My wife and I co-lead a discussion circle at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Queens in Flushing, New York. Here is her sermon and my response…

There’s Something About Mary and Martha…

or Choosing the Better Part

A sermon by Ann Beirne

July 17, 2011

Unitarian Universalist Church of Queens

My name is Ann Beirne and this is my husband David Freiman. I’d like to begin today by thanking you for giving me the opportunity to come here and share with you one of my favorite stories from the Christian Bible.  This story is one that is very appropriate for ecumenical discussions, because, not only does it have no mention of Jesus’ divinity or for that matter, any divinity at all, but its underlying message is universal.  It fits well with the words of Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Forrest Church, who said, “Some look at the Bible and say it is the true word of God.  Others look at the Bible and say it is myth.  Unitarians look at the Bible and say, ‘What’s wrong with myth?’”

The story comes from Luke’s gospel, chapter 10 verse 38, found in your handout:

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?  Tell her to help me.”  The Lord said to her in reply, “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.”

This story is an incredibly familiar one to Christians.  So familiar, in fact, that after the birth of my daughter when a friend asked me how I was adjusting to life with a newborn and a toddler, I responded ”Childcare is a Mary activity for me… Unfortunately cleaning is a Martha activity,” and she smiled and nodded knowingly.

Some Christians interpret this passage as a reminder for women to include a practice of prayer and Bible study in their routines.  But for teh Gospel writer to use shis story ot communicate simply “don’t forget to say your prayers,” would be, as a chaplain I once knew said, “like ringing a doorbell with a cannon.”  I believe we can take a different approach to the story and get more out of it.

This story is a favorite among feminist Catholic women like myself for obvious reason.  During the time that this was written, it would have been considered revolutionary for women to be present, seated among men, to hear a man speak about theology.  It was, to say the least, unusual for women in first century Judaism to be accepted by a teacher as a disciple, so to even have it tolerated would be considered radical to the point of being scandalous.

There are other examples of the leadership role of women in Jesus’ ministry and in the early church.  Women remained with him at the cross and were the first to hear of his resurrection.   But the story of Mary and Martha is one of our best examples of Jesus’ radical feminism in action.

But for everyone who identifies with and admires Mary, there are others who sympathize with Martha.  It does, after all, seem unfair that one sister ends up stuck with all the grunt work while the other gets to be admired by feminist Catholic women for the next few thousand years.  Martha’s reaction is never described. Does she sit down next to Mary?  And if so, what do they eat?

I think there’s more to this story than a platform for feminism and a scriptural justification to avoid housework… though that is convenient.  Although this story paints a picture of Jesus as a radical feminist, in the context of the rest of the Christian Bible, he appears to be in the tradition of modern feminists who view so called “women’s work” to be as valuable as those roles traditionally held by men.

The belief that he was really saying, “Martha stop being such a girl and get out of the kitchen” actually undermines her contribution in a way that contradicts not only his teaching, but his practice and lifestyle.  Jesus repeatedly extolled the virtues of service, washing the feet of his followers and feeding the multitudes who came to hear him preach.  He referred repeatedly to the kingdom of God as a banquet.

And unlike his sad-sack cousin John the Baptist, Jesus was almost always in the company of friends, eating and drinking while he preached.  Food, believe it or not, was central to his ministry, as was the acknowledgment of those who cooked and served it. Although certainly Jesus did acknowledge Mary’s right to participate in theological discussions to the same extent that men were permitted, an admonishment of Martha’s service would have amounted to an indictment of women in general, since that role did need to be filled, ideally by someone who knew how to fill it.

So if this is not a story about gender politics, or at least not exclusively about that, what then is the difference between Mary and Martha? It may not be the tasks specifically that puts us in the role of either Mary or Martha.  Let’s take a look at another example.  let’s say that my sister and I are attending  a family potluck for Thanksgiving.  She brings the wine and I bring the red velvet cake.

I spend Tuesday and Wednesday night measuring, mixing, baking and frosting.  At the dinner, I place my cake on the table and she raises a glass of the wine she has selected and offers a toast to the past year.  Which of us is playing the role of Mary and which is Martha?

If we were to determine this based only on the gender roles associated with each activity, I would be in the role of Martha.

But let’s consider that I often bake with my 2-year-old son, both of us spending the time giggling and tasting batter together, or how much I enjoy it when my infant daughter tastes the frosting off my finger, or the joy brought to me by the whole sensory experience of baking: the soft whir of the mixer, the swirl of color when the food coloring is added and mixed, the smell of  the cake baking.  If we add these things to the equation, the answer is quite different. Since this is something I can easily do with mindfulness and joy I am in Mary mode.

The tension between Mary and Martha is familiar to all of us, male and female alike.  Every way of life brings with it a share of drudgery.  I studied vocal performance in college, which one would expect ought to be a constant joy. However, like many music students, I struggled with music theory, a class my mother referred to as “the organic chemistry of the arts.”

In the case of the human companions to furry friends, there is a wealth of scientific evidence that owning pets can lower blood pressure, increase our happiness and improve our quality of life.  But no study that I know of addresses the task of cleaning the litter box or walking a resistant dog in the freezing rain.

Alfred Hitchcock once said “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.”  How do we begin the practice of cutting the dull parts out of our lives so that we can approach it with a Mary attitude?

