Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – July 21, 2019
There is a medieval story called the “Golden Legend” that says that Lazarus, Mary, and Martha escaped persecution in the early days of the church by sailing to Gaul, or modern day France. While Mary preached and retired to the life of an ascetic in a cliffside cave, Martha’s life took a different route. During this time, the legend says a monster named Tarasque was terrorizing the countryside. It had six bear’s legs growing out of an ox’s body, a lion’s head, a back like a turtle shell with spikes, and a tail ending with a scorpion’s stinger. Courageously, Martha faced the beast alone and charmed it, armed with holy water, a cross, hymns, and “her own sweet character.” It seems that even in the legends surrounding these two women, we see traces of Luke’s Gospel story. Mary, the ascetic devoted to prayer, and Martha, the faithful and active servant.
But we are doing them both a huge disservice if we don’t dig a little deeper into this story. Jesus shows up at Martha’s home and she welcomes him with open arms. As opposed to John’s Gospel, Lazarus isn’t mentioned here. Martha welcomes him into “her home” which means she is hostess with the most-est here and it would have been her role to provide hospitality for her guest – not just because she was a woman, but because we are told she was the head of the household. Just as Abraham ran to meet the three men, gave them water for their feet, and made haste to prepare three cakes, curds and milk, and a calf for them, Martha makes haste to welcome her guest. Jesus has just told the parable of the Good Samaritan about loving service to one’s neighbor and has spoken about people welcoming the 70, so hospitality and service are not the problem here.
Meanwhile, Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he is saying. She, too, is a bold woman for sitting as a disciple – a student – at the feet of a teacher. She wants to use this time to learn and grow regardless of any “should’s” society might place on her. These are two confident, intelligent sisters – one the head of the household, opening her home to the coming kingdom, and the other desiring to be a disciple.
So when Martha raises the complaint about Mary, I wonder how many years of sibling rivalry were behind that, spurring it on. “Oh, finally – someone wise is here who can point out that I’m right and Mary isn’t!” Has anyone ever felt this? Be honest!
But Jesus’ answer is not what Martha, or probably Mary, was expecting. Instead, Jesus says, “‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” In the Scriptures, the prophets are usually called twice – it’s a hint that God is speaking. And I hear Jesus’ words to Martha not as condemnatory or angry, but as absolutely overflowing with love. In order to really receive Jesus’ words as the beautiful good news they are, we’ve got to hear what was truly going on with Martha. The translations say that she was being “distracted” or “overburdened.” Ok – fair enough. She wanted help. However, the literal sense of the word, only used here in the entire New Testament, is that she was “being pulled” or “being dragged from all around.” That’s not good. In short, it sounds like she wasn’t just doing a lot, she was no longer in control – she was letting her tasks dictate how she was living. She was letting her worries and anxieties control her life. Something had gotten severely out of alignment. She thought having her sister come to her aid would solve the problem, but the problem was much deeper. Like an iceberg, she was only looking at the bit of the problem jutting out above the water, not the 90% of it lying below the surface.
But Jesus saw deeper. He understood the real issue and so he spoke to her: “Martha, Martha, you continue to be anxious and unduly concerned – you are being troubled and upset by many things. One thing is useful and necessary. Mary has chosen the better portion and she will not be deprived of it.”
Thomas Merton said, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.” The violence of our times. In being dragged around by too many things, in forgetting to take holy Sabbath rest, in trying to help or fix everything for everyone, in worrying about what is not ours to worry about – what violence are we doing to our neighbors and ourselves? Martha was worried, distracted, and pulled in so many directions. Northern Virginians, have you felt this?
The past few months have been hard on Jeff and I. They’ve been full of change and, at times, it’s felt like nothing was stable. A massive kitchen renovation. Pr. Joe’s retirement. Multiple out of town guests. Even Corner Bakery closed down! And most recently, the deaths of both of Jeff’s grandfathers within a month. On July 2, I left for one week of continuing education at the Ecumenical Institute in Strasbourg, France followed by four days of retreat time in Taizé, and two days with friends in Freiburg, Germany. All of this was scheduled before the craziness of the past couple of months got underway, but I thank God that I was able to go. While I was away, I finally was able to take time in solitude and silence to be still and hear – to really listen. And interestingly enough, the words that caught my attention were words spoken by Martha to Mary from John’s Gospel – “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” The question I found myself asking was, “will you sit and listen or continue to be distracted?” I realized that I had been pulled and dragged around by the things happening around me. All the while forgetting that I, too, was allowed – no, was welcomed – to take my place at Jesus’ feet.
You see, while Martha was distracted by many things, she was unable to enjoy the hospitality that Jesus offered – the welcome of himself and his presence. She missed that, in the larger scheme, he is always the host – he is the welcome and the reception we most long for in our lives. Along the way, we can find ourselves spinning our wheels or even becoming bitter and burnt out doing good things for the wrong reasons. We can slide down the slippery slope of adopting a mindset that says it all depends on us – that it’s not all grace. How often do we forget that our service and, indeed our very lives, flow as a response to God’s incredible goodness rather than as something necessary to attain God? No, the Lord is, as the psalmist says, our portion – God gives of Godself to us and we receive with open hands, with open ears at the feet of the teacher. When we understand Jesus as Mary did, we realize we are never deprived of the welcome and hospitality he offers us. We realize and proclaim along with Augustine, “God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Jesus says to us, “come, sit at my feet. Learn and be refreshed. Spend time in my presence, listening deeply to my voice. Come to the waters and remember you are forgiven. Come and hear my word. Come study it and let it take hold in your heart. Come to my table and be strengthened by the food I offer. Allow me to love and serve you. And I will send you into the world with me as your focus.”
Each of us needs this every week – to be refreshed and renewed. We need to be reminded of that one thing that is necessary, that is really useful – spending time with Christ and letting his love for us work in our hearts so we might better love ourselves and others.
In medieval artwork of the “Golden Legend,” Martha is depicted with the tamed monster Tarasque curled up at her feet. Could it be that she befriended her worries and anxieties and learned from Christ to lay them aside? Could it be that she learned to keep Christ as her center and thus tamed all the distractions dragging (dragon?!) her around? Sadly, the legend ends with the townspeople continuing to be scared of the now tame and harmless monster and killing it. We will always need to be on guard lest fears, anxieties, worries, and distractions seize hold of our hearts. But rest assured, our host, the crucified and resurrected Lord will meet us every time with open arms. Thanks be to God! Amen.