First United Methodist Church, Shelbyville, Tennessee
July 21, 2019
Luke 10:38–42 (CEB)
While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”
The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
In 2016, the widely-anticipated movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” put DC Comics’ best-known heroes into a big-budget, live-action movie together for the first time. The movie opened to huge box office, just from curiosity if nothing else, but many people considered to be a disappointment.
One of the big complaints about it had to do with the plot point that brings Batman and Superman together. As the title implies, most of the movie has them at odds with each other. In this story, the two heroes know each other only by reputation, and they’re suspicious of each other. Superman considers Batman a ruthless vigilante, and Batman considers Superman a dangerously-powerful alien whose true motives are suspect and who might turn out to want to rule the Earth.
Lex Luthor, eager to get both of them out of the way, fuels the fire and tries to get them to kill each other. Bruce Wayne, even though he has no superpowers, uses his wealth and technology — plus some Kryptonite — to try to fight Superman.
Eventually, of course, Batman and Superman reconcile and unite, along with Wonder Woman, to fight a common foe. But what a lot of people, even those who liked the movie, thought was a little silly was the thing that brings Batman and Superman together. They discover that both of their mothers — one living, one dead — are named “Martha.”
In the script, that’s a point of connection between the two of them that allows them to see each other as people. Clark is worried about Martha Kent, who has been kidnapped by Lex Luthor. Believing that he’s about to lose the big fight, he tells Batman to at least “save Martha.” Bruce, who has no idea what Superman is talking about, flashes back to his own memories of his mother, Martha Wayne. Just then, Lois Lane shows up and explains to Bruce that Superman’s mother is also named Martha. That causes Bruce to abandon his attempt to kill Superman.
Some fans and critics thought it was a little cheesy. Here they are, in a battle to the death, and all of a sudden they become friends, or at least allies, just because they have mothers with the same first name?
“Martha” is, you have to admit, a good, motherly name. Superman was created in 1938, but his parents weren’t identified by name in the comics until the following year, 1939. Interestingly enough, in those comics from 1939, his mother is named “Mary Kent.” It wasn’t until 1951 that the name got changed to “Martha Kent.”
Martha Wayne was named “Martha” ever since the very beginnings of Batman in 1939.
In today’s Bible passage, the original Martha — the one for whom, ultimately, Martha Wayne and Martha Kent were named — is acting in a way that sounds a lot like a stereotypical mother.
We know, from other Gospel accounts, that Mary and Martha lived with their brother Lazarus in the town of Bethany. The name of the town isn’t mentioned in this account, nor is Lazarus. This story is just about Mary and Martha. Jesus has come to their house, perhaps accompanied by the 12 disciples, and maybe others as well.
Maybe it was crowded. And Martha was concerned with hospitality — feeding everyone, getting dinner on the table, what have you. As challenging as cooking can be today, it was even more challenging in first-century Judaea, in the days before electric appliances or processed ingredients. Martha was working very hard, and Mary was just sitting there, listening to Jesus.
And Martha has kind of a passive-aggressive response to this. Rather than talk to Mary directly, she tells Jesus to tell Mary to get up off her lazy butt and help fix dinner.
But Jesus tells Martha that what Mary is doing is important. He says “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to provide hospitality. Each week, in this very building, volunteers work very hard to provide a hot meal to people who need one. That’s a blessed and honorable task, including not only cooking the food, but serving it and cleaning up and what have you.
A big meal, lovingly prepared for friends and family on some special occasion, can be a sign of how much those people mean to the cook. It can bring people together in a special way. A clean house can be welcoming and friendly.
Martha wanted to make sure of all of these things. We don’t have any indication that Martha was a mother, but she sure acts like many mothers we know.
There was a time when John Wesley stood up for all the Marthas of the world. In the early years of his spiritual journey, John Wesley was mentored by some members of a German movement known as the Moravians. Wesley looked up to the Moravians, and learned a lot from their passion for sharing the Gospel.
