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Martha and Jesus

Preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Mt. Lebanon, PA.

Scripture: Luke 10:38-42

A video recording is available at the bottom of this page.

I speak to you in the name of the + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Good Episcopalians,

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

I and several other seminarians, including Jack Brownfield, another seminarian this congregation is supporting and aiding in discernment, are working as Chaplains at UPMC Shadyside this summer. When I first started this program, I expected to be mostly talking to patients about what was happening immediately to them: the anxieties around their surgeries, the pain of their cancers, the loss of their loved ones, and more. I do this, and Jack does too, but I am noticing more and more that people are often far more worried about the burdens that they bring with them to the hospital than about their immediate recovery. I have spent my time hearing about the struggles within the dynamics of a family, stories of festering past traumas that have never been addressed, and worries about the great financial concerns that a hospital stay often unjustly incurs.

It is in these moments that I have realized how many things keep us from recovery, how many barriers often stand in the way of us receiving care, how many distractions and worries pull us away from addressing what is right in front of us, and how much many are often trapped in situations and systems that keep them from getting well, no matter the severity of the condition.

In reflection of this, I am left wondering how much keeps us from addressing our spiritual health. How much keeps us away from Christ. What are we, the church, called to do about it?

Interpretations of our Gospel text from many faithful people vary widely. Origen thought that Mary represented contemplative life while Martha represented active life. Augustine thought that Mary represented the world to come, while Martha represented the world in its present day. Protestants in the reformation thought that Mary represented salvation by faith and Martha represented salvation by works. Others do not think that, given the linguistic subtleties of this Lukan account, Martha and Mary were meant to be opposed at all, but rather it is their combined attitudes - service and listening - that brings about the ideal Christian way of life.

In fact, at least one author has stated, “tensions embedded in this story raise more questions and interpretive problems than any other Lukan text involving women.” Who knew that just four verses would be so hard to figure out?

But the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino asserted that it is the primary task of Christians to identify the crucified peoples and to extend mercy to them; to work on their behalf – to do as Christ did for the suffering; to take the crucified peoples down from their crosses. Sobrino asserted that the church should be an institution steeped in mercy, something he observed as contrasting with our current stance to the world that is often very lacking in mercy.

If our job is to look for the people that are suffering, I think that any honest reading of this passage would recognize the reality that Martha is doing something that is expected of her by virtue of her womanhood. She is not serving because she wants to. Jesus makes this clear when he acknowledges her worry. This was something that Martha felt that she had to do. The word translated into distracted could equally be translated to “drawn away from.” If we are seriously looking for how Christ reconciles, liberates, and resurrects in this passage, Martha is the victim in this story. She is the one who is burdened and crying for help. Jesus liberates Martha by listening to her and then by removing the impediment to her separation from him.

An equally honest reading of this passage would recognize that Martha’s cry for help is directed at Jesus, not at Mary. “Lord, do you not care... Tell her then to help me.” Martha wants, very clearly and desperately, to have the distractions removed so that she can focus on Christ. She wants to be with Jesus. She wants very desperately and sincerely to serve him. She was being kept from experiencing the presence of Christ because she was trapped in a system that didn't allow her to be with him. Her work is a barrier to being with Christ.

Jesus answers Martha not by chastising her for attempting to bring Mary away from his presence, but by acknowledging her pain, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” Jesus’ response, “Martha, Martha” was empathetic, not condescending. The story could have stopped here and it still would have been an opportunity for us to witness the mercy of Christ to see our God showing compassion and care to those in distress.

Still, our God goes further. In addressing what was causing Martha’s worry, Jesus could have simply told Mary that she had to join Martha in her many tasks. Jesus could have, himself, joined in the tasks. But Christ has a better way. Rather than temporarily remedying her worry and distraction, Jesus removes the barrier to him entirely by proclaiming that there is something better – by inviting Martha to step out of her expected roles and join Mary as a student at the feet of Jesus – a liberation that cannot be taken away. A liberation that addresses the very core of her human dignity – that gives her choice and freedom. It is through this merciful act of Jesus lifting Martha out of a role that kept her anxious and removed from Jesus that we see Jesus as liberator and Martha as reconciled. And as such, this story points to God’s ultimate goal of restoration and resurrection for all of those that have been kept from experiencing his love.

We worship a God who cares deeply about the things that entrap our neighbors and keep them from dignity, that keep them from healing, that keep them from Him. Just as Christ saw the anxiety of Martha – he hears the anxiety of those calling out to him amid the things that keep them ensnared. In this way, Christ demonstrates a very real concern for those who work and their liberation from the systems we ourselves perpetuate and are caught in.

Christ still calls us to him. He still desires that we are able to approach the table. Christ still proclaims a better way.

Church, if we are to emulate Christ as his Body on Earth, we must listen to the Marthas of the world who are burdened under systems that draw them away from the presence of Christ. When our neighbors cry out, “Lord, do you not care.” It is we who should be able to answer: We do. We see your pain. There is something better. Will we answer the things that draw people away from Christ in a better way? Will we work to remove all of the barriers that this world puts up so that people can experience the love of God?

Can we be the church of the better for those who work long hours for low wages and cannot feed their families or put gas in their cars?

Can we be the church of the better for those who lie suffering in hospital beds?

Can we be the church of the better for those whom other churches have discarded and cast out as not good enough?

Can we be the church that Martha needed?

As we engage in walking into the wilderness this summer to find out who we are, let us remember that Christ, the one who liberates, who reconciles, who resurrects and calls us to him is our head. Let us remember that he calls us to the altar now and let us tear down any distraction that is keeping the world from experiencing him.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

In the name of the + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The sermon begins around 20:50 of the video.

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