Mary vs. Martha?

This sermon was originally preached on Sunday, July 21st, 2019 at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California. You can watch the video recording on our Facebook Page.

Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Psalm 15 (NRSV)

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

What we often read as a story of hospitality or being present or even what the ‘best’ ways to spend our time are, can actually be read as a story of Jesus allowing people to claim their power. There’s something invigorating about this story for me, especially as someone who knows the underrepresentation of women in scripture, and, let’s be honest, now too.

We begin this story with Jesus walking towards Mary and Martha’s home. We can imagine Jesus was exhausted, since he’d been walking for quite a while. And Mary and Martha had been preparing for his arrival. Martha especially, was still working on preparing the meal when Jesus had gotten there. She likely thought, a special guest is coming to my home, and he’s been traveling a long way, so I should make him a nice meal and make him feel comfortable. So when Jesus got there, she welcomed him in, and then went back to cooking. Mary, on the other hand, dropped everything when he walked in the door, and the scripture said she sat at his feet and listened to what he was saying.

Let’s pause here and talk about gender roles in this time. Martha was doing her duties as a woman in that time. She was behind the scenes, making sure the moving parts were in place so that Jesus and everyone else felt taken care of. But whether or not she knew it, Martha was countercultural. The author of Luke refers to Martha as well as Mary by name. That is a means of status. Mary and Martha weren’t referred to in relation to their brother Lazarus, or anyone else for that matter. The simple act of using their names denotes that they were highly regarded by Jesus. They both were regarded as disciples, as leaders. This passage teaches us and shows us that women were active leaders throughout the Jesus movement.

So Martha is doing the housework, what she knew to do at the time, while her sister Mary was out with Jesus, talking to him and learning from him. Mary was doing that which only men with high status did at that time, talking to this incredible figure, Jesus, while others did the rest. I have to believe that if Jesus was uncomfortable with Mary doing this, he would have found a tactful, loving way to tell her to stop and go back to her ‘womanly’ duties.

Jesus never did that. This is the most remarkable part of the story to me. Jesus invited women to be a part of his movement. And even more than that, he understood the value of these two women, Mary and Martha, the value of them participating fully, learning from him so they could go out and make disciples in his name. Jesus invites both women into this disciple-making ministry, first Mary by honoring her desire to sit at his feet, then Martha, by inviting her to come out and join them.

Martha was stressed by all she had to do, and so she went to ask Jesus for some help in convincing her sister to come back and help her out. This was Jesus’ response:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 We often read this response as a scolding from Jesus, as Jesus somehow telling Mary that she was doing the better things. But I think, instead, that Jesus’ response was more so one of invitation and empowerment.

Martha had just been doing what she was told, and then Jesus steps in and tells her, “Beloved, you are my disciple. Come and learn from me.” Martha is told by Jesus that this role she has always understood as a role she could never fill, was in fact where she was being called to. Jesus helped both women understand their true place in the body of Christ, regardless of societal or political or social norms.

Something you all should know about me, is that some of the most powerful moments of connection I’ve felt with God, and with my call, have been at camp. I attended Birchwood Camp in Chugiak, Alaska since I was 5, and went from camper to junior counselor, to counselor, to dean. Last summer, I was the dean for the Faith Adventure Camp, where I was surrounded by sixty 4ththrough 6thgraders, tasked with teaching them something about God. If you’ve worked with kids in any capacity, it won’t surprise you when I say that young people always teach me way more than I can ever teach them.

One day, I was walking around the camp, taking photos of the kids at their activities. I end up at the craft tables, where a group of 4thgrade girls are stringing their nametags with beads. One of them asks if I wanted any on my nametag, and of course I did. Excitedly, they grab my nametag and three of them get to work. The girl sitting next to me notices that my nametag says pastor on it, and quietly she asks me why it says that. I tell her that I am a pastor, and that’s my job at camp this week.

Her face lights up, and she told me she didn’t know GIRLS could be pastors. “I thought only boys did that.” “I want to be a pastor too!”, she tells me. “I want that too”, I replied back.

As I was re-adorned with my nametag necklace, now styled with glitter beads, I realized that the Holy Spirit was working at that table. God was giving permission and inviting this little girl into a ministry she didn’t even know she could be a part of. And this girl experienced freedom and an opening of her eyes because of that invitation.

The good news today, is that Jesus empowers us to jump in to things we never knew were possible for us. Martha, while making Jesus’ meal, had no idea that she could ever be the one sitting at Jesus’ feet, that she would be trusted with sharing the good news. But Jesus, full of compassion, grace, and determination, extends the invitation.

Where are the areas in your life, Church, that you have written off as too far, too much, not for me, or not now? What dreams are we as a church setting aside as impossible or inconvenient or ‘not the right time’? Where do we need to notice the invitation we are already given through Christ, through grace, to do big things?

I am going to invite us to name those things today. I want you to write down at least one big idea or dream or role that you are looking for that invitation to, either for yourself, or for the church. What is something that feels impossible, that you didn’t know was a possibility?

My big dream, the thing I’ve felt called to dream about recently, is a queer discipleship group. In my mind, this would be a place for community, for fellowship, and for spiritual growth, for people in the LGBTQIA+ community. I can always create more obstacles or excuses in my mind for why now is an inopportune time, or for why this wouldn’t succeed, and that is why I’m naming it today, because Jesus has empowered all of us with this gift of big ideas to follow our calls.

Take a minute or two to write that word or phrase or sentence or two down and when you’re done, hold on to them and be reminded of the ways God is inviting us all into big dreams.

Friends, the God of the Holy Spirit and Christ wants to encourage us to do big things. While we may call them wild or impossible, Jesus tells Martha, ‘this is why I called you here’, and Jesus tells us the same thing. As we leave this place, may you listen for Jesus’ offering of permission, and of empowerment. May you dream bigger than your doubts. And may you remember that the grace of God is sending you to do big things to make disciples in this community.

Let us pray.

God of abundance and wholeness, we invite you into our lives today. We give you thanks for how you’ve journeyed with us, and with those who’ve come before us. Today, we are looking ahead, to see what you might have next for us. We dream together, of what could be if we accepted the power you give each of us. God, today we ask that you continue urging us towards a place of discomfort, a place of potential, a place of new life and growth. For you are inviting us to serve in big ways, through faith and through radical love. In your name we pray, Amen.

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