Genesis 18:1-14; Psalm 15:1-7; Colossians 1:21-29; Luke 10:38-42
Every summer growing up, I went to camp. Camp Gravatt in Aiken, South Carolina, the Episcopal camp and conference center for the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. After a bout or two with homesickness, Camp Gravatt became a second home to me, and I believe that much of who I am today began to be formed there, surrounded by pine trees, sand burs, and chiggers….surrounded also by counselors, staff, and kids who got to know each other by playing, and singing, by swimming and telling stories around a campfire, by making God’s Eyes and lanyards, by trying a little bit more of the ropes course each year….
I was actually pretty shy, sticking close to my counselor and whichever friend I had talked into coming to camp with me. But when I was ten, my mom gave me her old guitar - I was so excited, and took it to camp because I wanted to be just like Ashley Byrd, my counselor from the summer before, who was always the music leader and who told me I was braver than I thought I was.
She was right, and I did learn to be something like Ashley Byrd. In time I would become the music leader at Camp Gravatt, and at other camps and conferences, and, to make a very long story short, here I am today….In the meantime, though, I am certain that I broke the world record for receiving the “Best Musician” award on the last night of camp.
I was excited about it the first year – Ashley herself drew the award on pink construction paper with a rainbow and some music notes. And then the next year some other counselor gave me the “Musician” award, and then another, and then when I was on staff the campers gave it to me….Just once, I thought it might be nice to get the “Best God’s Eye” or “Most Valuable Player in Capture the Flag” or “Most Improved at Lighting Campfires”….But those never came.
So I can sympathize with Martha in this morning’s gospel reading. With Martha and Mary, I suppose, although we usually imagine that Mary is happy with her “Better Part Award” while Martha is disappointed to have received the award for “Most Anxious Hostess.” Heaven help the counselor who had these sisters in her cabin – Martha busy making perfect hospital corners on everyone’s bunks during cabin clean-up and glaring at Mary so wrapped up in studying the way the lake ripples in the breeze that she’ll probably miss the activities bell again.
Reflections on this passage nearly always cast Martha and Mary as types, contrasting the active life and the contemplative life, the traditional woman and the modern woman, the anxious presence and the non-anxious presence. Listeners are drawn to their story, finding themselves in one or the other sister, and hearing Jesus speak to them personally. If you are a Mary, you hear Jesus commend you for your devotion, for your hunger to hear his teaching, for your ability to unclutter your mind and your life.
If you are a Martha, though….well, different Martha’s hear different things. Some Martha’s hear Jesus giving them permission to slow down, to take a break, to put things on hold in order to indulge in a little devotional time. Some Martha’s hear a Jesus who obviously doesn’t have homework, carpools, deadlines, bills, grocery lists, soccer games, business trips, e-mails... These Martha's hear Jesus, who apparently doesn’t have pots to juggle, telling them that they should just let their own pots boil over and burn up while they indulge in a little devotional time.
Eventually, these type-readings of the gospel passage conclude that we all have a little Mary and a little Martha in us, that we are all called to be both intent in prayer and study and active in serving the needs of others, that being grounded in God is what gives us strength to face the challenges of the day. Jesus himself had a little Martha and a little Mary in him, healing and feeding and preaching one moment and stealing a little private time with God the next.
In our fast-paced world, with palm pilots that can hold more tasks than we can ever hope to accomplish and cell phones that connect to more people than we can ever hope to call, this is an important reading of this morning’s gospel. But if we stop there, we’ve missed something. We’ve missed something of who Martha and Mary are, and, so something of who we are. There’s something deeper to the story, something deeper to these women, deeper than the awards we’ve handed to them year after year after year.
Let’s look at them again. Martha is the head of her household, which for Jewish women in the first century was a mark of great tragedy. Either she was widowed, or she was never married – in either case, she held no position in society, and her condition was considered the result of God’s displeasure. She was expected to be invisible, silent, and grateful for whatever handouts came her way.
When Jesus passed by Martha’s house on his way to Jerusalem, something about him compelled her to invite him in and offer him a meal – an unthinkable gesture for any woman, especially one like Martha. “A bold and reckless action,” says the Reverend James Liggett. “A bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous.” And yet, she could not let the opportunity that was Jesus pass her by. In another gospel, it will be Martha who first confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of God.
Mary must have watched all this with some anxiety herself, not knowing why Martha would risk their already marginal life by inviting Jesus into their home. But as he began to speak, she, too is compelled, and finds herself at a moment of decision. She can go with Martha to the kitchen and perform her social obligation as hostess, or she can stay in the room with Jesus and be taught with the disciples. Surely she and Martha and Jesus had heard the rabbinic saying, “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman.” But Mary could not let the opportunity that was Jesus pass her by, and so she sat at his feet and listened. It was a bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous. And yet, in another gospel, it will be Mary who, having heard Jesus’ word, will take up the mantle of hospitality and anoint his feet.
Martha and Mary were more alike than perhaps even they knew. The sisters were both willing to risk everything when the opportunity that was Jesus passed by. They both weighed the difference between having Jesus in their lives and not having Jesus, and they both found that not having Jesus was not worth all the safety, all the comfort, all the convenience in the world. And Jesus honored their choices – he accepted Martha’s invitation to come inside, and he encouraged Mary to sit among the disciples, actions that were themselves bold and reckless for any respectable rabbi.
When Martha and Mary invited Jesus into their lives, things changed. But Martha didn’t see at first that things were different. She thought she would go on living the same way she always had, and that Mary would do the same, so when Mary suddenly turns her back on the old way of doing things, Martha is thrown for a loop. Jesus gently reminds her, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.
There is need of only one thing, and both Martha and Mary have risked it all for that one thing – the presence of Jesus in their lives. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says, not because she is in the living room instead of the kitchen, but because she understands and accepts that her life will never be the same again. At some point, they’ll get hungry, and it very well may be Mary’s award-winning pot roast that feeds them and Martha’s quiet prayer that blesses the meal.
When we invite Jesus into our lives, things change. Old rules and patterns get mixed up, and we are faced with a decision. We choose the better part when we allow his presence to transform us, even if the changes are strange, uncomfortable, counter-cultural, or inconvenient. If you once had Sunday mornings free for breakfast and browsing the paper instead of coming to worship, you already know this. If you used to spend Sunday evenings catching up on homework instead of going to EYC, you already know this. If you used to keep everything you earned for yourself instead of giving to the church, you already know this. When we invite Jesus into our lives, things change.
Like Martha and Mary, we cannot let the opportunity that is Jesus pass us by. And once he is here, we cannot expect our own lives or the life of our church to remain unchanged. For we have seen that, in the presence of Jesus, those who are on the margins become hosts and hostesses of God. Those who are called unworthy or who are deemed incapable are chosen and welcomed as God’s disciples. It is no coincidence that on July 29th, the Feast of Mary and Martha, thirty years ago, the first women were ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, a bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous.
If we are to be stereotyped, may it be as people who are ever open to the transforming grace of God working in and through us. When we invite Jesus into our lives, things change. Could we expect anything different from One who has made the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who has called sinners friends and Samaritans good neighbors, who changed has death itself into life? Is anything too wonderful for God? Amen.