Mary, Martha, and Meaning-Making

Yesterday’s sermon was on the story of Mary and Martha from the Gospel of Luke. This is a familiar tale to us, even being featured in one of the stained glass windows at St. Paul’s. Its familiarity can easily lead us to assume we know what it means without thinking about it much, though.

What if, instead of trying to decide if we’re an calm listener or an active server (and which is better), we thought about the meaning we give to our work no matter what it is? Are the things we choose to do a good reflection of the people we are? Or are they things that we feel we ought to be doing, whether or not they have meaning for us?

As a Church (big-C, not specifically St. Paul’s), we often get caught up in the busy-ness of doing what we feel we should. VBS, feeding programs, youth events, fundraisers, concerts, Bible studies: we can start to rush from one to another, caught up in needing to get things done, and we begin to feel as harried as Martha. What if we started with who we are as a church? By first discovering our sense of identity and call, all of the events take on more meaning and purpose. They are part of the larger mission of proclaiming the love, grace, and acceptance of the kingdom of God. They are part of the work of reconciliation, of serving justice, of seeking forgiveness.

If you couldn’t make it to church, yesterday’s sermon is below. If you want to play along, all you need is an index card and a pen! Comments always welcome.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Write down the top five most important things currently on your to-do list. We’ll get back to them later.

This story of Mary and Martha always makes me think of family gatherings, Thanksgiving especially, where my mom will work all day getting ready. All day—she’ll be up at like five to put the turkey in the oven, and at our house you can’t just have turkey, you also have to serve meatballs and baked ziti, too or it doesn’t count.

And after all of that work, when everyone comes and we’re all sitting down enjoying ourselves, we can never get my mom to relax. She’ll jump up every few minutes to grab something from the kitchen, or will constantly be making sure that everyone has everything they need. She is so consumed with being a good hostess that she just can’t relax. That’s the picture I get in my head every time I read this story.

And I always feel bad for Martha, and I always feel like maybe Jesus was a little bit harsh. After all, it’s his dinner she’s making. And to be honest, if I had to pick whether I was Martha or Mary, I’d have to say Martha. But I also think that’s the trap of this story. We’re tempted to pick whether we fit the mold of Martha or Mary based on what they’re doing. And it seems to say that between active service and contemplative listening, that one is better than the other.

But is that true? In our first reading we’re reminded of just how important hospitality is—Abraham runs to greet these three men and does everything he can to make them comfortable (including telling his wife how to bake bread, which I’m sure she appreciated). Jesus even, a few chapters before this one in Luke, sent the seventy disciples to various villages, instructing them to rely on the hospitality of those who would take them in.

Hospitality was a vital part of spreading the message and ministry of the kingdom. It was often women who had resources who opened their homes to small churches and traveling apostles. We still see it today—hospitality and the people who do it are vitally important to the ministry of the church. And the people who offer it still sometimes feel as overworked, overlooked, and helpless as poor Martha.

Why then, does Martha get rebuked? What then is the problem? If it’s not the tasks she’s doing, and I tend to think it isn’t, then it has to be the how. How she is going about her serving is the main problem. Martha, Jesus says, is worried and distracted by many things.

Well, who isn’t Jesus? I would love to say that I’m not worried and distracted by many things, but the truth is I keep notepads in every room of my home, just in case a thought or idea or potential list comes to me while I’m cooking dinner. My phone beeps with reminders to pay the electric bill, stop by the pharmacy, and oh don’t forget that really good book you’re trying to read. And when I’m finally at one of those meetings I’ve been reminded about, my mind won’t stop thinking about tomorrow’s to-do list. All the while, the TV or radio is on in the background, keeping me anxious and distracted and many many more things.

We all know this kind of pressure—it’s the pressure to be everything to everyone and to do it without letting yourself sweat. To pick up the extra hours at work to please the boss, to make the home-cooked, and healthy meal for our family, to get to the gym, to make sure the house is clean, and don’t forget to put the birthday card for cousin Joe in the mail. To keep the grades up, but also have time for KEY club and baseball and squeeze in some sleep somewhere. We are worried and distracted by many things.

It happens to organizations, too. As a church we get worried and distracted by many things. They’re not necessarily even bad things—just like none of the other things I mentioned are bad. They may be good and helpful and needful things, but we can all too easily get to a place where we just move from one to the next, never taking time to think about why or how or to savor what we’re doing. And that anxiety and tension that Martha felt can creep in.

But in our world of twenty-four-hour activity, pressure to be more and to do more and to produce more—what is the better part? How can we cease being worried and distracted by many things? The world teaches us that we ought to find a sense of worth, a sense of who we are, from our many and various activities and accomplishments.

What if, instead, we let our activities and our to-do lists and chores flow out of our sense of who we are? That’s where Mary chose the better part. She dwelt in the word, sat and listened, and let her actions come from who she was—a disciple of Christ, and a child of God.

Take out your cards again, and on the other side, write down three important things that you are—one of them, hint, hint, might be child of God. Father, wife, sister, son, nurse, teacher, caretaker, student. Maybe you’ll come up with more than three, see what happens.

If you start with those things that you are—if you start with child of God, if you start with son, or with grandmom, or with artist—what does your to-do list look like now? Maybe some of it is the same, maybe it’s changed a little bit.

We can’t let ourselves find our sense of worth in our many tasks and activities—well, we can, but I think it leads to being worried and distracted by many things. Instead, we find our sense of worth in who are—in who God calls us to be. We find our sense of worth in the waters of baptism, where we are each claimed as precious without every doing anything. We find our sense of worth in communion, where all are fed regardless of how much time or effort they put in. We find our sense of worth dwelling with the word.

Let us let those things define our actions, instead of the other way around. Amen.