A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
July 21, 2013
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28, Psalm 52
This is a sibling story, a specialty in the Bible’s massive library of stories. Since 80% of us have at least one sibling, that means most of us have sibling stories of our own to tell. Some of those stories are better known to us as “war stories from childhood.”
Our brothers and sisters are (those who are) with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk, and as such, sibling relationships often outlast our failed marriages; they usually survive the death of our parents, and they resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship – unless they falter and fail in the painful arc of life whereupon we can suffer a painful split from those with whom we shared the family nest. Sibling relationships may flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth and loyalty, or may they melt under the heat of betrayal and distrust.
The gospel in this story gets domestic as Jesus, homeless and without an apparent means for making a living, always in the company of twelve of his kinsmen who are undoubtedly looking for a free meal … “happen to be in the neighborhood” in Bethany and all land on the doorstep of two unmarried women, sisters to Jesus’ friend Lazarus. This unexpected visit puts pressure on the fault line of how the two sisters have operated their entire lives.
Sisters Susie and Nancy had quarreled all afternoon in their playtime. They picked on one another endlessly until by suppertime they had quit talking to one another. After an unusually quiet meal Mom tried to re-establish friendly relations. She reminded them of the Bible verse, “Don’t let the sun go down upon your wrath.”
“Now, Susie,” her Mom pleaded with the older sister, “Are you going to let the sun go down on your wrath?” Susie squirmed and answered simply, “How can I stop it?”
Siblings are the people we practice on as we grow up. They’re also the people who teach us about cooperation, about kindness and caring, lessons often learned the hard way. Some of those lessons take root in us and grow and some lessons we never learn.
There are sibs of the same gender and there are opposite gender sibs. They’re characterized differently in ways I can’t really define but I know how it worked in my family being the middle son. I had a slightly older girl cousin, an only child, who to this day calls my older brother and me, “brothers.” Thinking of one another as siblings is easy as all three of us were under the daily care of our maternal grandmother who oversaw all our childhood adventures. We fought, we played together, and we grew up as the minions to the goddess of our family whose word was absolute, our grandmother. She was judge, jury, and executioner. She was for us love and law and we thrived under her care.
The Bible is full of sibling adventures. There are so many sibling stories in Scripture it’s as if the Bible is obsessed with telling them. The family album of sibling stories could be a true sample of how life among our brothers and sisters is lived.
- Cain and Abel, the first brothers and the first murder
- Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, who were reprimanded for how they handled their father’s episode of getting liquored up
- The daughters of Lot are given by Lot as sexual appeasement to the men of the city Jacob and Esau
- There’s Aaron, Miriam and Moses; Leah and Rachel and the sons of Abraham
- There are the sons of Zebedee, James and John, aka, “the sons of thunder,” and the other brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew
- Even Jesus had sibling issues to sort out and keep in balance with younger brothers and sisters. In Mark 6:3, four of Jesus’ brothers are named in Scripture: James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon.
Everything we know in life, how to love and how to fight, likely we learned in the schoolhouse of our families. We also learned to work out our differences with one another and those lessons endure. Maybe we also learned to love fully knowing we don’t deserve the love we receive but in the mystery of giving love, we also receive love.
This story is so universal it’s widely known as the Martha Syndrome and the Mary Solution. These sisters are known across time because the anxious, practical Martha was overwhelmed by the work of hosting a meal for Jesus and his 12 buddies; it’s also known because Mary would rather sit and talk big ideas with the men and cared not a whit how the table was set or whether the meal was magically ready when it was time to eat. Such work was art for Martha and just tedious work for Mary. Besides, how often did Jesus just show up?
Does this story describe the family you grew up in? It’s true when we grow up we are assigned gender roles and specific duties in the family’s division of labor by birth order and other traditions and we find we’re boxed into roles we had no choice in making. Do the rhythms of this story and those assignments make sense as you think about your own family? Can you recognize how all these things go into the mix and help you understand yourself and your family better?
Typical in how we’ve heard this story has been the simplistic ways in which the two women are portrayed:
Martha is presented as the practical person who quietly does what is necessary and important to ensure that people are fed and taken care of. Her heart is the heart of a servant. I imagine her as organized and hard working. With Martha around one would not have to worry about the cleanliness of the house or whether she could whip up the next meal at a moment’s notice. Martha lives compliantly within her expected gender role, a role fated at her birth. Only if you worked alongside her would you hear her mutter under her breath the content of her unedited thoughts. Ooh boy!
Mary, however, is not concerned herself with the things that Martha is so busily doing. Mary is not lazy; she has the heart of a thinker. She’s one with an innate curiosity which often distracts her from seeing what needs to be done. Of course Mary lives outside her expected gender role of hostess, cook, and wait staff. Someone else will organize and take care of the mundane everyday things of life. Someone else will cook and clean and worry about the guests while she spends time with the guests discussing important spiritual matters of the Kingdom.
Maybe the Bible doesn’t exactly spell this out, but I think we can read between the lines. If you listen closely, you can hear the pots and pans banging together angrily and you can hear the frustrated sighs being heaved to no avail. Finally Martha has had enough and she storms right by her sister sitting on the floor and goes directly to Jesus interrupting him with her question: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
But are the roles Mary and Martha play the only two options? Some would say Jesus is awfully hard on Martha. He’s hard on her for being so obsessed with how things look and how they taste and about whether everyone at the table is having an extraordinary time dazzled by the sights and the smells and the tastes.
We could just as easily question whether Jesus was too easy on Mary, who cared more about the time spent talking and discussing together. Jesus gave her credit for having chosen “the good portion” and that has tilted the table evermore. Perhaps we should wonder whether listening is better than doing?
What would have happened had Martha done what Mary did? What if Martha had given no thought to the meal that would be needed as soon as Jesus’ stomach started growling? What about the hunger of a baker’s dozen of men who had been traveling about the countryside teaching and healing and having great times living out the Kingdom of God on one long adventurous journey? Why is it none of the men are thinking about how a meal is mysteriously put before them when meal time arrives?
If the Word of God is “the main thing,” or as Eugene Peterson says, “the main course,” how is it we think about this story? As it turns out another reading of this story is to see that Jesus is the host, not Martha and certainly not Mary. Jesus spreads the banquet meal before us and we’re all guests at his table for a meal meant to nourish us and strengthen us. The banquet meal of God’s word has within it commands us to both sit and listen, and to go and do.
IF Martha had chosen to do the same as her sister Mary and had simply relaxed to sit at Jesus’ feet, perhaps Jesus would have done for these two sisters what he did on another occasion when a crowd showed up, and after teaching them he discovered they were all hungry. In a similar way, he picked up a loaf of bread, and he blessed it, and broke it and, well, you know how that story ended.
No matter the double bind of what your role in the war between the siblings has been, whether you’re the one rattling all the pots and pans in the kitchen or whether you’re sitting in the circle of those who are talking about all the world’s big ideas, in truth we’re all guests at God’s table where there’s always enough and where God feeds us all.
 Elizabeth Myer Boulton, “Martha’s Problem,” Christian Century, 2/22/11
 Stephanie Frey, “Living With Martha,” Christian Century, 7/13/04
 Garret Keizer, “Poor Martha,” Christian Century, 7/4/01
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).