Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the lives of three saints- Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Margaret Guenther, an Episcopal priest and theology professor wrote, “We all need friends with whom we can speak of our deepest concerns, and who do not fear to speak the truth to us in love.” Friends are those people in life who make you laugh a bit longer, who make you smile a bit bigger, and make you live just a little bit better. When opponents wish to see you fail, friends can support and encourage you. When others want to humble us and keep you down, friends can applaud and lift you up. And when enemies want to make you feel alone and empty, friends can applaud and inspire you to never give up.
Scripture reminds us that even Jesus needed authentic friendship- and that the little family in Bethany of Mary, Martha and Lazarus were just those friends. They opened their home to Jesus, and it was there in their house that Jesus found refreshment during his earthly ministry. The story also reminds us that true friendship with Jesus brings out the very best in our own human character. And yet it may not be the same strength of character in all Jesus’ followers- even within the same family. So let us meditate this morning on Mary, Martha and Lazarus and how their friendship with Jesus changed each one of them.
We’ll begin with Mary. Her name comes from the word Hebrew Miriam, which means “wished for child” or “bitter.” Although today, the name Mary is the 124th name on the list of popular girl’s name, until the 1960’s, it was among the 10 most popular girl’s names in America. It was just as popular name in Biblical times which has led to much confusion. Bob Newhart didn’t have to create the line. “I’m Larry and this is my brother Darryl and my other brother Darryl.” Simply read the Bible’s account of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene and Mary were there, as well as the other Mary. For nearly 1500 years, Mary, Martha’s sister, was referred to as Mary Magdalene, the black sheep of the family. Only in 1969, did the Roman Catholic Church break with its own tradition and state that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were two different women.
Truthfully, Mary of Bethany is only mentioned briefly in the gospel. First, in St. Luke’s gospel at an evening meal with Jesus, with her sister Martha frantically working in the kitchen, while Mary is seen sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his words. Later in St. John’s gospel, Mary is seen again weeping at her brother’s tomb, and then finally again, we see her seated at Jesus’ feet, anointing him with expensive oil as a sign of thankfulness for her brother’s Lazarus’ restored life.
These little scenes do tell us something about the nature of Christian friendship. Perhaps most poignantly, the story of Mary at Jesus’ feet reminds us that Jesus does not make distinctions between his followers. Being seated at the foot of the rabbi in the ancient world was a place reserved for men, but Jesus trained women to proclaim the good news of salvation as well. He called men and women equally to the service of the gospel. It is a word of wisdom for our own day and age. Friends of Jesus should not differentiate between male and female, black of white, Jew or Gentile. Instead, we are called to invite them all to be nurtured at Jesus’s feet and then to send them forth to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ love to all creation. So what did Mary’s friendship with Jesus do to her? It brought out her deep sense of worship and praise and reflection.
Let us turn now to Martha. In the 1880’s Martha was the 7th most popular name for girls in America. Regrettably, in 2016, it is the 751st most popular name. As a point of reference, Arden is the 1,864th most popular name for boys today. And as a girl’s name, it is the 1184th most popular. The name Martha means “lady” or “mistress” and that is exactly how she functioned in her home in Bethany. She was the Martha Stewart who served the finest Sweet Martha’s cookies. In St. John’s gospel, we read that, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus.” We do not know why Jesus loved Martha as it state’s in scripture. Traditionally, Martha has been regarded as the patron saint of cooks, wait staffs, bakers and chefs- which may indicate that she was an artist in the kitchen. She was certainly knew the art of hospitality.
Martha, however, may have been too efficient and effective. In St. Luke’s gospel, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and then worries herself with serving him. Unfortunately, Martha’s sister’s Mary is oblivious to her sister’s fears. Martha’s complaint to Jesus that her sister was not helping her serve drew the following response. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
There is a beauty in that simply exchange between two friends. Martha speaks of her deepest concern to Jesus. Hospitality in her culture was a sign or honor and respect. Serving was not to be taken lightly- lest it offend the guest. Martha wasn’t simply saying, “Poor me.” No, she was apologizing to Jesus for her sister Mary’s disrespect. We often think that Jesus’ words were a criticism of Martha’s busyness. It is rather a heart to heart conversation between two friends. Martha’s problem, Jesus insists, is that she has forgotten why she was doing all the work in the first place. She was “distracted” and “worried” when she should have been glad that Jesus had come to her home. Mary’s “better part” was that she knew why she was seated at Jesus’ feet. After all we need the Martha of the world to get things done.
Coincidentally, Martha appears again in St. John’s gospel. It is yet another meal. Jesus is seen reclining with her brother Lazarus after he has been raised him from the dead. The description of Martha’s work now, however, is quite simple. “Martha served. “ She performs the same task as before, but now without the anxiety and busyness. How did Martha’s friendship with Jesus change her? Martha’s service was infused with faith, and it gave her delight- all because she knew whom she was serving.
John MacArther writes of the friends of Jesus, “Martha was a noble and godly woman with a servant’s heart and a rare capacity for work. Mary was nobler still, with an unusual predisposition for worship and wisdom. Both were remarkable in their own ways. If we weigh their gifts and their instincts together, they give us a wonderful example to follow.”
Finally, we turn to Jesus’ friend Lazarus whose name means “God is my help.” Surprisingly, Lazarus’ name is 700 places higher in popularity than Arden. There are very few Lazaruses in the Bible except for poor Lazarus who is covered in sores and reaches out to Father Abraham. So, theologians refer to Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus Four Days Dead. Unfortunately, we can’t infer much of his character from the story of his being from his dead, since he was – dead. But there is one thing telling about him after he was raised. Apparently, every time he opened his mouth, he was a threat to the authorities in Jerusalem. So a plot was arranged to kill him. And yet he kept on speaking. How did Lazarus’ friendship with Jesus change him? Of course it gave him new life. Literally and figuratively. But more it importantly, it made him an apostle and advocate for Jesus and his kingdom. It was a commitment he took very seriously. Now, I wish I could say that this friendship made him more fun loving and cheerful But according to tradition, Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years after his resurrection, worried by the sight of unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hades. The only exception was, when he saw someone stealing a pot, he smilingly said, “The clay steals the clay.”
And how was Jesus changed by his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus? Well, because they were friends, they made him laugh a bit longer, they made him smile a bit bigger, and they made him live just a little bit better.
How have you been changed by your friendship with Jesus, and what gifts to you have to share? Are you like Mary, or Martha, or perhaps Lazarus? The world we live in today needs these gifts of character that the friends of Jesus can offer. In a city and nation that has been torn by mistrust, gun violence and prejudice, we need the friends of Jesus who can share the gifts of focused prayer and meditation. We need the Mary’s of this world who have tasted equality and long to share it. We need the gifts of hospitality and service. We need the Martha’s of this world who can get things done. We need the gifts of advocacy and the proclamation of the good news. Yes, we need the Lazaruses of the world who take all life seriously and work for hope. My friends, the world needs your gifts- now as much as any time in our history.
But true friendships don’t just happen- even friendships with Jesus. They cannot happen from a distance. Friendship with Jesus can only happen in the close proximity of his Word, and prayer, and in his community of fellow believers.
So what happened to the family from Bethany? According to the tradition of the Eastern Church, during the great persecution in Jerusalem when many Jewish-Christians, Mary, Martha and Lazarus took refuge on the island of Cyprus. There they met Paul and Barnabas who consecrated Lazarus as the first bishop of Cyprus. The church in Kition, Cyprus stands to this day honoring his memory and that of his steadfast companions in life Mary and Martha. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.