I had the privilege of worshiping this morning with my mom’s former internship congregation, St. Philip’s of Wilmington, DE. They’re a wonderfully vibrant community, and I had a great time. The sermon I preached for them was a little different than what I normally do; I always felt there was a lot of offstage action that the four verses comprising the Lukan Mary and Martha story don’t capture. So my sermon is a story about what that action might have looked like. Here it is:
“How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Casserole and Love the Lord”
“For corn’s sake, Mary,” said Martha, as they hurried toward the synagogue, “If we’re late for shabbat again because you couldn’t find a clean skirt to wear, then so help me, I will tie you to the washing machine when we get home and only let you go when the enormous pile of your clothes is cleaned, dried, and folded.”
“It’s not that I didn’t have a clean skirt,” protested Mary, hurrying after her sister. “I just couldn’t find it since it was in your room because you just went ahead and washed it with all your stuff.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have been there if you’d done laundry any time in the last month. Honestly, Mary, it takes you so long to get around to laundry that I’m surprised your clothes don’t grow legs and walk off.”
The debate ended, not for lack of ammunition on either sister’s side, but because they’d finally arrived at the doors of the synagogue. The sisters slipped into the sanctuary, and sat quietly in the back, after a brief muted bicker when Martha learned that Mary had forgotten the check for the alms-offering at home—again.
One of the elders was reading from the scroll of Bereshit, Genesis. “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day,” he began.
Martha fidgeted as he continued: “And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’” I need more flour, Martha thought to herself, making a mental note.
Jesus was arriving in just a couple of days, and Martha felt overwhelmed with everything there was left to do: bake the Lord’s favorite bundt cake, prep the casserole, not forgetting Andrew’s lactose intolerance, make up the guest bedrooms—who knew how she was going to fit thirteen men in two spare rooms—vacuum the whole house, and get Mary to shift the enormous pile of laundry threatening to overwhelm in the living room. Dusting, polishing, cooking, cleaning—Martha has no idea how it was ever going to get done, especially since it was the Sabbath, and she wasn’t supposed to be working.
The day of Jesus’ arrival found Martha’s household in a whirlwind of activity. Martha hadn’t worked during the Sabbath, but she sure as heck hadn’t relaxed either. It was more as if she’d let all the frenetic anxiety she would usually have worked off just get bottled up inside, so that by the time the sun rose on the day that Jesus was coming, she was like a shaken bottle of champagne, and sunrise took the cork off.
Mary was not spared the wrath of Hurricane Martha. She’s been set to work peeling a mountain of potatoes, but it seemed to Martha that she finished three tasks for every potato that Mary finally placed in the pot. To make matter worse, their brother Lazarus had finally emerged from his upstairs office to let them know that Jesus had texted; he’d be there in just a couple of hours.
Now he was telling Mary all about this one time when a lawyer had tried to pin Jesus down on what exactly a person had to do to live forever. Martha wasn’t listening too closely, but there was something about a Samaritan who was good, and some guy who got beat up—which reminded Martha, she needed to make sure she had enough time to tenderize the chicken fillets… she tuned back in just in time to catch Lazarus saying, “And Jesus said to the man, ‘Go and do likewise!’”
Martha looked down at the measly pile of potatoes that it had taken Mary half an hour to peel. She sighed with exasperation, and snatched the peeler out of Mary’s hand. “Listen to your brother—go and do! Go and do! The beds in the guest rooms still need to be made up—go take care of it! Chop chop!” Mary practically fled the room, grateful to be out from under the eye of her sister.
Lazarus sighed. “Martha, sometimes you could go a little easier on her…”
Martha waved her hand irritably. “Weren’t you listening during the Shabbat service, Lazarus? Hospitality is important. She needs to learn what it looks like.”
At that moment, the doorbell rang. Lazarus turned toward the door in delight. “They’re early! Mary!” he called up the stairs. “Come on down here! They’re here early!”
Martha gasped and whipped the dishtowel off her shoulder. “I haven’t even had time to shower!” she hissed, but Lazarus was already on the way to welcome the guests. From the kitchen, Martha heard him welcome them with the same words Abraham used in the passage they’d heard on Friday: “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.”
Martha emerged shyly from the kitchen, and smiled at Jesus and the other disciples, crowding into the room. “I’d come give you a hug, but—” she gestured to her flour-covered apron.
