Matt and Charlie’s birthdays are one day apart in April. This creates no small amount of pressure. But this year, we decided to keep things low key. Matt’s parents came to stay with us and we planned a quiet day together.
But there had to be a homemade cake, of course. I mean, I do CARE about my husband and my child. I decided not to get carried away. No Thomas the Trains carved out of fondant or Legos made from melted white chocolate. I would make a simple angel food cake. An angel food cake festooned with whipped cream and strawberries would be the perfect, simple harbinger of spring.
I woke up early the morning of Matt’s birthday and followed the Cooks Illustrated recipe perfectly. I whipped my eggwhites, measured my flour and sugar, carefully folded the two together. By this time, everything was taking a little longer than I expected and other members of the family were starting to trickle in, looking hopeful that they might get started on the breakfast biscuit part of the morning. Moving a little faster, I got the cake ready for the oven. Cooks Illustrated said to line the bottom of my pan with parchment paper, so I did. And to really demonstrate my care for this cake, I also lined the sides of the pan. With great confidence I put the cake in the oven.
About twenty minutes later, I took a look in the oven. Disaster. The cake was collapsing in on itself because of that extra parchment paper. Apparently an angel food cake needs to cling to the side of a pan to rise properly.
I might have handled this with great grace, but I didn’t. I flung cookbooks around to see what other kind of cake I could make in the next hour. I questioned my ability to be a mother. I threw myself on my bed and cried.
I, in other words, had a serious Martha moment.
I would argue about 90% of women identify with Martha. And so, about 90% of women hate this biblical passage.
Although women are no longer trapped in the sphere of our kitchens, we are still judged by our homes, our gardens, our food. We judge ourselves for these things. We go to Pinterest and post pictures of dream bathrooms and creative crafts to do with children and recipes that we’re sure to try one day. We take our homes and our families seriously.
Martha has been working her tail off in the kitchen getting ready for Jesus. Jesus never traveled by himself, so she’s getting lunch ready for him and who knows how many disciples. She has disrupted her entire routine to have this man in her home. And she’s not the first woman to do so. Think of all the places Jesus has stayed, all the hospitality he has enjoyed, the hundreds of invisible women who have made him breakfast, lunch, dinner, cleaned his clothes, made sure he had somewhere to sleep. These women have been incredibly hospitable.
The translator of this passage demeans Martha’s hospitality. Martha’s work is translated as “tasks” here, evoking the image of a list stuck to a refrigerator with a magnet. But the Greek word is diakonia. Everywhere else in the New Testament, that word is translated as ministry or mission. That’s right. Whenever a man in the New Testament is doing diakonia it is ministry, but when Martha does diakonia, she is distracted by her “tasks”.
So, it’s no wonder women get grumpy reading about poor Martha!
Mary has abandoned her. Her sister has left the hot kitchen, trespassing convention and unspoken family bonds. Her sister has chosen this new role as student without as much as consulting Martha. Mary just walks away from the kitchen like she can! Like hundreds of years of history and tradition can just be unmade by sitting at Jesus’ feet.
Martha is left hot and frustrated and alone.
And so, she does something else we can relate to. Instead of dealing directly with the person who is irritating her she gets passive aggressive with Jesus trying to shame her sister into getting with the program.
Jesus’ reaction to Martha feels like a slap in the face to all of us who have been in her shoes. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. . .” To our defensive ears, Jesus sounds patronizing and dismissive. After all, it’s Jesus’ lunch that is distracting her! Who is he to criticize?
But what if Jesus is not insulting Martha? What if Jesus is issuing Martha an invitation? What if he is saying to her, “Mary has chosen the better part. . .and you can, too.” What if his response is an invitation to sit at his feet? To walk away from the roles Martha thinks she has to fill?
This summer, a group of us have been reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly together. The book is all about how embracing vulnerability can lead to wholehearted and transformative lives. Brown argues that in our culture women are judged on how we look, how our homes look, how our children behave, and how effortlessly we pull all that perfection off. All summer we have been talking about what it would mean to embrace our imperfection, to let go of the myth of perfection and live our lives as our authentic selves.
Martha has this idea that she has to work, work, work to care for Jesus. But Jesus would be perfectly satisfied if Martha did not do a stitch of work on his behalf, but really connected with him instead.
Our lives as modern women are really complicated. There are areas of our lives where we are as free as any women have ever been free. Women my age have been brought up believing we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be. We can be scientists and politicians and editors and soldiers. Even priests. We can be mothers and wives and travel and write novels in our spare time. And so we get it in our heads that we have to be all these things. We have to be professional women at the top of our field. We have to be incredibly attentive wives and girlfriends, fulfilling unspoken fantasies with our perfect gym-toned bodies. We have to be the most nurturing mothers of any generation. We have to be best friends, and excellent hostesses, and affectionate pet owners. And we have to do all of this without breaking a sweat.
We work and we work and we work and in the end, if we’re lucky, we realize that this is all baloney! Or, we end up weeping on our beds because our stupid cake has fallen and we are exhausted from trying to keep everything together.
And this where grace can enter in. Because it’s hard for grace to wedge its way into a perfect life. Grace is like light—it prefers cracks to make itself known.
When you are weeping on your bed because your cake fell apart, your husband can reassure you that all he wanted was cake and berries mashed together and you realize you can make a trifle! When you are weeping on your bed, you realize the only person in the house that gave a hoot about the cake was you and what everyone in the house wants is for you to be happy and to join them in the kitchen and to eat a biscuit slathered in peach butter.
In that kitchen, surrounded by love, you really understand Jesus’ invitation. Because Jesus loves Martha—not for what she does for him, but just because he loves her. And if Martha would be happier sitting by Jesus’ feet, then she should sit by Jesus’ feet. But if Martha would rather make sandwiches in love, that’s great, too! Both are ministry, no matter what the translators think.
All of us Marthas need to realize that there is not one way to be. There is not one way to serve Jesus. There is not one way to be a woman, a friend, a wife, a daughter, a mother. Human beings are infinitely varied and flawed and interesting. We are loved. Full stop. Not for how we look, not for how we perform at work, not for how our children behave, not for how much volunteer work we do. We are loved by God because God wants to love us. Full stop.
And as we baptize three infants today (at 10:30) we can remember that sometimes the best way to help them live into their baptismal identities is by living as if are worthy of being loved. What better way to teach them about the generous grace of God and the value of their small lives?
May God’s grace shine through the cracks of your lives. Amen.