A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 18, 2010.
Psalm 52:1-9; Luke 10:38-42
As you can imagine, I have ventured before through this passage from Luke’s gospel, the one that tells us about the woman named Martha who had a sister named Mary. We all have, certainly if we have any Bible study experience at all. Chances are, we’ve all known women like them.
Just a few months after coming to be the pastor of this church in 1996, we buried Janie Howell, the lady who purveyed our church’s kitchen, ruled it like a drill sergeant, and made sure that when it came to this congregation’s galley, everybody knew it was done, not according to Hoyle, but according to Howell – Janie Howell.
In her funeral service, I likened Janie to Martha… and it was not in an unkind way, let me tell you. It was just that hearing others talk about her, and getting to know her in the few months I was her pastor, I couldn’t help but draw an obvious comparison between Janie and her biblical twin. By the time we were through with Janie’s funeral service, you got the feeling everybody in this place was prepared to put on an apron and go to work. I know that’s the way I felt. It was the legacy Janie had left us, and it was a good one.
A few years later, I wrote a book about women in the Bible. Never got it published, but I hope that’s beside the point. The point is, I dealt again with the sisters from Bethany… though for some reason Luke is very clear not to identify where they lived, perhaps out of a need to protect the innocent. He just says they resided in a “certain village.”
It’s a bit unusual for Luke, who usually is very meticulous about describing the itinerary of those he is writing about. We know the sisters lived in Bethany, along with their brother Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead after having been in the grave four days. But we know this, not because of Luke. It is due to the testimony of John, in his gospel. In my book – the one I never got published – I even gave each of the sisters her own chapter and didn’t just lump them together simply because they share the same story. I tried to treat them with the respect they deserve.
I like this story of Mary and Martha. A number of you have told me over the years that you do too. They and their story provide an important window into the ways and thoughts of Jesus, and give us a strong glimpse of what was and is important to him. The problem is, I’m not completely confident that I understand the point Jesus is making. We’ve all had experience with Martha and Mary, know their story through and through, may even be tired of dealing with it. Who knows? And it’s for certain we have often found ourselves in their shoes.
We do know this: life isn’t always fair, and Martha looks pretty bad from the way Luke tells it. In this case, what happened to Martha, unfortunately, has been frozen in the clear acrylic of the Bible, preserved for all ages to come. She gets no reprieve, no second chance – and never will – either from her kitchen or from the biting words of Jesus the Nazarene whom she loved surely just as much as did her sister Mary. In our minds, because of the telling of it, Martha will always be stuck in the kitchen, with flour up to her elbows, an exasperated expression on her face, and a complaint on her tongue. If it weren’t for John, that is the only image of Martha we would have, and it would be frozen in time.
Except, I do believe this… I think we all feel a certain affinity for Martha, not unlike the feelings we have for the prodigal son’s brother who stayed home, if for no other reason than we may be more like them than we care to admit and think that somehow they got a raw deal. On the surface of things – and the surface runs pretty deep, let me tell you – Martha seems to get the short end of the stick. Never mind that Jesus is wielding the stick! It just isn’t fair.
Poor Martha. She gets stuck in the kitchen, with a bunch of hungry guests in the living room, and when she complains to Jesus about her lazy sister Mary, Jesus takes Mary’s side. You’d think Jesus would appreciate Martha’s efforts. I’m sure I would have.
Maybe the food, and our appreciation of it, has something to do with that.
I have not only witnessed it when it has happened to others, but have experienced it firsthand myself. When a death occurs in the family, it won’t be long before the food starts piling up in the kitchen. The door bell rings… more food. It’s hard for good folk to respond to a death while arriving empty handed. So the food just keeps coming and coming. Gets to a point where you can hardly close the refrigerator.
My friend Kate Campbell, who is a pastor’s daughter, has even written a whimsical song about funeral food. Funeral food / It’s so good for the soul / Funeral food / Fills you up / Down to your toes / Funeral food / Funeral food.
We all know why people do it, bring food when there’s been a death. When you’re grieving you’re not in a place or a state of mind where you can start planning the next meal. You’ve got arrangements to make, phone calls to answer… and in the midst of all that you find yourself somehow trying to manage your grief. It’s a juggling act in the worst and most difficult sense of the word. Many of you, if not most, have been there. That’s why people bring food when there’s a death in the family. Chances are, they’ve been there too and know what it’s like.
But that’s not the only reason they bring food. And we know what that other reason is, don’t we? It’s a whole lot easier to bring over a plate of pork chops than it is to stumble around and try to find the right words, the words that will convey how you really feel, words that will help your friend in his or her grief, words that will give comfort and soothing. Food, simply put, is a substitute for our lack of knowing what to say. In that sense, shortcake substitutes for our shortcomings.
