7.17.22, Luke 10:38-42 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Phil and I live in Portland just two blocks-ish from Back Cove. Living this close to the ocean has been a gift I didn’t know my heart needed. This time of year, especially, we spend a lot of time walking the dusty trail, watching the seabirds, and noticing the way the grass moves in the wind. As I walk through our condo and I feel the ocean breeze move around me by way of our open windows I find myself taking deep breaths to soak up every ounce of the salty air and smell of low tide. I have been known to follow these deep breaths with the phrase, “Mmmmm, stinks so good!” The Cove helps me to slow down and simply be present to the gift of creation in ways that I would have never imagined it could. It invites me at times to stop whatever it is I am busying myself with and walk down to the water to see what it is I am missing. To stop with the distractions, and start with being present.
Every year on July 4th we invite our friends over to eat, make s’mores, then make our way over to the Cove to watch the Portland fireworks. This year, I found myself busy with preparing food and decided to create more work for us by setting it all up on our screen porch. It was such a treat to have folks over, enjoy the outdoors, and steep ourselves in the ideal that we celebrate on that holiday, community. I will be honest, like many others when hosting, I often find myself distracted. Much like Martha as she works hard to tend to the things that need to be tended to in order to welcome folks with hospitality. I would LOVE to sit around and simply be, but who then will make sure folks are cared for? Therein lies the tension. How are we fully present while still also managing what needs to be done?
So, here we are in Luke. And it will shock you to hear that Jesus is doing a lot of teaching on what it means and physically looks like to follow him. Much of that teaching is helping folks to see that they are called to live differently in the world. To care for others the way the world won’t. To tend to our own hearts as followers of Jesus the way the world tells us is selfish. Afterall, just before this story of Mary and Martha we have the Parable of the Good Samaritan, tending to others. Just after this story we are taught the Lord’s Prayer, tending to our own hearts of faith. Jesus is giving us very clear examples of how we are to tend to the world, and tend to our own hearts.
How many of us have either heard folks described as a “Mary” or “Martha”, or have chosen this description for ourselves? I am sure many of us have, and for those of us who identify as women, I would venture to guess you may have heard this described in a way that might have even been painful for you. I just have to say it… Poor Martha! (And for those of you who feel the struggle of Martha in your own heart… bless you!)
Folks have argued over the years that this story not only pits two women against each other, but is supposed to make us feel like one is right and the other is wrong and we are not to be the woman who is wrong. As one commentator puts it, this story becomes an embodiment of the argument of “justification by works or justification by faith” (WBC, 507).
And it’s not just about that. It is also that Mary and Martha help us to see the importance of women, or more generally those marginalized, in community with Jesus. Women weren’t just present, they were important to the ministry of Jesus. They were a part of this ministry, part of the team of followers who helped Jesus to know for certain he could trust this legacy of faith with his dear friends. A reminder that the early church communities were steeped in equity, women not only had a place, they had a voice, and they used that voice. Let us not forget that we will see Mary and Martha again and it is Martha who makes “the central christological confession in this Gospel” (WBC, 508); that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.
Oh, Martha. For centuries this blessed woman, who was doing her best to live up to the societal expectations put on her by a system and the men who run it, has been dragged through the mud as being wrong. But don’t we all strain under the weight of societal systems and expectations? I know I do! Maybe the invitation from Jesus here is actually more about living beyond those system expectations. To be aware of them and how they strain us in our own lives.
To me, Mary and Martha both seem to be right. There are times where the work must be done. There are times when we must pause to be present to those right in front of us. Could it be that right relationship as followers of Jesus is not truly possible without both? Again, what if this is less about who is right or wrong in this moment and more of a critique about the expectations put on us by the status quo, and that Jesus asks us to live differently?
Part of the lesson from Jesus is actually that, “Listening to Jesus precedes service” (JANT, 124). It is in listening to Jesus that informs our actions. It is in those informed actions that we live beyond the expectations of the world and into the expectations of the reign of God. So, yes… there are times when we must “Martha” and there are times where we must “Mary”. Listening to Jesus moving in our own lives helps us to know when we are to dip our toes in these varying roles.
So, a few Mondays ago on July 4th, I found myself literally living out this very story in a comical yet surreal way. I would go inside to get something for someone (Martha work), a drink or more napkins, and then find myself immediately rushing to the open window in the kitchen to listen to folks or add my own thoughts to a conversation (Mary work). It got to be a little silly as our friends would turn around trying to figure out where my disembodied voice was coming from. Mercifully, it was eventually time for us to walk down to the Cove for fireworks. The Cove brought me back to being fully present yet again. And in coming back to the Cove I was reminded of the importance of finding and holding on to the things that keep us grounded, present, and inspired while on the journey.
And, it brought me back to this story because this story is one that highlights a great tension of our faith. The question I find myself asking so much and that you have heard me ask before… How do we live our faith in the midst of this empire and its expectations? How do we balance the tension of doing and being? Friends, I don’t yet have a clear answer to this. In fact I think it is something I will always wrestle with. Yet, I trust that Jesus knew we would struggle with this tension and so invites us to sit in it with wonder as we find our way forward anyhow. And in the meantime, to hold fast to those people and places that keep us tethered to our faith along the way. May it be so!
Resources: Jewish Annotated New Testament, Women’s Bible Commentary