Now, I don’t ask this in isolation. I also ask this of the average American church. What kind of churches do you see around? Mary kind of churches or Martha kind of churches?
To really answer these questions, we need to understand what we are talking about when we say Mary kind of church and Martha kind of church. So, let’s look at the difference between Mary and Martha in our text.
Mary in Luke 10 is just sitting with Jesus and some of the disciples. While it isn’t explicit in the text, it is implied that Jesus comes to visit Martha’s house with some of his disciples. He and his disciples arrive together in town and most likely were invited together. And Jesus always does public things with some of his disciples. Mary is with Jesus and the others, enjoying stories Jesus is telling, the camaraderie being experienced, the relationships being forged. She is probably mindful that things need to be done, but for now, she is resting in the fellowship of friends, the stories passed, and the wise words of a dear soul visiting with her.
A Mary church is one that follows suit. A Mary style church is one that sees the power and poignancy of simply being together and getting to know one another. It sees the power and poignancy of fellowship, of sitting down together and sharing a meal and each other’s stories. A Mary style church is not an apathetic one. But one that knows the priority is always relationships between people, friendships, the sharing of our journeys.
Let’s meet Martha. Its Martha’s house and she welcomes Jesus and the others in. This is not a planned visit. It is important to admire her hospitality. She is doing nothing wrong here, simply making her house presentable and being hospitable to a deeply respected teacher, Jesus. This is actually very admirable, isn’t it? Her focus is on serving Jesus and his disciples and she doing it really, really well. But what is neglected in Martha’s admirable hospitality is the state of just being with Jesus and the others. What is missing are moments of simply being fully present with Jesus, her sister and the others.
She naturally gets perturbed and expresses her impatience to Jesus. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. He basically says few things in life can’t wait and we must prioritize what is most important. Jesus seems to say, “Fellowship is the priority right now.” Relationship is the ultimate path by which all other paths are taken.
So, a Martha-style church is one that is focused on doing the business of the church – fundraising, perfecting Sunday worship, being active in the community. Now these are all good things. Important things. Necessary things. But are they to always be the top priority? What is the most necessary thing for a church community? I’d suggest it depends on the needs around us.
On the deepest level, however, Jesus reminds us of this lasting truth: fellowship, communion, togetherness, sharing time and our memories with one another, hearing each other’s stories and each other’s hopes, dreams, and even our hurts.
I often think of Sunday services and what part of those services that are the most meaningful. To me, it isn’t the singing, the sermon, the ceremony. It is the time in the Sunday service when people express what makes them human, their needs, their hurts, their joys, their lives. That is the center, the heartbeat of the service in my opinion.
I offer another question to ponder. What do people need in St. Paul’s as a church? Do they need our activity or our mere presence? Or both?
Perhaps a more significant question as St. Paul’s encounters this period of transition is this: what does St. Paul’s want to be, a Mary or a Martha church? Or a nice harmony of the two?
I’d suggest that there is a time and place for both contented Mary and busy Martha’s approach. If everyone was Mary all the time, no matter the circumstances, then nothing would get done. Jesus did command us to love neighbor, and give of ourselves to the vulnerable and needy. Jesus commands us to build God’s kingdom by doing the work of compassion. This requires hard work. Sitting with Jesus and enjoying a meal together is important even necessary. But so is making the meal, serving the food, and doing the dishes for someone else.
There is a time for everything under the sun. A time to sit with Jesus and enjoy his company. And a time to do the work of building and supporting the community. What’s more, for the church, these things go together. One leads to the other. Time with Jesus energized Mary and provided her meaning and hope, meaning and hope that comes in holy relationships. With new energy and a renewed sense of meaning and hope, Mary received the sustenance she needed to do the work of building God’s kingdom in her neighborhood and community.
That is why Sunday worship is important. We need the sustenance of sitting with God, learning Christ’s way, and offering our gratitude for all the graces we know. It is spiritual food we need to partake in. However, we must leave the sanctuary here and move into the world outside these walls. We are fed and nourished here for a purpose, to do the work of God in the world.
So, we are called to be both a Martha and a Mary church. We are called to develop our spirits and our spiritual lives. We are called to grow in God and know the contentment that comes with experiencing God’s presence. Yet we are also called to from this foundation make disciples of God’s love in our communities and building people and our communities of people up.
I close with another story involving Mary, Martha, and Jesus. It comes from the Gospel of John. In this story, Mary, Martha, and Jesus are grieving. Their brother Lazarus has died. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha. In the time of grief, there is nothing one can do. Community and fellowship are all we have. Yet we Jesus there is always hope.
So, Mary and Martha in their tears and not knowing what to do, received the comfort of Jesus’ presence. And they witness the power of his presence as he raises Lazarus and breathes new life into him.
The comfort of divine presence in our hearts. The power of divine presence in the world. We need both, don’t we. Let us foster and forge Christ’s divine presence in the world as the church. Amen.