I got into a fight with some church ladies last week. It wasn’t over whether the Creation took seven days or seven eons; it wasn’t over whether or not Mary was a virgin after Jesus was born; it wasn’t over who wrote the book of Hebrews. It wasn’t over transubstantiation and consubstantiation. It wasn’t over gay marriage or apostolic succession.
It was over who makes the calls to line up desserts and helpers for funeral luncheons. The last five funeral lunches at this congregation, where my membership is still officially held, have not been as predictable as in the past fifty years. I won’t bother you with the details, but in the process of providing the funeral lunch, especially the desserts, there have been some arguments and some hurt feelings. Last I heard, the issue goes to committee.
Have you seen any of the stage plays based on Church Basement Ladies? Church Basement Ladies, that is, the ladies who orchestrate the hospitality, and clean up after all that hospitality, are absolutely essential to the church. In fact, when I think about typical church populations, it’s no wonder that the majority are female. It’s not because the men die younger or skip church. It’s that they don’t have their reputations vested in the church.
A woman’s reputation, at least as I was growing up, depended on how well she baked, cooked and cleaned for church dinners. Nobody ever, EVER, purchased a pie from the frozen food section and baked it at home. And, the standard for dessert validation was pie–not cake, not even a pineapple upside-down cake. You didn’t make it into the Church Ladies Hall of Fame if you couldn’t bake a pie with a flaky crust that could be cut and plated without running all over the plate. I imagine the cornstarch industry has taken quite a hit since those days.
So, Martha had a reputation to maintain. She was the head of hospitality in her household.
We are tempted to use this text to define the way women serve the church. But if Martha is being scolded by Jesus, whom does He expect to fix the funeral lunch? Who’s going to make sure the bathrooms are clean and the altar cloth is the right color? Who is going to order paper towels for the janitor’s closet?
I’m sure Jesus did not disdain Martha’s good food. He may have taken her clean house and fresh water for granted, but He certainly, at some level, must have appreciated her effort. On the other hand, He appreciated Mary’s thirst for knowledge. While Martha may have felt that Mary was ignoring her, in fact, Mary, too was in the right place.
When I was a newly married, much younger church woman under the tutelage of the venerable Ladies of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, one of my mentors told me that women shouldn’t be on church council because they fight with each other.
Where did she get that idea that only women fight with each other?
This passage about two of Jesus’ favorite people is often used to pit women against each other, as if there is a choice that needs to be made.2 What if this passage is about disciples–men and women? We all need to sit and hear the word of God.3
When we compare and contrast Martha and Mary, we are committing the sin of comparison. If you think this is not one of the ten commandments, check out the 8th, 9th and 10th commandments. On your own time. Competition leads to division, not acceptance.4 At the end of the competition, there is always a winner—and, sadly, a loser. What will the loser do at the next occasion of service if she–or he–is now labeled a loser? The person doesn’t have to wear a white ribbon (the worst you could do at the county fair when I was in 4-H). Idle chatter from idle witnesses will secure the status.
Those were the dynamics at play in my fight with the church ladies.
Did Jesus scold Martha because she was not sitting at his feet? Or was there another reason for his response?
“Martha was encumbered – The Greek word properly signifies to be drawn different ways at the same time, and admirably expresses the situation of a mind, surrounded (as Martha’s then was) with so many objects of care, that it hardly knows which to attend to first.”5
To be drawn in different ways at the same time–does that sound familiar? It reminds me of the first ten times I hosted the family holiday meal. I worked so hard on so many details that by the time everyone arrived, I was as grouchy as a broody hen.
The lesson, for me, is that we need to be both Martha and Mary. When and how much takes careful, intentional discernment.
“If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment.” 6
Congregations, too, can get caught up in the polarities of doing versus hearing.
“Activism without contemplation ends in aimless “doing” that usually aggravates existing difficulties…On the other hand, only the unthinking could fail to recognize the myriad ways in which thought—including very serious biblical, theological, and other scholarship—regularly serves the duplicitous purposes of those who, their rhetoric notwithstanding, simply do not wish to ‘get involved.’” 7
“A church that has been led to be “worried and distracted by many things” (v. 41) inevitably will be a community that dwells in the shallows of frantic potlucks, anxious stewardship campaigns, and events designed simply to perpetuate the institution. Decisions will be made in meetings without a hint of God’s reign. Food and drink will appear at table without Christ being recognized in the breaking of bread. Social issues may be addressed, but the gospel is missed in acts that partake of politics as usual.”8
I know of some churches where the people most active on committees are never seen at worship. Something is missing in their service, something key to who they are as Children of God. Jesus does not call us to govern or to keep the doors open. God calls us to serve, and one of the easiest and most effective ways is to offer hospitality. But the hospitality is not genuine if it is not supported by the foundation of love of scripture and a right relationship with God.
If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, you spend time sweeping the floor and you spend time studying scripture. If you are a disciple of Christ, you buy your friend a cup of coffee and you invite the lonely, the smelly, the annoying neighbor to worship with you–in the same pew, every Sunday. You can have it both ways; you must have it both ways.
Jesus asks an awful lot of us, doesn’t He? We have to be both Martha and Mary. When we are distracted to the point of frustration, we can collapse into a quiet heap and talk with him. Refreshed and inspired, we can resume our roles as his hands and feet.
As we move forward as a congregation, we need to remember that the Kingdom needs both Martha and Mary. Let us use this scripture, this story of two of Jesus’ favorite disciples, as a model for our own community. Amen.
38 The Lord and his disciples were traveling along and came to a village. When they got there, a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat down in front of the Lord and was listening to what he said. 40 Martha was worried about all that had to be done. Finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”
41 The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, 42 but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.”1
1 Contemporary English Version (CEV)2 Rachel Held Evans3 http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/07/marthas-anxiety-struggling-alone.html Viola Larsen4 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4686 Dr. Karolyn Lewis, Luther Seminary5 From Wesley’s Notes. John Wesley (1703-1791)6 http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/176-proper-11c-july-17-2016 (Craddock, Interpretation Series)7 Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) 8 – Cynthia A Jarvis, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feast8