A sermon given by Al Booth on July 22, 2007 based upon Luke 10:38 – 42
Early in the beginning of the 20th century two girls were born and raised in West Orange, New Jersey. One was Mary and the other was Martha. Along with their five brothers they lived a pleasant and prosperous life, until 1917 when Mary was 14 and Martha was just 7, when their mother passed away suddenly. Mary quickly became the family matriarch. She pushed herself by taking care of her five brothers, widowed father, and younger sister. As the father and brothers went off to work and careers Mary and Martha became very close.
They retained a close and loving relationship throughout their lives. Often as adults they would vacation together and visit each other for long periods of time.
Mary was attractive and athletic and full of life. Martha was plain and homespun, somewhat shy and awkward. Mary was very artistic and loved to paint and sew and do crafts. Martha learned to cook and was well know as someone who would never turn down a stranger in need of a meal. They loved to play games together and would spend endless hours playing card games and scrabble. They would take turns getting the best of each other and each one would bend the rules to suite their needs if it meant scoring a few more points.
Mary and Martha were as close as two sisters could be and were remarkably alike, but were also as different as night and day.
Each one possessed different gifts that lead them in different directions. Like all sisters they also had their fare share of fights and arguments and disagreements. One would want to go in one direction, while the other would want to do the opposite. This would often lead to confusion about love and loyalty and doing what was expected instead of what was desired. Mary and Martha were a great part of my growing up. One I called Aunt, the other I called Mom.
As a kid I remember spending many evenings listening to the two of them bickering back and forth about all the things that effect the lives of women in the 1950s and early 60s. As I read the gospel of Luke and the story of Mary and Martha I have a very vivid picture of my own mother and aunt assuming the polls of Mary sitting intently at the feet of Jesus while Martha prepared the evening meal.
I also have an ever present condition of mental frustration that I believe exists within the psyche of all of us, which I like to call the Mary and Mary syndrome.
This syndrome keeps us awake at night, aggravates others, and causes us to indulge in many bad habits, such as smoking and drinking and other excesses. You know when you are suffering from the Mary and Martha syndrome when you no longer have the ability to make simple decisions and everything becomes clouded by thoughts of “How will this effect all t hose around me and this is not what others expect of me. How can I let loose and be the person I want to be when I have all this responsibility? What will all the others think of me? We’re all caught up in this silliness. Human beings are social creatures and we all have the need to belong and be part of something. Some commonality that binds us together. Not only do we as adults have this need but we also encourage it in our children as well. We arrange play dates for pre-schoolers and sign our kids up for dance lessons and soccer clubs as soon as they can walk so they won’t be disadvantaged later on in kindergarten. All these things start out with the best of intentions, but all too often eventually become mired in the us against them mentality. We add fuel to this by encouraging competition and striving to be #1 whatever it takes.
Martha was caught up in this pattern in her need to do the right thing, and what was expected of her. She was just doing her job. She felt a strong sense of responsibility as part of the established order of the day. What would Jesus think of her Mary was doing the unthinkable. She had no business listening to the teachings of Jesus. She belonged in the kitchen with Martha. That was the protocol of the day. Women were not part of the political system. Something drew Mary to be with Jesus that day.
On of the frustrating aspects of reading the Gospels is there are not follow-ups. No one knows what happened next. Was Mary chastised for listening to the word of God? Mary at that moment was doing what God wanted her to do. For a few precious moments Mary was being the person God wanted her to be. Martha was too concerned about details to see what was going on around her and did not recognize that she was in the presence of the Lord.
How often do we recognize ourselves as being in the presence of the Lord? How often do we recognize others as being in the presence of the Lord? This is often harder to do.
Often in our Mary and Martha syndrome we can rationalize our actions as justifiable: “What’s best for everyone is best even if it means sacrificing what I know in my own heart is the right thing to do“.
Last week Pastor Jeff talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite were just doing the right thing, what was dictated by the Law, what was for the common good. The Lord would surely be with them. The Samaritan did not abide by such rules and did what was to him “the right thing to do.” Surely God would be with him.
