Like me, you’ve probably seen those pretty, feminine wall hangings that extol the joys of sisterhood. They all have lovely sayings like: ‘Sisters are for sharing, laughter and wiping tears.’
Now, I don’t doubt that they’re true, but I do remember my own two sisters who used to fight like cat and dog, and my two daughters who, for most of their childhood and teenage years, couldn’t stand each other.
And my darling wife tells me that as a child she shared a bed with her older sister, and they would fight so much over which one was invading the other’s territory that their father threatened to stick open safety pins down the centre line of the mattress to keep them apart.
All of which helps us understand that even the most loving of sisters can get on each other’s nerves and woe-betide anyone who gets caught in the crossfire, like Jesus did when he was invited to a meal at the home of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus.
We don’t know all that much about Mary, Martha and Lazarus, except that Jesus seemed to count them as his special friends, and their home was probably the nearest thing he had to a home during his years as a wandering preacher.
They lived in the village of Bethany, close to the Mount of Olives, about 3 kms from Jerusalem. There are three occasions in the Gospels where they appear: LUKE 10 when Jesus taught in their home while Martha busied herself preparing food for her guests; JOHN 11 when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and JOHN 12 when Jesus visited their home just before His crucifixion, and Mary anointed Jesus' feet with costly perfume. Our Gospel reading today was the story of that first occasion.
What happened was this: Jesus had travelled south from Galilee to Judea and Jerusalem. This was always hostile territory for him, where most of his confrontations with the religious leaders and zealots took place. But there in Bethany was the home of his three special friends - the one place where he could relax and just be himself.
Martha, out of the goodness of her heart, took the opportunity to prepare a fine meal for him – something a bit special. Mary, her sister, apparently started out by helping her. Meanwhile, Jesus was in another part of the house, expounding the wonders of the Kingdom of God.
Mary gradually got drawn away from the kitchen to sit at his feet, spellbound, listening to all he had to say, leaving the preparation to Martha, who got increasingly annoyed by it until she’d worked herself up into a stew and flounced in, interrupted Jesus and said: ‘Don’t you care that that lazy sister of mine has left me to do everything. Tell her to come back and help me.’
Then Jesus turned to her and said: ‘Martha, Martha, you are fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it.’
Now, whenever I discuss this passage, I find that even though they may not admit it openly, a lot of women feel Martha got a raw deal, and Jesus was a bit hard on her: whichprobably tells us we need to pay a bit more attention to what Jesus was trying to teach Martha – and us.
However, the first thing this story reminds us is that God didn’t make everyone alike.Some people are natural dynamos of activity; others by nature are quiet. It’s hard for the active person to understand the person who sits and contemplates. And the person who is devoted to quiet times and meditation is apt to look down on the person who would rather be active.
There is no right or wrong in this. It’s not that Jesus preferred Mary the contemplative to Martha the activist; rather it’s a reminderto those of us who tend more to activism thatwe need to maintain a sense of balance in our work for the Lord.
In our world of hectic schedules and pursuit of productivity, we are easily tempted to measure our worth by how busy we are, how much we accomplish and by how well we meet the expectations of others. The result is thatwe become frazzled, frustrated and even angry, doing what we thought was supposed to bring us joy.
If left unchecked the end result is what we now call Burn-out, which is a form of psychological stress, characterized by emotional exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and anger. That psychological stress can easily become spiritual stress, characterized by joylessness, disillusionment and guilt, because we can’t understand why it is thatwhat was supposed to bring us joy is actually making us miserable.
Martha got so worked up about her sister having left her to finish the preparations that she not only got angry with her, but with the Lord himself. In the words of an old gospel song: Martha was working like the Devil, servin’ the Lord.
And Jesus said to her – I believe with the greatest tenderness and understanding – ‘Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. Only one thing is essential, and Mary has chosen it.’
That could mean that whereas Jesus was quite happy with a lunch of baked beans on toast, Martha was determined that that he was going to get a cordon-bleu meal – whether he liked it or not.
Or it could have meant something deeper.He was on his way to Jerusalem - to die. A huge emotional and spiritual battle was being waged within Him. When he reached their home, it was a great day for the two sisters; and Martha wanted to celebrate it by laying on the best they could give. So, she rushed and fussed; and that was precisely what Jesus did not want. All he wanted was peace and quiet.
He’d gone there to find an oasis of calm even if only for an afternoon; and that’s what Mary gave him, and what Martha, in her kindness, did her best to destroy. It’s possible Jesus was saying: "I don't want a big spread; a simple meal and a chance to be with friends is all I want." And Mary understood that, but Martha didn’t.
Either way, she missed out on what might have been the most precious experience of her life – to have sat at Jesus’ feet on the day he most wanted to be with her and to have let his words feed her soul.
What we see here in Martha is what is often called the barrenness of busyness, and it’s something many of us are prone to – especially ministers, who are supposed to be examples of joyful Christian living, but who sometimes are the very opposite.
Some years ago, when I was approaching the 20-year mark in full time ministry, I spent a few months in America on a study tour. The previous 20 years had been very fulfilling – except for the last few. I remember flying into Washington DC and completing a questionnaire for the church I was about to spend time with. It asked me to describe how I felt about ministry and what I was hoping to get from my time at the Church of the Savior.
It was not until I flew out, a month later and re-read what I’d written that I realized how low I’d been feeling, and how what had once been a joy to me had become a burden.
But, one month later, all that had changed. I felt refreshed and renewed – almost like having been re-converted. It wasn’t just because of the programs and I’d studied there and the services I’d attended. It was because of a concept of Christian life and ministrythat seems so obvious we constantly forget it. They referred to it asthe Two Journeys– Journey Inward and Journey Outward.
The founding pastor of the Church of the Savior, Gordon Cosby, once described it this way: ‘The one journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one’s self. To reach that place is to be home; to fail to reach it is to be forever restless.’
The reality of that didn’t really hit me until I found that I was expected to participate in a 2-day silent retreat – 2 days without talking. I really didn’t want to do it. I’d gone there to learn about successful programs of outreach to the community – not to sit around contemplating nature.
But that morning, as I sat in the wintery sunshine on the porch of a rustic lodge, looking out over a rolling Maryland farm, I began to feel waves of overwhelming joy, flowing over me. I’d never known anything quite like it, and a peace that made me feel so perfectly at one with the whole of the creation around me that it was almost as though I’d been absorbed into the very life of God.
It was such a profound experience and it lasted for the rest of the morning but left an afterglow that remained with me for days and continues to bring me back to those basic essentials when the barrenness of busyness threatens to draw me away.
And so, I don’t believe that Jesus, in this story, was discounting the Marthas of this world – the activists who get things done and make things happen. But what He was doing was reminding her – and all of us who are like her – that there’s more to the life of faith than frenetic activity.It has to be balanced by our journey inward to that place where we can ‘be still and know that He is God.’
There’s no. Each of us has to find our own way that works for us. But one thing that is common to all is that we have to discipline ourselves to make time to be alone and to be still;to read a few verses of one-size-fits-allway of doing thisscripture – not as if we were studying for a test – but rather to reflect quietly on what the Spirit is saying to us; and to pray – not just bombarding God with a shopping list of requests, but being quiet in His presence and allowing ourselves the luxury of just beingrather than justdoing.
‘One thing is necessary,’ Jesus said. ‘And Mary has chosen it.’ There are times for working and there are times for being still and knowing God. Don’t allow what’s good to deprive you of what’s best.