With a title like "A Tale of Two Sisters," I guess this
should open with something like "It was the best of times; it was
the worst of times." But it was neither. Unusual, to be sure.
Even a little exciting. After all, these were the days of an
itinerant rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth who was attracting quite
a bit of attention.
At some point previous - we are never told when, where or
how - these two sisters, Mary and Martha, along with their
brother Lazarus, had been introduced to Jesus. They must have
become fast friends because Jesus and his entourage were welcomed
into their Bethany home for a meal in this passage; later,
following the illness and eventual death of brother Lazarus,
Jesus calls on the family, hears Martha complain that Lazarus
would not have succumbed had Jesus been more timely - as we know,
to everyone's amazement, Jesus then called Lazarus from tomb and
back to life;(1) finally we meet them all again at a dinner party
in the family home, Mary anoints Jesus' feet with expensive
perfume and they all hear Judas complain about the waste of
money.(2) For Mary, Martha and Lazarus to be encountered three
different times and in the writings of two different gospels
indicates an especially close relationship with Jesus.
The brief story we have in our lesson this morning is, I
suspect, not a special favorite. Jesus and his friends have
arrived in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem where the text
says, "a woman named Martha opened her home to him." So far, so
good. We can imagine that a good deal of work had gone into
getting things ready for this by-now famous guest - lots of
dusting and cleaning, a place for everything and everything in
its place. What kind of menu? Not peanut butter and jelly!
Something that, no doubt, would be wonderful, but which would
also require more than a little effort. Where is Martha Stewart
when we need her? (I know, I know - the judge says otherwise
occupied for the next five months.) At any rate, the big moment
arrives, Jesus comes in, and begins a conversation with Martha's
sister Mary who, up till here had been helping with the
preparations, but now had stopped assisting big sister and turned
all her attention to their visitor.
A minute or two of this sort of thing was all it took for
the steam to start coming out of Martha's ears. We do not know
exactly how long it took, but finally, with teeth barely
unclenched and a fake smile feigned on her face, she comes in and
asks, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the
work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
Here is where we come to the problem. Instead of Jesus
saying, "Martha, you're right. It is not fair of me to
monopolize Mary out here while you are in the kitchen slaving
away. In fact, is there anything I can do to help?" he says in
what sounds like a tone of condescension, "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." And here the brief story ends.
Wait a minute, Lord. What is going on here? First of all,
Martha should have been able to expect a compliment, not some
rebuke, no matter how gentle. After all, it was a woman's place
to be in the kitchen (or more likely out by the cooking fire) -
she would normally not be in the room with the men until time to
serve. That is shock number one. Shock number two is that Mary
is sitting there at Jesus' feet, looking for all the world like
one of his disciples, when everyone knows that a woman has no
business here, at least not in first century Palestine. Indeed,
in that day and age, there was controversy over whether women
should be allowed to study the scriptures at all; and they
certainly were forbidden from having public discussions about
them with men. One first-century rabbi wrote, "Rather should the
words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman."(3) So
what is going on, Jesus? You should be approving Martha and
rebuking Mary. Shouldn't you? Shouldn't you? As I say, a
problem with this story.
As I said earlier, I suspect this is not one of your very
favorite Bible stories, because, truth be told, if I asked you
which of these two ladies you identified with, the majority would
answer Martha. I would. I mean SOMEBODY has to do the work! I
mean we don't want to sit around with eyes so firmly fixed on
heaven that we are no earthly good! Right? We love the lines of
the old poet:
Lord of all pots and pans and things,
Since I've no time to be,
A saint by doing lovely things,
Or watching late with Thee,
Or dreaming in the dawn light,
Or storming Heaven's gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals,
And washing up the plates.(4)
Did Martha really get a raw deal in this story? The more I
think about it, the less I am convinced that she did. After all,
Jesus did not say she should not have been doing what she was
doing, but rather, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset
about many things..." Worried and upset, or anxious or disturbed
or troubled or flustered - any of those work. She was being
beaten by busyness. It was doing her no good, nor anyone else
Ever have that happen in your life? It could be called the
tyranny of the trivial, something that most of us have fallen
victim to. Or it could be called the sad triumph of the good
over the best.
A time management guru, a professor in the business school
at Harvard, speaks about A, B, and C priorities, and then he
notes that too many people spend too much of their time on the C
priorities! And then he asks, "Why do you think that is?" The
answer is that the C priorities are, first, much easier to
accomplish, and, second, give you the impression that you are
actually getting something done. In other words you can keep
busy with the C priorities all day and never get to the more
important things. The lesson from Mary and Martha is "Don't let
the good (the C priorities) get in the way of the best (the A
priorities).(5) Sound like anyone you know?
So. Which is it? Are you a Mary or a Martha? I won't ask
for a poll, because I suspect the real truth is that most of us
here are both. We know the importance of getting things done and
would never denigrate initiative or hard work - we are, after
all, Presbyterians. But we also know the importance of the
spiritual dimension in our lives, and are willing to take time to
develop and nourish it, because we need it, sometimes
desperately. That is why we are gather here, not only today but
week after week after week after week.
