We have all heard stories about Mary and Martha, and every time we hear it seems like we must decide whether we are more like Martha or Mary. Martha appears to always get a bad rap. She does all the hosting and serving, and Mary does nothing except sit at Jesus’ feet listening to what he is saying. I would like to introduce a different picture. Perhaps another message here is not about who is like Mary and who is like Martha. We do not want to minimize the importance of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to what he has to say. In this way we should all be like Mary. At the same time, we do not want to downplay the importance of Martha’s ability to organize, prepare, serve and do the work necessary that needs to be done. In that way we should all desire to be like Martha. We all know people like that. We have plenty of Martha’s in this church. (Luke 10:38-42)
Without the greeters and those that welcome, planners, organizers, servers and people to do the work that needs to be done, and there always seems to be an endless amount of things to do in a lively congregation like this one, we can seriously say, “we would be up a creek without a paddle”. Every year at our Diocesan annual convention service awards are handed out to servants of the year for all of the congregations. Unfortunately, we can only nominate one person each year from our parish. If you are interested in being the servant of the year, please see me about the vetting process and signing up for tryouts. Oh that’s right we only do vetting and try-outs for the Vice President of the United States.
We take the servant awards seriously and we value those that demonstrate a servant’s heart, and we can recognize that in people. Do you agree with me that it’s not that hard to recognize those that are hard workers and have a servant’s heart? I want to tell you a story about the first Episcopal Church that Naomi and I were members of. I’ve told this story before, but it’s a good one, and the message is really cool. I bragged a little bit about St. Philips Episcopal Church before, and I’m doing it again today. St. Philips has a wonderful history as a primarily African American Episcopal Church. When we first started attending the church I noticed an older man that mowed the grass and cleaned the church. I noticed he was pretty consistent in his chores, and not only cleaned, but also fixed things that needed fixing.
I served as the clerk on the vestry. The church had done a capital campaign and had raised almost all the money necessary to build a Wellness Center right next to the sanctuary. The Wellness Center, like the church would have two stories and a basement, but an elevator would travel from the basement of the church to the top two floors of both buildings. The Wellness Center would also be equipped with a commercial kitchen to serve meals to the community as well as for parish events. The Wellness Center was a gift to the community as well as a gift for the church family. But, it appeared that we had a problem. We got a letter from the city that was not encouraging.
In the construction plans we not only planned to erect a building, but we also planned to expand our parking lot. The letter from the city told us that the parking lot was a no go, because that land would have to be set aside for water-run off for the neighborhood. Without going into details, I can just say that it put a damper on our plans. But, at our next vestry meeting there was another notice from the city with a letter attached from a Dr. Earl Harper.
Dr. Harper wrote in behalf of the church, and in the letter he took issue with the conclusions and said that the city engineering department had miscalculated the area and we did not have to do what they wanted, but instead we could continue with our plan to expand our parking lot. I asked the vestry what I thought was a pretty innocent question. I asked: “Who is Dr. Earl Harper”? The reply was with astonishment: “You know Earl. You see him cutting the grass and cleaning the buildings, and greeting folks on Sunday morning”. I replied: “I thought he was our sexton”. “We don’t have a sexton. Earl has volunteered to keep up the grounds and clean the church every week so we can save money for other things”.
Dr. Earl Harper was the first African American to get a PHD in Engineering from the University of Texas. He was the former chair of Engineering at Seidman School of Business, a division of Grand Valley State University, near Grand Rapids, Michigan. Earl met with the city engineers and planners, and was given a green light to go ahead with our plans that included the parking lot. Earl agreed (as a volunteer) to be the General Manager of the project, and manage all the sub-contractors. He saved St. Philips a boatload of money. In his own way Earl had a similar gift to Martha’s.
There is something that is easily overlooked in this passage that has nothing to do with the wonderful ministry of Martha’s. It has to do with that phrase that says “Martha was distracted by her many tasks”. I can identify with that phrase. How about you? Do you ever feel like you’ve got so many things going on that you really don’t have time to slow down? It’s too easy sometimes to be distracted by our many tasks.
Mary found that ‘quiet part’, and the ability to listen to what the Lord is saying, and “that will not be taken away from her”, Jesus said. Jesus could tell from Martha’s tone of voice that she was troubled and distracted by her many tasks. I think we miss the point when we only see in this narrative the contrasts of personalities.
We all agree that we place high value for those that serve the church. We want our church full of people like that. But, in this gospel pericope we are implored to stop, find a quiet time, a time to set aside every day, either in the morning, the middle of the day or at night, to spend time in prayer and Scripture reading, to sit with Mary, at the feet of Jesus and listen to what the Lord is saying, because “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away”.