Evensong Sermon Series, Lent, Sunday 12 March 2017

By Tammy Tearoe

On Tuesday, last week, I had the privilege of leading a group of mainly Muslim high school students from the Moseley School on a tour of this church as part of their Religious Studies enrichment day. As with any group we welcome here we anticipate that there will be questions pertaining to the Christian faith. As the head of the religious studies department at the school had requested that I prepare a presentation on the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus I suspected that the questions might go a bit deeper than what I normally field during a primary school tour. I was not disappointed. I was peppered with literally dozens of questions ranging from ‘what are the red cushions hanging on the back of the benches?’ to ‘what do Christian’s do with a damaged bible?’ and everything in between. It was an hour of real exploration and I hope for all of us a moment of realisation that we share the gift of faith in God even though our expression and practices differ.

Since Tuesday I’ve been reflecting back on that experience and in that process I keep returning to one young man’s question about the bible. ‘Miss,’ he said, ‘is the bible hard to read?’ My instinct was to protect the scriptures. I didn’t want to give the impression they’re inaccessible. I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from picking up the bible and reading the Word of God, so I told him, ‘no, the language isn’t hard’. I felt a bit of a fraud so I quickly added, ‘but what it says is often hard to put into practice’. You see I believe if I sit down with my bible and I’m not challenged by it to be a more loving person or if I don’t come away with a deeper appreciation of God’s presence in the world then I’m not reading it properly.

And that brings me to this story of Mary and Martha. I’ve never liked this story. I take great offence at the insinuation that Martha was having a trivial kitchen crisis and throwing a self-absorbed temper tantrum. I dislike the apparent dismissal of Martha by Jesus. Additionally, I’ve long struggled with a popular interpretation of this passage that suggests that the ‘Martha’s’ of the world are in a way inferior to the ‘Mary’s’ and its related use to keep women out of positions of leadership in the church. Perhaps I’m not the only one here tonight who has had similar trouble with this passage. ‘So why choose to spend time and energy on this passage?’ you may be wondering. ‘Is the bible hard to read?’ Those words have been ringing in my ears for days. This passage is hard; this passage raises my blood pressure and I need to spend time with it to find where a new understanding of God is lurking.

First, because I am, by nature a ‘Martha’, I relate strongly to Martha’s impassioned plea for Mary to get off her backside and take some of the load off her sister. Coming from a large family I remember well the feeling that I’d been given an unfair share of the chores and resorting to sulking and muttering under my breath about the injustice of it all. Let’s recall what the passage says about what’s happening when Martha has her outburst:

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

So Jesus and his entourage have appeared on Martha’s doorstep with no advanced notice it would appear. Imagine for a moment a ragtag group of no less than thirteen men (quite possibly many more than that) just rockin’ up unannounced looking for a place to eat and sleep for the night. I remember my husband telling me shortly after we arrived in the UK that it would be the ultimate disrespect not to offer tea to a visitor, be that a friend or the plumber. There are social expectations, then and now, and Martha has been dropped in the deep end. Beyond that Martha will have had other situations in her life that feed into her frustration. I’ve recently read a fascinating book titled ‘A New Perspective on Mary and Martha’ by Mary Stromer Hanson in which the author posits that Martha and Mary were not only close friends of Jesus’, but also financial supporters of his ministry and possibly even working in ministry in their hometown and the surrounding countryside. Perhaps Martha’s meltdown is less about being left to peel potatoes but a reaction to the stress of managing a burgeoning ministry and the reality that Jesus is attracting negative attention from the religious leaders. How many of us can upon reflection on the past week identify moments when we’ve overreacted to a situation because of a build-up of stress? Does Jesus understand this? I think he probably does. Let’s hear again his reaction to Martha:

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;

Rather than a sharp rebuke, Jesus gently reminds Martha that she is worrying about too many things. Perhaps because he knows where his earthly ministry is leading he wants to encourage Martha to set aside the chores for a moment and to regain her strength because things are going to get unbearably difficult very soon. Maybe Jesus isn’t dismissive of Martha after all.

So what of the implied preference of the Mary attitude over the Martha attitude? Does this short interaction actually pit two personality types against each other? Many years ago I was involved in a mother’s group that studied a book titled ‘Adoration’ by Martha Kilpatrick. The book focused on the personality strengths and weaknesses of these two sisters and it was abundantly clear that the author herself is a ‘Mary’ and that there was little room for understanding the benefits of a possessing a bit of that Martha ‘go get ‘em’ attitude. Throughout the study well-meaning moms tacked notes to their kitchen walls reminding themselves to ‘Be a Mary’ and breathlessly prayed to make the kid’s peanut butter and jam sandwiches in a spirit of contemplation on the sacrifices of Jesus. This, of course, isn’t bad advice but it just isn’t me!

Let’s go back to the passage again. Remember Jesus isn’t shouting at Martha here, he’s just kindly acknowledged her agitation with the situation and then he says:

… there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

As much as I want to hear Jesus say, ‘Listen Martha, Mary really should be helping you out here’, that just isn’t there, it never will be. Jesus does commend Mary’s choice to ‘sit at his feet’ in this instance. I have to be very careful here to remember this is a conversation caught in time; it’s not a commentary on the entire attitude and life of either of these women. It could be that in other moments unknown to us, that Martha took the part of the contemplative. We’ll never know. What I found interesting in my study of these five short verses is its relationship with the wider context of Jesus’ teachings. Throughout his ministry Jesus makes a point of reminding his followers not to worry about anything- God’s got it all covered. So Martha can sit at Jesus’ feet; perhaps he even helped her to find a seat next to Mary that day and she was able to rest and drink in his love and wisdom. Again, we’ll never know but it’s for me a nice way of releasing Martha from centuries of criticism.

But what about the misuse of this passage to keep women ‘in their place’- in the kitchen, with the children, outside of church leadership? When I read Jesus’ words as compassionate and not a rebuke or correction I realise he’s allowing Martha into his inner circle with all her particular personality traits intact. He hasn’t sent her to the side lines to reinvent herself- he’s only pointed out that she has choices to make. Shortly after choosing this passage for tonight’s sermon we read in Morning Prayer from 1 Corinthians 12 in which it says:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

My entire relationship and opinion to the Martha and Mary story pivoted on that last phrase: ‘Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.’ All the Martha’s and all of the Mary’s out there are an integral and important part of the body of Christ. We all have a role to play in his work on earth. I believe the diversity of the church is its strength.

So, ‘is the bible hard to read?’ and do I ‘like’ this story after all of this? Yes! Yes the bible is the hardest piece of literature I will ever have the privilege to read as long as I allow myself to be challenged and changed. And yes, I suppose I do actually really like this story now. It’s taken a lot a lot of work to appreciate it but it’s that wrestling with scripture that is its own reward. Will I ever cease to be a ‘Martha’? That’s doubtful but I will be more careful in future to hear Jesus inviting me to set aside my worries, to recline in his presence and drink in his living Spirit. I pray you will too.