It's Okay to be Martha

It's Okay to be Martha May 16, 2011

Sermon for 7/17/2010
Text: Luke 10:38-42

Martha! Martha! It sounds kind of like “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” How many of you are old enough to have seen that famous episode of the Brady Brunch? Jan Brady is tired of people praising her perfect older sister Marcia so finally she just explodes. I didn’t see the original; I saw the parody on Saturday Night Live in the early nineties. In the story of Mary and Martha, we have another case of sibling rivalry. But in this case, it’s the perfectionist Martha who’s mad at her good-for-nothing sister Mary lounging around at Jesus’ feet when there’s work to be done.

So who gets to be Mary? And who gets stuck being Martha? I’m very good at playing the part of Mary. Last year, I was the stay-at-home parent in our house while my wife was a hospital chaplain who had to work a 24-hour shift at least once a month and sometimes once a week. I pretty much let the house go, because I figured the house is Martha’s job. Now I was a volunteer youth pastor at the same time and part of my ministry was to make Christian hip-hop music for my youth, so when our house got too chaotic, I would go on a “spiritual retreat” by putting on my headphones and shutting everything else out except for my music (which was about Jesus so it was like sitting at Jesus’ feet). I was really good at being Mary.

This year, our roles are officially reversed so I’m tempted to be even more of a Mary than before. Unpacking the house? Martha’s got it. Health insurance forms? I’ll let Martha cover that. I can delegate all my parenting tasks, such as poopie-diapers and bedtime, to Martha. Oh and I always say thank you.

I’m good at making time for myself to keep a good spiritual balance. I go to the gym every morning and take a sauna with God. On my day off this past Monday, I went and sat by Burke Lake with a spiritual devotion book. The last thing I want to do when I’m off from work is get stuck with honey-do lists or be stranded in a room full of boxes with two little boys who are capable of rapidly dismantling any and all forms of established order. Because if I spend all my free time helping to get the house set up, I’ll be stressed out and it’ll make me a lousy pastor.

I’m good at being Mary. And what’s great is that any time my wife has needs that conflict with my spiritual balance, I can look at this passage and realize that she’s just being like Martha: “Jesus, can you tell Morgan that he needs to pick up after himself, not to mention be a father and a husband?” “Cheryl, Cheryl, you worry too much; Morgan has chosen the right thing and it will not be taken from him.”

I could go on with my sarcasm for a lot longer; my point is this: just like most other passages in the Bible, we tend to read Mary and Martha’s story to our own advantage. Whichever character Jesus praises – that’s me. Whoever Jesus rebukes – those are the people who judge me and misunderstand me. We tend to oversimplify Jesus’ conflict resolution, as though He’s taking one side entirely and dissing the other side. Just because Jesus says what Martha needs to hear for her spiritual edification doesn’t mean that Martha is 100% wrong and Mary is 100% right. They were probably at different points in their spiritual journey and thus needed to hear different things from Jesus. Mary needed affirmation; Martha needed to be challenged.

When I really think about it, I’m not like Mary at all; I’m just a more dysfunctional version of Martha. Martha’s problem is not that she’s a detail-oriented person who takes care of all the unglamorous work that nobody ever thanks her for doing. The text says that Martha’s mind is “distracted”; in the original Greek, the word is periespato, which means getting yanked in every direction at the same time. If the difference between Martha and Mary is that Martha’s distracted while Mary’s focused on the “one good thing,” then I’m certainly not Mary.

Now some of you men out there are probably thinking what’s this guy doing comparing himself to two women. Isn’t this a story about women? I’m sure we’d like to take ourselves off the hook, but anybody can be Martha, men and women alike, whether we work at home or outside the home. All it takes is getting so overextended and yanked in every direction that we don’t think we have time for Jesus, much less our family. Mary was focused on making Jesus feel welcome in her home and she was willing to waste time with him so that he would feel at home. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a little child in His name welcomes me.” And so when I refuse to waste time with my sons, by playing with trains and doing things that don’t seem important, I am refusing to welcome Jesus.