Jesus smiled and seemed like he was about to say something, but the cry of “Jesus!” came from the top of the stairs, and Mary came flying down and embraced Jesus with a cry of, “What took you so long to get here?!”
Once the flurry of greetings were over, Martha dragged Mary into the kitchen, shoved a bowl of peanuts into her hands, and dispatched her to their guests with strict instructions to see who wanted iced tea. She upped her activity level in the kitchen to turbo speed, telling herself that she was glad, so glad, that Jesus and his friends were here, but really, really wishing that they’d arrived closer to the time expected.
Twenty frenetic minutes passed before Martha realized that Mary never came back in for the tea. Martha walked over to the doorway to the living room to see what was going on, and took in the sight—Lazarus and the twelve seated around in a circle with Jesus, listening to him tell some hilarious parable, while Mary sat on the carpet beside him, looking up at him with big puppy eyes. The bowl of peanuts was sitting empty and lonely on the table. As she watched, Thomas got up and quietly asked Lazarus where he could go to pour himself a glass of water.
Martha couldn’t take it anymore. Trembling with anger, anxiety, and exhaustion, she walked over to stand in front of Jesus, who ceased talking and looked at her, concerned. Mary looked up at her too, the expression on her face that of someone who knows she’s in hot water.
Trying to keep her voice from cracking with tears, Martha said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.”
But Jesus smiled kindly at her. “Martha,” he said softly, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but there is need of only one thing.”
Panic immediately rose in Martha’s mind as she automatically tried to anticipate what the one thing was. Something to drink? Something to eat? Somewhere to wash his feet? Directions to the bathroom?
Jesus paused, and touched her on the arm. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he said gently. “And it won’t be taken away from her.”
Martha felt a shock as he said that, and then a flush rising to her cheeks, and then, worst of all, tears stinging her eyes. She stared at her sister, who suddenly found the carpet very interesting and wouldn’t meet her gaze. She tried taking a deep breath, but she couldn’t inhale all the way without beginning to sob. Too much. This was all just too much.
“The better part?” she asked quietly. “I’ve been taught all my life that hospitality is the greatest charity that can be shown. I heard the story you told to that lawyer just last week, the one about the Samaritan. Wasn’t that just what you were trying to teach him? The importance of hospitality, of being kind? And you’re telling me that my sister chose the better part? I did everything I was supposed to do, and tried to teach her to do likewise. Where have I fallen short? What did I do wrong?”
And Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, this isn’t about your hospitality. It’s about mine. Yes, we must eat sometime and sleep somewhere, and it’s a pleasure to do it here. But what matters, here and now, in this room, Martha, is not that you have welcomed us, but that I welcome you, just like I’ve welcomed your sister, to sit at my feet and listen to what I have to say.
“Martha, stop worrying about the casserole. Start believing that you’re the one who’s welcome.”
Martha couldn’t listen to any more. She ran from the room and took refuge in the kitchen, where she let the tears flow and just felt angry—at Mary, at Jesus, at early arrivals, at there not being enough hours in the day, and finally, at herself. A gentle hand touched her shoulder.
“Martha,” said Mary. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s the matter, Mary?” asked Martha. “Aren’t you enjoying your better part?” She didn’t mean for it to come out so nasty-sounding, but the words hung in the air like knives.
There was a pause, during which Martha couldn’t bring herself to look at her sister. Finally, she felt her Mary’s hand pulling the dishtowel off of her shoulder.
“Go upstairs,” said Mary. “Take a shower. Go on. I’ll cover for you for a little while.”
Martha tried hard to stop the tears from falling agin, but couldn’t help it “No,” she said. “Go back out. You heard what Jesus said. The right thing for you to do is to go listen to what he’s saying.”
“Once you’ve showered and pulled yourself together,” said Mary calmly, “You’ll go listen, and tell me later everything he’s saying. Hurry up. I don’t want you to miss much.” She held out a hand to help pull Martha to her feet.
Her sister took it, but frowned as she struggled up. “I don’t understand,” she said. “He’s always going on about loving one another and serving each other, isn’t he? But that’s what I was doing. Why did you get all the credit for doing the right thing?”
Mary frowned a little in contemplation. “I think,” she said, “that he always wants us to love and serve one another. But he always wants to remind us, too, that we are loved. It’s only once we know that God loves us, that God welcomes us, that we can really love and welcome others from our hearts.”
And then she smiled like the sunrise, and sent her sister upstairs, and got to work on the potato salad.