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Are You a Martha or a Mary? July 17, 2016

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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 17th 2016

Lectionary 16 / Proper 11, Year C

Genesis 18:1-10a psalm 15 Colossians 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42

Avoiding all the bad news in the world today, I’ll concentrate on the good news and preach the Scriptures. May the Word of God illuminate what we are going through and rescue us. Amen.

Are You a Martha or a Mary?

We go all the way back to Abraham and Sarah with their tent pitched before the Oaks of Mamre. In ancient days, the church and worship took place under trees. According to Luther Adam and Eve worshiped under the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Often it was an oak tree. Boniface, the missionary to the German pagans in the eighth century chopped down their sacred oak tree, where Thor was worshiped. Tiu, Woden, Thor, and Freia are still remembered in our names for the days of the week. Boniface was converting the northern tribes from these gods to Christ.

In our lesson, Abraham gives hospitality to three men, whom he calls Lord, because they are a theophany. That is why André Rublev painted his icon of the Holy Trinity as three men looking like angels. So when we provide hospitality, we may be waiting on angels unawares. But appearing to him under the Oaks of Mamre, Abraham knew it was the Lord of Hosts. And when he prepares a feast for them, they give him and Sarah the promise that they will have a son. It is hard to fathom the ache in the heart of an infertile couple, who desperately want to have a child, but can’t seem to conceive or bear one. (We had so many children in our family, who would want a child?)

In God’s presence, our dear Lord God fills our greatest need, whatever that may be for each of us. For Abraham and Sarah it was to have a child. Host and receive the Lord your God into the home of your heart! Just pray: come Lord Jesus be our guest and we will be forever blessed. God promises to fill our deepest need and launches us on the promised life.

Our Colossians lesson is placed before the gospel lesson, because Mary and Martha are hosting Jesus, the One who is heaven sent, visiting and now present in their home. Christ is the Son of God, the visible image of the invisible God, the first-born of creation, for in him all things were created and in him all things hold together. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Read Colossians several times and try to fathom the mystery of Christ. The Creator of the whole universe became a human being in Jesus Christ to come and die for us on the cross to forgive us our sins and make us righteous, fill us with truth and integrity. Let’s strengthen our faith together: Lord, we believe; help us overcome our unbelief! Amen.

In Luke’s account, Jesus comes to Mary and Martha’s house and the Christ is receiving their hospitality. Scriptures may say, “Don’t forget to share hospitality with strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”[1] But Mary and Martha are hosting the King of all the Angels, the Lord Christ himself.

Back in Genesis Sarah was baking bread from the finest flour and a servant was preparing the choice calf, while Abraham, very much like us men, was leaning against a tree listening to their words.

“Where is Sarah?” they ask. She is of course being a Martha and getting all the food prepared for the guests. Abraham doesn’t do something; he just stands there, leaning against a tree. Sarah like Martha has to hear God’s words: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Be an Abraham. Be a Mary.

But Martha takes the opposite tack. She fixes her eyes on Mary with reproach. “Mary, don’t just sit there listening to Jesus, do something. You’re letting me do all the work.”

The iconic three men were calling Sarah to come out way back when. The promised Son was not Isaac, it was Jesus the Christ and Mary was Sarah come out of the tent and listening to the Word of God coming out of the mouth of the Savior of the World. He may have been Mary and Martha’s guest, but he was the host providing them with a heavenly feast that fills the hunger of the heart and the thirst of the soul and Mary was receiving it, while Martha was fixed in the subservient woman’s role and could not get out of it.

Martha had an excuse, of course. She had no servants like Abraham did. She was not the president of the United States in the White House. She did not have an illustrious crew and world renowned chef, like the president and his family have in the White House, to take care of all the arrangements for hospitality down to the smallest detail. Did you see that special on TV?

I had nine sisters and some were really Marthas and some were Marys. And it brought friction. I was a Mary. I would be reading a book and a sister would say: “Get up and do something!” Like reading a book was not doing something! She never read a book. My sister Hannah was a real Martha and only when she retired did she start to read books.

