Mary and Martha Stewart
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John’s the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
July 18, 2010
“As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
– Luke 10:38-42
I want to begin by making a case for Martha, the woman in the Gospel who welcomes Jesus into her home, rushes about preparing food and pouring wine, eager to see to the comfort of her unexpected guest. Perhaps a direct ancestor of a contemporary Martha – she of the eight-layered theme cakes, seasonally-appropriate door decorations, and making water from scratch, the Biblical Martha cares about how things look and taste; she cares that everyone has enough to eat and drink. Perhaps domesticity is a creative outlet for Martha (as it is for many of us) and not jut a somber duty – seeking out the finest grapes, the freshest bread, the best wine, the perfect flowers.
Martha is, in a word, hospitable, usually an admirable Biblical trait. In today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, when Abraham rushes to have food and refreshment provided for the guests that appear unexpectedly, including a messenger from God, he is praised for it.
Certainly little would have appeared on the table if it was up to Mary, who plunks herself down at the feet of Jesus, ignoring her sister’s requests for help. If Mary had helped earlier, perhaps they both could have settled down to hear what Jesus had to say. Do we detect a certain smugness in Mary? I’m just saying….
I wonder how much of each sister’s actions are an issue of temperament, or personality type (maybe a Meyers-Briggs thing: Martha (INFJ); Mary (ENFP?). Perhaps Mary is an introvert, and prefers to listen from the kitchen where she hears everything but isn’t obliged to contribute. She still wants help….
Note that Jesus does not condemn Martha’s actions, only says that Mary’s “choice” is better. Jesus chastises Martha, not because she is busy being the hostess, but because she is “distracted and worried about many things.”
Well – who isn’t?
Jesus himself was often distracted. While teaching in a synagogue, his disciples call him out to the street because someone needs him there—and he goes. Often when on a journey to a specific destination, Jesus is pulled off the path, persuaded to stop and speak to a group who has gathered to hear him, delaying the journey indefinitely and frustrating the people who were waiting for him. Some say that Jesus had a ministry of interruption, of being pulled “off-task” repeatedly. Or was this, more accurately, a ministry of responsiveness? The Good Samaritan was distracted by the person lying on the side of the road and Jesus praises him for interrupting his journey to be caring.
Distraction can even be a blessing when it takes our mind off ourselves and our problems, gives us a needed break from intense emotional situations where no progress is being made. In Newsweek, a woman talks about losing her eight-year-old son Zach to cancer, and how healing it was to take a river trip with her other son Josh. They became distracted from the endless pain of Zach’s death by having to think only, she says, about “which rapids we would conquer, where we would like to hike and what we would eat.” It was a relief, a break, from the pain of full-time grieving.
But in our culture, distraction has been elevated to a lifestyle; we call it “mufti-tasking.” It is watching television while chatting on the phone to a friend, as you simultaneously make a list of tasks for tomorrow and pet the dog. It is sitting at a drive-in, eating fast food while hearing sound bites of complicated events on the radio as you read a movie review in the newspaper. The Buddhists call this “having a noisy mind,” as opposed to the preferred state: “a quiet mind.”
My children remind me that it’s “so 2000” to criticize multi-tasking. Yet there is powerful new evidence about how it affects our thinking.
A landmark study coming out of Stanford University was the first to test people’s mental functions when multi-tasking. What they found is that multi-tasking impairs your ability to think. Sustained thinking (called concentration) means focusing on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. And this is best done alone, uninterrupted. My favorite thing in a long time is that brainstorming — like with the sheets of white newsprint — produces far fewer creative ideas than having people concentrating alone on an issue and then, later, sharing their conclusions. (Does it show I’m an introvert?)
I know I‘m guilty of using distractions of all sorts to divert me from thinking about the hard and important questions, such as am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I spend too much of my time comparing – now with the time when my kids were little, now with the time when my best friend hadn’t moved to New York, now with the future when my knees will be even more weird. Comparison is a distraction with virtually no pay-off, unless it takes us to a place of comparative gratitude for what we have.
Distraction can even lead to tragedy: children left in a hot car, forgotten in the immediate pressure of getting to work. Cell phones or texting causing car accidents.
Mahatma Gandhi called this behavior “hurry sickness,” and even said that “busyness is the beginning of violence.” Certainly, a great deal of “road rage” is attributable to impatience, to “hurry sickness.”
Not only is Martha distracted, Jesus says, she is also “worried. Many of us are on intimate terms with worry. Worry consumes time when we could be doing other things; worry stands in opposition to acceptance and letting go. A lot of worry stems from two things: fear and perfectionism.
Fear is always so close to the surface. We become afraid that things won’t turn out the way we so desperately want them to for ourselves and for those we love. We worry about pain and potential pain, about loss and the possibility of loss, and about the randomness and unpredictability of life. A friend of mine used to be the organist at a large Roman Catholic church called “Sacred Heart.” To be funny, he often referred to it as “Scared Heart.” And there’s a truth here in the reversal of two letters, since our minds can become so scared and fearful that there is no space for the sacred to enter.
We can’t oversimplify today’s Gospel. One person observes: “We must not cartoon the scene. Martha up to her eyeballs in soapsuds, Mary pensively on a stool in the den, and Jesus giving Scriptural warrant for letting the dishes pile up high in the sink. If we censure Mary too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether. If we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is matter of spiritual discernment.” (1)
Maybe we have to have a Mary heart in a Martha world, and build in time each day to sit and listen to each other, to God, and to our lives – to focus. To take time to develop an idea of our own.
Besides fear, perfectionism is a component of worry. The expectation that life can and should be as close to perfect as we can make it is bound to produce anxiety because of the expectations we set up and the disappointment at not meeting them. We experience this in small ways, like mild disappointment when the giant oak that shaded the back yard so perfectly dies, or outright disdain for ourselves when we made a mistake and fail to get the perfect job we want so desperately. Ann Wilson Schaef says bluntly, “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”
Today we baptize Milo so perfect in himself, perfect little features, unlimited potential in this small, precious package. We warmly welcome him into our community today, and we promise to nurture him as he discerns his own way in the world.
What if we had real faith in our own abilities– at any given moment — to do the best we can with the resources available? And faith that this is what God wants from us and that God would help us in this endeavor? The Houston Chronicle talks about a concert in Lincoln Center in where the virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman performed. Since Perlman was stricken with polio as a child, just getting on stage is an achievement. He has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. He walks slowly and painfully, almost majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly puts his crutches on the floor, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward before bending down to pick up his violin. The audience usually sits quietly, even reverently, as they wait for him to be ready to play.
But one night as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke; it snapped, like gunfire across the room. People thought he would have to go through the whole ritual again, going offstage to find another string or another violin. But he didn’t. He waited a moment, closed his eyes and signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off And with such passion and power and purity as they had never heard before. Violinists know it’s impossible to playa symphonic work with just three strings, but Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was silence, and then an outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium; people were screaming and cheering. Penman smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to for silence, and then said in a quiet, almost reverent tone, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’” (2)
It is also the task of all of us — to make as much music as we can with what we have at the moment. You can’t make music if the worry and anxiety take over. We work with what we have now as we allow both Mary and Martha to teach us. We act and we listen. We listen to our lives — to what we have been given, to what we have spared, and ponder that where there is such an abundance of gifts, there must be a giver.
Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation, 1973.
Reported in Houston Chronicle.