Our friend Fred Craddock tells of a wonderful lady, another
one who was both Martha and Mary. He writes,
"When I was a child, I never thought in all my life I would
ever be able to call death a friend. At first in childhood, for
me, death was a stranger and filled me with awe and wonder. It
was the custom in the small town where I grew up to rope off the
street, whenever someone on the street had died. People in those
days died at home. Mr. Farrel died, and the police came and
roped off the street, and rolled out a sign on the street,
My friend and I were throwing the ball back and forth, and
the ball went past me, and under the rope. I said to my friend,
"Uh, go get the ball."
He said, "You go get the ball."
I said, "You're the one that threw it crazy."
And he said, "You're the one that missed it."
And the ball was left. And we went home.
Later on, death was not a stranger, but death was an enemy,
going at unexpected times into the hospital, and up and down the
corridors and in the wards, and taking away an aunt or and uncle.
And the nurses said, "I was in there a few moments ago and he was
breathing fine. It must have been sudden." And into the nursing
homes, "She must have died during the night, she was sleeping
when I last saw her." And sometimes in the nursery, with icy
fingers stealing even a feverish baby. And on a highway, oh
death would put on bloody boots and snatch our best young people
from twisted steal and broken glass. Death was an enemy.
I thought always an enemy. Until I met a woman for whom
death was a past experience, not a future experience, but a past
experience. Her name was Gang, Mrs. Gang. You had no reason to
know Mrs. Gang, she lived by the quarry, up by the quarry in the
big old house in Crab Orchard. She'd had a big family, but they
were gone. She had all that room. And when I met her I preached
at the little church at Crab Orchard, and she came up to me
afterwards and said, "I keep the preachers." And so I went with
her. She had a parrot, the parrot said, "Hot biscuits!" and
"Hello, preacher!" She kept the preachers.
She drew near death and we all were grieving about it. But
you know what she did? She walked out, and curled her toes over
the edge, and felt the mist at her face, and the fog in her
throat, and the amber taste of death at the corner of her mouth,
and she took hold of God's hand, and stared at death, and turned
around and walked back among us, totally free. For three years
she was totally free among us. But then her final sickness. She
was at home, the church gathered, we were sitting around,
praying, looking in on her, singing a little bit. And then one
of the men got up and opened the door to let old Death in. We
all kind of felt sorry for it. He looked so pitiful and awkward.
We didn't know what he was doing there, really. One of the men
said, "Where are your friends?" because death always brought two
friends with him: Pain and Fear. "Where are your friends?" And
old Death said, "They couldn't come."
"What do you mean they couldn't come?"
"God wouldn't let 'em come. Said this was a mission of
mercy and they didn't belong here."(6)
And we understand why, don't we? Mrs. Gang was neither
Martha nor Mary, she was both. And she had learned to manage her
priorities, and that made all the difference.
The lesson is a tale of two sisters, but I want you to hear
another tale of another two sisters. These two were very close
in many ways. They had many of the same interests, many of the
same experiences. Both had been raised in the church, and both
drifted away a bit as they reached college age. Both married
fine men, neither had children. But as the years went along, one
came back to church and became very involved, the other just
The sister who came back to church suddenly and unexpectedly
lost her husband. The pastor rushed over to her house, she met
him at the door. She was in tears, to be sure, but she said,
"This is terrible. But I feel as if I have been preparing for
this moment for most of my life." She was right. She had sat
through countless Sundays, heard dozens of sermons that involved
dealing with the disasters we all experience from time to time,
as if she were in training for just such a moment as this.
Not long after, the husband of the other sister died
unexpectedly as well. She had no involvement with the church so
that was a resource upon which she would not have thought of
calling. She became more and more distressed and depressed, and
finally needed to be institutionalized so she could get
professional care. Her sister's comment, after visiting her in
the hospital said, "Poor thing. When it came time for her to let
down her bucket, deep down, she found out that she had no water
in the well."
I honestly believe that this is what Jesus was referring to
when he gently chastised Martha and credited Mary for choosing
wisely, for taking Priority A instead of B or C. The truth is
there ARE moments in life when we need to "let down our bucket,"
to return to the wellsprings of courage and hope. If we have not
previously prepared, disaster awaits. What we do here, week in
and week out, year in and year out, as we gather for worship and
study, is insure that when the bucket is let down, it will come
up with the refreshing we need.
Are both Martha and Mary inside you? Fine. Celebrate both.
And keep the priorities straight. Remember, don't let the good
get in the way of the best.
1. John 11:1-44
2. John 12:1-8
3. Quoted by Bob Johnson, "The Martha Syndrome," sermon preached at Chapelwood
United Methodist Church, Houston, TX, 7/23/95, via internet
4. Quoted by William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO:
Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
5. Dr. James Rueb, "Overcoming Busyness," sermon preached at the Moraga Valley
Presbyterian Church, 5/12/02, via internet
6. Southern Folk Advent Service, Fred Craddock, Storyteller, Candler School of Theology,
Emory University, 1994
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