Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO

A Tale of Two Sisters

[Readings: Luke 10:38-42; Colossians 1:15-29; Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52]]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This morning’s Gospel reading is well known to all of us – the tale of two sisters – one harried and one serene; but both devoted to Jesus. Invariably we hear this reading to Martha’s cost and Mary’s benefit. So today I want to reflect some more upon these two sisters. On a previous occasion when I preached on this reading ten years ago, I had wondered if there were any churches in the world that dedicated themselves to St Martha. It transpires that there is at least one – St Martha’s church in Point Pleasant in New Jersey.

Looking at their website this week, I found evidence of a vibrant faith community. They have an active schedule of worship – four services on a Sunday, an 8am mass each weekday (with a second service on the first Friday of every month) along with a Saturday afternoon service. After the Wednesday and Friday services there are special add-on times of devotion; as there are also for half an hour before all of the weekday services and the early Sunday one. The church office is open each weekday from 8.30am at least until 4pm but open until 8pm on Tuesday and Wednesday. In terms of Bible study, they have three women’s groups per week; and while there isn’t a men’s bible study group, there is a weekly combined Bible study group along with an occasional Walking with Purpose Bible Study group. In terms of annual events there is a vacation Bible camp each year and, each August, a Spirituality Day, brunch included.

Additional study is available through thrice monthly Catechist training sessions for teaching and five sessions a month for students or parents. There are three choirs: traditional, contemporary folk and children’s. An active youth program sees seven separate sessions spread throughout each week. Also for young people there are to be in July and August this year two Mission Service Retreats which will include service at local food banks and soup kitchens.  

Then there are a number of church additional options for parishioner participation too, such as the Respect Life Committee, Rosary Altar Society, Intercessory Prayer Group, Prayer Shawl Group, Family Substance Abuse Ministry, a Bereavement group and Holy Innocents, a group to assist with special needs children; that is beside the two Family Life sessions conducted each month. If that is not enough, for those wanting something extra to do of a church-related nature, the Knights of Columbus meet at the church once a month, as do the Ladies Auxiliary to the Knights.

Four ministers are listed on the church’s ministry team. The lead priest has, for the past ten years, spent his annual holidays serving as a visiting priest in Alaska. Of the others, two are active participants in the weekly life of the church whilst the fourth is listed as Resting in Peace but also “Helping us from Heaven” – so no retirement for him. Remembering that fun is to be a part of life, Sacred Steppers (for line dancers) meets every Monday morning, while the Beehive group comes together twice a week providing Fitness Classes, a Knitting Club, mah-jong ‘and much more’; there is also an annual parish picnic called Cop-Out.

Phew! No wonder the church is named after St Martha!

With what surely must be unintended irony, in the August newsletter there is a Kids’ Box activity word game of 144 letters where children are asked to find amongst those letters the following verse:

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

This episode in the life of these two sisters has much to teach us all. The simple message would seem to be to turn from busyness to devotion. It’s a salutary lesson that I know that I need to be taught repetitiously and I am sure that many of you must feel the same. Don’t let busyness become one’s idol; make time for adoration of God’s son who reconciled us to the Creator of the universe. Do we all get that? If so, perhaps we can just move on with the Order of Service to the next item of business … sorry, I mean worship.

But if we leave it there, we are going to miss so much more out of this episode of the two sisters Martha and Mary; and in so doing, we might be left feeling that Martha ended up just being a poor example which we are being exhorted not to follow. However, to understand properly what Martha and Mary can teach us requires that we look at the four occasions when the sisters appeared in the Gospels; of which this morning’s was just the first. And even in this single episode, there is more to learn about Martha. Here was a house where two sisters lived but so too, according to another episode about this Bethany household reported in John’s Gospel (11:1-44), did a brother called Lazarus. Yet, in this male-dominated society, it was not Lazarus who welcomed Jesus into the family home, but Martha; and she clearly was an efficient hostess ready at short notice to lay on a dinner. Furthermore in an age where woman were loath to speak out in male company, this same Martha didn’t feel at all diffident about complaining to Jesus about her sister not helping. Martha must have been some woman.

