Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
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."
How many of you are familiar with this story? Anyone hearing it for the first time? How many of you winced when you heard Martha complain to Jesus? How many of you want to cheer her on because you have been in her position? Its not easy to ask for the help we need. How many of you wince when you hear Jesus’ reply to Martha? Anyone resent Mary just a little bit? Anyone just a little are envious of her? Anyone feel torn between loyalty to Mary and loyalty to Martha? Maybe like both of them live inside of you.
This is a brief, but not a simple story. Its complicated in the archetypes of activism and contemplation it presents us as followers of Jesus. It asks the question, how will we live in relationship with the Holy One? The story has been the theme for many a women’s retreat, its not just a story for women. Men, no sleeping in this sermon! This is story for all of us.
Martha may be the hostess welcoming Jesus ... but Jesus provides the really radical hospitality in the story. He turns the over the gender tables of his time. In the first two verses of this passage, he breaks with two Jewish social norms and conventions regarding women. First, he allows himself to be welcomed into Martha’s home. Not her husband’s home or her father’s or her brother’s. Notice the brother of Mary and Martha, Lazarus, who we hear about the gospel of John, is not even present in this story. This is Martha’s home. And Jesus enters it with no compunctions, no need for first being introduced to her by a male relative. He defies convention honoring her personhood as an equal. And then he goes even further by welcoming Mary and Martha to sit with the disciples for teaching. Women were not traditionally included in the teaching circles of rabbis. Yet there is Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. And my guess is that Martha was invited to sit in the circle as well from the very beginning. Before she headed to the kitchen.
This is a story of the radical hospitality of Jesus not just for women but for all of us. Because we all live in a world that provides the same distractions that got Martha all caught up and twisted around with anxiety. We live in a world where our worth is measured by our tasks, actions and accomplishments. It’s a badge of honor to be so busy that we are exhausted, worn out, over-functioning. We try to cram as much productivity into a day as possible. Our world pulls us in so many directions it is dizzying.
Have you ever longed to cry out with Martha, “Jesus, do you not care about all I have to deal with, work, school, children, aging or ailing friends and relatives, volunteer work at church and in the community, spending quality time with my partner? Can’t you help? Do I have to do this all alone!” Jesus replies, “My dear, dear friend, you are worried and distracted by many things; come sit. There is need of only one thing.”
And here we are in our progressive Christian community. We are called to social justice for our sisters and brothers who are homeless or who are immigrants, called to environmental justice for creation, called to eradicate gun violence in our country, called to the full inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, called to just treatment of women and to human rights around the world. And we know recent news cycles send us spinning. We could say with Martha, “Jesus, do you not care that we are trying to welcome and to save all the people who you have taught us are our neighbors, that we are trying to save our planet, that we are trying to keep our community safe from the flagrant use of weapons of war, to teach our children your ways? Jesus! We feel all alone! Who will help? Can you tell all these other Christians to help us!” Jesus replies, “Church, church, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
What is this one thing? Was Martha preparing too many dishes for dinner? Is Jesus saying, “Don’t’ multi-task!” Okay, Jesus....you have our attention. What is that one thing? Why has Mary chosen the better part? Why have you not sent her to rescue Martha in her anxiety? For that matter, why don’t you and the disciples get up and help Martha? The work of the world, the care of people, doesn’t get done with just thoughts and prayers! Surely you know that. What is this one thing?”
Jesus says, “Sit down here with Mary and be with me. Be with God. Tend to the intimacy of your relationship with the Holy One, prioritize this rather than the distractions. Come sit by my side. Tell me, how is your soul, dear one?”
Jesus’ invitation does not deny the work that must be done. No one knows more about justice work, about caring for others than he does. The late Madeleine L’Engle captured the importance of work in her brief poem, “Martha”:
nobody can ever laugh at me again.
I was the one who baked the bread.
I pressed the grapes for wine.
Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart,
“Martha,” (Harold Shaw Publishers: Wheaton, IL, 1978, 81).
Jesus does not say Martha’s work is unimportant. It is her distraction and anxiety that are tripping her up. The work of our lives is important. Yet Jesus is saying to us in this story, “Relationship to the Holy One comes first. Tend to this life-giving relationship, then all the other work is put into perspective.” It reminds me of Stephen Covey’s time management suggestion in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Your life with God, with the kin–dom of God that dwells within you, in your soul, is the first big rock to put into your time management jar. Then comes the other big rocks – family, work, helping to build God’s realm here on earth in whatever way you do that. And then the little rocks of commitments and activities will find their way into the rest of the time left.
When we are distracted like Martha – and I know for me that is daily – how do we sit at Jesus’ feet with Mary? What is quality time with God? This time is about intention and listening with our hearts and minds. Yes, in prayer in its varied forms -- centering prayer and meditation, journaling, praying with scripture, praying with a prayer group. It is regularly coming to worship for communal and individual prayer, scripture, music, even sermons and fellowship with fellow journeyers. It is the challenge of studying God’s word in scripture and God’s word in books that make you think and wrestle theology, spiritual practice and prophetic action. Quality time with God can be intentionally listening in the garden or the mountains. It may be running or yoga. Painting or knitting. It may be sitting quietly with your first cup of coffee or tea and simply being, paying attention to the movement of the Spirit that is prompting you to questions, to actions, to relationships. That “one thing” is intentional time devoted to being with the Holy. The “one thing” can be so many things that lead us into God’s presence where we unburden our hearts and listen for understanding.
There is a legend from the Provence region of France about Mary and Martha. It seems that after the resurrection of Jesus they journeyed to France as missionaries. They retained their archetypal characters. Martha was the activist....she tamed and banished a dragon that was bullying a small town. Mary was a contemplative hermit who supported her sister through prayer and became the wise woman of the area whom many came to for teaching. Each of us may have an affinity or a call for one of these archetypes or the other. In reality we need both Mary and Martha energy in our lives. And we need to remember how Jesus offered them the radical hospitality of God. It was Jesus’ own practice to turn to God’s hospitality of love in prayer so that he could invite others into it. May we be a community that invites one another as Jesus invited Mary and Martha. May we remember to sit with Jesus in radical relationship to God’s love so we can offer the radical invitation of God’s hospitality to our world. May we take Jesus’ words of invitation. to heart even as we serve God, one another and our neighbors.
”There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says. Choose the better part. Come sit with me. Learn with me. Listen with me. Be with me in God’s extravagant welcome of love.” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.