The Other Martha

December 12, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

MEDITATION/PRAYER Inspired by Hebrews 13
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares."

Let us join our hearts in prayer.

We thought the time of angels was past.
We thought the days where the holy broke through and shocked us into knowing our world was a sacred world were gone.
Forgive us, that we have been so unaware, so deeply asleep.
May we forgive one another.

The time of angels is now.
It is today, and every day.
When we are able to see beyond the boundaries of our own noses,
our own neuroses, our insecurities, our needs, our anger,
our cherished grudges –
in those rare moments when we are released from the bondage of
these things
We look into the eyes of another –
the veil is lifted –
and we gasp.
We have been in the company of angels all along.
We are held most tenuously inside these skins –
yet we have worn them as shields and as armor.

Creator Spirit, Mother, Father, Originator,
give us the courage and the strength to live this truth
more mindfully:
that we are but spirits walking this path together,
climbing the ladder together –
stumbling along the road together,
suffering and seeking together.

We are angels suffering from the delusion that we are merely people.

Let us breathe and be as one.

READINGS Luke 10:38-42 New Revised Standard Version
From an Interview With Martha Stewart, 2001

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." 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."

From an Interview with Martha Stewart

‘With six acres of garden and orchard to care for, Stewart is grateful for Renato and Renaldo. "They're twin brothers and they've been with me for over five years. I call them my 'maintainers.' I've been teaching them -- they didn't come to me as gardeners -- but they've been trained and trained and trained, and now they're very good at maintaining the place. I do all the creative gardening, buy all the seeds and plants, and do all the planting and setting out."

Her advice for those of us without the services of a Renaldo or Renato?

"Bulbs. If you can do just one thing in your garden, do bulbs. It doesn't matter how cold and miserable you feel putting them in the ground in November or December, because the rewards in the spring will be so great."

In addition to the gardens, Stewart raises chickens and keeps bees at Turkey Hill. And she once tried her hand at assorted pigs, goats and sheep. That brings us to the story of Plantagenet Palliser, a family lamb, which Stewart relates with a combination of true remorse and a bad case of the giggles.

"My daughter and my husband were sitting there at the table and I said, 'Here's some pork chops' and they looked at them and said, 'These are very rare for pork chops,' and I said, 'No, they're all right, I'll just cook them some more.' So I went to take them back to the pan and Andy said, 'That isn't pork' and I said, 'Well, it's lamb.' And Lexi said, 'It's Plantagenet!' and that was that." Daughter Alexis, she admits, is now a vegetarian.'

"The Other Martha" The Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Can' t you just see this story happening? There' s nothing ancient or exotic about it at all. Let' s look at it first from Martha of Bethany' s perspective. You are a Jewish woman in the 1st century in Palestine, living under Roman occupation but doing alright for yourself. You own a house, and you live there with your sister Mary (not Mary Magdalene and not the virgin one, either), and your brother, Lazarus. Your hours are spent attending to mundane issues: food, clothing, shelter, work. But you are also concerned with religious issues, with better understanding God' s will for all people, and you have recently become deeply attracted to the teachings and ministry of a controversial itinerant preacher named Jesus (Jeshua), as have your sister and brother. He' s a remarkable prophet, healer and teacher. You revere him with all your heart and refer to him as your master. But he is also your friend.

You know you' re lucky to be in Jesus' inner circle and you know he' s coming over tonight, so it' s time to get the house in order. It' s your house, you are the hostess, and your guru is coming by. You know when the master is here, he tends to attract a real crowd, so you' ve got work to do. God knows the floor hasn' t been swept in hours (even though the floor is made of dirt and you' d think it wasn' t that important. But it is).

So here comes Jesus. You' re incredibly glad to see him. He radiates with an inner glow. He is charismatic and wise, and possesses a piercing glance that takes in so much without a word. And Jesus is tired. You know from village gossip that he' s been keeping up a regular schedule of exorcisms and amazing healings, not to mention brilliant public interpretations of Scripture that infuriate the local rabbis. You have no idea that there will ever be any other holy scripture than the one you already know (the one we know as the Old Testament), and that when it does get written you will be a major character in it! If you knew that, you' d sweep the floor even more carefully!