But who can be Mary in a Martha world of busy-ness? Life in the information age is like being caught in a giant wave pool at one of those water theme parks. I’m yanked around by the waves of to-do lists and paperwork just like Martha was. The difference between me and Martha is this: while Martha tries her best to surf through that wave pool, I don’t even bother. I climb out on the side and find things to criticize about everyone who’s fighting the waves.

What I can’t stand is seeing people who’ve got both sides covered. They’re up-to-date on their taxes; and they’re excellent conversationalists at parties. They’ve got their kids enrolled in all the right extracurricular activities; and they’re reading Henri Nouwen books on the sidelines. They keep their houses like museums; and they go to fun places with their families every single weekend. Maybe such people don’t exist in real life; but they sure do in my head. And it makes me so mad that I can’t seem to get anything done and my Martha pile never seems to get any smaller. So I go looking for holes I can poke and things I can criticize about people whose lives seem perfect from the outside.

Let me share some of my Martha pile with you. I want for this room to be packed out with people every Saturday night, who all know how much God loves them and express their gratitude by worshiping God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. I want this to be a place where people who are as cynical as I was in college will hear something or feel something that makes them give God a second chance. I want to have a banging young adult ministry that reaches a hard to reach population with the right formula of fun outings, intellectually stimulating activities, and Biblically-sound discipleship. I want for this church to be like the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 where everyone gets what they needed and shares all that they can. I want for us to be so opened to the power of the Holy Spirit that we take to the streets to share the gospel with the world.

It feels good to say all that, but I don’t have any earthly idea where to begin and what the steps are for getting where we need to go. So I get short-tempered and huffy like Martha when she was rushing around getting the house together for Jesus. Or I find “spiritually-edifying” books to read instead of getting started on the nitty-gritty detail work from which I am so easily distracted. I’m good at being Mary on the outside to hide the Martha in my brain. And the whole time, Jesus is trying to cut through the whirlwind of my thoughts in a still, small voice: “Morgan, Morgan; you’re worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

What is this one thing Jesus is talking about? I don’t think he’s giving us permission not to wash the dishes as long as we sit on the couch and read the Bible instead. There’s a place for taking Sabbath and resting, but Jesus’ one thing has to do with our attitude about what we do rather than a single action we’re supposed to take. The one thing that should motivate all of our actions is our love for God and by extension our love for the people God cares about.

The Old Testament story about Abraham hosting the three angels offers a good contrast to Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. From the time that his visitors arrive, Abraham focuses his attention on one thing: making them feel welcome. He gives them water to clean off from the road and kills off his choicest cattle to prepare a feast for them. Abraham is able to pull off being both Mary and Martha at the same time (largely because he has a crew of servants helping him out). Now few of us are going to have a team of people working in our houses like Abraham had. But there’s work to be done and there’s going to be a division of labor, which includes not only getting the floors clean but also entertaining our company.

Our challenge is to do what we do out of love for God as though every day is a day when Jesus is a guest in our homes. We need to remember this love whether we’re frustrated with our spouse for slacking off or we’re tempted to slack off ourselves. Because Jesus is with us, we don’t need to get bent out of shape about our inadequacies and start looking for someone else to blame. With Jesus’ help, we can put one foot in front of the other and do what needs to get done, which in my case means facing the boxes that we still haven’t unpacked from our move. Trusting Jesus means I don’t run away from the detail work. What I do is what Paul says to do. I go to the Cross, taking all the built-up guilt from time that I’ve wasted in the past and all the fear that I’m never going to get everything done; I throw off these things that hinder me and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race that’s marked for me to run.

Jesus has a plan for me; He’s got a plan for you; He’s got a plan for this church; and we don’t have to know that plan right now. I don’t have to get my head swimming with ideas like Martha that make me testy and short-tempered and unable to move forward. What I need to do is trust Jesus with the big picture and take one piece of the puzzle at a time. It’s not going to be perfect; it’s not even going to be efficient. I will make a thousand mistakes that teach a thousand lessons. But the good news is this: God’s going to win and He had the mercy and compassion to use even a scatter-brained guy like me for one small piece of His victory.

So whether we’re busy or lazy, whether we’re detail-oriented or big-picture people, let’s admit that we all lose focus sometimes; let’s do the thankless chores that we need to do in gratitude for the grace of Jesus Christ that makes it okay to be Martha.

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