Back in the 1990’s, then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, was rushing to catch a train in London. In his haste, he accidentally jumped on the wrong passenger car and found himself in a car full of inmates from a mental hospital, all wearing mental hospital clothing
Just as the train pulled out of the station, an orderly came in and began to count the inmates, “1-2-3-4…”… when suddenly he saw this distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a business suit and a clerical collar. He said: “And who are you, sir?” The answer came back: “Well, I am the Archbishop of Canterbury!” The orderly paused and then continued: “5-6-7-8.”
The point of that story is this: It is important to know who you are. If we know ourselves … and at least try to understand other people … we get along better. For this reason, in recent years employers have come to rely a lot on personality tests like the Myers Briggs or Enneagram tests. The better we know ourselves and the better we know those around us, the better we get along. One of the better known of these tests is called the Birkman Personality Profile.
Dr. Roger Birkman, who was a psychologist in Houston, Texas developed a computer profile that suggested there are 4 “general” personality styles.
- There is the action-oriented doer.
- There is the detailed planner.
- There is the enthusiastic salesperson. That’s me.
- And there is the artistic poetic philosopher.
The point of Dr. Birkman’s personality profile is this: we are all different . . . and when we recognize, understand, respect and celebrate our differences we all benefit.
This same idea is deeply rooted in the Bible. Remember what Paul said? Some are prophets and some are teachers, some are evangelists, and so on. Some people are action-oriented, while others are pensive and thoughtful. Some are poetic and some are autocratic. Some are loud and some quiet.
We all have different personalities, different styles, different temperaments. And, that’s okay! In fact, it’s more than okay.
It’s necessary. Because it is part of how we experience the fullness and the diversity of God’s creation.
Now, with this in mind, let’s talk about Mary and Martha.
Jesus was coming to visit Mary and Martha. Since sunrise, Martha had been sweeping, scrubbing, dusting, checking recipes, darting in and out of the kitchen… frantically preparing the food and putting the place in order. Then, Jesus arrives… and look what happens. Mary whisks in to take over as hostess. She welcomes Jesus and the disciples and ushers them into the living room. They all sit down and listen attentively to Jesus, especially Mary. Mary even positions herself at Jesus’ feet!
Meanwhile, Martha is out in the kitchen, slaving away… preparing the meal, polishing the silverware, cutting up the fruits and vegetables, doing the one hundred and one things which in her super-efficient mind needed to be done.
But here’s the problem.
All the while Martha is working feverishly . . . . inside, she is seething!
Her indignation grows. She gets more and more aggravated, more and more frustrated. She feels more and more put upon, more and more stressed out. “Where is Mary? Why isn’t she helping me? Who does she think she is?
Finally, unable to contain her resentment, Martha erupts and bursts out of the kitchen into the living room!
She cries out to Jesus: “Look at this. I’m doing all the work here. Don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to get in here and help me!”
But Jesus says to her. “Martha, don’t be so worried and troubled about so many things. Relax. One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better portion which shall not be taken from her.” End of story.
Now, what about their personality styles? What is Mary? Well, of course, she is the artistic poetic philosopher, who is thrilled to just bask in the warmth of that moment. And Martha? Well, obviously, she is the detailed planner. She has planned this event to the nth degree. Both women are fulfilling their role based on who they are and what they want to do.
And yet, in the story, Jesus rebukes Martha. “Why?”
Well, I don’t think Jesus was unappreciative of Martha’s desire for a job well done. I doubt that Jesus thought artistic poetic philosophers were any better than detail-oriented planners. But here’s the difference. Mary was fulfilled by what she was doing. Martha was not.
You see, the issue was not what Martha was doing outwardly. The problem was how she was feeling inwardly!
Jesus’ concern was for Martha herself . . . not for what she was doing!
He was concerned about her attitude! About her ability to just be herself and be okay with that.
Jesus loved Martha. But I think he saw in her this self-destructive behavior that really concerned him. Martha was clinging to petty personal attitudes that were like “spiritual poison.” Attitudes that, left unchecked, can devastate and destroy the soul.
So, what did Jesus see in Martha? Well, deep down inside of her … first of all … I think he saw RESENTMENT. Martha resented Mary. And in my opinion, there is nothing more destructive to our spiritual lives than resentment. Resentment can ruin your life.
