God Speaks to Each of Us As She Makes Us: Jesus, Martha and Mary (Helene Nelson) 3.18.18

Audio version

Like most girls in the 1950s, I was raised to be Martha. As the only girl among brothers, my role was to understudy Mom – to learn and do the women’s work– which is to say, housework of all kinds, and care for children, neighbors and elders. We were the ones who made lunch, not the ones who sat around talking while waiting for lunch to be served.

The Martha and Mary story can seem patronizing and impractical to women like us, especially when told by men who think that preaching is men’s work, and preparing church suppers is women’s work. Adding insult to injury, reportedly Jesus says Mary had the better part. Then he says Mary shouldn’t help Martha with her work. As former member Deb Holbrook preached, Martha got a bad rap. An ORUCC friend asked: ‘so who made the lunch then?’

Jane and Jill’s imaginative reinterpretation of scripture provides a kinder interpretation of this scripture. Jesus values Martha’s service, while inviting her to balance her active service with a time of simply sitting with Him.

In today’s overly busy and work-oriented culture, a lot of us need to hear that message – including me. Following Jesus’ example, we’re called to embody the love of God in active service in the world – AND to take time for prayer and communion with friends. So that is the short sermon: Find your own right balance of active service, and times of prayer, rest, and social connections.

Sorry, there is a longer sermon to explore our Lenten theme: “How do we connect with the Sacred in our own lives?”

Let’s look again at Luke’s description of what happened.

“Now Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to Jesus and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with the work by myself? Tell her to come and give me a hand.’ But the Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about so many things; only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best; it shall not be taken away from her.”  


Is Jesus giving Martha a bad rap? Or is Luke giving JESUS a bad rap?

Let’s remember the context of this story.

Jesus came to Martha’s and Mary’s home after a day of teaching his followers to love God and love our neighbor. He told the story of the Good Samaritan’s active service and told listeners to “go and do likewise.” Jesus gets a bad rap if we think he said that Mary’s devoted listening was more valuable than Martha’s active service.

Jesus’ whole life story in the gospels models active service! He taught, he healed, and – counter-culturally for a man and religious teacher – he did the humble work of washing feet and serving meals himself. He showed us and told us that his healing and teaching powers came from a living connection to God in the process and in the moment. Jesus gets a bad rap if we think he said that the only or best way to connect with God is sitting down in prayer or theological conversations.

Remember, also, that Jesus and Martha were close friends. Jesus visited Martha’s house often. John’s gospel says that Jesus “loved Martha.” John shows them as the kind of friends who tell each other frankly what they see and what they hope for in the other. This is what the Celts call “anam cara” or soul friends. Jesus gets a bad rap if we think he didn’t see and hear Martha, and respond with affection and respect.

So, in summary…

  • Don’t forget the context:
  •  Jesus modeled a life of service inspired by God.
  • Jesus teaches us to “do likewise.”
  • Jesus loved Martha.
  • Jesus spoke truth in love to Martha and others.

So what happened in this story again?

What I think happened is this: Jesus called Martha to be her best self. He saw she was distracted by her tasks, and fussing too much about them, and getting too bossy.

I’ve been there. When I feel tired from over-work, or overly worried about undone work, I fret and fuss. Agitation drives out my consciousness of God – God in other people and the situation, and Godliness in the service.

Thank God I sometimes have a soul friend like Jesus, a friend who loves me and tells me what she sees. My friend might ask me kindly what I need to be my better self – perhaps a short time-out, a bigger rest, or maybe a good cry.

Listening to Jesus speaking to Martha, I hear these words to me:

Be mindful. Be present and kind to yourself and others. Every day.

Perhaps Jesus then went on to say, as Jane imagined, that Martha should put down her tray and sit with the rest of the disciples. Maybe he sent Peter in to finish making lunch while Martha was included in the men’s conversation as an equal disciple. Or perhaps Jesus simply asked her to work more peacefully.  Jesus knew that for Martha, right work is love-in-action. The problem is when the work is not connected to the spirit of Love.

