by Susan Russell
I wrote this piece in 2005 for Witness Magazine (which I still miss!) and thought it rose to a rerun with Martha's gospel coming up again this Sunday.
I love the fact that planted within the great drama of "The Raising of Lazarus" there is such a wonderful subplot: "The Confession of Saint Martha" -- or at least that's what I would call it if I got to be in charge of the lectionary.
Lazarus, friend of Jesus and brother to Martha and Mary, had been in the tomb for four days when Jesus finally arrived in Bethany. Here's how the Gospel according to John tells it: "When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home."
Quite a reversal of the roles, here -- very different from our encounter with these same sisters in Luke's Gospel where it is Mary who crosses over the cultural expectation -- sitting at Jesus' feet and getting in trouble with Martha for not pulling her weight in the kitchen. Here it is Martha who leaves the women mourning and goes out to meet Jesus: a radical departure.
I am convinced that the same kind of transformation that turned Saul from the persecutor to Paul the evangelist -- that turned Peter from the blustery fisherman who denied Jesus in the courtyard into the "rock" on which the church was founded -- changed Martha from a woman whining about needing help in the kitchen to a woman empowered to go out and ask for what she wanted.
She goes directly to meet Jesus as he is coming into town -- and then confronts him in the road just outside the city: "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." What courage -- what chutzpah!
And then, in response to Jesus' question: "Do you believe?" we have her wonderful words of faithful affirmation, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world." There you have it: The Confession of Saint Martha.
I think it bears noting that the same profession of faith that earned Peter an extra feast day in the liturgical calendar has not garnered Martha the same reward. It could be a case of gender bias in action -- or it could just be an honest oversight: with all the attendant drama over the raising of Lazarus from the dead I suppose one could be excused from overlooking the confession part of the story.
But I think another feast day for Martha is worth lobbying for. I believe her example is worth emulating. For I am convinced that the same kind of transformation that turned Saul from the persecutor to Paul the evangelist -- that turned Peter from the blustery fisherman who denied Jesus in the courtyard into the "rock" on which the church was founded -- changed Martha from a woman whining about needing help in the kitchen to a woman empowered to go out and ask for what she wanted.
That transformation is nothing less than the power of the Spirit of God calling each and every one of us to health -- to wholeness -- to realizing our full potential as children of God and to the life abundant which is our inheritance. It is a change that isn't about making us someone we're not but making us more authentically who we are. It is a change described best for me in a song I learned years ago at a women's retreat:
I will change your name.
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, Outcast, Lonely or Afraid
I will change your name.
Your new name shall be
Joyfulness. Confidence. Overcoming One.
Faithfulness. Friend of God.
One who seeks my face.
That's the life abundant God intends for each and every one of us: joyful in our work, confident in our gifts, secure in the love of the God who calls us to live not in the anxiety of earning approval but in the peace of knowing that we are both fully loved and fully known. And ready, like Martha, to march out on the dirt road outside of town (if we have to) in order to bring to Jesus' attention that which needs fixing, healing, raising -- in ourselves, in our families, in our church and in our world.
Walter Wink has written, "History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being." Following Martha's example I might add to that, "And to the insisters who will settle for nothing less than a future that is about peace on earth and justice for all." And when we've finished with that, we can work on getting Martha her own day in Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
[Yes, the illustration is one of the windows from the All Saints chapel!]