King’s Acre Church, 18 July 2004
Thirsting for the Word
I forget who it was who, when asked whether he preferred Martha or Mary, said: “Before dinner, Martha; afterwards, definitely Mary!”
Me, I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Martha. There she was, desperate to get all these men fed, and her sister isn’t helping. And when she asks Jesus to send her in, she just gets told that Mary has “chosen the better part”.
Yet it was Martha who, on another occasion, caused Jesus to declare: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And Martha herself gave us that wonderful statement of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Martha was seriously a woman of faith. And she wanted to show her love to the Lord by providing him and his disciples with a really good meal. Maybe she overdid it – the Lord might have preferred bread and cheese, and perhaps some olives, to an elaborate feast.
The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible. Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper – and because he lived in Bethany, some people have also said that he was married to Martha. We don’t know. We do know that Martha and Mary were sisters, and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus. We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord – whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one, we don’t know. But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well, a home where he knew he was welcome, and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died, even though he knew that God would raise him. Lazarus, I mean, not Jesus, this time!
In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary are one and the same person, as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been, some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with. Now she has repented and been forgiven, and simply adores Jesus, who made that possible for her. And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household, possibly rather on sufferance.
But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Back then, this simply was Not Done. Only men were thought to be able to learn, women were supposed not to be capable. Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn. They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile. And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”, thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out, and some would say we haven’t succeeded, even now.
Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that, was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion. Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him. He might have felt extremely uncomfortable, and it’s quite possible that his disciples did. Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.
But Jesus replied: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God. Jesus was happy enough with bread and cheese, or the equivalent; he didn’t want a huge and complicated meal. He wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed, the teaching that only he could provide. He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too, but Martha wasn’t ready. Not then. Later on, yes, after Lazarus had died, but not then.
In many ways, Martha and Mary represent the two different sides of spirituality, perhaps even of Christianity. Mary, wrapped up in sitting at the feet of her Lord, learning from him, listening to him, was perhaps so heavenly-minded she was of no earthly use. Martha, rather the reverse. She was so wrapped up in doing something for Jesus that she couldn’t see the importance of taking time out to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. Or if she could, it wasn’t something she wanted to do while there was work that needed to be done. She expressed her love for Jesus by wanting to feed him, wanting to work for him.
All of us, I think, are like either Martha or Mary in some ways. Many of us are more or less integrated, of course, finding time both to sit at Jesus’ feet in worship, adoration and learning, and time to serve Him in practical ways, mostly through working either in the Church or in the Community.
Others of us are less balanced. We spend our time doing one or the other, but not both. Mind you, it usually balances out within the context of a church; the people who do the praying and listening, the people who do the practical jobs that need to be done around the place, and the people who do both. And perhaps in an area, too, it balances out, with some churches doing far more in the way of work in the community than others, but perhaps less in the way of prayer meetings, Alpha, or similar courses and other Bible studies. And so it goes on.
Our Old Testament reading brings this need for balance very much to the fore-front. The Lord, speaking through the prophet Amos, expresses his disgust with those who have failed to be honest and upright in their dealings; those who’ve given short measure through dishonest scales; those who have fretted and fumed their way through days designed to honour God in order to make a fat profit in the market-place. One day, says the Lord, these people are going to be thirsty for the word of God, but not find it. There will be a famine of the word of God.
We need to be people who are willing to get our hands dirty, not only in the service of the Church, but also in the service of the world. We must be totally upright and honest in our workplaces, or when dealing with social security, or whatever. Otherwise, when we do come together to pray and to listen to God, it will be a time of mourning and sorrow, the prophet tells us, instead of a time of joy and praise.
The thing is that we need both our Marthas and our Marys. We do need people who are ready, willing and able to do the practical work – the buildings need to be cleaned and kept in good repair; the accounts need to be done; if we are to be salt and light in our community we need people who are willing and able to do such work – the Girls’ Brigade, for instance, the youth club, Pop-in and so on. All of us need to be people of the utmost integrity, whatever role we play.
But we also need to be people who pray, people who listen to God, people who seek the Lord’s face. This is especially important just now, when we are anxious to know what God’s plan for our future as a church is. As I’m sure you know, we have a day of prayer and fasting planned for Saturday the 31st July, and the only reason it’s not in the Newsletter is that I don’t think it was finalised before I had done the Newsletter. Please do put this day in your diary, and plan to be there, if only for 15 minutes. It’s vitally important that we, as a church, spend time together trying to listen to God and find out what He wants for us.
And the key word there is “Listen”. Of course we can and should tell God of our anger, bitterness and disappointment about what has happened. Of course we can and should tell God what we’d like to see happen to King’s Acre. But it’s important, too, vitally important, that we listen. That we put aside our own personal agendas, our own wishes, and try to hear what God has to say. Even if it’s something we don’t actually want to hear!
This is where trusting God comes in, of course. We need to know, absolutely, that whatever happens, no matter how difficult and distressing it may be, God is still in control. God always has a Plan B. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,” and a bit later on in that same chapter, Paul asserts: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nor, indeed, the Church of England!
We need, then, particularly just now, to be thirsty for the Word of God. Jesus told Martha, when she started fussing, that Mary had chosen what was better. He asserted Mary’s right to learn and listen, to be thirsty for the Word of God, even though she was “only” (quote unquote) a woman, and even though she might well have had “a past”. How much more, then, do we have not only the right, but also the duty to listen to God, to be thirsty for the Word.