Preacher: Elizabeth Walker
I’ve always been interested in Mary and Martha. It might be because I have a sister—a sister named Mary even. So, when I hear stories of this family of Lazarus, I find my ears perking up when Mary and Martha are mentioned. I have often taken it a step further. If Mary is my sister, then that must make me Martha. And then I take inventory of this person to see if our similarities end there.
In tonight’s Gospel, we hear about Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home after Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. It is a celebratory gathering, as you might expect, in the wake of a family member’s resurrection from death. But, as would be expected in a Gospel that kicks off Holy Week, there is an element of gravity too; Judas questions the actions of Mary, who showed ultimate respect for Jesus by washing his feet—with her hair—using expensive perfume.
There is a story line here, of course. But, I’m looking at Martha.
While Mary is in the foreground rubbing elbows (or in this case, feet) with Jesus, Martha is doing kitchen jobs. I’ve always felt sympathy for Martha, for her role in this Gospel can seem pedestrian in comparison to her sister—
Does she look back on this night with sadness and regret? Remembering…. My sister showed the greatest honor possible to the Holy One, while I carried some wine.
It’s a very human fear that makes me wonder about Martha. From the time we are children, we want to be with a group. Young children naturally search others out, and older children generally stick with their own friends at all costs. As an adult, I still wrestle with these feelings. It’s not comfortable to know that other people are dining, camping, running, or meeting without me. And, if I know that these things are going on and I’m not there, even if I was invited, I worry that I might be Missing Out—on a joke, on a conversation, on an opportunity to become better friends or to build a working relationship. And, it’s this Fear of Missing Out that can make me and anyone else choose to always say yes, to always be busy, and sometimes to lose sight of how we might actually best spend our time and energy.
This Fear of Missing Out is prevalent in this age of technology in which we live. So prevalent, in fact, that you can read article upon article about this phenomenon, sometimes dubbed FOMO. These articles remind readers that our age of social media, of cell phones and Facebook, perpetuates this fear, by letting us know more than ever about what other people are doing.
There’s beauty in this. Families feel closer, and friends have a lovely way to commemorate and celebrate their time together. But, there’s also an unsettling dynamic that is created when people are able to anonymously watch others—because using social media allows us to watch each other, but not truly know the depth of each other. It doesn’t foster authentic relationships as they should be in the Kingdom of God. For, in the Kingdom of God, where relationship is primary, people interact when and how they should, not because technology allows easier and easier access.
I’ve always worried for Martha because I’ve looked at her with that lens of Missing Out. If this story played out now, would her sister Mary be in a photo with Jesus while she was tucked away behind the scenes? Maybe, but in the Kingdom of God, that photo wouldn’t matter. Martha was doing what she should have been doing in that time and place, and she was glorifying God in it.
It was Martha who addressed Jesus first after Lazarus’ death. In that Gospel, Martha meets Jesus weeping and says that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. Yet, even in the face of her brother’s death, she remains confident in God’s saving power and affirms her belief that resurrection will bring eternal life. In that Gospel, Martha interacted with Jesus when she needed to; on the face of it, she pleaded for her family. More deeply, she overtly bore a message of belief in and support of God’s life-giving powers. So, when given a chance to have Jesus to her home, she did what she needed to do. She showed her respect and her love in her action. And it didn’t have to be about her. And it didn’t have to be documented.
We all know people like this, people who, like Martha in this Gospel, work tirelessly without need for recognition or reward. These are the introverts who might actually prefer having hands in soapy water over chatting with new people. Or, these are the people who make the phone calls, plan the menus, or prep the food, instead of actually going to an event. I’ve always loved to be led by people like this, those who work so hard and care so much that I am inspired to give the best that I can muster. Martha’s work facilitated the interaction between Jesus and her sister Mary and between Jesus and Judas.
These two interactions offer the stark contrast of love and betrayal that weave into the journey of Holy Week and both were able to take place because of Martha’s service.
At risk of seeing only one side of Martha (rather funny to say, since so little of Martha is shared in this particular Gospel), I should mention that , in the Gospel of Luke, in another story about Mary and Martha, Martha seems to be action-oriented, high stress, and high anxiety. She complains to Jesus that Mary is only sitting and listening while she is working. Jesus’ response is not one of sympathy, but one of reproach. He explains that Mary has chosen the “good portion” and should not be scolded for her choice.
This interaction actually animates Martha and shows that she, too, may have some of that Fear of Missing Out that I worried about on her behalf. She knew that her sister’s experience was different than her own, and she made a very human value judgment about the situation; that her sister was scoring better than she. Jesus’ response was to chastise Martha for her complaints, but also to recognize both sisters’ roles. Martha’s choice to serve was a good and important one. Mary’s choice to listen was a good and important one. In our relationship with God, all choices are legitimate.
With this full view of Martha, I’m not sure that I want to claim her as my soul sister, but I will admit that we have a lot in common.
When pulled to serve Jesus both in domestic and spiritual practice, Martha and her sister Mary, too, struggle with the challenge of Having It All—a term often used to describe women balancing the demands of both personal and professional lives. When first used decades ago, “Having it All” was meant to be empowering, but with recent use, it is often criticized for being unrealistic, unsympathetic, and maybe delusional. Martha no doubt wanted to offer her respect by properly caring for a guest in her home. But she also wanted to be part of the conversation with Jesus, revel in his presence, and learn from his Holy Word. I wonder if Mary didn’t have the converse dilemma. She may have prioritized interacting with Jesus and, in doing so, lived out the “good portion,” while still having a bit of a nagging sense that she should be helping her sister. These women, like us, feared Missing Out. These women, like us, couldn’t have it all. These women, like us, had to make a choice.
As we walk through Holy Week together, there will be choices that we each make in order to celebrate in the ways that we do. We give of ourselves, perhaps at the expense of other things that we would normally do with this time. For some this may be as participants in the services, for others as congregants who sit and pray,
and for still others to be Marthas and serve behind the scenes. No matter the role, we, like Mary and Martha, each have own special place in paving Jesus’ path to death and resurrection and, on this road, there is NO Missing Out.