But later, just as Wesley was coming into his own as the leader of a great revival movement, the Fetter Lane Society — a group in London that Wesley thought of in some ways as his spiritual home — fell under the leadership of a Moravian named Philip Henry Molther. Molther told the people at Fetter Lane that they did not have true religion — and that the way to find true religion was to stop all religious activity, such as taking communion, and be still before the Lord until they had been assured of their salvation.
John Wesley was horrified by this idea. The whole spiritual practice which he and his brother Charles had been trying to promote stressed the importance of means of grace, of charity, and of actively working to bring about God’s kingdom. Wesley wanted people to take communion as often as possible, to fast, to set aside special times for prayer and Bible study. He wanted them to be involved in acts of mercy such as visiting the sick or the poor or those in jail. John Wesley thought that all of those things were incredibly important, and here was this Molther fellow telling people to stop all of that and just sit around waiting on God.
Molther’s teaching was based on verses like Psalm 46:10, which is often translated as “Be still, and know that I am God.” But Wesley’s counter-argument was that you could wait on God without abandoning good works. You could wait on God and trust in the means of grace as a part of God’s ultimate assurance.
Wesley might have been right there with Martha, trying to stay busy.
But in this case, Martha was getting things out of order. Maybe she wasn’t just concerned with getting food on the table. Maybe she was trying to impress the visiting teacher with a big spread. Maybe she was looking for attention. I’m bad about that. You know, you do something good, something that you ought to do just because it’s the right thing to do, but then you want someone to notice the fact that you did it. You want someone to pat you on the back and tell you what a good job you did.
Martha was working very hard, but maybe she was working for the wrong reasons. Maybe she was trying to impress.
Maybe she was staying busy for the sake of staying busy. Do you know people like that? They’re always moving, and even if they complain about how busy they are they’re always saying “yes” to something else. It’s almost like they need the distraction.
Maybe Martha was a little jealous that her sister was getting to spend time with Jesus while she was busy preparing the food.
Jesus tells Martha that she’s “worried and distracted by many things.” Yes, people have to eat, in this case, Martha may be a little too worked up about the task. Mary, on the other hand, has chosen to spend time with Jesus — and Jesus isn’t about to chase her off. On the contrary, Jesus would no doubt welcome Martha to sit down right beside them. Dinner can wait, and it doesn’t always have to be fancy.
I don’t know how many of you remember the late Grady Nutt. He was a Baptist preacher who recorded comedy albums and was a cast member for a few years on “Hee Haw.” He made a pilot episode for a situation comedy about a southern preacher, and while the series never got picked up the pilot episode ran as a one-off special on NBC. Grady Nutt died, tragically, in a plane crash in Alabama in 1982. He was only 48.
My all-time favorite Grady Nutt story is a sort of Mary-and-Martha story called “The Tea Totalers.” I can’t possibly do it justice, and Grady’s albums are, sadly, out of print, but I urge you to try to track it down somehow. I can give you an outline of it.
It takes place in a small town on the week of revival services. On Sunday, the first day of the revival, the host pastor invites the visiting evangelist over to his home for Sunday dinner. The pastor’s wife has worked and worked to make everything perfect, and her best china and crystal and tablecloth are all on the table, along with a great southern feast.
But the pastor and his wife have young children, and right after the blessing is said, the youngest child reaches for something, and in the process, knocks over a glass of ice tea. Grady Nutt had the funniest way of describing the brown tea and the ice cubes just oozing over the beautiful white tablecloth.
The pastor’s wife, who worked so, so hard to set a beautiful table, is trembling, a volcano about to erupt, and no one says a word. But the pastor stares at his wife until he has her full attention. Once their eyes are locked, he reaches out to the table, and very deliberately knocks over his own glass of tea. No one is quite sure what to make of this, but eventually, the other children start knocking over their glasses of tea, and the somewhat-confused evangelist and his wife, not wanting to upset things, knock over their glasses of tea.
Finally, the pastor’s wife laughs and knocks over her own glass of tea.
