A Softer Edge

Yarmouth Clam Festival Interfaith Service      July
18, 2010    Thich Nhat Hanh and Luke 10:38-42

Inside the pie stall in front of First Parish,
a longtime resident who has volunteered for the church and various booster
clubs over the years said, “What I love most about the Clam Festival is watching
the people.” Sure, some of them are grumpy about the distance to a public
restroom, but most of the time it’s fun to watch them interact as they pass
by.  Yesterday I took the strawberry
shortcake money from a mother and daughter who have been coming to the Clam
Festival for 40 years now. Every year they get their strawberry shortcake, eat
it on the steps of the church, then have someone take a picture of them

Yesterday, at our second Clam Festival, my
daughter and I quietly crossed Main Street to buy some Unitarian Universalist
scallops. We sat beside each other, on a picnic table bench in the sun, where
we split the scallop roll and shared some French fries. I wonder if Martha
could have enjoyed herself, sitting with Mary, listening to Jesus talk about –
well, we don’t know what he talked about that day, do we? We are distracted,
too, paying attention to the sleight of hand of the details about two sisters,
one busy and one placid, compared now for almost two thousand years as “good”
and “bad.” But you see if you read Thich Nhat Hanh to Martha, hoping to
convince her to sit still and be present, she would hear those words

Just imagine.

“If you love someone but you rarely make
yourself available to him or her, that is not true love.”

Martha would see her eagerness to serve as a
way of being present and Mary’s inactivity as a hindrance to the hospitality,
the availability, they owed a special visitor.

In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson softens
the famous diatribe from Jesus, saying,
“Martha, dear Martha, you're fussing far too much and getting
yourself worked up over nothing.”


She’s been with me all my life, that
Biblical Martha, pictured in children’s Bible story books as glowering in a
doorway, her face all hard edges while her sister sits doe-like at the feet of
the visiting teacher, Jesus.

I imagine Martha, working hard at her
cooking, trying to provide an appropriate meal for various disciples and
hangers-on, some of them no doubt underfoot.

If you’ve ever
put a big pot of water on to boil, as I did for corn on the cob the other
night, you know that if the water is high enough and boiling furiously, steam
will lift the lid, and in certain cases will take it right off.  Martha's lid is just rising up at the corner.
She feels the pressure of frustration and annoyance. She has been left with the
tasks that are usually thankless, and not just in her time and place. She
expects to have a partner in her work: her sister. 

“Can’t you see the work is being left to me?
Can’t you see this is unfair? Why is she allowed to sit and do nothing?!?!!”

dear Martha
you're fussing far too much and
getting yourself worked up over nothing.

And there sits
Mary, simply being, forgetting all about doing.

Worse, Jesus
supports her. “Mary has chosen the better part”—these are the words that

As a person who
gets caught up in the irritations of domestic arrangements, I identify with
Martha. I'm not particularly adept at the wide array of household arts and
sciences, but I know how things "ought" to be, and there are times,
my family would tell you, when I hold myself ferociously to that unreachable

It's possible I
may do the same in other areas. I may even carry that sense of responsibility,
that sense of sole responsibility, into the organization not of kitchens but of
lives. I look at my children, and my friends, at those dearest to me, and I try
by the dint of my own efforts to get them sorted out, so they will live happily
and fruitfully, and when they don’t respond, well… sometimes I feel upset and
alone and overworked and under-appreciated.

Don't tell
anyone, okay? And if I see you nodding, ever-so-slightly, I promise to keep
your secret, too.

dear Martha
you're fussing far too much and
getting yourself worked up over nothing.

I mean,
whose idea was this in the first place? Did anyone ever tell you this was your
job, to set the whole world to rights, and everyone in it? Honey, give it a rest.