How do we connect with the God who is Love in our everyday lives? This is not a cookie cutter problem.

Martha and Mary, siblings raised in the same culture and household, found paths to holiness in life that were not identical. Many of us have a sibling, or have children, who remind us that individuals are born and grow up differently, even when born and raised in the same family.

Some of us, by our nature or our nurture, are inclined to be caretakers of others, or busy-bee do-er personalities like Martha. Living into our best selves through the path of active service can be beautiful and healthy and loving. This path also comes with its risks of sin and error. We see that today in the Martha text – anxiety from over-working or over-worrying, and then forgetting love and the needs of the people we’re trying to serve, because we’re too focused on getting tasks done.

Some of us here are Martha types; some more like Mary or different from both of them. I believe that God speaks to each of us as God has made us, as individuals.

When I was younger I thought God spoke to us only on special occasions. I now believe and experience that God speaks to each of us – in our day to day lives – not just in special prayer times and burning bush experiences. Today’s scripture illustrates God who is Love speaking in an everyday story.

How do we listen for the voice of God in our lives?

When I was about 50, I was spiritually restless. I went to a retreat at St. Benedict’s Center (now called Holy Wisdom Monastery). For six days, we joined the sisters in their life of balanced prayer, study, work and leisure. We studied the Rule of Benedict and experienced new spiritual practices. I loved everything about the retreat – especially the uplifting Mary times: praying in community, learning from a wise teacher, and walking on trails awash with colorful prairie flowers and companioned by birdsong.

One theme of the retreat was HOLY LISTENING….lectio divina, a way of listening for the voice of the still-speaking God in a scripture text, as it connects to you in that moment. We practiced HOLY LISTENING not only with Scripture texts – but in spoken words of other people and with the text of all creation – the physical and living world around us and within us.

We also practiced Holy Listening in those awkward and humbling experiences of daily life. Here’s an example.

One day a partner and I were assigned to paint the metal railings by some steps outdoors. As we went out to paint, my partner felt called to journal her response to our last educational session. At first I felt fine about that. I started to paint. It was kind of a meditation for me – paying attention to the painting in the way you follow your breath in sitting meditation. For us doer personalities, right doing can be prayer. However, I suddenly realized that I would not finish painting the railing before I was due at afternoon prayers. I would have to clean and put away my paint brush before the job was done. I began to resent my partner sitting under a tree nearby.   I even began to resent our teacher’s instruction that regular prayer was a priority.

In short, I was exactly like Martha in the scripture, while my partner played the role of Mary.

Then I literally came to my senses. I felt the sun on my skin and the fresh air through my nose. I noticed that I had lost my pleasure in painting and sitting outside in the sweet summer air. Whether or not my partner made the right choice, I knew that the only person I could try to control was myself. I cleaned my brush, I put the lid on the paint can, and I went to prayer.

I wish I could tell you that since that time, I have mastered the lesson of Martha and Mary. Instead, this is a tension I have held over time and varying circumstances. I make mistakes and need to confess and correct them. The challenge of finding my own Martha and Mary balance is the work of a lifetime for me.

Again, the short sermon: Find your own right balance of active service, and times of prayer, rest, and social connections.

A spiritual director at that retreat said that finding one’s balance is not a perfect formula to be rigidly held. Rather, our work to find balance is more like standing on a raft or in a tippy canoe on a big lake. When choppy waves come, or big storms, or even the small wake of a passing boat – we need to adjust our stance to avoid being tipped over. This requires a mindful awareness of yourself and the situation around you.

A steadying keel for my small boat is a long-time practice of morning journaling and quiet reflection. During that time, I also read scripture and the Rule of Benedict and try to listen with the ears of my heart.

Another steadying keel for me is the spiritual friendships and community at ORUCC. Thank-you for working together for justice and care of our neighbors. Thank you for praying together and simply enjoying time together – shared meals and conversations, nature walks, and even dancing. Namaste. The Martha in me greets the Martha in you. The Mary in me greets the Mary in you. Amen.

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