The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 7/18/04
Text: Luke 10:38-42
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

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 either.

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, "Quiet, please."

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 never managed.

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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