In the name of God who gives us growth, God who strengthens us when we fail, and God who inspires us to start again. Amen.
Grey’s Anatomy is one of those television shows that I can pretty much watch any time, over and over. Certainly the moment to moment action is the kind of thing that keeps us coming back week after week – the drama and the suspense of life and death, and crisis and resolution; the relationships that are constantly growing and evolving, and faltering and dissolving. There’s a degree to which the show is only a slightly elevated form of a trashy soap opera. But I think a part of its staying power – it’s now had 18 seasons and the 19th is on its way – and part of why it’s worked so well for so long is that it does take some important steps beyond just being a trashy soap opera.
Aside from the relationships and their drama, a big part of what Grey’s Anatomy is about is learning and growing. It’s about a group of people growing from “baby surgeons” just out of school, into mature expressions of the medical profession that see nuance and meaning that their earlier selves never could have imagined. And, it’s about that as a never-ending cycle. It’s not just about the crop of new interns that we meet in the first episode, but about the mentors who train them and how they were trained, and the students they raise up, and even about watching their students become teachers.
When the show begins, though, the interns are learning. Almost everything is about learning processes: learning steps and tasks that need to be perfected to reach their goals. These processes and the reality of learning them point, almost from the beginning to the bigger learning about themselves that will eventually come through, but the focus at the beginning is the process.
I thought of that this week when encountering, once again, the familiar dichotomy between Mary & Martha. Jesus is visiting, and the two respond in very different ways. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, soaking up his wisdom and teaching. Martha scurries around, doing the work of hosting – as the evangelist put it, she was “distracted by many tasks”.
I think we’ve all been there. Both as Mary, and as Martha. I remember when this pandemic first began, and the world was shifting so quickly from what we’d always known – the ways we’d always done things, to this new reality that we didn’t yet understand – I found myself, in retrospect, having been focused almost solely on tasks. Many tasks. If you’d asked me when it was all new, I probably would have told you that I was having a hard time sitting at the feet of Jesus, because there were so many tasks to get done. But just as true as that – and maybe even more true than that – the world was in such turmoil, that I found myself leaning on the tasks. I couldn’t wrap my mind around worshipping God when I was physically separated from the people I’d been called to serve. I didn’t know how to do this ministry without seeing your faces and feeling your energy. There was also a lot about all this technology that helped to bring us together that I didn’t know, too – but the difference was, I did know how to learn that. I knew how to break it down into tasks. And the tasks helped me to feel grounded when the earth seemed a slurry beneath me.
Being a “Martha” helped me to survive the initial traumas of pandemic. So I hesitate to sit in judgement of Martha as the failure in this story where Mary is an icon. For one, we need the tasks to get done. Someone has to bake the bread. Someone has to connect the cables. Someone has to balance the books. But also, there are times when the tasks are all we can wrap our minds around.
But like the young interns in Grey’s Anatomy, eventually, we tend to learn that the tasks rarely turn out to be the ultimate goals that we might have thought they were. What I started to learn through learning to livestream worship, and building and developing systems to do it better and more effectively, was about more than just the tasks I’d learned how to do or the systems I’d learned how to configure and operate. The bigger learning was about broadening my understandings of what it means to worship God. Of what makes community. Of finding meaning in our Christian faith and experience.
I’ve come to believe that the question is less about whether we’ll be Mary or Martha, and more about how we’ll come to both teach our Mary to Martha, and also teach our Martha to Mary. If we focus solely on the ethereal aspects of learning about faith, we’ll never truly connect with the needs of the world. And if we focus solely on meeting needs, we’ll miss the bigger picture that comes from sitting at the feet of Jesus, and drawing connections, and seeing God in new ways.
The one time I think it’s easiest to point a finger at Martha, though, is when she points a finger at Mary. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”, she asks. “Tell her to help.”
But it’s a little more complicated than just that.
The one she accused of falling short, her sister, was focused on learning. And learning is about asking ourselves to examine how we could possibly be wrong. What assumptions do I have that need to be knocked over? What earlier learnings do I hold that need to be broadened to respond to new insights? Learning is humility in practice, and it is powered by the hope for growth.
Martha, on the other hand, wasn’t exploring how she could be wrong. She wasn’t working from a place of humility. She was starting from a place of judgement – pointing out how someone else was wrong. There are certainly times when we need to call out what’s wrong in the world, but if it’s only for our own benefit, we should tread carefully. Martha was standing on a false precipice. She thought that she’d perfected some way of being – at least in that moment. It’s like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, proclaiming the stunning beauty of all that we can see and calling everyone around to see it, too – only to step back to realize you’re standing in front of a wall, looking into some facsimile of the true beauty you seek.
Jesus is calling us to truer beauty than we can, on our own, behold. Sometimes, moving toward that true precipice means focusing on tasks – on putting one foot in front of the other to reach the goal. But just as often it means living into the humility of realizing we’re not there yet – that we still have steps to take.
The goal of the Christian life is not to have reached the end – it’s not to have attained perfection. The goal is to keep following Christ toward it. The goal is to remain humble enough to know that there is more than what we can see right now, and to trust that God sees what we’re missing, and that God will guide us toward the true precipice.
Martha and Mary were both right, in their own ways. And that’s part of the point. “Right” is bigger than what we can capture on our own. We need the unique experiences and distinct proclivities that we each bring to any given moment if we hope to grow. And we need faith in God for everything else that we’ve left out.
The only real failure comes from believing we’ve got it all figured out on our own – that we don’t need anyone else. The Christian life is at least partly about seeing needs – both our own and those around us; and, it’s about relying on each other and the certainty of hope in Christ to respond. Amen.