Martha and Mary in Ministry

medium_6832493862This last week a miracle happened in my life. I had a full twenty-four hours with no “church stuff” in it. One might think that using the term miracle here is a bit flippant, but when you’re a solo pastor, in the fall, miracle is the only appropriate way to describe a real day off. Until this day occurred, I had not had a Saturday off since mid August, and my coveted Mondays off had not occurred in three weeks because of the funerals that kept popping up. Throw in my first-born child, who is 5 months old and needs to eat every 2 hours because, as his pediatrician says, “he’s too chill to demand food when he’s hungry”, and my life pretty much resembles a chaotic mess.  I don’t mean to whine (ok, maybe a little bit), but for real, that day off was desperately needed. There was a point last week when I seriously considered whether this pastor thing was all worth it. I’m approaching my first anniversary in this congregation and ordained ministry. Is this really how it is going to be for the rest of my life? I love Jesus and all, but come on; a girl needs a day off once in a while.

All of this to say, that when I read Luke’s brief account of Mary and Martha, in an all too uncommon prayerful moment that was truly Spirit led, I said, out loud, “Martha, I totally feel you.”

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

We’re so often told as women in ministry that we are to strive to be like Mary in this story, seated at the feet of Jesus, learning and being a good disciple. We hold her up as a role model; as validation that, yes, even women are encouraged to be followers of Christ. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says. So should we.

I’ve claimed Mary throughout my life; seen her in the women clergy who guided me through discernment, embraced her through missionary work, seminary and even the chaos of hospital chaplaincy. Mary was my model, the one who would not be distracted by life. Mary was the woman who wanted to be with Jesus because it is where she was called to be, and that was ok. She was a woman who gave me permission to “be” in ministry. Martha, on the other hand, was just that other sister, the one who let tasks consume her and didn’t take Jesus, Mary, and the other disciples seriously. Getting dinner on the table was more important than learning. That’s not who, or what I wanted to be as a woman in ministry.

Oh, how wrong I was. I’m claiming it right now, Martha is the woman I resemble more often than not these days. Martha, the woman who is running that house like a boss. Making sure the dinner preparations are going as planned. Getting the rooms ready for all the visitors, who I am sure are also staying the night, meaning that beds have to be made, sheets clean, and don’t forget the extra tooth brushes in case anyone forgot to bring their own.

I now know why Martha came bursting through that kitchen door, mad as hell at Mary. “Can’t I get just a little bit of help around here? I shouldn’t be doing this all on my own.” Martha’s voice is my voice, at home and in ministry.

The challenge in pastoral ministry, I am starting to realize, is to find a good balance of Mary and Martha. The reality of being a solo pastor is that things do have to get done; bulletins, committee meetings, and funerals. The reality of being a mother and a spouse is that dinner has to be made, laundry needs to be done, and emergency trips to the pediatrician happen. Our Martha’s are calling out to the Lord, “please just tell someone to help me!” But there is another side to the reality of ministry and motherhood. There is a Mary side. Those moments of profound holiness, where time is allowed to stand still and I can sit at the feet of the Holy and listen. The difficult part is recognizing when I can give myself permission to do this. The list will always be full and something will probably get left undone. Instead of Jesus’ curt response to Martha in the passage, I wish what he had said was “Martha, you look really busy. Come here and sit with Mary for a while, then we will all go in the kitchen and help you finish dinner.” These are the words I need to hear in ministry. That what I am doing, even in those overwhelming Martha moments, is what I am called to be. But that I am also called to rest from my labors, to sit down and just listen, even if for a moment, because I am called to be there too.

Hopeful Signs: An Advent Sermon on John 1:6-28

We expect some of the same things around Christmas: the same message, the same songs, the familiar traditions of it all.  We still have to work to prepare the way of the Lord.  For my family, this Christmas is different.  Advent is different.  Pregnancy has made it so, and I have come to understand that Advent is very much like pregnancy.  Let me explain.

First, Advent is pregnant with hope.  I am a visual representation.  A baby is full of potential and possibilities. There is so much hope for the future, as we dream about what this child will be like and realizing that she may be nothing like what we are thinking she will be. What are you hoping for this Christmas?  If you’re hoping for presents under the tree, it might not be the same as last year?  Hoping for perfection, probably be disappointed?  Hoping for something different?  A Christmas miracle of healing?  Meaning?

