Year C Proper 11, 17 July 2022
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Marthas and Marys”
Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus 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."
Mary and Martha. A story like the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, they have become a cautionary tale unto themselves beyond the biblical narrative. Mary: good. Martha: bad. Mary: lovingly attentive. Martha: distractedly obtuse.
I feel for the Marthas. They get a bad rap. Whether you are watching The Handmaid’s Tale, where the enforced servants are called Marthas (taken from this story, by the way), or just seen as tattling drudgers. Marthas in this context have it almost as bad as the horrible slander Karen in our modern day. All the Karens I know are pretty great, and always wince when I hear folks use that term as derogatory.
When Martha comes to Jesus, she is seen as missing the point. She is busy fussing, wanting to do the odd details instead of learning from the teacher like Mary is doing.
"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."
Now there is so much to unpack in her lament. Mary should be doing womens’ work, not lazing at your feet. Mary should do her share, instead of me alone. Mary, Mary, Mary! (Kind of like Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! from the Brady Bunch.)
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."
Worries and Distractions are what I want to focus on today. Somewhere along the way we have stopped having the main thing be the main thing. What is in the Driver’s Seat in your life? In mine?
Worries and Distractions can be oppositional to what we really want. They often are.
When I taught school, one of my favorite books to read with the students was The Book of the Dun Cow, a fantasy novel from the 1970s by Walter Wangerin, Jr. One part always confused the young readers.
The nanny/housekeeper of the main character has lost her charges. The three youngsters of the house were always running away and pranking the nanny, and it drove her crazy. Her anxiety was off the charts when they did this, and at one point in the story they do it again. And rather than hunt them down, as she normally does, she starts talking to herself. She scolds them and nags them under her breath, even though they are not there. Then she starts fixating and cleaning the house meticulously. In the meantime they could use her aid, but this one time she chooses not to give into their shenanigans. She spends an hour cleaning instead of chasing them down.
At this point in reading the book, one student would always raise their hand and say, “She would never do that!” And I have to let this young idealist know that often as adults, we focus on things we can control instead of the deep worry that we cannot.
Often I will get a phone call from someone hurting with a complaint. They make it much bigger than what it is. And I have to remind myself that the thing they really want removed/taken care of/forgotten is beyond their control, so they clamp down and try to control the things that they can. Or they come to me with complaints, knowing that I am safe to dump on because they are hurting over something else. We are strange and unreflective creatures, at times.
Jesus calls Martha on this. She is worried and distracted. Jesus sees that. She cannot control her anxieties, her frets. So she tries to control her sister, and she goes to Jesus to help her triangle with Jesus to get Mary to do something. It is not about Mary. It is not about work. It is about Martha's worries and her attempts to alleviate herself from them by these distractions and unimportant prioritized details.
Looking at what worries and distracts me, I am too often a Martha. I want to be a Mary, but those distractions and worries get the best of us at times.
Like Paul McCartney sang in his song Distractions:
Distractions, like butterflies are buzzing 'round my head.
When I'm alone I think of you
And the things we'd do if we could only be through
With these distractions, like butterflies they're
Buzzing 'round my head, when I'm alone I think of you
And the life we'd lead if we could only be free
From these distractions.
Whether that is a romantic relationship, or our spiritual lives in God, the affairs of this world pull us away from our primary relationship. The relationship from which our souls are breathed into existence, the relationship that will welcome us home when all these distractions have come to close with our bodily death.
We live in an age of distraction. We have become addicted to our phones and our channels. It has only gotten worse. We cannot come close to being a Mary when we cannot even follow the invective from the Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.”
Oh, that I could just breathe that in all day.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
Or, “Be still and know that I am…”
Or, “Be still and know…”
Or just, “Be still…”
I think God would be most pleased if we could get it down to “Be…”
And about that time I would pick up my phone and bust it all again. Alas.
In fact I would invite us now, to take a pause. To sit here, at Jesus’ feet metaphorically anyway, for a spell and just be with God. Let’s pause now. Close your eyes and picture just being in Jesus’ presence.
I hope you were able to let those Martha worries and those Martha distractions go for even just a minute.
It may have been harder than you thought. I know for me, that daily ritual of pausing and being still depends so much on my attitude as I enter into it. Is my time with Jesus something I “need to do,” or is it something that I am privileged to do? Something God is inviting and begging me to do daily? Is this time a gift, a luxury in our hurried and busy world?
Am I a Mary or a Martha? Am I distracted and worried, or do I pause and savor this opportunity to be with the one who loves me more and knows more about me than anyone else?
Being relished in overwhelming love is Grace, and we all could use more of that. I hope you will take some time this week, and hopefully daily, to just “Be still and know that God is God.” Or at the very least, to just “Be.”
God help us all. Amen