38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42
I love the Scripture for a variety of reasons. I love it because it points us to Jesus Christ, and to the God that the New Testament calls “the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” What does the hymnist say?
Beyond the sacred page; I seek thee Lord.
My Spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word.
I love the scripture, too, because it perfectly captures our human predicament. It lays bare the thoughts and actions of our ancestors, 100 generations removed, and as it does it penetrates deep into our own hearts and minds and shows us that we are not really so different than them.
This morning our gospel lesson looks at two sisters, Martha and Mary, who once entertained Jesus and (we can assume) his disciples and uses them to show us how we might respond in a similar situation. When we read the text from St. Luke, with whom did you identify? Are you a Martha, or a Mary? I put that question to men and women alike, because two bachelor brothers, in the same situation, may not have acted so differently.
1. Marthas are workers, and every family, church, and organization needs them. Marthas sing in the choir, play in the funeral band, usher, work the sound system, make chicken pies, prepare the communion, and clean up after services and suppers. Some Marthas are men. Many of you remember Raymond Binkley who used to live just across the street. Early in my first tour at Fries, I came into the church one afternoon to find Raymond standing just outside the kitchen in front of a stack of cardboard that he had cut from boxes. He was busy cutting the big pieces into smaller pieces.
I said, “What are you doing?”
He said, “I am making big pieces of cardboard into little pieces of cardboard. It is the only way to get all our trash into one container.”
I said, “That is a good trick. How long have you been doing it?”
He said, “I have been doing it for longer than I can remember.” He then told me I should be doing the same thing up at the parsonage.
A couple of days later, I bought myself a razor-blade cutter, and I have been happily cutting-up cardboard boxes for the last 40 years.
We all know the Marthas and Raymonds in our church. Who are the Marthas and Raymonds in your family, your neighborhood, where you work, or where you used to work? President John F. Kennedy was making a plea for the Marthas so badly needed by our nation when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Jesus was asking for more Marthas when he told his disciples to pray to the LORD of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest, saying, “For the fields are ready for harvest.”
2. Every family, church, and organization needs Marthas, but they are often in short supply because they burn out.
They burn out for two reasons. On the one hand, they are in burn-out because they take on more than they can reasonably do, and we are happy to let them. On the other hand, they burn out because we take them for granted, and fail to properly recognize and thank them. I doubt anyone knew that Raymond spent hours cutting up cardboard. Or what about this? I remember when John P_____’s brother-in-law, Grey G_____ was elected the chair of our Trustees here at Fries. In those days the chair usually rotated between the late Jim Vernon and the late Jake Fouts, Robert’s father. Grey’s election was a pleasant surprise, and he took it very seriously. Before every trustee’s meeting, he would sit down and go through income and outgo with a fine-tooth comb. One night, at the board meeting, not long after Easter, he reported that one of the ladies of our church had charged an Azalea to the church. She had charged more than twenty dollars, which was a lot of money in those days, and, to the best of his knowledge, she had done so without asking the board. No one knew anything about it, so he asked me to investigate.
The offending party was a delightful little octogenarian name Grace Kane, the late Rudy’s mother. I went to see her and asked about the Azalea. She said, “Well, back in 1949, the year Mr. Fries died, at Easter, the board asked me to buy an Azalea and put it on his grave. They never told me to stop, so I have been doing it every year since.” She had served for 35 years and was seldom thanked for her service, but she kept at it.
Marthas take their responsibilities seriously. Whether male or female, they do what they do for a number of reasons. Some simply like to serve. They see a need and try to fill it. Jesus served and they feel they should, too. Others want to serve, but they also like to have a hand on the tiller, or both hands on the steering wheel, if you prefer. They like to be in control. That is okay. According to 1st Corinthians 13, the body of Christ needs “administrators” or “supervisors,” just as much as we need workers. Unfortunately, some Marthas, like the original, assume authority over people they don’t really have. In the text from Luke, Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her, but Jesus declined. Jesus wanted servants—but Jesus wanted his servants to be volunteers. The great practical theologian, James Luther Mays was right when he said, “In the church, we can’t activate anybody for service, we can only provide opportunities for people to activate themselves.” Along those same lines, the best leaders are not those who accomplish a lot by doing all the work themselves. The best leaders are those who accomplish a lot by getting others to work alongside them. On the first day on the job, the very best leaders start replacing themselves.
3. God allows each of us to choose how we spend our time and energy.The text says that Martha was “distracted with many tasks.” We can’t be certain, but it is reasonable to assume that Martha was busy preparing a meal, setting a table, providing water for washing, and otherwise caring for the needs of Jesus and his disciples. It was because Martha was so busy that she complained to Jesus that, while she was overwhelmed with work, Mary was “doing nothing.” However, in the eyes of Jesus, Mary was doing something. She had chosen the one thing that was needful, she had chosen the better part, she was sitting before him, listening to him.
We wish we knew what Jesus was saying but we do not. Perhaps, if several people were present, he was explaining some parable or doing a reprise of his Sermon on the Plain. If only Mary was present, he may have been addressing her directly, telling her how she might employ her gifts to tasks that would arise in the future.
As a pastor, I like to see busy people; but I never begrudge anyone the time they need to step back, or step aside, to simply be. In the Bible being always comes first and doing comes later. We need to be still in the presence of God before we start doing. Martin Luther used to say that he spent three hours every day in prayer, but more if he had a particularly busy day.
It is impossible for us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt who Mary was. It maybe that she was the sister of Lazarus, whom the 4th Gospel tells us had two sisters, also named Mary and Martha. It may be, though it is unlikely that she was Mary Magdalene, the one from whom Jesus had driven seven devils, who was the first to see the risen Christ, and became “the apostle to the apostles.” Or it may be that she was just another Mary. Matthew twice mentions “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.” Mary is far and away the most popular name in the gospels, and Matthew did not want to leave any Mary out.
Whoever she was, Mary had such a powerful experience of Jesus, that, when she finally stood up from listening, and started serving, she likely never stopped. After all, she had been with Jesus who inspired all of his disciples to serve, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he or she who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.”
4. That leads me to a final point. Real saints of every age always do good, but they always inspire more good than they do. They sow seeds of faith that reap a great harvest, some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, some one hundred-fold, and some, like or Mary and other people whose names are preserved in the New Testament, 1,000 fold or more, much more. The same is true today. You may touch only a single individual for Christ, but that single individual may touch dozens, or hundreds, or thousands. Consider the case of St. Teresa. She was born in a small Macedonian village. By the age of twelve—she had decided her vocation. At 18 she became a nun. In her 17 years in India, she and the little Sisters of Charity directly touched 1,000s of lives and inspired millions. Who influenced her in the first twelve years of her life: Her parents, a priest, a sister, or perhaps a neighbor? Perhaps it was all of them. The community of faith is always stronger together than any individual. That is why Jesus prayed that we might all be one. The church needs all the Marthas we can get; but we also need all the Marys we can get, because it is the Marys who spend time with Jesus who inspire the Marthas and Raymonds to do what they do.