Even as we are full of hope this Advent, we have to manage our expectations to know what is realistic so that we are not disappointed.  It did not take too long after we learned about this baby for me to learn that pregnancy is not all fun and games.  It is a painful, annoying, stressful, fun, exciting, awesome, amazing experience.  Some pregnancies are happier than others…too many involve sickness, complications, relationship issues, etc.  People have been overwhelmingly joyful at our news.  Strangers come up and talk to me.  It monopolizes many everyday conversations.  It is a common experience that binds us together.  Pregnancy is a long time, for others not long enough.  It provides a range of emotions:  fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, illness, and tiredness.  Advent offers a range of emotions too.  There’s the joy, excitement, and nervousness about how it will all come together, and tiredness from doing it all.  I think Advent can be summed up by that line in the Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” from O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The waiting gives us time to experience all the hopes and fears of both pregnancy and Advent.

Secondly, Advent, like pregnancy, is not all about you.  This pregnancy seems to be all about me right now.  I have never been asked how I’m feeling so often.  Never have so many strangers been interested in me, and in touching my belly, and sharing their good and bad pregnancy and delivery stories.  But it is not all about me; it is much more about this baby.  Even before we learned our good news, I had started taking folic acid to prevent birth defects and scaled back on caffeine.   Once we found out, I really worked on my diet and eating healthier and started taking prenatal vitamins.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was no longer in charge of my body.  This little baby has a lot to say about when I sleep or not, when I eat, and how much energy I have.  My life, my daily routine, has changed dramatically because it’s no longer all about me. With Advent, it is also easy to think it is all about us.  We have so much to do.  We have so many gifts left to buy and wrap.  We have to write our Christmas cards.  We focus on OUR waiting/preparations rather than on Christ’s coming.  We focus on our hopes rather than on the hope of Christ.

John the Baptist knew that it was not all about him.  He was clear on his identity, who he was and who he wasn’t.  In the Gospel reading, we hear that  John the Baptist did not give the answers that the leaders were hoping for.  They wanted him to be all these things, (Elijah, the Messiah) but all he would admit to being was a voice in the wilderness.  He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light himself.  In other Gospels we can read more about John’s own miraculous birth, what he wore and ate, and more about his ministry.  But here, the main point is John’s identity.   “I AM NOT” the Messiah….what he isn’t.  In Advent, we have to take care to not get a Messiah complex: so busy trying to be all things to all people.  Scurrying in Advent instead of waiting is dangerous.

John the Baptist came to testify to the light: Christmas is not about the tree and presents, but those are just a way to point to the gift of Jesus.  Or, maybe they become distractions so we don’t have to see the homeless, the hurting, the hungry.  We have to remember our identity as Christians, the reason for the season, to restore justice, and release the oppressed this Advent. This season is all about Jesus, and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.  We should be giving Jesus gifts by giving meaning to all his children by sharing the Good News of Christ.

Finally, Advent, like pregnancy, should not be rushed because it happens too quickly anyway.  We can’t skip ahead to Christmas, or we are missing out.  Similarly, those expecting have to enjoy the adventure and not wish it away.  As much as I want to meet this little girl, I also want enjoy the adventure of being pregnant.  It is a miracle, and an awesome experience to think that there is a baby in my tummy.  What a gift from God!  I receive a daily email from a site that gives me an update on the baby’s size, explaining what is going on with my body, and other hints and tips.  I love that email, each day and it reminds me of opening a little window in an Advent calendar.  It’s just another peek into what is coming, a hint at the whole picture.  Every day you get a little closer.

My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we experience it as a joyful journey. May we all keep our eyes open to hopeful signs this Advent season.   In the name of the one whose coming is worth waiting for, Amen.

Tiffany Jo McDonald is an Ordained Elder in the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is currently appointed to family leave, raising the preschool daughter who inspired this sermon and a 5 month old. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, ’04, and resides with her husband and daughters in Excelsior, Minnesota.

Photo by Esparta Palma, March 27, 2010. Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.