Monday, April 4, 2011

The active contemplative: another take on Martha

Yesterday in programmed worship, the sermon was from John 12 on the anointing of Jesus’ feet. One thing I like about the sermons at our church is that they frequently combine the preparation of the preacher, the active participation of the congregation, and times of dynamic silence where we are encouraged to listen to the Spirit. All of this happened yesterday. As the preacher, Cherice did a good job of leading us through the passage and helping us connect it to our own experience.

In one exercise, we were asked to imagine ourselves into the scene and identify with one of the characters. Am I at all like Mary with her extravagant, but appropriate, worship? Am I like the self-serving Judas? Or am I more like practical but critical Martha, frowning from the kitchen?

At the suggestion of the “practical but critical Martha,” my mind did one of those something’s-wrong-with-this-picture double-takes, like with those drawings in kids’ magazines where you have to find all the things that aren’t quite right—the upside-down clock, an ear where a nose should be, etc. The frowning Martha wasn’t quite right.

This suggested image harkens back to an earlier story, of course, where Martha does indeed frown and complain about her sister’s inconsideration in not helping with meal preparation (Luke 10:30-42). Jesus’ response both challenges and comforts: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered [here I can see him lightly touching her face], “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I love it that Jesus says her name twice. In so many of his conversations with women, Jesus addresses them simply as, “Woman.” This repetition of Martha’s name is full of affection and affirmation, even as he takes her attitude to task.

The story in Luke ends with Jesus’ rebuke to Martha, but Martha’s story continues. Here we have to read between the lines (or, better stated, between the stories). My educated imagination sees Martha as teachable. I think she took to heart what Jesus told her, helped along by how he said it. I see her mulling over the “one thing needed” that her sister had got right. I see her changing, perhaps not all at once, but ever more deeply, learning to find her own way of listening to Jesus and letting her service become worship.

One clue that this might be happening comes in a story that falls between the Luke 10 and the John 12 stories. In John 11, Jesus again comes to the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. This, of course, is the story of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, but much of the detail involves Jesus’ interactions with the two sisters. It’s interesting that John states, early in the chapter, that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” specifically naming Martha.

Martha, still the more practical, cerebral sister, is the one who comes out to meet Jesus, and their conversation reveals her growing faith and understanding of who Jesus is (although a few surprises await her). I see here a different Martha, one who has changed from the woman Jesus rebuked earlier.

Mary is still the more emotional, intuitive sister, the one who leads from the heart. Her beautiful costly sacrifice as she anoints Jesus' feet (John 12) continues to inspire and encourage those of us who would also be followers and lovers of Jesus.

But I can’t see Martha in this scene as the critical, resentful woman she once was. The only thing the text says about her in this story is simply that “Martha served.” Martha is still Martha, more prone to action than reflection, called to a life of practical service. But as she watches Mary pour out the perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipe those feet with her hair—strange behavior indeed—and as the fragrance begins to fill the room, perhaps something deep within Martha whispers, “Yes.” Perhaps she slowly begins to smile. Perhaps she, too, worships. Perhaps.

Anyway, a thank you to Cherice for opening the Scriptures to us in such a way that we enter the story. Or, better yet, that the story enters us. I take as my challenge this week the joining of my active and contemplative responses as I seek to follow Jesus…

--with both heart and head…
--in silence and in service…
--extravagantly and in simplicity…

Yes, Lord.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy,

    Thanks for this post! Sorry I didn't comment on it earlier. But I really appreciate your reworking of Martha's story. I felt like I was kind of giving her the short end of the stick, or perhaps seeing her as a flat character instead of allowing her to come to life in my sermon, so I appreciate you letting God 3-dimensionify her. =)

    I feel like it's so hard to balance those things you list at the end, head/heart, silence/service, extravagance/simplicity. And yet the people who manage to do this (with God's help!) are the ones we remember: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., St Francis and St Clare, so many monks and nuns throughout history, and Quakers, too! I love this about Friends, but I find it hard to not get stuck in the contemplation part spiritually speaking, and in the practical part in everyday life. So hopefully like Martha in your version of her story, I can learn to integrate these more fully and to truly worship in the ways I'm called.