If we then turn to the second Gospel encounter where Martha and Mary appeared – in the eleventh chapter John’s Gospel – it is here that we first meet their brother Lazarus. Of course, this encounter is dominated by its own phenomenology – Lazarus was ill, Lazarus died, Lazarus got better. Understandably, the awesomeness of all that distracts us from learning more about the two sisters. Yet there is more to understand about the two of them. You will know the reading well, but just to recap – the sisters sent Jesus a message that their brother was seriously; ill. Jesus tarried two days before heading to Bethany; and in those two days Lazarus died. As Jesus approached the town, Martha left her house and went to meet him, whereupon she chided him:

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [v21]

Mary, who had stayed at home as tradition of the time would have preferred, likewise complained to Jesus when he finally arrived with the same words:

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [v32]

Exactly the same words, the difference between the two was in what followed each of those admonishments. For her part Mary just broke down and wept; but at the entrance to the town, Martha had carried on speaking and had said:

But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You. [v24]

Now the evidence of faithfulness was reversed. That day of the party, it had been Mary who had sat reverently at the feet of Jesus; now it was Martha who, through her words, expressed her faith in the divine power of this man they called their friend.

In the rest of the story we read that Jesus went to the tomb and asked for the stone to be rolled away, to which the ever practical Martha had said:

Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days!

Jesus persisted and Lazarus was raised and the family reunited. Martha and Mary don’t get mentioned again in this particular episode, so we don’t know how they reacted immediately afterwards; suffice to say, there must have been great joy in the household that night.

The third encounter reported in John 12:1-8, saw Jesus once again in Bethany and having dinner with the two sisters and Lazarus amongst others. Lazarus was reclining at table and Martha once again was doing all the work. For her part, Mary:

Took a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.

This time Martha held her counsel and said nothing about Mary’s not helping nor about the amazing profligacy on the part of her sister. It would be Judas who would take umbrage. Perhaps the reason that there was no record of Martha having said anything about Mary’s action was that the two sisters had now come, as a result of the miracle with their brother, to a much deeper understanding of Jesus’ earthly mission. Even though that understanding would still not be complete it would be something which still clearly eluded Judas – indeed, as events in that Holy Week would reveal, would be missed by the disciples as a whole group.

This then leads us to the fourth and final encounter in the Gospels with the two sisters who, at least according to the Orthodox tradition, were the same Martha and Mary who accompanied Mary Magdalene that Easter morn to tomb where Jesus lay and who would be the first to learn of his resurrection.

Why were they there at the tomb that morning? They were there to prepare Jesus’ body; for this reason, the Orthodox church has called Martha and Mary the Myrrh-bearing women, made them both saints and devoted special Sundays and collects to them. Given what we have seen earlier about Martha’s practicality, one can imagine that it was she who had said to her sister that they had to get organised, gather the myrrh and go to the tomb. Recalling how Jesus had been there for them in their lives, they now wanted to be there for him in his death … and then, there at the empty tomb, the miraculous was unveiled to both of them and to Mary Magdalene.  

Orthodox tradition cites that, after the Ascension, the two sisters and their brother, Lazarus, became missionary evangelists travelling widely through the Mediterranean. This is tradition for which there is no documentary evidence. However, that doesn’t matter. What does matter to us, as we contemplate these sisters, is to reflect upon what their stories should mean for each of us.

Maybe the truth is that we should be both Martha and Mary, knowing that at times we will be more like one and at others more like the other. But through all of that doing, like Martha, and being, like Mary, remaining in the divine glow of God made man. Earlier in my sermon I spoke about the perhaps unintended irony of the verse the Church of St Martha chose for the children in the word game:

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

Perhaps this admirably active congregation are not seeking to get their work/life balance right, but their spirit/life balance – they do, after all, have a strong backbone of worship to their host of activities as well as an annual day of spiritual reflection  and a weekly walking with purpose with the Bible.

I have spoken a lot about Martha this morning, so perhaps it is time for Mary to have the last word. As it turns out Point Pleasant, New Jersey, not only has a church of St Martha, it also has a church of St Mary. So I had a look at their website; much briefer than its sibling, this website finished its page on the “About Us” tab with this verse from Psalm 27:

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

And so may it be for all of us, when we are doing Martha or being Mary, that both conditions may find us at the gate of the tomb marvelling at the risen Christ all the days of our lives.