I originally preached this sermon, titled "Filled and Overflowing," based on John 11, in 2014.
In our passage today, we find the famous biblical sisters – Mary and Martha. They are in a troubled state. Their brother, Lazarus, has died and they know – Jesus could have saved him. But Jesus didn’t come when they summoned him. Jesus, at that time, was keeping clear of Jerusalem. Officials had been on the look out, threatening to arrest or stone him.
When Jesus finally does arrive, he immediately meets both grieving sisters.
Let us read the word of God for us today.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
We have met this family, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, in the Bible before, in Luke 10. In that passage, Jesus is visiting; Mary is at his feet, an eager disciple. Martha, busy and worried in the kitchen, comes to Jesus with a demand: Jesus, make her come help me. Jesus responds by saying, “Martha, you are worried about much, but only one thing is needed now. Mary has chosen rightly, and it will not be taken from her.”
I’ll admit, as a former English Literature major in college, it’s hard for me to not be reminded of two other notorious sisters who also epitomize the strident characteristics of Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps, the great author Jane Austen even took some of her cues from Mary and Martha. Martha, the eldest, is a perpetual caregiver, hostess, and likely the family accountant and business leader. She is the one who frets most about the details at hand. Mary is demonstrative and emotive. Whether she kneels before Jesus to wait for his teaching, anoints his feet with her alabaster jar and dries them with her hair, or, in the passage today, is consumed with overwhelming grief, Mary is so full of feeling and impulse she cannot help but express it and cannot be bothered with anyone else’s needs around her.
When I was growing up, there was a popular women’s bible study series that poignantly asked: “Are you a Mary or a Martha?” It referred to the Luke 10 passage. The implication in the study was to discern whether you were a good disciple or, instead, someone who was distracted by details and continued to let matters of hosting and kitchens get in the way of your personal walk with the Lord. Because of this study and sermons with similar interpretations, in my mind, far too many women over the years have worried about whether they truly practice discipleship when they try to attend to household and work details.
Who knows what was in Martha’s heart when she demanded help from Jesus that fateful day? Was she wishing that she too could sit at Jesus’ feet? Was she tired of being in the kitchen? Were her worries and frets well beyond the house that day, and about many other things?
Jesus says to her, one thing is needed. What is that one thing? If it was to be learning at Jesus feet, like Mary, then why didn’t he just say that plainly? The only thing needed now is to be here at my feet listening to my teaching. But that is not what he said. One thing is needed now. I wonder if the one thing was a matter of Martha’s heart at that time. That the one thing needed now is what is in here (in your heart), in relation to Jesus and the life going on around Martha... including recognizing Mary’s needs at that time.
Recently, I heard about another Martha. A Martha who has been a member of her church for decades. She coordinates communion once a month for about 1500 members. One year, she, along with her fellow elders, attended an elder retreat. They prepared for the retreat by doing a spiritual direction study. Then, while on the retreat, each elder shared with each other how the study had gone and something they learned or discovered about themselves. When it came to Martha’s turn, she took a deep breath. And then she began to share.
Before this study, each month I heard from many of you and from deacons about how much it meant to you to serve communion. You told me, sometimes with tears in your eyes, about the ways you felt God’s presence as you shared bread and juice, and how deeply moved you were to be a part of this sacrament. I would hear you, knowing in my heart that I did not feel the same. I worried sometimes about whether I was missing something very important – was I too distracted all these Sunday mornings? But, how could I not be? Someone had to attend to the details. Before this study, I was settled that I may be missing something but I knew of no other way to go about my job. With this study, I realized what was actually happening. Each Saturday before communion, after I double-check the servers for the next morning, I come to church. As volunteers for that week and I prepare the elements, the organist begins to practice. Sometimes, guest musicians or choir soloists are there to practice too. As I fill the cups and cut the bread, with the music all around, I’ve realized that I have always felt the Holy Spirit there with us. I now know, I have felt God all along, in the very preparations, among all the details, God and I have been working together to get ready for the celebration.
This story makes me wonder, if in the past, in Luke, we may have gotten Mary and Martha’s stories wrong. I think today’s passage helps us to see the sisters more fully – less one-dimensional.
While tensions were high before, they appear even higher when we meet the sisters this time around. Their beloved brother Lazarus is very sick and dies. When Jesus finally arrives after the sisters sent for him, the sisters each express the same statement: If you had been here, my brother would not have died. Yet Jesus responds to them differently. Though the sisters’ words are the same, Martha adds a word of faith: "But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask." Mary, on the other hand, is inconsolable in her grief. Her bitterness wells in her, and she defies any of her sister’s attempts at subtly. Instead she publicly attacks Jesus with sobs and accusation. She recklessly calls him out in front of their neighbors, neighbors who they all know stand ready to betray Jesus.