The story of Jonah is a good example of not only not doing the right thing, but doing the exact wrong thing. Jonah ran away from God! God spared his life by sending a great fish. While in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed and promised to do God’s bidding.
He went to Ninevah, prophesized its destruction in forty days unless the Ninevites repented. Jonah hated the Ninevites. Ninevah was the Capital of Assyria, and the Assyrians were the hated enemy of the Israelites. Jonah’s heart was hardened by his prejudices and was angered by God’s willingness to have mercy on such an evil people. This is the Mary and Martha syndrome in extreme.
In today’s society Jonah would be guilty of treason for aiding and abetting the enemy. Jonah was willing to die rather than obey the Lord. Only when he realized God had spared him and given him a second chance did he reluctantly go to prophecy to the Ninevites. The Ninevites listened and repented. When the King heard the word he too repented and ordered everyone to fast and dress in sack cloth and seek the Lord’s forgiveness. When God saw this he was merciful to the Ninevites and did not destroy the city. This, too angered Jonah; he left and built a shelter overlooking the city to wait and see what would happen next. While there, the Lord provided him with a vine that grew to provide shade and comfort for him. This pleased Jonah very much. But the next morning God provided a worm to chew the vine so that it withered. God provided a scorching wind that beat down on Jonah’s head and he wanted to die. God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I am angry enough to die.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine thought you did not tend to it or make it grow. Ninevah has more than a hundred thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, should I not be concerned about that great city?” Jonah did not understand God’s desire to show mercy on all people and not just those who were like him.
If I were a gambling man I would put a lot of money on the fact that everyone in this room this morning has had the thought, “Why am I the only who is right and everyone else is wrong?” Or did you find yourself asking the question, “Why is the whole world against me?”
Back to the Mary and Martha syndrome: The external struggle of , This is what I want but everyone wants me to do something else. This can be very painful, so painful in fact that it keeps us from becoming what we want to be and what we want to do because it isn’t what everyone wants of me. This too can make us want to die.
A little quick math has made me aware of the fact that give or take a few, I am approaching my 1000th sermon. I also know that some of you make me feel like the new kid on the block. Looking back there have been times I felt as thought God was talking directly to me, and at other times I was totally detached and missed the message completely. Truthfully, I can remember very few specifically.
Coming to church on Sunday morning is like filling your gas tank before we start on our weekly journey. We seek fulfillment for our spiritually empty tank. Listening to the word of God each weeks is a vital part of this this fuel. Though it alone is not enough to get me through the week. The real additive is those who worship with me who provide the rich mixture necessary to create the spiritual fuel to get me through my weaknesses. I am humbled and highly flattered to think that in some small way my gifts may somehow help to fuel someone else’s spiritual needs, but I am greatly indebted to those who fill mine. My own Mary and Martha syndrome is calmed and soothed by the fact that I have come to a place where everyone is not like me, but is unique and different as God willed them to be.
You all know the words; don’t be afraid to say them with me: “In a hostile, hurting world we reach out to share kindness and laughter. Our spirituality is based on Jesus and his love and compassion. We provide a community of support and healing where all are welcomed and valued, regardless of raxce, age, sexual orientation, disability, gender or economic status. In a world where people feel they can love only those who are like themselves, we seek to celebrate the uniqueness of every human being.”
As I confessed before I often do not remember the specifics of every sermon I hear but I do recall the wonderful feeling of spiritual renewal that I get from the knowledge that for a few precious moments each week I can rejoice in God’s holy word as a child of God who is not bound by the wishes of others.
In my 1000 or so sermons I have come away with one lasting thought. Pastor Jeff spoke about his a little over a year ago. He pictured someone who came before God in final judgment and was asked the simple question, “Did you become the person I put you on earth to be, or did you give in to the temptation to become the person others wanted you to be?”
A little under a hundred years ago in a small town not far from here lived two sisters, Mary and Martha, who were as different as night and day.