Now Jesus is "in the house," as they say, in the largest room of the few you and your family share. You' ll get out there in a minute, but there are Jesus fans crowding around the doorway and pouring out into the yard, and a lot of them are hungry. And bunches of them are tracking dust and dirt into the house. You' re really sorry no one' s invented Swiffer yet, and Mr. Clean is still two-thousand years off. And there we have Martha of Bethany.

Let' s shift focus to Mary of Bethany, who has an entirely different take on the situation. Jesus is here! You drop everything – nothing is more important than sitting at his feet and receiving his love and his teachings (whether or not this is just an expression, we don' t know. Mary may not literally have been sitting at Jesus' feet. Maybe she was). Ignore Martha giving you dirty looks from the doorway. She' s just being her typical control-freak self.

Lazarus, we don' t know. Maybe he was out of town. He shows up later, closer to the end of the gospels, when he is famously raised from the dead. In this story we only meet the sisters.

So there' s a conflict here. Martha is huffing around in the kitchen while Mary is rapt at attention as an audience to Jesus' visit. And you can just see the gestures Martha must be making at Mary. Those gestures have ancient origins.

Finally Martha figures she' ll go to the top, as it were, for some support. "Excuse me, master, but haven' t you noticed that my sister is hanging out in here with you while I' m slaving away taking care of the house and the visitors?"

I get the feeling that Martha is not usually much of a whiner. But she knows she has an ally in Jesus – who is all about helping, all about the religious value of service to others, all about hard work on behalf of the community. Thinking like Martha, you would expect Jesus to jump to his feet, perhaps with an apology, and get Mary to help him help poor Martha -- or that he would at least turn some water into wine or multiply a few loaves of bread to feed the crowds.

But he does none of those things. What he says, lovingly but clearly, is basically, "Martha, Martha, for God' s sake, relax."

"You are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing." One thing. Peace. A meaningful spiritual life. Mindfulness. For God' s sake, relax. Come on and sit down awhile.

The lesson for us is obvious, and one we can understand on a couple of levels: first of all, we are worried and distracted by many things, and in being so we miss moments of holiness in our lives. You never know when God may drop in for coffee in the guise of a neighbor, friend or even a Jehovah' s Witness! Or when Death may come by to play a round of canasta, as he does in a Woody Allen play of the same name.

You never know what you might miss by fussing around in the basement while the grandparents are over for a holiday dinner. Is it that the garage really needs to be cleaned out, or are you avoiding "sitting at the feet" of someone that may have some wisdom to bestow to you? According to the mystical Christian tradition, everyone with whom we come into contact is Jesus. Mother Theresa spoke of this when she remarked that all of the dying people to whom she ministered were Jesus to her. According to this kind of thought, everyone we welcome into our home, everyone we meet, is our sacred teacher. Leave the broom against the door and come listen.

And there is a second, more symbolic element to this small Bible story. Mary and Martha of Bethany, seen as a composite portrait, can represent the two sides of spiritual life: the active life of service and the more passive, contemplative life of the one who sits at the teacher' s feet and receives. The trick is to balance these two aspects and not forego one out of an over-emphasis on the other. Reading, studying, listening, praying, writing – all are ways on the path to a peaceful inner life. But serving, preparing, creating, cleaning, making – especially for the comfort of others – are also essential ingredients for the authentic religious life, especially the religious life lived through the church.

Are you a Mary or a Martha? The conflict between the Marys and the Marthas (whether male or female) in church life is that they seldom appreciate one another. While every minister wishes for a congregation of faithful, balanced people equally devoted to good works and strong contemplative or personal enrichment, it is a rare group that is so perfectly balanced. Some of you are Marthas, planning events, organizing congregational life and structure, making phone calls, cooking food, attending to detail. When you get tired of that kind of selfless service, it is not uncommon for you to express it as a deep desire that more people would HELP; that more people would DO. We must make sure not to burn out our precious Marthas. We need to know who they are, express gratitude for them, and apprentice ourselves to them. Every church Martha should have a few disciples who are willing to learn those things that Martha knows. This is how tradition gets maintained.

The Marys of this congregation tend to do things like take adult learning courses. They borrow books from the library or from the minister; they seek spiritual practice that will enrich their inner lives and relationships. They attend worship services and listen carefully and perhaps write e-mails on Monday commenting on the sermon or asking for a book recommendation, or for prayers. Ministry with the Mary' s is often private and unseen. In a congregational conflict or difficult time, the Marys are the ones who have been paying attention to the mood of the church and can tell you how things feel on the spiritual level. Mary types like to talk about what' s going on in their hearts and souls and don' t much like social chit-chat. They often don' t know how hard the Marthas are working behind the scenes and hence don' t always understand why the Marthas get so upset or so tired. They tend to echo Jesus, saying things like, "Let' s remember why we' re really here. Let' s keep focused on the important things."

