Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Martha Faith in a Mary Church

Today is the Feast of St. Martha. Some people snub her as a busy body...too busy to sit at Jesus' feet and listen to him. I think that's an unfair take on her dedicated service.

Something that's missing from so many "MARY vs. MARTHA" sermons is a respect for how Martha's dedicated service led to faith. The focus on the Lucan account would have us believe that Martha is unwilling to learn from Jesus - as Mary sits at his feet. The homiletic curve normally goes something along these lines:
a) Martha was so busy she forgot to spend time with the Lord.
b) Mary chose the better part by sitting down and spending time with Jesus in private devotion.
c) You should be less like Mary and more like Martha.

As far as it goes, it's not bad. We live in a world that pushes busyness on us as a virtue. (Multi-tasking, anyone?) But there's something uncomfortably privatized for me in that piety. And we see it played out in the next canonical encounter with Mary and Martha. Look at John 11:
11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
Notice that v. 5 explicitly puts Martha front in center in Jesus' affection. Is that just because she always fed him and his companions well? (The stomach being the surest route to a man's heart?)

No! It's because - like our Lord who put flesh on the Word - she was incarnating her belief. The next verses illustrate my point:
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.
Notice how firm Martha's belief is in her Lord! If she hadn't spent all that time sitting and listening, but had instead been busy working and cooking, etc. then how had she reached such doctrinal heights? After all, Peter's confession of the same was met by Jesus with an acclamation of divine revelation! So how is it that Martha knew?

Because of this great truth: We know Jesus to the extent that we follow him, and not one whit more!

Mary knew Jesus from learning at his feet. But had she walked the way of self-giving service that Martha had? Or had she thought that following Jesus was just about listening to the right lectures, contemplating his words, and discussing his teaching? Maybe...maybe not. But one thing is clear. When the rubber of one's faith hits the road of life's suffering, Martha's spirituality held up considerably better than Mary's.
28 When [Martha] had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when [Mary] heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Martha's servant faith - an active walking after the pattern of her Lord's self-giving - was able to hold her up during the storm of suffering and grief. Her enacted faith was able to break forth in doxological, propositional truth when the push came to shove! There is something that we learn on a level deeper than logic - a reason which Reason cannot know - that is put into our heart of hearts when we walk the Christian road, instead of simply witness it.

When will the church realize that creedal assent without Christlike action is just as dead as Christlike action without creedal assent?

I invite you to throw all docetic, gnostic, intellectualized religion aside and to get into the trenches where Jesus walks today. Serve your neighbor as you would serve to honor Christ. Pray morning and evening, offering your day up to God and thanking him for the opportunity to glorify his Son in your daily service. Embody hospitality to others in the name of him who went to make a home for us with the Father. (Some practical suggestions are here, here, and here.)

And when the storms of life come, you'll find that Jesus - in the fullness of his resurrection power - has been walking beside you, teaching your heart in the stillness, and is closer to you than you could have possibly imagined.

Collect: Father, your Son honored St. Martha by coming to her home as a guest. Grant that we also may serve Christ in our brothers and sisters and be welcomed by you into heaven, our true home. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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