In the Greek language, there are two words for anger. Thumos – is a kind of “quick anger” that blazes up but quickly dies down. But there is also “Orge`”— which is a “seething anger” a brooding anger, an anger that is long-lived. An anger that festers and doesn’t want to die.
This “seething, long-lived anger” is in the Mary and Martha story in a couple of ways:
First, notice the words used to describe Martha… three words – distracted, anxious, and troubled. That’s what resentment does to you! It distracts you from what is true and good and life-giving. It makes you anxious because there is no true satisfaction in holding on to anger. And most of all, it leaves you troubled, because it solves nothing! But, even more, resentment cuts you off and it isolates you. Just like it did to Martha. That’s why it’s SO dangerous. Resentment separates us from people… and it separates us from God!
Secondly, there is NARROWNESS…
Martha is done in by her own narrow perspective. Martha thinks her way is the only way and she wants to force her way on Mary!
Most of us have probably had the experience of someone coming to your door and asking if you want to know more about Jesus Christ, right?
I always have mixed emotions when this happens. On the one hand, I admire them for their passionate faith—their desire to share this powerful relationship with God that they have come to know. But I also can never quite get away from thinking that the world just isn’t that simple. We have seen too much warfare brought on by the need to assert one group’s faith over another. And I personally have come to know people with good hearts and with a deep faith in God who have chosen spiritual paths very different from my own. It just seems to me to be an affront to the richness of the human experience and, in fact, to the very omnipotence of God to assume that the truth resides only in what we have come to believe.
Validating the spiritual journey of others who are different from me does not mean my faith is any weaker. It does not mean that my faith is flawed. It just means that for me, God wears many masks and speaks in many voices. And I cannot, in good conscience, believe that good people with good hearts are not also walking a viable, meaningful spiritual path if they just happen to believe something different than I do.
So, in the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus is also saying, beware of narrowness. It can devastate your soul.
Finally, there is UNKINDNESS.
Martha tried to make herself look good by making Mary look bad and it “backfired” on her. It was Martha who came out as the unattractive one. And ultimately, it happens that way every time. Our harsh, condemning judgments only come back to bite us. When we are unkind to others, we are the ones who end up looking bad.
Some time ago, there was an article on marriage…a rather routine article, except for one really great statement about marriage relationships. It said this:
“If you are ever in a situation where you have to choose between making either yourself or your mate look good, ALWAYS CHOOSE TO MAKE YOUR MATE LOOK GOOD RATHER THAN YOURSELF!”
Jesus would have liked that advice… and He would have enhanced it by saying, “Always choose to make other people look good rather than yourself!” Because what we send out comes back to us! If we send out unkindness, it comes back to haunt us. If we send out grace and love and compassion, those come back to bless us.
In the Mary and Martha story, Jesus is teaching us a lesson about our inner attitudes and He is saying… Beware of resentment, beware of narrowness and beware of unkindness. Choose instead the way of grace and love and compassion. Because, it is “the better way.”
Now, one final thought. I would be remiss in light of this subject if I did not say something about the current controversy swirling around in our political common life together about what it means to be a patriotic American and whether people should be invited to just leave if they don’t love this country the way that some people define how we’re supposed to express that love and patriotism. I know . . . everyone’s stomach just tightened up. Don’t worry. Hear me out.
First of all, I’m not going to comment from the pulpit on political positions and political figures. What I will say is this. When we face difficult and painful questions – questions that are raised in situations that touch on our very identity and understanding of who we are as Americans, questions and issues that address people’s experiences of justice or injustice in our country, questions around issues like racism and what is or is not racist, we would do well to heed Jesus’ warning to resist the very human reactions that are set before us this morning in the story of Martha and Mary.
Resentment, one-sided thinking, and unkindness toward people on either side of an issue do nothing to move us forward in a productive way. When we are faced with impassioned opinions that deeply touch people with opposing opinions, our faith teaches us that we are always better served when we are generous of spirit and when we approach those issues with grace, compassion, and an uncompromising commitment to love. Because by doing so, we welcome God into that dialog, and we open the door for God’s grace, God’s compassion, and God’s love to heal us and the environment around us. That’s not always an easy thing to do . . . especially in the face of people who not only will not take that same approach, but who will seek to capitalize on your generosity of spirit. But, as Fr. Malcolm reminded us last week when looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan. That is what God calls us to do. And with Jesus at our side, it is what we must do. Amen.