We gather here
in the midst of a weekend made for the Marthas among us, the busy and organized
and faithful and energetic, the people who hear the church needs more pies and
arrive with a dozen fresh-baked ones at 3 p.m. And among them are some who may
finally reach a point where one more clam cake or one more piece of pie will be
unbearable to serve. How can we keep taking care of the needs and desires of
others? When will they think of stepping up, of getting off the footstool, of
climbing off the carnival rides and doing some real work?

It's hard to
put down the spoon or the vacuum or the car keys or the scalpel or the holy
rule book  when we have convinced
ourselves that we are valued only when we are applying ourselves, behaving
responsibly, driving purposefully. The trouble is how inclined we are to drive
ourselves purposefully around the bend and away from love and acceptance. It’s
hard to put down the broom or the saw or the laptop or the cell phone when we
have convinced ourselves that everything depends on us.

And so it feels
like there is a truth in this story, about a busy-ness that misses the point of
presence and mindfulness, but telling it that way is pretty hard on the
Marthas, and makes it sound like Jesus rejects them…rejects us.

dear Martha
you're fussing far too much and
getting yourself worked up over nothing.

You would have
to be pretty familiar, and by this I mean something more like familial, with a
person to take that kind of talk from them, wouldn't you?

Luke’s gospel
gives us only this snippet, but we know from John's stories of Jesus'
friendship with Martha's family that they were exceptionally close. At great
personal risk, Jesus returned to the home of Martha and Mary after their
brother, Lazarus, died. We also know that Martha is earnest and faithful and
way too literal in the way she hears things. Her first thought on the opening
of her brother's tomb? How badly it will stink! I imagine Jesus knew this about
her very well.

The people who
draw pictures of angry, gruff, scowling Martha assume Jesus is lambasting her
the same way she is lambasting her sister. In my own spiritual life, I’ve been
guilty of doing a fair amount of lambasting, of myself and others, in
frustration over situations I simply cannot control and make come out right.
But Jesus, whether we relate to him as Savior or simply as wise Teacher, lives
on a higher plane. And sometimes I fear we take his words too seriously, in the
sense that we hear them with no animation.

I wonder if we
could give his words a softer edge? Of course we live in a world of
hard edges, a world that wants us to tattoo our differences on each other and
the planet, making marks that fade but never disappear. We worship today in a
town of highly motivated people, working hard to raise money for the churches
and clubs they love so much, busier than Martha ever imagined being. It would
be easy to forget what matters and to focus only on the monetary success of the
weekend. Or it would be easy to side so strongly with Mary that we avoid the whole
event and hide at home.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When your beloved is suffering, you need to recognize
her suffering, anxiety, and worries, and just by doing that, you already offer
some relief. Mindfulness relieves suffering because it is filled with understanding
and compassion.”

We could hear Jesus as a holy scold, but why
not hear him mindfully, compassionately, instead?

Martha, haven't we been over this before? I don't care about the food, I'm just
glad to be here with your family. I didn't come to insist you adhere to our
rules of hospitality or to abandon them, but to give you a new way of living
them altogether. Take the pot off the boil and come, sit down.  We love
your cooking, but we love you more.

I hope Martha didn’t storm away. I hope she
heard her friend’s good humor and sat down beside them. I hope we can hear it,
too. God grant us all a softer edge. Amen.

8 thoughts on “A Softer Edge”

  1. Brava! And now that you’ve preached and blogged and been so purposefully wonderful, may you be blessed with the holy nap, the putting up of feet, the shutting off of all electronic devices, and some sweet, sweet, sweet reflective time!

  2. Poor Martha was somehow taught the only way she could feel worthy was to “do” and therefore, she “did” …with an unhappy heart. That describes a good number of women I’ve known sadly. Wonderful sermon my friend… just wonderful.

  3. This, with a few devotions, was our church on Sunday. It was a great word for two older folk who are used to making it all happen, and now can’t, and likewise for their middle aged daughter, who gets all fussed and worked up about them, but can’t change a thing in the process.
    oh, read it via BlackBerry, so couldn’t comment. But we loved it then and I love it now.

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