Once again, I find myself having included a second reading, but crawling back to speaking about the gospel. Luke has some magnetic hold on me, I guess.
In any case, those of you who have been around the church world for a while may have come across what they call Martha Mary societies. It’s another name for a women’s guild, with the idea that you’re supposed to “work like Martha and pray like Mary.” Martha Mary groups are falling out of fashion these days, as are women’s guilds in general. There are women’s fellowships and Bible studies and small groups, but those plain old guilds with the women who made the funeral dinners are mostly going by the wayside.
That’s it, Schultz, insult the grandmothers. That’s the way to ensure longevity in the church.
No, I simply mean to point to a reality that I think we all acknowledge. The church world is changing. People feel like they have less time to devote, and they choose what time they do have in different ways. We know this, we’ve talked about it before.
One of the long-running debates in the church has been whether to focus primarily on spiritual development, or on acts of service. Some people say—with a little justification—that we can’t all just show up for worship on Sunday morning and do nothing else. (Why do they always look at me when they say that?) Somebody has to make the coffee and set out the refreshments for fellowship hour. Other folks say that “faith without works is dead,” and want to know why Christians don’t spend more time feeding and sheltering the homeless, or tending to the sick, or any of a dozen other works of mission and mercy. They have a point too.
But so do those who say time with the Lord is so precious, that prayer and study are necessary. And there are some people for whom the reality is that Sunday morning really is all they can give.
Martha had a point when she asked Jesus to tell her sister to get in the kitchen and make some noise with the pots and pans. Mary had a point—or rather, Jesus had a point on her behalf—when he responded to Martha by telling her not to let her get distracted. “Enjoy me while you can,” he tells her between the lines, “because I won’t always be here with you.”
Mary has indeed chosen the better part, but for a limited time. The situation will change later.
Interestingly enough, the text itself backs up the assertion that both sisters have an argument. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to learn from him, which is what disciples do. Remember a few weeks ago when Jesus drove out the demons named Legion into a herd of pigs? Well, when the villagers come around, they find the demoniac “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” It’s highly unusual to hear a woman described this way, just another one of Luke’s little subversions of the social order, and a blessing on all women who seek to follow Jesus.
As for Martha, those “many tasks” she needs to do are literally “much service,” in the same way that Dorcas and Lydia and Priscilla later served as leaders of the early church. Again highly unusual and again it puts women at the very heart of Christian ministry. For Luke, there is nothing the men can do that the women can’t. They preach, they teach, they carry out works of charity. I guess we don’t hear of them healing, but other than that, they are no different than male disciples. And thank God for that: women have added so much to the life of the church over the centuries. They are the life of the church, always have been.
So there is a blessing for women generally in this story, and a blessing for each woman’s specific chosen path. But there is one other message worth taking from it.
Let me see if I can explain it like this. As you know, we held a meeting this past week to talk about the future of our Christian Education program. Cara and I invited anyone who was interested in the subject to come, but as it turned out, only mothers with children in Sunday School showed up. And that’s okay; I know many people were away, and I’m sure some others were busy. It wound up being a positive, in fact, because I could hear where the moms in our congregation are at, what they struggle with and what they hope for.
The short version is that there’s not a lot of time to go around. Or perhaps a better way to say it is: many folks have some time to give, but not necessarily consistently. Sometimes they’re busy, other times less. We all agreed that no one person would be able to fill Nancy’s shoes. That woman, that Martha, is a force of nature. Forget trying to live up to her level while you’ve got kids. The surprise for us was that it was difficult to even think about breaking up her responsibilities and giving them to a group of people. Not only can you not replace Nancy with another person, you can’t even replace her with a committee!
What we think we need is to distribute the work of Christian Education to the entire congregation. We need everybody to pitch in a little bit, with the promise in return that you won’t get stuck doing it week after week. If every once in a while you teach a class, or help organize an outing, or do an activity, that’s it, that’s all anyone needs to do. Trust me, we won’t ask anyone to do something they’re not capable of doing.
The only Martha part about this is that several of the mothers agreed that they want to see men participating in the program. And if you fathers haven’t figured out yet that you don’t say “no” when the mother of your children tells you to help her, well, I can’t do a thing for you.
We need Martha in our church, and we need Mary too. But we don’t all need to be Martha, and we don’t all need to be Mary, either. More to the point, we don’t all need to be Martha or Mary all the time. If you’re Martha and dedicated to hard work, it’s okay to sit down and bask in the presence of the Lord for a while. If you’re Mary, perhaps you might find that you can learn a lot about Jesus with your hands and your feet as well as your eyes and your ears. We can all switch roles from time to time, with Jesus’ blessing, and with his presence here among us. Amen.+ + +