But let me tell you (and this comes from someone who’s done a whole passel of funerals, one just this week), there’s more grace in a chicken casserole than in all the verbal expressions of sympathy in the world. When words aren’t enough, and they never really are – not at a time like that – meatloaf says it all. In other words, when a death occurs around here, keep the food coming!
Yet, when it comes to Martha and her sister Mary, Jesus doesn’t seem to agree. Not that the occasion is a funeral. Not yet anyway. Because Jesus said what he did – seemed to take Mary’s place in this little spat that has been preserved for all eternity because Luke thought it good enough to put in his gospel – we have to try and figure out what he meant when he said that Mary had chosen “the better part.” We really don’t have any other choice. It’s the story’s punch line; perhaps more accurately, we should say it is the bottom line.
I once knew a minister who was pencil-thin. I asked him one day how he kept his weight down so well, and he told me it was simple. “Most people,” he said, “live to eat. I eat to live.”
That appears to have been Jesus’ philosophy as well. When he was being tempted by the devil in the wilderness at the outset of his public ministry, and the evil one offered him bread, Jesus replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” You have to know he was hungry. He had been in the wilderness forty days without having anything to eat or drink.
Look in the gospels and you’ll find that just about every time Jesus sits down at table with his friends, or with his hosts who have him in their homes, the food and the occasion are more than just for replenishing his body. They become an opportunity for Jesus to provide a life-lesson. There is little or no focus on the food itself. But when there is a focus on the food, what happens? The bread becomes his broken body, the wine becomes his blood. See what I mean?
It is true that Jesus fed the multitudes in the wilderness. But he knew that a few hours later all those folks would be hungry again. The food is not an end unto itself, it is the means by which Jesus portrays the activity of God’s kingdom here on earth, a kingdom where there is no such thing as hunger. Jesus ate to live, he did not live to eat.
Or maybe it wasn’t the food at all that is the issue in the Bethany home of Martha and Mary. While Martha is in the kitchen, it’s not just the meat that’s stewing. So is Martha! Regardless of the situation, when you play the “poor me” game, which is exactly what Martha is doing, where’s the focus? On yourself,of course. Martha is upset that Mary has left all the work to her, and is fuming because she’s been left alone in the kitchen. It’s hard to feel that way without your concern falling squarely on yourself, without your thinking solely of yourself, without thinking bad thoughts about others. But the kitchen was where Martha had chosen to be. Obviously, it is also where she wants her sister to be.
Martha had a sister named Mary, and Mary is the object of Martha’s scorn. Yet, when it comes time – finally! – to register a complaint, Martha does not aim her anger at Mary, she directs it at Jesus. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
She sees Jesus as an enabler for Mary’s behavior, doesn’t she?
“This is all your fault. You’ve brought all these people here with you, at meal time no less, and you expect dinner to just magically appear? I need some help here. Tell Mary to get off her duff and come help me!”
We mentioned that while Martha is stomping around the kitchen, Mary has reclined at Jesus’ feet listening to him tell the others his stories of the kingdom. At least we can safely assume that is what he is doing. If Martha is concerned for herself, who is Mary thinking about? Her mind is not on herself, it is on Jesus. And that, I think, may be what Jesus means in his response to the exasperated sister. Rather than being absorbed in herself, Mary is focused on following her Master and her friend, proving that the woman’s place is not always in the kitchen.
It obviously doesn’t bother Mary that supper might not happen. She’s being fed by Jesus’ teaching. Do you think it would have bothered Jesus if they had not been fed, or if the meal was delayed? Come on now, we’re talking about a man who had gone forty days without eating, and then turned down the offer of a piece of bread! He could miss a meal and never miss a beat.
Hospitality was an important consideration in those days. Still is. And we should never underestimate the value of hospitality. But nothing – nothing – should ever get in the way of our seizing every opportunity to be in the presence of Jesus.
As important as it is for us to be found actively serving Jesus and doing for him, it is more important that first we have relationship with him… a relationship that is born of sitting at his feet, listening to what he has to say, giving attention to the way he wants us to shape our lives and thought about him. If we miss an occasional meal in the process, it won’t hurt any of us. Judging by the looks of some of us – myself included – it might even help! ïŠ
My friend George Mason says the real issue is “that Martha is cookin’ it up for Jesus and Mary is cookin’ it up with Jesus… Mary teaches us,” he says, “that we do not host Jesus; we guest him as he hosts us.”1
So if we came here today thinking that we were coming to our church, and would invite Jesus in to join us as we host him, maybe we better think again. Jesus is the Host, isn’t he? And for understanding that, we can be glad that Martha had a sister named Mary.
Lord, may we sit at your feet and not worry about where the next meal might come from. Feed us with your word, and show us your way of life. Amen.
1George Mason, Guesting Your Host (unpublished sermon), July 18, 2004.