The Gifts of Martha and Mary

Today we’re embarking on a unique phase of our worship life together. Today we begin our transition work in earnest.

I have four Sundays left in this pulpit, and my preaching task is as follows: to say goodbye, to tell you how much I love you and thank you for our time together, and to equip you for your transition time in any way I can.

We’re going to tackle those in reverse order over the next few weeks, using our lectionary scriptures to guide us in those tasks.

So let’s talk about Mary and Martha and what we can learn from them, not just for our everyday lives, but specifically for this unique season of transition St. Thomas and St. Luke’s are entering right now.

To do that, let’s start by talking about what clergy transition is like for a parish.

Transition is all kinds of things.

It’s exciting as the priest and parish look forward to the novelty of change.

It’s anxiety-producing as we face an unknown future and wonder how to tackle life without each other’s steady presence and familiar patterns.

It’s awkward as we try to decide what to say to each other—how much truth-telling is helpful and how much is just self-indulgent and divisive?

It’s full of grief as we say goodbye.

It’s simply full of emotion as we rehearse old grievances and old joys.

We give thanks for everything we’ve accomplished together and the ways in which we were so well-matched, and we mourn the goals we didn’t achieve and the ways we couldn’t fulfill each other.

It’s a holy mess, to my way of thinking, a sacred disaster, an exhausting miracle and a blessed train wreck.

It can bring out the worst in us if we’re not careful, but it will bring out the best in us if we allow it.

We can approach Mary and Martha from exactly this perspective. What do we see in them that will not be helpful for our transition, and what do we see in them that we know will equip us to be centered on Jesus in this challenging time?

Let’s start with what we’re hoping to avoid. Mary is a self-centered slacker, and Martha is an envious and critical busybody.


How might we be tempted to act in those negative ways in transition?

Well, Mary is praised by Jesus for her focus on him, but along with that truth is the reality that she was not helping Martha.

There is a time and a place for individual, silent devotion, prayer, and time alone with Jesus, in fact it’s critical to transition.

But there’s also a whole lot of plain, practical hard work.

When the priest leaves, someone has to take up the slack of what she’s been doing.

And even before I leave, we have a lot of boxes to check and tasks to get done, boring busywork that keeps the church afloat, and it will not disappear just because we’re awash in the emotional angst of transition.

So the temptation to slack off, to comfortably believe someone else will take care of it all, is one we must resist.

And we must especially resist covering over our laziness with a pious spiritual justification, that we’re following Mary’s example and Martha can go hang.

Martha, God bless her, for all her industriousness, is missing the incredible treasure of Jesus sitting less than ten feet from her and teaching his wisdom and his grace.

Martha’s problem is not her work, it’s her attitude toward her work, or rather, her attitude toward her sister.

Think about the kind of house Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived in. It would have been small and simple, with the largest part of the main room for sitting and talking and eating.

Toward the back of the main room would have been the area for preparing food, and perhaps separated by a curtain would be another space for sleeping.

At that moment that Jesus spoke to her, Martha had a choice. She could flounce back to the kitchen part of the room and slam dishes around in a huff, thinking her self-righteous angry thoughts so loudly that she never heard what Jesus was saying.

Or she could go back to rinsing cups and bowls and wiping down counters with her ears and her mind and her heart on Jesus, sitting just a few feet away and pouring out his love on both her and her sister.

How can you see Martha’s more negative tendencies playing out in transition? I don’t think it’s hard to imagine.

Anxiety rises in transition, and before we turn around twice, we’re accusing each other of slacking off, of not pulling our weight, of being superior and holier-than-thou.

We’re gossiping and spreading rumors, rather than talking openly about our concerns with the people we’re unhappy with.

We’re badmouthing the diocese or the other church or the wardens or Vestry/Bishop’s Committee members or priests past, present or future.

Any time we feel our own self-righteousness and righteous indignation rising up, we can be sure we’ve fallen into Martha’s trap.

We’re slamming around dishes in the corner, angry at someone else’s perceived failings, congratulating ourselves on our own devoted work, and all the while missing Jesus sitting ten feet away.

But what can we learn from Martha and Mary that is positive?

What qualities of theirs that Jesus cherished in them can we take for ourselves to see us through our transition?

Martha, of course, gives us the gift of her industriousness and her servant’s heart.

Martha sees what needs to be done and does it.

Martha cooks food and cleans the house and does dishes, the practical, loving work of servanthood that makes Mary and Jesus’ conversation possible.

This is such worthy work, and more important than ever in transition.

As our time together comes to an end, and you enter your time with either an interim priest or supply clergy, parts of the normal ministry life of St. Thomas and St. Luke’s will start to unravel.

Things that the priest always took care of will suddenly go undone unless someone else jumps in to help.

That may happen even before I leave as my focus switches to spending time helping you prepare for transition, responding to the many requests for meetings to talk and say goodbye, doing more pastoral care than ever as anxiety levels peak, working my way through the many weddings, funerals, and baptisms that have come up, and preparing to leave the church in the best shape I can with everything ready for the new person to come on board and pick up where I left off.

Our common task in the midst of all this change is to take on Martha’s can-do attitude.

When any of us sees work that needs to be done, can we jump in and do it unselfishly, for the sake of love?

Can we serve and give of ourselves generously, doing humble and inglorious grunt work, because we love our church?

I think we can. I think there is a great deal of Martha’s spirit in this church, and so together, we will call on it now.

And we can respond to Jesus’ call to Martha.

Jesus never told Martha to stop working.

He simply reminded her where her focus needed to be while she worked: on him.

“Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are anxious and worried about many things, but there is need of only one thing.”

As those threads of ministry business as usual start to unravel, we can become anxious and let our anxiety drive us to Martha’s complaining and blaming of others, or we can heed Jesus’ words.

We can take on practical, necessary work in the church and do it with our minds and our hearts on Jesus.

That is the best of the spirit of Martha, and that will see us through our transition with strength and compassion.

And then we come to Mary, faithful, devoted Mary, who threw all cares and distractions aside to kneel and listen at the feet of her Lord.

It is Mary’s gift we must treasure above all and search for within ourselves.

Mary’s unwavering focus on Jesus allowed him to pour out upon her, to teach her, to nourish her, to love her.

That’s what we need the most in this time of transition.

Your personal prayer discipline and your church attendance are more important than ever right now.

We need to spend time in silence, reading holy scripture, meditating and praying whenever and however we can.

We need the nourishment of our life-giving Holy Communion, Jesus giving himself to us to strengthen and uphold us.

No matter what else we do as we navigate the rapids of clergy transition at our church, we need Jesus, and we need to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on him.

And so we see that the sisters of Bethany have a lot to teach us.

Martha and Mary have their own pitfalls, but they also have profound gifts to offer us.

Search for the gifts of Martha and Mary within yourself, and within your fellow parishioners.

And remember above all that just like with Mary and Martha, Jesus has chosen to come to our house.

Let us make him welcome.



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