Martha story is in juxtaposition with the Good Samaritan story in a different way though. Whereas the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the second commandment, love your neighbor, this passage illustrates the first commandment: love your God. And so we as readers get stories that show us how to love God and how to love our neighbors. In this reading of the text, Mary is the embodiment of what it means to love God wholly, just as the parable of the Good Samaritan held up the Samaritan as the embodiment of what it means to love one’s neighbor. The two together teach us what it means to inherit eternal life.
But still others describe the Mary Martha story in a slightly different way. Some say it’s a parable, a parable about discipleship: First we get the Good Samaritan, a story about serving, and now we get the Good Disciple in a story about loving God. In this parable, Mary can see that Jesus is himself the Law and is ready to receive her instruction. Martha however, lacks proper attention which brings insight. And so our heroine, Mary, is the Good Disciple.
This are all helpful interpretations of this biblical passage, some you may have considered before, and some perhaps are new to you, but as I reread the text again, I return to my own family, to our dynamic. And I revisit the story again.
“Ann isn’t helping! She’s just sitting on the counter!”
“Just cause I’m female doesn’t mean I have to cook, Amy.”
“I don’t care. You should at least help.”
“I don’t like it, I’m not good at it. Leave me alone.”
Tears would well up in my eyes. I knew everyone in my family was good at cooking. I knew it was a favored pastime of all my relatives. But it didn’t interest me. To be myself wasn’t to be in the kitchen.
Some read the Mary Martha story as a subversive text. Jesus gives Mary the freedom to get out of the kitchen. Her role in society pales in comparison with who she finds herself to be in Christ. Sitting at someone’s feet meant studying under him or her, being a disciple of someone. With regard to church-work and what it means to be a pastor, I sit at the feet of the Rev. Dr. Roger Paynter (don’t tell him I said that!). But no real rabbi at the turn of the first century would teach a woman. Jesus however extends to Mary citizenship in the kingdom of God, he grants her worth in the realm of the spiritual and secondary to this identity are society’s expectations.
But I think there’s more to the text than just that.
With sisters there’s always judgment. Even in love, we critique each other. Our choices in men, our choices in clothing, our choices in movies. My sisters and I are constantly laughing and critiquing and encouraging and judging each other. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But none of us has pulled a Mary.
You see, some scholars assert that Mary is not only the sister of Martha who we know through other texts is also the sister of Lazarus, but that Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, is actually Mary Magdalene. What an interesting turn the text takes when we consider this option.
Imagine your sister is the shunned prostitute, the deranged woman with the demons. You don’t know why she chose this path, how she grew so sick. All you know is you don’t know how to help, what to do, and quite frankly, it’s embarrassing the way everyone looks on you with pity. “There’s the sister of that demonic…” You can only extend so much love to one who behaves like that, even if she’s family. So Martha would scurry off to the kitchen to hide her shame. It was safe in the kitchen behind the scenes, where you didn’t have to hear them talk about your family.
Mary is crazy, demon possessed and then she encounters the love of Jesus. He gives her healing and redemption and Mary, she goes home. She commits her life to being a disciple of Christ, and she returns home, healthy and wonder-filled, and when Jesus comes to visit, she can’t help but be near him. Him who brought her healing, him who gave her back her life, him who changed everything.
But Martha thinks her sister Mary ought to be in the kitchen with her. Having a guest is no time to be lazy around the house, gaggling over him. That’s the sort of nonsense that got her in trouble in the first place. If Mary’d just stick with her responsibilities, maybe that would help her stay on track.
“Jesus do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
But Mary has learned something from Jesus that Martha has yet to embrace. Mary knows the mystery of God and she wants to know more. Mary has been trapped by demons in her life and Mary has been set free. Mary has stayed silent in the arms of many men, but now in her silence she forms prayers. Mary has seen the world through the eyes of an imprisoned woman, and now she sees the world through the heart of an empowered disciple. And she needs more. More teaching, more learning, more time in the presence of her Master, her Healer, the God who set her free.
Avocado chicken or Aunt Martha’s spaghetti? In Mary’s case it didn’t really matter. Hosting Jesus in their home wasn’t the issue. Hosting him in their hearts was.
You know, the only other person in the book of Luke described as sitting at the feet of Jesus is the Gerasene demoniac. The man who was so severely possessed by demons that he could break chains lived wild and alone in the graveyard outside of town. But after an encounter with Jesus, he too was healed and sought to hear more from his new Master.
Maybe when our pain becomes so acute, we have no choice but to cling to God. Any word from our sacred text, any prayer uttered from our lips, any spiritual discipline we can find becomes our energy, our connection to our source, to the One who makes us well. Maybe that’s why Mary Magdalene and the Gerasene demoniac both got it. They’re so in tune with how they desperately needed Jesus that it becomes easy to see Him as their only priority.
When life fails us, there is a remnant remaining inside, and if we turn to our hearts, turn to our Spirits and open ourselves to God, we return to our roots.
It’s always been about communing with God. In the garden, God and the humans talked, they had a relationship with one another. They lived in community. In the beginning, Abraham left his gods and idols to develop a relationship with a relational God. He talked to God, he learned from God, he communed with God. Josiah, as a teenager, when he found the sacred scrolls in the Temple ruins knew God well enough to demand that the nation cling to that Scripture. Prophets prayed and fasted and slept in the sacred halls begging to get closer to God or to get away from God, because they knew the power of God in their lives.
It’s all about God saving us. It always has been. And maybe what Mary teaches us is that it’s time to return to our roots.
Except this story is also about Martha. It is Martha who takes Jesus into her home, it is she who meets his needs, it is she who plans the huge meal and gets out the tablecloth and the good silver. But it’s Martha who needs to be fed. And probably most of us in here today do too.
Good news: loving your God doesn’t mean being a work-a-holic. Loving God means taking in the words of Jesus, taking in the Spirit of God. It means receiving and giving back. Receiving healing from Jesus and giving him back our adoration.
It’s not our job to host Jesus in our churches or in our homes. To parade him around like a superstar: put his pictures up and eat meals together complete with BBQ and homemade ice cream. That’s fun, but that’s not what’s needed. As John 6:27 says, what matters is the “food which endures to eternal life.” The world is hurting and it doesn’t want to have fun with Jesus or dine with Jesus, the world wants to be near Jesus. The world needs to be healed by Jesus. We need to learn how to be disciples. We need to listen, to study, to heal and to give Jesus our undivided attention.
Mary got it. Maybe she got it because she’d strayed so far from the law – she knew how much grace really cost. Maybe she got it because she was quiet, not really a people person, but a thoughtful girl in her own right. Maybe she got it because her father had taught her the scriptures, because when she burned too many pieces of hallah in the kitchen, she got sent out to play with her dad.
Maybe she just wanted it. Wanted to be filled.
So do I.
So do I long to be refreshed, to relax at the feet of Jesus, to take it in and not constantly give it out. To learn and listen. To be healed and feel safe. To not feel so alone in the kitchen we call life, but to be loved intimately by the Spirit of God.
You see, Jesus’ own service to us is the source of our being, and consequently of all our action. Love God and love your neighbor. Love of God isn’t just connected to love of neighbor. Jesus as Lord, as Healer, as Teacher is the connection between the two. We can’t claim to either love God or love others without choosing to sit, to be quiet, to be changed by Jesus.
It’s Jesus who will get us through. It’s Jesus who can move us from loving God to loving our neighbors. It’s Jesus who can heal and empower and forgive and love. Jesus.
And it’s Jesus who will get us out of the kitchen.
First Baptist Church
July 22, 2007