Do you ever sit down and read a book? You need balance of course, if you only read books. You don’t want to become a leaf or a flower pressed between the pages. You have to become a living leaf or flower out there on your branches swaying in the breeze or have your blossoms and pedals bedecking a meadow alive and out there in the world. What is a leaf pressed between the pages of a book? The life of the mind is complemented by life and work out in the world.

Last week Jesus championed a Samaritan, maybe like today a Moslem Syrian refugee. This week Jesus is championing a woman and saying “Where are you?” Sarah, Martha, why are you fixed in a subservient role we men try to keep you in? Jesus has Mary sitting at his feet. Those are code words for studying to be a Rabbi like the men. “Mary,” he says, “has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Of course, we men quickly erased Jesus’ words. My sister Phoebe was one of the first women accepted in BU Medical School. Pastor Mary Rowe stood up with me celebrating her ordination, back in 1975 and she was one of the first women to become a pastor in our time. We kept women down for almost 2,000 years after Jesus said we couldn’t take the better part away from them. I wonder how long it will still take the Catholic and Orthodox churches even today!

We want to lock some people, like women, workers, immigrants, and Americans of African Descent into servant roles. They have to know their place! The Gospel of Jesus tells us all, you and me, to be servants. Jesus said that he did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.[2] We have to balance being Marys and Marthas. I can’t make my wife into a Martha and fix her in that role – like Abraham three and a half thousand years ago, standing under a tree while Sarah is working away in the tent.

You know my jingle about doing and being: to do and to be. Do be, do be, do.[3] We need balance. Sometimes we have to say, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Sometimes, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Meditate, think, take it in.

When a team is cutting a path through the jungle, a leader is someone who has the presence of mind intermittently to climb up a tree to ensure that they are going in the right direction.[4] That’s a Mary.

When we work hard, we also have to become quiet, rest and hear the Word of God. Otherwise we too, like Martha can become distracted by many things – but there is the one thing needful and we should not miss out on that and try to make other people miss out on it, too.

We have to become conscious of the only thing we need – the one thing needful. We can live our whole lives and miss out on it and die finding out that we never lived.

That is what Jesus is pointing to: getting at the real meaning of our lives and beginning to understand ourselves and our human condition. Because when we die, our life is like a sentence, after which death places a period and people then ask what did your life-sentence mean, what did your life mean? You, too are a Word of God.

Luther says, those “who hear the Word, we become like the Word, pure, good, and just.”[5] We trust God and become love letters, living leaves and blossoming flowers. We practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of love,[6] when we keep sitting at Jesus feet, and getting the living words that help us keep on keeping on.

I’ve got to cook some meals. Marthas have to stop and get some rest. We have to listen to Jesus and balance our roles. We all have to be Marthas as well as Marys, Marys and Marthas.

Luther put it this way: A Christian person is a free sovereign above all things and subject to no one, (let me add) because of faith. And at one and the same time, a Christian person is a dutiful servant in all things, subject to everyone[7] (because of love.)

We don’t shirk work, nor work and work and then get drunk on our off time, because we don’t want to think about our lives and our sorry human condition, where murder and carnage flout God’s purposes. That’s because we don’t live in the Word of God. So we pray: Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, as your host, we’ll be forever blessed. Be the Lord and master of our souls. Amen.


[1] Hebrews 13:2.

[2] Mark 10:45.

[3] Dewey said to be is to do. Sartre, to do is to be. Frank Sinatra said, dobe, dobe, dobe, do.

[4] Moneim El-Maligi, Leading Starts in the Mind: A Humanistic View of Leadership, online see: He is comparing leaders and managers.

[5] From Luther’s Freedom of a Christian in Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality,  New York: (Paulist Press, 2007), page 268.

[6] Anne Herbert, Sausalito, California, 1982: cf. Random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.

[7] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, page 70.


Written by peterkrey

July 17, 2016 at 7:00 pm

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