Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saint Martha

Today is the day the Church celebrates the faith of Martha, Lazarus and Mary's sister. I grew up hearing Mary exalted and Martha chided. A few years ago (while still pastoring) the following was part of a morning sermon:

It seems Mary and Martha are stereotyped, so we need a way to consider how we can see ourselves through some basic human issues we find in these characters. Most of us see the Mary-Martha story as a lesson about “being” and “doing” (or the “spiritual” and the “physical” aspects of life, or “quiet reflection” compared to “active serving”). Those things are certainly there. Those things are throughout the Church and in each of us.

One of the worst things that happens when there are differences between people in the Church is the tendency to polarize. Our broken human nature wants to see one side being right and the other side being wrong. This is usually what happens in the story of Mary and Martha. Yet, no one, no matter how mature in the Lord or how filled with the Spirit, gets everything right. The truth is, all of us are wrong about some things, even with best intentions. This means that all of us can learn from one another. Any person who is trusting and obeying Jesus has something to contribute to the good of the Body.

It is a sign of our sinfulness that we so easily exalt certain positions in the Church and all but dismiss people who are not conspicuous with their gifts or personal piety. It’s sort of like the common attitude toward pennies. There is debate whether the penny should still be part of U.S. currency. Without much effort, one could find a penny on some floor or in a parking lot. We may even pass one without picking it up. An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution related the power of pennies when they join forces:

A one cent per case increase of Coca-Cola would bring the company $45 million a year.

* A one cent-per-gallon increase in the price of jet fuel increases Delta Airline's company costs by $25 million a year.

* A one cent increase in the hourly wage for all the employees of Home Depot amounts to $6.5 million a year.

* If Krispy Kreme increased the cost of each donut by one penny, the company would increase profits by $27 million. ("A Penny Saved," Journal Constitution, 8-22-04)

So when we look at the relative contributions that people make in the Church, we need to remember The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body... Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1Cor 12:12,27). This needs to be part of the Mary-Martha story. When we consider all that Scripture tells us, it is not simply an issue of Martha being wrong and Mary being right. Mary and Martha are not adversaries. Together they give us an example of giftedness, of individual incompleteness and a need to see things contextually.

There will always be Christians whose basic orientation ― and I think it is right to say their “gifting”― is serving. These are people who are happiest when they are busy, and especially so when they know they are helping others. This is one of the marks of Christian Faith. Christians are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others. This is Christian servanthood.

At the same time, there will always be Christians whose basic orientation―and again I think it is right to say their “gifting”― is reflection. These are people who are happiest when they are praying or meditating on Christian truth.

But while there is legitimacy in a particular orientation, there is also the need that all of us have what we can call “wholeness.” Even if a person’s “gift” is reflection, he cannot live as though there are no physical needs to attend. Even if a person’s orientation is serving, she cannot live in perpetual busyness, thinking the inner life will take care of itself. I repeat a quote from last week by Saint Augustine: “No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbor; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the contemplation of God” (Of the Dress and Habits of the Christian). And yet it remains true that the balance of those things will vary from person to person, according to both personality and spiritual gift.

We all know that Martha complained to Jesus about Mary’s apparent indifference to all the housework in caring for a special guest. But it is not as if Martha was inferior in faith. A later story about Mary and Martha included their brother, Lazarus. Martha had watched her brother die, and when Jesus came―seemingly too late―it was Martha who went out to meet him. She did not complain, asking where he had been. She expressed her faith and said, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask. A further exchange with Jesus brings Martha to confess: I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world (Jn 11:21–22, 27). Then Martha’s faith was richly rewarded when Jesus raised Lazarus back to life.

One thing we find here is a reminder that, while we may have faith in Jesus and be serving him with the best of intentions, what we do by ourselves is incomplete. There was a very real sense in which Mary needed Martha that day; Jesus was hosted well because Martha did the work. At the same time, Martha needed Mary’s example to show her that “doing for Jesus” is never enough if we are not taking time to sit at his feet.

I offer one more story to emphasize the “complementary” nature of our life in Jesus. A sea captain and his chief engineer were arguing over who was most important to the ship. To prove their point to each other, they decided to swap places. The chief engineer ascended to the bridge, and the captain went to the engine room. Several hours later, the captain suddenly appeared on deck covered with oil and dirt. "Chief!" he yelled, waving aloft a monkey wrench. "You have to get down there: I can't make her go!" "Of course you can't, Captain," replied the chief. "She's aground!" In the Church we do not excel each other; we depend on each other. There was a sign above the boy’s locker-room door that I have remembered from junior-high phys ed (I would quote it to my staff when I was senior pastor, and I still ask the Lord to keep me in this attitude): There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.

And yet, having said all of this about not pushing Mary and Martha into extremes of right and wrong (and urging us not to do that in the Church), we do need to hear Jesus’ words to Martha and to understand their implication in all our lives. Jesus said, Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her (Lu 10:41).

Another basic Christian truth that we need to hear regularly is the continual conflict between external, material existence as opposed to the imperishable needs of our inner life. We are constantly bombarded with demands all around us, urging us to abandon inner recollection. Being honest, what is most likely to get short-changed in the life of the average American who professes an allegiance to Jesus: “getting everything done” or spending time with Jesus?

Listen to this characterization of American Christianity:

[American Christianity] is more Petrine than Johannean; more like busy Martha than like the pensive Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. It expands more in breadth than in depth. It is often carried on like a secular business, and in a mechanical or utilitarian spirit. It lacks the beautiful enamel of deep fervor and heartiness, the true mysticism, an appreciation of history and the church.....

The incredible thing is that this comes from Philip Schaff, a Swiss theologian, analyzing American Christianity for a German audience in 1854! Considering what Jesus told Martha, what is the Spirit of Jesus saying to us today? We live in a society where even kids need palm pilots to stay on track of all the stuff that clutters their schedules. All of us could profit from reflecting a bit on this modern proverb: “The problem with living life in the fast lane is that you get to the toll booth quicker.”

There are ancient words about Mary and Martha that should not be lost among today’s Christians. In a sermon from his Fourth Century setting as the greatest Father of the Western Church, Saint Augustine wrote:

Our Lord’s words teach us that though we labor among the many distractions of this world, we should have but one goal. For we are but travelers on a journey without as yet a fixed abode; we are on our way, not yet in our native land; we are in a state of longing, not yet of enjoyment. But let us continue on our way, and continue without sloth or respite, so that we may ultimately arrive at our destination....

But you, Martha, if I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarreling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?

No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.

The first way that we serve Jesus is by loving him. Doing things for someone can say “love,” but the deepest love is expressed by those who simply delight in being in each other’s presence. Our challenge, especially in our hectic world, is to learn to sit at Jesus’ feet―to take time to let the world go by―for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

No comments:

Site Meter