The following is a paraphrased summary of a presentation given by the Reverend Amy Dafler Meaux as part of a series of Advent Luncheon Speaking Events held at First Christian Church in Danville, Kentucky on December 10, 2018. Amy currently serves as the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Danville. All errors and misrepresentations of the presenter’s words are my own (Benjamin Knoll).
We hear their names and we think we know their story: Martha does all the work and Mary does all the praying.
We place ourselves in categories and boxes of where we belong in God’s kingdom. With maybe a tinge of self-righteousness we might say: “My busyness is also prayer” or “Prayer is more important than busyness.” Our shame, the sense that we have that we’re not good enough, tells us that we must prove our worthiness and righteousness based on these Biblical figures. I’m here to tell you that shame can be a liar. We are all of us worthy of love and belonging, even on our worst days.
Mary and Martha are two prophets that remind us who and whose we are. So let’s consider them as if we’ve never heard about them, though I must confess a few assumptions:
First, the purpose of Advent is the prepare for the Mystery of Christmas. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had nine months to get ready. We have four weeks. She was waiting for a baby. We live in a liminal time, between the baby (our history) and His coming again (our future). The nature of Advent is shaped by this liminal experience. We celebrate Christ’s birth while waiting for His birth. Incarnation, “God with us,” happened then, but we anticipate his coming among us again in the future.
My second assumption: the purpose of Advent devotions is to search or how to live as we wait. This is true of every daily devotion. Every day we might wonder “Will I meet Jesus today?” Every day we might live as if his arrival is imminent. Scriptures are a guide for where and how to look. This includes the prophets. We usually think of prophets like those in the Hebrew scriptures: Amos, Isaiah, Elijah, or even John the Baptist, the prophet of the New Testament. Are these stories an opening, a way for prophets to be with us every day?
My third assumption: a prophet is someone who points the way to God, who helps us remember who and whose we are. A prophet’s job is to cry out to the people: “you belong to God!” That belonging includes a way to live, a way of God. Prophets tell the story of the covenant between God and creation, remind us of God’s love and grace and of God’s justice and mercy. They teach us to love God and our neighbor.
Now, none of these prophets as listed and named in the scriptures are women. How can this be!? We know that Miriam led the children in the wilderness alongside Moses. There was at least one female Judge, Deborah. I imagine there were many women leading Israel throughout its whole history. Are prophet’s a small group of people, enigmas, populated only by men? More likely, they’re hidden in the story. They’re the ones having babies, cleaning, cooking, praying, all the while reminding people to remember who and whose they are. …
So how are Mary and Martha prophets? How do they call us to love God and our neighbor?
I’ll read you the story from Luke 10:
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
There is no doubt that this story praises Mary, who chose the better part to sit at Jesus’s feet and to listen to him.
Those who identify with Martha… just sigh very deeply. “Lord, do you not care that my kids have left me to do all the work by myself!?” (Maybe that’s me just projecting onto Martha…)
Now take a minute and try to clear your mind of yourself. … The power of this story is the invitation to imagine all the possibilities of what these two sisters were thinking, which opens avenues into our own hearts and minds, creating a space to receive Christ’s teachings into ourselves.
How does Jesus meet us right here, right now, and invite us to be transformed? Here is the uncomfortable truth: sitting at Jesus’s feet and listening, that is the better part. And every time Jesus will meet us there and remind us who and whose we are. We cannot deny that. That is where Jesus wants us to be: sitting in the presence of his Incarnate Word, to help us remember to love God and our neighbor.
This is not the first time Jesus teaches us not to worry about what we’ll wear or what we’ll eat, that he reminds us that he’s all we need for today. Yes, there are dishes to wash, floors to swept, more meals that need to be planned. And none of these chores will save us. It’s God’s grace, love, and mercy revealed in Christ that will save us from ourselves. It might… even save us from our chores!
But wait! There’s more! I had it in my head (as a good Episcopalian) that this is in the gospel of John. But no, this is in the gospel of Luke! So let’s look now in John chapter 11:
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 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. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Now, I believe with my heart that this is the same Martha from Luke’s gospel. And I believe that something in her has been transformed by Christ. Martha, once overwhelmed with distractions and worry, puts her whole faith in the work of Christ as she faces the death of her brother. She now believes that Christ has all they need for today. I hear no fear in her voice, only “yes lord, I believe you, I trust you.”
But wait, there’s more! You see, Martha then goes back and finds Mary: “The Teacher is here and is calling for you!” Mary goes quickly to greet him. People follow her. She says the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus sees their grief and he weeps as well.
Now, this is interesting to me. Mary, the same sister who sat at Jesus’s feet in Luke, goes quickly to Jesus’s side. There’s no long theological discussion of resurrection or bold declaration of belief. Instead, I have the sense that Mary is still at the feet of Jesus, listening, watching, and learning.
And yet, John is clear that she’s a leader. He says at the end, after Lazarus is raised, John tells us that many “who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
Notice: the people follow Mary to Christ. And because she is listening, watching, and learning, they also come to believe. You see, for me, these sisters are absolutely prophets. Here’s Mary listening to God and bringing others. A prophet that teaches us to love God.
And here is Martha, yearning to sit at the feet of Christ, being transformed by Christ and learning how to put her whole trust in him. She’s a prophet who teaches us to remember whose we are. Together, they teach us to love our neighbor. It’s Mary and Martha who host the Passover meal in John’s gospel. Martha served and Mary anoints the feet of Christ. Both sisters, prophets in their service. I can hear Martha say: “Because I love God and put my trust in Christ, I’m here to serve my neighbor.” I can hear Mary: “Because I love God and put my trust in Christ, I’m here to serve Christ in those I meet.”
Later in chapter 13, after Mary anoints his feet, Jesus will wash the feet of the disciples. If prophets teach us who and whose we are and to love God and our neighbors, Mary and Martha stand at the forefront, both transformed by the love of Christ and serving in his name.
As we anticipate the coming of Christ this Advent, I wonder: how will we remember who and whose we are? How will we set aside the worries and distractions of this life and put our whole trust in his grace and mercy? How will we serve Christ and each other, loving God and loving our neighbor?
May we follow the prophets Mary and Martha of Bethany, to sit at the feet of Jesus and serve each other with our best gifts. Help us remember who we are, beloved children of God, and serve our neighbors in God’s name. Amen.