A sermon based on Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) preached July 16-17, 2016 at Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Florissant, MO
If you’re a Martha, a do-er, like me, you may feel like Martha’s gotten a raw deal in this passage. For most of my ministry I’ve somewhat cringed internally at this passage as if Jesus were judging me directly.
The problem is that like it or not, Martha’s are necessary—whether male of female, Martha’s are the ones who get the work done. At home, food must be prepared, cleaning must be done, beds must be changed, and children must be bathed. At work, reports must be written, calls need to be made, meetings must be held, and the tasks need to be accomplished.
If Mary has chosen the “better” part, how do we accomplish anything? How does the work of a household, a business, a church get completed? Surely not by shaming the Martha’s who step up to the plate to get things done, who focus on others by providing hospitality and service.
For those of us who get things done, life can feel like one Martha-day after another. We may long to have Mary-time, to sit and be nurtured without guilt or shame. Deep down, we do share Mary’s desire, to sit and listen, to reflect and ponder. We do want to find ways to restore our soul, to nurture our deeper longings, to feed ourselves spiritually and emotionally.
Wouldn’t we love to take a slow walk in nature, a luxurious bath, or to relax to uplifting music? Or if you’re more like my husband, wouldn’t you love to go to more Cardinals games, play a hard game of racquetball or have a beer with a friend? Sometimes taking Mary-time feels like a luxury we can’t afford—it’s hard to take the time for Morning Prayer and Bible reading, much less these other relaxing activities, if we’re going to accomplish the tasks of the day.
It’s always felt like a competition between the two. You’re a Martha or a Mary. You get things done or you’re a slow-moving meditative mystic that drives the rest of us Martha’s crazy. The competition between the two only makes us feel worse, like we’re never going to get it right.
It’s taken me 25 years and two health crises to figure out this internal dilemma that the story of Mary and Martha evokes. Admittedly, I’m a stubborn and slow learner.
The first health crisis came in late 2007 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes where it was also invasive. I was on disability for 9 months for a difficult course of surgeries, chemo and radiation. When I came through it all, I struggled with survivor guilt, having known other women who died from this disease. When I went back to the parish I was serving, I started working even harder as a Martha-type than I had before, trying to make myself worthy of survival.
Two years ago I started experiencing severe chronic migraines and had to stop working again for a year. I served on two non-profit Boards and had to resign from both. Did I mention I’m stubborn and slow? Nothing helped—I saw new neurologists, changed my diet, tried new medication and prayed fervently. I was still wired to be a Martha—to take care of everyone and everything else first and always, and had still not learned how to take care of myself.
I remember sitting on the couch in the living room wondering what in the heck was wrong with me and my body, and it was like the Spirit whispered in my ear: you’ve never tried taking care of yourself first.
Slowly I started trying to take care of myself and what I needed first every day—and I can’t describe to you how unnatural and wrong it felt—and how difficult it still is, sometimes. I was tempted to do the laundry, plan dinner, clean the bathrooms—anything—the urge to get something done instead was surprisingly powerful, almost like an addiction.
But over time the Mary in me came forward and I had to practice listening to her wisdom about self-care. Do I need meditation on the deck, a walk in the fresh air, devotional reading or a conversation with a spiritual friend? Even the things I already did for myself, like exercise and prayer, took on a different energy. Instead of doing them to check them off my to-do list in a feverish rush, I slowed down and did them with more love and care for myself.
An amazing thing happened. All of the sudden I found that I had more energy to serve others, more emotional and spiritual availability to engage in the Martha tasks, because I wasn’t trying to pour from an empty cup. It was astounding to feel the difference in my body.
It’s not either/or – either be a Martha or a Mary; either sit at Jesus’ feet or do the work. It’s both/and.
While it seems like I’m stating the obvious, I didn’t really get it until I felt it in my body, in the relief from pain, in the decrease of my migraines, in the energy that comes from starting my day with Mary at Jesus’ feet. The second greatest commandment that Jesus identified now made sense, not just as an idea, but in my bones—you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no love of neighbor or Martha-service without self-love and self-care first, with Mary.
Martha beautifully gives us the signal to watch for when we’re off track—when we take care of other people and all the tasks before taking care of ourselves. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Martha has become resentful. She, too, desires to sit at Jesus feet and be loved and nurtured, but she’s too driven to give herself permission to do it.
I'm ashamed to admit this feeling of resentment is all too familiar to me. When I’m taking care of everyone else’s needs to the neglect of my own, I feel resentful. Doesn’t anybody care about me? Doesn’t anybody see this work that has to be done? Resentment is the emotional signal that I have neglected my own self-care. So when resentment bubbles up, I have learned to change the question from, what’s wrong with everybody else? to what do I need to do to take care of myself to resolve this feeling of neglect?
Jesus’ response to Martha’s question is that Mary has chosen the “better” part. This is not my favorite translation because it sets up this competition between the two. The Greek word here, agathane can also be translated, “Mary has chosen what is good, what is beneficial, what is kind, or what is generous.”
Sitting at Jesus’ feet and nurturing your spirit is the good or beneficial thing to do first; it is the kind and generous thing to do for yourself. Because when we have listened and prayed and pondered with Jesus, then we are physically, emotionally and spiritually freed and energized to serve, and to do the work that needs to be done.
At my meeting with my Spiritual Director last month, we talked about this very subject. Rose said that self-care in a busy schedule doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. Take 15 minutes in the morning—meditate or pray for 5 minutes, read the Bible for 5 minutes, stretch for 5 minutes. I encourage you to try it if you’re not doing this already, trusting that your time with Jesus will not be taken away from you.
Like many Scripture stories, Luke doesn’t tell us what happened next in the story of Mary and Martha, leaving us to finish it with our own choices. I imagine that Martha sat down next to Mary at Jesus’ feet for about 15 minutes. Then the two of them prepared dinner together while their brother, Lazarus, also pitched in to set the table and pour the wine. And Jesus smiled.