john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK




    Martha

    Good Shepherd 18/7/2004 (Communion service)


    Amos 8:1-12, Luke 10:38-42


    Yesterday afternoon a few of us got together at Ormskirk Parish Church for a bit of fun and a bit of sharing and learning together.

    At one point I invited people to have a look at a table where I'd put some postcards of Jesus - pictures of him from all over the world; the Jesus we'd recognise from our Sunday School years, and from films we've seen, but other Jesusses too - African Jesusses; Chinese Jesusses; South American Jesusses [1].

    I invited people to choose one which they liked, or which caught their attention.

    (Bill, I think) chose a very unusual picture - of The Angry Christ. (Display and discuss: how it demonstrates that Jesus was sometimes - often perhaps - in conflict with people; and people were sometimes - often perhaps - in conflict with him).

    It's surprising when you think about it how many people in the bible you can think of who had a go at Jesus. There are the obvious ones - the religious leaders who set him up and had him crucified;

    Others:

    Judas who criticised Jesus for letting Mary Magdalene 'waste' her money on him;
    Those who said Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard for eating with taxmen and sinners

    Those who criticised Jesus for letting his disciples 'work' on a sabbath ... etc etc ...

    Today's reading is about someone who had a go at Jesus - Martha.

    Now as they went on their way, he 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.'

    Here we see Martha having a go at Jesus for letting her do all the work while Mary just sat there and listened. She was having a go at Mary, too, of course. You can just imagine the scene (describe it) ...

    Now most sermons I've ever heard about Martha and Mary always end up asking you to think: Are you a Martha or a Mary? Are you like Mary - someone who will take time to sit and listen to Jesus, a pray-er, a thinker, someone who reflects calmly on life; or are you like Martha- someone who can't sit still, always has to be doing, and maybe missing out of hearing what God wants to tell you.

    These sermons always major on Jesus' quote at the end, '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.'

    And they always end up making the vast majority of the congregation go home feeling rotten about themselves because we all feel like Marthas, busy people with not enough time on our hands to get to know God any better.

    I'd like to take a different slant today, and to concentrate on what made Martha mad at Jesus; what she did with her anger, and to look again at Jesus' response to see if there's any good news in it for Martha, and those of us who feel like her.

    'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.'

    - that's what she said; but I wonder if that's what she meant. Let's try getting closer to Martha by painting a picture of her in our minds. This is all guesswork, of course, but perhaps Martha was a woman like this:

    A woman who always knew her place.

    The oldest in the family;

    Who didn't have her brother's brains or her sister's good looks.

    Whose mother died while they were young and she had to take her place.

    You can imagine that after her mother died Martha did all the cooking and baking and laundry the way her mother had done; and she kept the books, because her father was useless with money.

    And you can hear people admiring her, saying, 'Your father doesn't know how lucky he is to have a girl like you in the house,'

    Saying, 'You'll make a great wife for some lucky man, Martha.'

    But there was no lucky man for Martha, and when her father died, she just kept house for the other two.

    She had no money of her own, only what the other two gave her, and her friends were mostly of the older generation.

    But she knew her place ...

    She knew it from the day her mother died and she took over in the kitchen, and welcomed everyone at the door and brought them in and made them comfortable and started baking and making sure everywhere was clean and tidy and made them cups of tea and did the washing up after them and started getting the dinner ready and so on and so on ... [2]

    I think you might be able to see Martha as a woman like that, not an unusual person by any means. Someone who knew her place and got on with it ...

    ... but who must, from time to time have got fed up of it.

    Wondering why she didn't have her brother's brains so she could have gone out and made something of herself in the world;

    Wondering why she didn't have her sister's looks so she could have been attractive to someone;

    Wondering why it was always her who had to look after them, even now they were all grown up.

    You can begin to see and understand, perhaps, why Martha had a go at Jesus that day.

    Frustration. Feeling trapped, feeling alone, busy but alone in the kitchen while this welcome visitor, her friend, was enjoying the company of Mary, lovely doe-eyed Mary, sitting there at his feet.

    Often when you and I have a go at people it's because of things like these - hidden things, simmering under the surface of our everyday lives.

    I'm not saying that we're all like this Martha in every detail - we're all different, unique - but I am saying that like her, we all carry around with us resentments and frustrations, things which sometimes cause us to lash out.

    It wasn't really Jesus' fault that Martha felt like that; and probably not Mary's either because I suspect that Martha probably didn't actually let Mary do much about the house most of the time - that was her place. But they were there and so they got Martha's anger full between the eyes.

    Jesus, never short of a response to those who had a go at him, said, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.'

    He didn't say what that one thing was. But Martha and we can guess. Turn to him. Trust in him. Find your place in him.

    Finding your place in anything else leads to worries and distractions. Whether that's being the perfect housekeeper, surrogate mother, or the perfect breadwinner, hard-worker, friend. The message is, turn from those things - find your place in him.

    Perhaps we can all learn something quite practical from Martha: that next time it looks like we're going to have a go at someone because of the way we feel, have a go at Jesus instead. He's used to it, he wants it, and when he sees what's going on inside our hearts he gives us a way to put all those cares behind us and find our place in him.

    I want to end by making another observation about Jesus and Martha. I think he liked her, in fact I think he loved her deeply.

    I say that because the next time we meet Martha in the scriptures she's having a go at Jesus again. Her brother Lazarus has died, and she says, "If you had got here earlier my brother would not have died."

    This time, there was no clever reply from Jesus. This time, seeing how sad and sorry she was at losing a brother she loved, Jesus wept - he cried with her.

    And for all of us who feel like Marthas from time to time, I think that's good news.

    Jesus, who knows us very well, likes us, loves us, and when we share our hurts with him, cries with us too.


    NOTES

    [1] Using the resource activity pack The Christ we Share, from USPG. An excellent pack containing 32 full colour images of Christ from around the world on A5 card, 12 of these also as A4 acetates, a booklet, 'theological background and notes on images' giving an introduction to the context of third world theologies and commentary for each image, and 7 activity sheets

    [2] Martha description adapted from Wild Goose Worship Group, Four Changed Lives, in Present on Earth