“We Meet in the Middle” (Romans 12:3-8 and Luke 10:38-42) Sun. July 21, 2019
This Bible passage is such a familiar slice of life. Probably we’ve all been there, in Mary’s shoes one time, in Martha’s shoes another – and in Jesus’ shoes too, don’t forget, if you’ve ever been triangled in someone else’s argument. I think that’s why we love the Gospels so much, for they tell us about God in such tangible, down-to-earth ways, and we recognize both the joys & the struggles we experience in life together. Thank goodness God chose to come live with us in Christ, so we might begin to see what love really is, what it can do, for everyone – ourselves included – helping us choose the better part of faith & hope & trust in our relationships, with God and with others, as Jesus fleshed out for us the connections and the expressions of love we all share.
Yes, I was the youngest of 4 girls, so in an easy read of this text today, I can surely see the sibling rivalry, the competition, the dominance, and the birth order probabilities of these 2 sisters, can’t you? We get expanded views of Mary & Martha in 2 additional stories – the death of their brother Lazarus told in John 11, and the anointing of Jesus before he journeys to death in Jerusalem. And the truths we learn are for all the children of God, not just for women, for didn’t Cain & Abel, Jacob & Esau, and Joseph & his brothers have their family issues too?
We don’t really know, but it just seems that Martha is the older one, the married one, the one in charge – with a certain reputation for service & hospitality to maintain. Some scholars have named her the wife of Simon the leper, as the Gospel of John names Mary the one who poured expensive nard on Jesus’ feet during a dinner in Bethany, and the Gospels of Matthew & Mark place that dinner in Simon’s home. If that’s true, then we can add to Martha’s list of responsibilities the very physical care of her ailing husband, the ostracism & contagion of leprosy in her house, and most likely the oversight of the entire household and perhaps the family business – to get a clearer picture of the daily stress she endured, even before she may have been widowed by the deadly disease. I wonder if she was born such a tight Type A personality as Scripture portrays, or had the ravages of time & turmoil taken their toll on her instead, forcing her into a life of constant fatigue & anxiety? We can only imagine.
Mary, on the other hand, seems to be more relaxed & relational, the contemplative one, the gentle spirit who has more freedom to live in the moment, rather than burden herself with what others may think or expect of her. There is no mention of family, other than her brother & sister, and often that can be used to demean or limit a woman’s contribution to society. But Mary steps into the role of disciple, as assured as any man, by seizing the opportunity to listen & learn at the feet of Jesus, the One she loves, the One who feeds her soul – rather than keep to the kitchen. And she seems socially well-connected too, as Scripture cites the mourners of her brother Lazarus seeking her out first, not Martha, when they arrive in Bethany, and even Martha telling her sister that Jesus had come to see her. So there must have been a strength of spirit in Mary, an emotional connection that drew people to her, of which perhaps Martha was envious, something tender & genuine & near to the heart of God that even brought Jesus to tears. For we don’t hear as much of what she said or accomplished with her life, but we do feel we know her, by what she chose to do – those intimate responses of listening to others, of sharing in grief, and of lavishly blessing one who was to give his life for his friends.
Surely Jesus’ word to Martha that busy & bustling afternoon when she too was trying to feed the 5000 was not so much a correction of her as it was a protection of Mary – from her sister’s stinging criticism. For both were God’s good creation; both were valued for the talents they shared so generously with others; and both reflected the image of God’s love in the ways they were born to – Martha, the practical theologian who fed every stray cat who crossed her path and proclaimed as boldly as Peter did that Jesus was the Messiah, her Lord & Savior, and on her rock too, Jesus would build his church – and then Mary, the spiritual healer who tended to the inner life of her companions along life’s journey and absorbed with greatest depth who Jesus was and how he had come to save us with the power of love, which she shared so readily with such patience and grace and mindfulness, even to her grumpy sister. For both were evangelists, messengers of the good news. Both were needed to proclaim the fullness of life which God gives to each & all of us.
Too often though, we limit our vision; we wear those blinders we see on horses to keep them on the straight & narrow, forgetting how wide & broad is God’s vision for the world. We think our way of doing things is surely the best & surely the only way of doing things right, just because it suits us, just because it’s familiar & comfortable, orderly & efficient. We forget that the Spirit of Christ lives within each of us, fleshed out in the endless variety God has created, to provide gifts for different times & situations in our lives. All are needed. None is superior. And this incredibly frees us all, from the seesaw of power struggles. Instead we are drawn into the blessed circle of giving & receiving that lowers the high-minded and raises up the poor in spirit, until we meet in the middle, surrounded by God’s love. We become the Apostle Paul’s body of Christ, with no one part of the body more valuable than another, none high or low, but instead meeting in the middle, where the heart is, all made one by the sharing of God’s love.
Truly this too was Luke’s intended message, as in his Gospel he was a champion of bringing down walls of division and exclusion – between men & women, Jew & Gentile, young & old, sisters & brothers, insiders & outsiders – and is thought to have been a companion of Paul on his journeys, influenced by his mission of reconciliation and unity. So it comes as no surprise that in Luke, chapter 10, this story of Mary & Martha seems part of the answer Jesus gives the one who asks – what must I do to receive eternal life? Jesus guides us to these truths: 1) Loving the Lord your God with all your heart & soul & strength & mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself, as the Scriptures have ever taught us. 2) Fleshing out that love with both the good deeds & the compassion of the Good Samaritan who was faithful in every detail even to one who would have called him unclean. 3) And last but not least, again fleshing out the love of God & neighbor & self, by being attentive to the gifts of Spirit that God has placed in our hearts & welcoming those gifts (however different) that others bring to the table of grace: for Martha, the gift of outward service, and for Mary, the gift of inward nurture. Both embrace the eternal quality of life we are given. Both surround us with the love Christ showed us best.
So let us rejoice, as God continues to provide all that we need. Let us rejoice, as we listen & learn from one another, like Mary, and as we find in each other new partnership for our varied ministries, like Martha. Let us rejoice & be glad, that as we share the same love of Christ and as we seek to understand & celebrate the goodness God creates in each of us, then together we will be ushering in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Make it so, dear Lord. Make us one in you. Amen. Beecher Mathes