Our English translation puts it nicely, but the Greek here says that Jesus was wells with anger in response to Mary. It's not something we like to talk about or acknowledge. Jesus getting angry with Mary – why would Jesus be angry with Mary? Especially in her time of great grief. Instead, many interpreters prefer to assume Jesus must also be grieving, or feeling great compassion, or becoming angry about death. But the Scripture says, when Jesus saw her weeping and the people who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in his spirit. Mary is the one, after all, who has spent so much time at his feet, who has every reason to trust him, who has every reason to not betray him so publicly and among such dangerous witnesses. She has every reason to not let the storm inside her blind her to all the people and responsibilities around her.
Has grief, or other strong emotions, ever made you blind to the people around you or led you to betray, accidentally or on purpose, someone you love?
How often this kind of betrayal happens between loved ones – between siblings, best friends, or spouses. We know each other so well, we know the buttons, we know just where to send our spiteful daggers. Quicker than we dream, our words or fists fly. We carelessly sentence one another with our own grief or anger.
Even in his anger, though, Jesus does not retaliate. In a tremendous act of grace and selflessness, he holds space for Mary – just as she is. He does not lash out, seek revenge, force her to change, exploit her, admonish her, or to come to him with anything other than what she brings.
Even flooded with his own emotion, he attends to what is possible.
He is for. giving.
In this remarkable exchange, the fecundity of life emerges again – amid those fascinating and transformational encounters where the manure of our lives and the Holy Spirit mingle. Where the garlic and sapphires in the mud, clot the bedded axle-tree.
I have come to read this encounter of grace as an incredibly humbling moment for Mary. After bringing her greatest grief and despair to Jesus, Mary gets exactly what she wanted – her brother, alive. And, at the same time, she, her sister, and the gathered crowd are given the explicit instruction to now “let him go.” Also, Jesus continues to abide there, staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, even as some of Mary’s companions already have left to go to the authorities. They go to the authorities to betray Jesus, instead of remaining with Mary and with Lazarus!
Let's just take that in for a moment.
It's weird to think, a man comes back from the dead to what seems to be a rather lackluster reception. A bunch of the crowd has already left.
And as for Mary, as much as I am sure she was joyful to have Lazarus alive again, I also don’t imagine her erupting into great cheers as Lazarus walks out of his tomb. It’s hard to cheer with great humility, the kind of humility that comes with getting exactly what you said you wanted in a way that also shows you how selfish you have been. Instead, I imagine her wide-eyed and silent in the face of tremendous love, grace, and blessing. I imagine her eyes and ears opening, the way they do in times of robust maturing. Possibly she discovers, there in those precious moments of resurrection, a new way through her customary avalanche of feelings into an ability to relate beyond herself. Here, in these moments of revelation, she may be recognizing for the first time the real danger Jesus faces, or how Lazarus is his own person with his own life apart from her, or how much Martha does to keep their home and life together going.
Indeed, a miracle occurs when we bring our most honest selves to Jesus; something grows out of the ground where real tears get shed. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, when she spoke at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara in November 2014, these kinds of miracles emerge when we let streaming tears wash us, cleanse us, and water the ground at our feet. We discover newly an ability to love beyond ourselves, to see and hear and companion alongside the people around us. Rather than being filled to the brim with distractions, self-obsession, or flooding emotions. Instead we become filled and overflowing with God’s love, with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, increasing awareness of the needs around us, and the ability to love our neighbors even amid most dire circumstances. We see with fresh eyes the neighbors, even in our own homes, in the beds and kitchens we share; we see our next-door neighbors and colleagues, the people along our paths; we discover a capacity to love the strangers among us. Not with some idealistic sense of niceties, but a love that doesn’t have all the answers, doesn’t know exactly what to do, other than to show up, tell the truth, and to trust that the Holy Spirit shows up there and makes the way for new life. A new life beyond our wildest dreams.
By receiving us just as we are, even in the robustness of our fully selfish states, Jesus hosts the space for a kind of faithfulness that is not just something to do on Sundays or practice only when we feel like it. It is not something we discard when the stakes are highest – when a loved one dies, when the doctor’s diagnosis is unavoidable, when the job is lost, when the inheritance is gone, when a family member thoroughly betrays us . . . or when the gloves come off.
This gritty faithfulness, this love, this discipleship starts here, within our selves, where the internal storms fester and can blind us to the real life around us, to the real people, the real details and needs around us. It continues in the meeting of our bold honesty and God’s enduring love.
It is where we find grace.
This amazing grace that comes when we are unabashed in meeting God, fuels a faithfulness that we can practice in all circumstances, in times of peace and in the times when the stakes are highest.
According to Luke, after Jesus’ own resurrection, he brings his disciples back to Bethany, back to the hometown of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. This is the same ground where Mary fell at Jesus' feet, took her gloves off and called Jesus out – where were you in my grief, when I needed you most?!
On the way to this place, Jesus says to the disciples, “Beginning from Jerusalem, you are witnesses to all of these things. I am sending you the Holy Spirit, the power from on high, to be with you as you go.” And, in Bethany, he raises his hands over them, and blesses them.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.