Proper 11(C): Mary & Martha in Our Midst
By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin
June marked my one-year anniversary in full-time ordained ministry. I am the rector of a combined congregation called St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. St. Mary’s was historically the ‘country’ Episcopal church in Burke County and St. Stephen’s was historically the ‘black’ Episcopal Church in Morganton. The two churches combined slowly a few years before my arrival. Needless to say, my first position brings many joys, challenges and possible landmines. So it is with today’s Gospel reading! But like my beautiful, diverse congregation, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Luke 10:38-42 seems to continue a general theme in Luke’s Gospel whereby Jesus upends social structures and power dynamics. Luke has long been seen as the Gospel for the poor. Where Mathew’s Sermon on the Mount reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke’s Sermon on the Plain reads, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continually chastises the rich while uplifting the poor. On the surface, the Mary and Martha story can be seen as continuing that structural upending of power dynamics. But a deeper look might reveal something slightly different.
Martha invites Jesus into her home and begins all the preparatory tasks required of hosting. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. When Martha enlists Jesus to admonish Mary, Jesus says, “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.” Jesus is clearly rebuking Martha and affirming Mary, but is he calling us all to spend all day meditating and not doing any tasks? Is he calling us simply to pray the food preparation tasks away? Well yes and no. They each receive from Jesus what they need.
Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes narrates the difficult structural and societal pressures for black women to be strong in her book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. Dr. Walker-Barnes writes, “[Strong] is verbal and mental shorthand for the three core features of the StrongBlackWoman—caregiving, independence, and emotional strength/regulation.” (Page 3, italics added) Dr. Walker-Barnes dutifully records the racist and historical roots of the myth of the StrongBlackWoman prevalent in American society today—promulgated and upheld within church contexts worse than anywhere else. She also shows the physical and mental toll trying to be a StrongBlackWoman takes by analyzing the higher rates of cancer (and higher rates of cancer fatalities) between black women and white women and even other women of color. The societal norm of the StrongBlackWoman promotes “Marthas” to such an extreme degree that it’s killing them. For women living into the StrongBlackWoman myth, the message from this passage highlights the rebuke of Martha and the praise of Mary. The StrongBlackWoman is worried and distracted by many significant and necessary things (too many to list here), but Dr. Walker-Barnes’ data clearly points to the urgent need for black women who are trying to live as StrongBlackWoman to instead sit at Jesus’ feet.
On the flip side, I spent six years working with college students in the midst of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina. I jogged on the mountain trails at least five days a week, often pausing to take in the awe-inspiring scenery. Oftentimes, I would listen to students complain about being bored while they played video games or watched the same movie over and over. I came to realize that this often meant, “Someone should entertain me.” Inevitably, I would tell them to go for a hike or a simple walk and take in the world around them. This was always met with excuses and shrugs. Those folks need to see that Martha is actually affirmed in this passage. She’s rebuked for being ‘worried and distracted by many things,’ but Jesus doesn’t say, “So never make preparations again!” or “Sit around and hope things all work out for you.” Martha’s work rate has allowed her to have a house and the freedom to invite Jesus into that house. There’s a tension between under-working and overworking. The bored students need to get up and actually sit at Jesus’ feet!
Mary doesn’t own a home and probably has no voice or space in her society. She is portrayed as the lesser sister. It’s apparent that Martha, who has her own home, is in charge and tells Mary what to do—and often! Mary relies on Martha for food and shelter. Mary has no power in her society; no voice. Then here comes Jesus into Martha’s home. What an empowering statement for Mary to intentionally shun the duties assigned by Martha and sit at the feet of Jesus? Even though Mary doesn’t speak with Jesus, she sees him as worthy of her time—and even worth a rebuke from Martha. Mary must be with Jesus!
So, what do I take away from this Gospel passage? As the minister at an interracial church, I am intentional about making service volunteers and committees diverse. But, I have to watch out for the “Marthas” in my congregation that are willing to do everything to their own detriment. Just because there’s a need and there’s someone willing to fill that need doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea! Sometimes people can be their own worst enemy. At the same time, it’s important to nudge people who culturally enjoy my church to spend time sitting at the feet of Jesus. With an older congregation like mine, it becomes essential to see when people need a break from the business. Perhaps they care for an unhealthy spouse or are just starting to wear down with age. Knowing when to admonish a Martha in my church is an art form.
And what of myself and my own leadership? One thing I appreciate about The Episcopal Church is the culture of various voices. It is not expected for the head minister to preach every Sunday. In fact, it’s oftentimes discouraged. Sometimes, we the ministers are Martha and we need to let go and allow someone else to preach. This reminds us that we do not have a monopoly on bringing the Gospel to the people. It also allows us space to practice being Mary, sitting still at the feet of Jesus and reminding ourselves that it’s not about us. And, most importantly, it keeps us sane and fresh for the Sundays we do preach. Perhaps in seeking out Mary’s and giving them space to preach, we will hear voices that have traditionally been silenced in church spaces. Perhaps we will garner new insights into a ‘boring’ old text. Or, better yet, perhaps we will see Jesus.
The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.