In 1990 the Rev.Walter Farquharson became Moderator of our United Church of Canada, You may recognize his name also as author of the words to hymns in Voices United, many of those he collaborated with Ron Klusmeier, who wrote the music. In one of Walter’s visits to Manitou Conference (Ontario’s northern Conference) I learned of his mother‘s relationship to the women’s organizations in the church.
In about the year Walter was about to complete high school, he can remember coming home, going to his room and plunging in to the homework assignments that were mounting up. He was home an hour or so, when he heard his mother entering their home in small town Saskatchewan. Walter was upstairs and soon he began to hear his mother busy in the kitchen. There was nothing unusual about that, for it was 5:30 pm and the family often gathered around the table to eat about 6:15 pm after his father had arrived home. But this time the noise from below was significantly more than usual. There was way more banging of pots and pans than he had heard for a long time.
The last time he remembered hearing as much commotion, his mother was quite upset about hearing the grim medical diagnosis that had been given to a close friend. With some trepidation, Walter entered the kitchen. "Is there something wrong mother?, he hollered above the clatter. "Well, I’ve had it with Reverend Tony Black and his study groups within the WA meeting." "This afternoon he was waxing and waning about the story of Mary and Martha." "It seems like he had lots of praise for the Mary types who sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say." He said we can get too caught up in our quilt raffles and our bake sales, while not making time to read the Bible and join in his Bible studies. "Well, that’s the last time I’m going to go to WA." "Reverend Black certainly doesn’t push himself away from the table when we offer the fall supper and he certainly eats more than his share of the Pecan pie I slave over." "I wonder how he’d like it, if we just stopped doin’ the dinners and makin’ the new drapes for the manse?" Walter recalls that he retreated once again to his room, "I’ll just keep working on my homework, mom," while his mother worked out her angst stirring the stew on the stove.
Martha’s frustration exploded into words, "Lord, don’t you care, don’t you care (gaze on sister) that my sister has left me, by myself to do the serving!?"
Actually, Jesus did not care about that. I like to think that he smiled when he said, "Martha, dear friend, you are worried and distracted by many things." It is important to note-He is not going after Busy Martha, but Worried and Distracted Martha. Jesus is speaking to his dear friend Martha, who has worked herself into a state of anxious distraction over the meal she wanted to have for him. She has focused her frustration not only on her sister, but now also on her friend and guest, and lost sight of the one who she significantly calls "Lord."
Have you ever had this experience? You work yourself in to a real sweat, anxiety, worry about a dinner party for someone significant in your life, someone you appreciate, someone you want to get to know better, to spend some time with. Then we have the event and when we do a rethink the next morning, we realize we were so busy with preparations and execution of the food and keeping the house orderly, despite all of the guests, that we hardly had 15 minutes talking with the ‘honoured guest.’ I find that clergy and other church leaders, including myself, can get caught up in the incoming pile of all the things there is to do and nobody else seems to be helping with. And we get ourselves so worked up in a ‘lather’ that of course nobody would want to come and work with us.
Maybe that is why my ‘gut’ reaction to tv shows like "Hell’s kitchen" (with chef Gordon Ramsay) where the pressure that is put upon the participants is so over the top, that I cannot imagine any goodness could come out of such a workplace.
Jesus is gently calling Martha to refocus. Hospitality was a very important quality in the society Mary and Martha lived in. However, Jesus is reminding Martha that hospitality is not primarily about the food, it is about the focus on the guest.
There has been time in church history when women’s role in ministry was restricted. This passage has been used to call Martha from service/ministry to join Mary in choosing the "better part," a mere passive posture, sitting serenely before the Lord, listening in rapt attention.
However, theologian John Shea observes that, while in English we hear that Mary has chosen "the better part," in Greek the word is translated as "good." Mary has chosen the "good " part, meaning she has chosen "the connection to God who is good, the ground and energy of effective action."*
Then we see the story not as reinforcing a Martha-Mary dichotomy but calling for a recognition that God is both inside and outside, sustaining us while summoning us to work and, through our service, to bring about a world of justice, mercy, and peace. It is not an either/or message but a both/and message.*
The UCW brought together the strengths of the WA-service to the church fellowship locally and the WMS-education and outreach about the church beyond our doors and social concerns in the world reflected on gospel action. The four pillars of UCW are witness, study, fellowship, and service. We need these qualities in our church and the joy of fellowship that UCW women bring to the whole community of faith. They remind us to study, to learn, to react, and to take care of the practicalities of Christian fellowship which also involves hospitality.
There was an article in the New York Times a few years ago by Tom Friedman, entitled "The Taxi Driver." Friedman was driven by cab from Charles de Gaulle Airport into Paris. During the one hour trip, he and the driver did six things: the driver had driven the cab, talked on his cell phone, and watched a video (not a wise thing to do while driving), whereas Friedman had been riding, working on a column on his laptop, and listening to his iPod. "There was one thing we never did," he said, "talk to each other." It has been said that the disease of the internet age is "continuous partial attention." Is this a new phenomenon or have the ways and means just changed?
The story of Mary and Martha offers an ongoing plea from the Lord to focus on him, to give him some "prime time," some continuous full attention, just as we do for close friends. For, this is what we do, if we want to keep them as close friends. This same Lord calls us to focus on Him on Sundays and at other times, to move from a place of being "worried and distracted by many things" to one where we are in touch with the one thing needed, the good part that will not be taken away. When we do this, we will be connected with the source that brings both peace and energy to all our undertakings. Thanks be to God!
Acknowledging inspiration from:
*from John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow, Year C, 2006, p.203
James Wallace, writer in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p.263-267