Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Sermon
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:38-42

When my daughter was about to be born we cast about for a name.

There were family names and names from literature. Seems to me we even bought a book of “baby names”.

You join up a potential Christian name with a last name to see what sounds right and one of the names which sounded right with the surname Warren was the name Martha.

At supper with my parents one evening I floated the name Martha Warren.

What did they think?

My father objected. It was a name, he thought, which brought with it the association that she would perpetually be doing the dishes, or hoovering or cleaning up while others read or wrote or studied. He hoped his grand-daughter wouldn’t be someone like that. And the negative associations with the name Martha come from this story – of two sisters named Mary and Martha – one who sat with the male disciples at the feet of Jesus and who listened and learned – the other who kept to her kitchen and cooked and cleaned – until finally one evening she took off her apron and threw it to the floor and came storming into the front room where she said:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!”
I know someone who is proud of the fact that she is a Martha. She refers to herself as a Martha. She mentions occasions where she and the other Marthas at her church get together to do what needs to be done. There are jobs around her church which need doing and she is a person of practical bent who can look at a task and imagine a strategy for doing it. When projects are proposed somebody inevitably asks “so how are we going to get this done” and people turn to her to ask her opinion because she’s the sort of person who will know not only how to initiate a task but how to bring it to fruition. What she starts she finishes. She’s that sort of person.

Now, she believes herself to be a facilitator of any number of other ministries in her congregation, a sort of pivot in her church, if you like, around which the various other ministries and activities turn. If she wasn’t at her post then they would not be able to do what they feel called to do.

And of course – she’s not a Martha, then, is she?

Being a Martha in the context of this morning’s reading has nothing to do with being practical or even task-oriented. Martha is not presented here as a practical facilitator of other people’s ministries and activities. What earns her the mild reproach from Jesus is the fact of her jealousy towards her sister – her desire to tear her sister Mary away from what Mary feels called to do – her need to make other people in her own image, her insecurity, her anger and her need to control. Far from being the sort of person who will help someone else achieve and realize her vocation her chief desire seems to be to drag her sister back. And Jesus will have none of it.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
We may imagine, of course, a background to this story which the Gospel writers have no desire to tell us about in any detail but which we have seen acted-out in relationships between people we’ve known – relationships which develop and solidify over time: that of siblings or friends, men and women associated with each other over many years and decades, who grow so close that change or transformation becomes difficult or impossible.

What happens when, in an established marriage or relationship, one of the partners develops an interest? What happens to best friends when one of them falls in love? What happens when a hard drinking or addicted spouse decides the take the cure – gets stronger – no longer needs to be bailed out or gotten out of trouble or constantly supported? What happens when one member of any “deadly duo” decides all of a sudden to undertake some higher education or decides that he wants to go back to Church?

Brothers and sisters, husbands, wives and partners, best friends: we begin to depend, sometimes quite unhealthily, on things not changing and on people remaining for us the people they’ve always been. When they change we don’t understand. We feel abandoned – we invoke the times we were ‘there’ for them – with constancy and evenness. And this is how they repay us? Abandoning us? Moving on?

This story does not end in tragedy. Martha and Mary, along with their brother Lazarus, remain associated with Jesus throughout his ministry. Within the larger circle of the followers of Jesus they will remain key players and their home in Bethany will be a base for ministry. Martha, however, does not get her wish in this particular case and the relationship which develops from this point on will forever contain the fact of Mary’s liberty to be a disciple.

There is a word here for close friends and for those partnered and covenanted in love together – that love must contain liberty and that much of what is called love, if it is not jostled and renewed, can imprison the very people we claim to love. In such a situation we may misunderstand the other person’s claim of liberty as a challenge to us, as loss and lovelessness.

Some of God’s people are, at their very core, practical and earthy people – able to discern the physical need of the moment and make use of what is at hand to make that the possible real – earthy and “hands on” sorts of people. Our food nourishes others, our talent with physical resources provides for the needs of others – clothes them, provisions them and sets them about their tasks.

The name they give us when we’re born, however, doesn’t matter overmuch. We grow and develop as we do – because of what is in us and in response to the world we mingle with. There are always surprises, always a wrench or two thrown into our well-practised habits and solid relationships.

We have a point of faith beyond ourselves – beyond even our well practised and dependable alliances.

In the long term, love will endure change.