What' s important, and who' s to say? It depends on who you ask. Ask a Mary, and she' ll tell you to let the chicken get dry in the oven for another hour – go pour a glass of wine and enjoy your guest. That, for Mary, is the essence of hospitality. She doesn' t care whether or not the bathroom soaps are all matching, her hospitality comes from her quality of presence. It is a spiritual act, not a domestic task.

But if you ask Martha of Bethany what' s important about hospitality, she' ll tell you that it is directly related to cleanliness and comfort, food and drink. She is very much like our modern Martha of Hospitality: she who currently lives behind bars. She who exhorts you to plant bulbs, for the love of God, plant bulbs!

In the Martha Stewart (and perhaps Martha of Bethany) model of hospitality, the welcoming spirit is not nearly as important as the ongoing project of perfecting of one' s own physical dwelling. This is not only a terribly expensive proposition, it is a misunderstanding of the true spirit of hospitality, which is how we welcome the other, not how the house looks or what we serve our guests.

When I lived in Maryland, I had a neighbor named Ethelyn Davis, an retired interior designer. She drove up to Philadelphia one year, very excited to attend the flower show there. She came home very upset and told me that while she was assembling her display, none other but the actual, real live Martha Stewart stopped by to watch, and promptly climbed into her work to fix it. Without even asking permission, she tromped all over Ethelyn' s work and informed her, "You' re doing it all wrong."

Somehow I don' t think that Ethelyn, wherever she may be, is sending Martha any cookies in the slammer this year.

Martha, Martha, Martha. True hospitality, which requires grace, tact and authentic warmth of spirit, does not correct the style of others, nor does it direct overly-harsh judgment at itself. When any of us is willing to open our doors to a visitor, it is an act of hospitality. There is no need to ever apologize for evidence of real life happening within.

But beware of fussing overly much with your home and its externals, my friends. Beware of the false prophet, Martha Stewart. I suspect that all Miss Stewart' s obsessing over detail is just that, obsessing – an aspect of the "worried and distracted by many things" condition that Jesus gently chastised his Martha for being in. Perhaps it is a healthy creative instinct to create a more beautiful world, but at such extremes? Perhaps it is an expression of an unhealthy need to be in absolute control. Or an expression of a bare and threadbare inner world.

It has not escaped my notice that the Martha-Stewart-worthy living rooms in many homes are on constant red alert for visitors yet never see many. And why not? Why so many crisp, unsat-upon couches, so many unmarred table tops and flawless square yards of carpeting? Because the place is never "in shape" for that party we wanted to have, the family never quite ready to invite the new neighbors over for a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cup of tea. (Did you realize they moved in over four years ago now?)

Christine Pohl, who writes on the religious imperative of hospitality, reminds us that hospitality has never been easy. It has always carried with it the risk of welcoming the stranger, who may be more troubled or more demanding than we anticipated. Even Martin Luther said in the 16th century, that "There was not such a large number of vagabonds and scoundrels in the world as there is to today." Sure, not every guest is not going to be as interesting as Jesus of Nazareth (who actually had one of his hosts saw a hole in his roof so they could lower a paralyzed man down into the room – in an early act of handicapped accessibility!) , but we must extend hospitality to them nevertheless. Not just the impressive people we' d like to be associated with, either. I am talking about the poor in spirit and in purse, the luckless, the young, the depressed, the lonely, the angry, the emotionally needy. These are all "angels" unawares, souls clothed in skin just as we ourselves are. It is the work of the church to extend gracious hospitality not only to the newcomer, but to practice hospitality in the grocery store line, at the mall, in the workplace, in the car and everywhere we go.

In our opening hymn, we sang the advent song that reminds us, "People, look east, and sing today, Love the guest is on the way." When that guest comes to the door, in whatever shape or form, let us invite it in. Let us remember here and now that this is the highest commandment of our religion is to be welcoming and gracious, and rather not expect our guest to embody Love as much as we strive to embody Love and grace to that guest. In doing so, take heart that, in the words of Jesus, you will have chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from you.

So may it be, world without end. Amen.