There was nothing wrong with the pastor’s wife wanting to put out her best china and her best tablecloth. But people are more important than table settings. An innocent mistake by a child almost resulted in the pastor’s wife erupting in a very wrong kind of anger — and it wouldn’t have been about disciplining the child, it would have been about the mother and her desire to impress the visiting evangelist. But the father, in this case, helped remind everyone what was really important. Spilled iced tea can be mopped up. Tablecloths can be cleaned. Pizza Hut is only a telephone call away. Who knows? The visiting evangelist might have liked Pizza Hut better to begin with.
Mary wanted to hear from Jesus. Mary wanted to learn from Jesus. Mary wanted to be with Jesus. And Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the greater part.”
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the mechanics of church life that we forget what the point of it is. The point of being a Christian is to be with Jesus. Yes, the dishes have to be washed and the books have to be balanced and the bulletins have to be folded. We need Marthas in our lives, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the storytellers for two different comic book heroes coincidentally named their mothers the same thing.
But the point of Christianity is our relationship to God. And if we’re letting these other things distract us from the most important thing, we’re doing life wrong.
We also need to take another message from this story. None of us is always like Mary or always like Martha. There are times when we can go either way.
But sometimes, we’re like Martha in that we judge other people. Remember, Jesus’ response to Martha, at least the part that’s recorded in the Gospels, wasn’t to tell Martha to sit down. That was Martha’s choice to make. Jesus tells Martha that she’s distracted and worried by too many things, but another big part of his response was to defend Mary from Martha’s criticism.
“Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus said. “It won’t be taken away from her.”
We have to be patient with people who are more or less task-oriented than ourselves. And that can be pretty challenging sometimes.
There are times, though, that you do need to tell the Marthas of the world to sit down at the feet of Jesus.
In 1995, I had the honor of editing a storybook to celebrate Mountain T.O.P.’s 20th anniversary. My favorite story from that storybook was written by a dear woman named Frances Dellinger, who ran the home repair program in Mountain T.O.P.’s adult ministry for several years.
Nowadays, when adults participate in home repair, there’s a team selection process that ensures that every team has a mix of men and women, highly-skilled and unskilled volunteers. We don’t want any team to be all rookies, or all professional contractors. We want each team to have a variety of skill levels and perspectives.
But in the summer of 1992, the year before I first got involved in Mountain T.O.P., there was a team that, for whatever reason, did not work out this way. This team was all men, and it was all highly-skilled men. They went out, and they finished a project that was supposed to take all week in two days. Frances had to scramble to give this team something else to do. She sent them to an elderly man named John Henry Scholar, whom she’d met in her travels around Grundy County. He had not actually been signed up to get help from Mountain T.O.P., but Frances told the work team to go to his house and build him a porch.
Frances came out to check on them that next day, in the middle of the morning, and they were already making substantial progress on the porch. John Henry Scholar was standing quietly over to the side, watching them. Only, he didn’t look excited about his new porch. He looked, well, sort of lonely.
Frances pulled the men aside and had a little come-to-Jesus meeting. Knowing Frances, I can picture this meeting in my head, and when I do, I get a big smile on my face. Frances told the work team, in no uncertain terms, that they were at Mountain T.O.P. to be missionaries, not general contractors. She told them that they were to slow down on the porch and spend a little time with John Henry Scholar.
That completely transformed these men’s experience.
“They started listening to stories and telling stories,” wrote Frances. “They fell in love with John Henry just as I had.”
That night, back in camp, the men could do nothing but talk about John Henry. The next day, some of the other volunteers in camp made a special trip to the John Henry Scholar site just to meet him. On Friday night, the men of the work team had communion with John Henry, sitting on his new porch, using John Henry’s own homemade wine.
All of this took place in the summer.
“In December of that year,” wrote Frances, “John Henry’s house caught on fire and he couldn’t get out. He died on his porch.”
Tasks are important. Tasks need to get done. Tasks can be part of the way we care for one another. We honor the Marthas in our lives who have taken such good care of us over the years. But I guarantee you that, in the final evaluation, you will feel more remorse about the time you didn’t spend with people, and about the time you didn’t spend with Jesus, than you will about an unmade bed or a sink full of dishes.
Mary has chosen the better way, and it won’t be taken from her. Be like Mary.