John 12:1-8, Luke 10:38-42
Today, we celebrate two women of faith, Mary and Martha. Women have often gone unnoticed in our faith traditions. Male leadership and masculine images of God have hidden the significance of women and the divine feminine, the wholeness of God that embraces and goes beyond male and female.
While the New Testament typically focuses on the adventures of the male disciples, Mary and Martha – like Lydia of Philippi and Mary of Magdala -played a significant role in the emerging way of Jesus. From the beginning, they were set apart as models of faith, and I believe were leaders as well as nurturers. They were among Jesus’ closest spiritual friends and companions. They also represent the two poles of a holistic and life-transforming faith.
In Chinese philosophy, the images of yin and yang are highlighted to present the holistic nature of life. Life in its fullness embraces male and female, light and dark, agency and receptivity, independence and interdependence, all equally necessary in the formation of the world and the creation of a good life.
Yin and yang. Mary and Martha: Mary is the contemplative, the passionate, ecstatic, mystical one. Caught up in the ecstasy of the moment, she focuses on dreams and visions, the present moment’s inspiration. It is only when the Spirit inspires her that she goes into action.
Martha gets second stage, historically and in the interpretations of many scholars, but her strong suit is hospitality. She is the organizer of dinner parties and potluck dinners, supervising the kitchen, ensuring the beds made and the house warm. She thinks things through before acting, possessing an analytic mind, prizing reason over passion, and brick and mortar over heavenly mindedness.
Martha often gets the short end of the deal among preachers and theologians. She has great attention to detail but also gets anxious and forgets the reason for her hospitality. Her rationality often stresses her out as she considers all the options and everything that can go wrong, but without her, there would be no dinner. Mary may be the heart of faith, but Martha is its hands, and both are equal and necessary in our church and the world.
Two women, Mary and Martha, among the few women known by name in the bible. They are two disciples, not second class under the thumb of first century males but leaders in their own right….embodying, on the one hand, the essential and diverse roles of brick, mortar, budgets, and hospitality and, on the other, study, prayer and ecstasy – reflecting two sides of faith, important for each person and each community.
In the reading from John’s Gospel, Mary is amazing in her generosity of spirit – she is living in this moment – pure attentiveness and pure adoration. For her, Jesus is the only one in the room and she needs to celebrate his life. Judas and the propriety police complain, “Why doesn’t she give this money to the poor?”
Jesus defends her, “the poor are always with you, her gift is love in this present moment.” In Jesus’ affirmation of Mary, he is not making an apology for the existence of poverty, nor is he supporting the status quo – Jesus was a prophet and justice is at the heart of his message. He is saying that generosity in this holy moment matters as well as care for the larger world. You can be generous to your friends and to strangers and people in need.
Years ago, I heard a liberation theologian, Rubem Alves speak at Wesley Theological Seminary. A member of the crowd asked, “Why is liberation theology, the church’s involvement in policies that help the poor, so important?” He responded, “So we can sing songs and read poetry.” One of my mentors, Howard Thurman, asserted that the primary cost of poverty and racism, was that it stifled the imagination of children, whose calling is to dream, play make believe, and imagine being superheroes and then aim their lives toward greatness.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said the aim of the universe is toward beauty. I would add that the aim of the universe is also toward love, for God is love. We need to pray but also plan, to meditate but also mediate, and be still but also be active. With all our limitations, we need to be on the side of love and beauty. We need to speak on behalf of those who are forgotten or maligned due to race, sexual identity, nation of origin, mental health, economics, and where they sleep at night. We need to do this one to one and follow the better angels of nature in our personal relationships. We also need to go beyond our everyday encounters to the larger world: to be on the side of love and beauty as citizens of this great land: to make sure hungry children enjoy the sunset, orphans and other impoverished children in India can appreciate good literature, Sudanese and Syrian children have good diets and safe environments, children are reunited with their parents so they can play games and draw pictures. We need national policies to promote the well-being of future generations, so they can build sand castles on Craigville Beach. We need to support homeless persons finding shelter so they can play music, share stories, and experience themselves as God’s beloved.
Let us remember these two women, Mary and Martha, and let them guide us to do something beautiful for God!