I believe that the central message here is not in what Martha was doing but in how she was doing it.  It was not that she was engaged in the activity of “much serving”, but that she was burdened by it.  In other words, Martha became “Martha” when she began to resent it.  To paraphrase Jesus’ words with a favorite expression of preschool teachers everywhere, “Martha, worry about Martha.” While Mary was focused on what she was doing, Martha was focused on what she wasn’t doing.

What strikes me when reading this passage closely is the phrase, “only one thing is needed.”  That one thing is often assumed by fundamentalist Christians to be prayer and devotion to scripture, and by feminist Catholics to be full equality and positions of Church leadership.

But two other quotes occurred to me that you may recognize–and not from scripture.  The first is from David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, in which one of the characters states, “Men…they all only want one thing…but it’s never the same thing.”

The second is from the movie City Slickers, a coming-of-age story for the midlife-crisis-set starring Billy Crystal as a frustrated city dweller in his mid-40’s who goes on a cattle drive with his similarly tumbleweed-challenged friends.  Jack Palance, the professional cowboy responsible for chaperoning them explains that the secret to life is this [hold up finger] “one thing; just one thing.”  When asked what that one thing is, he says, “That’s what you have to figure out,” and rides away.

So maybe the “one thing” that is needed is more fluid than we might think.  The “one thing” is different for each of us and it changes not only from person to person, but from situation to situation. And we can find it right here right now, in this moment, whatever we’re doing.  Sharing this joke, typing this email, installing this shelf, baking this cake.

Maybe the secret of choosing the better part, as Mary did, is to raise our awareness of our “one thing” and try to do it fully.

For tasks where this is more challenging, I turn to the wisdom of another  of my favorite gurus — also a woman, also named Mary — Mary Poppins, who said “in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun and snap [*] the job’s a game.”

Imagine how much more joyous that, for example, cleaning could be if we spent the time focused on how much fun it was making the mess in the first place.  Finding the joy in the mundane may help us develop a Mary attitude.

I was really hoping that by the time I gave this talk I would be able to say I am now able to do this 50% of the time… it turns out that was too ambitious, and not only because the talk was moved up.  I guess I am still very much a work in progress.

This is our journey to take together.  I would love to hear your reflections on your own journey and I am honored that you are sharing in mine.  To close with one last quote, “If  I knew you were coming, I’d’ve baked a cake.”

Eileen Barton’s “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake

[Sound of knocking on door]


Come in

Well, well, well, look who’s here

I haven’t seen you in many a year

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake

baked a cake, baked a cake

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake

Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do

Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band

Grandest band in the land

Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band

And spread the welcome mat for you

Oh, I don’t know where you came from

’cause I don’t know where you’ve been

But it really doesn’t matter

Grab a chair and fill your platter

And dig, dig, dig right in

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake

Hired a band, goodness sake

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake

Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do

[Instrumental Interlude]


David’s thoughts:

Thank you Ann. My name is David Freiman. Thank you for having us here today. I am honored to share this time with you. I have a few thoughts of my own about this passage and then we will open up the circle for discussion. Let’s take a moment of silence to allow Ann’s sermon to settle in our hearts and minds.


The way the story has been portrayed in the past, Martha is surrounded by many tasks, because her dinner plans are too complicated. Martha took on too much in this version of the story. The only problem is that this is not what the text tells us. Jesus does not say, “Martha, you prepared too many side dishes. I don’t need so much. You could cook something simpler next time.” What Jesus does say is that Martha was distracted by her many tasks. Distracted. The New Testament Greek word used here is periespato, which means literally to be pulled or dragged away. Martha is being pulled apart by the many tasks at hand and the demands she feels are being made on her. By allowing herself to be pulled this way and dragged that way, Martha can not stay focused. Jesus tells Martha that she is distracted, while Mary has chosen the one thing and it is Mary who has chosen the best part.

I am a yoga teacher and according to traditional ancient texts, the purpose of yoga is to direct the attention of the mind without any internal or external distraction. In other words, the purpose of yoga is to calm the distractions of the mind. I like to imagine that perhaps  we are missing a verse here in which Jesus taught Martha some mindfulness meditation practices that he learned in the early adult years of his life that are not depicted in the Bible.

I am very much a Martha striving to live a Mary life. Like Martha, I am a perfectionist and tend to go overboard with ambitious plans, heavy logistics and short time frames. As someone involved in music and theater, especially opera, this was part of my early training and became second nature to me. High standards and a hard deadline: the curtain goes up and the show must go on in front of an audience that paid good money for admission.

The shadow side for me is that while I am engaged in the extensive preparation and operation of my ambitious  projects, my inclination for my other tasks and responsibilities is toward depression or sloth, or more precisely, as this predecessor to one of the seven deadly sins was named in the middle ages, acedia. Acedia is essentially a flight from the world. It leads to not caring even that one does not care. From the Greek word meaning negligence, acedia describes a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one’s duties in life. It is a spiritual form of depression.

Acedia was noted as a typical affliction of monks, hermits and other ascetics who, so caught up in the menial daily tasks of the monastery, and the routine litany of their worship, would forget that their purpose in the community was service to God. Today we might call this “lazy busy” or doing busywork to procrastinate from doing things that bring us in line with our true purpose. In a future sermon, I will speak to the topic of how one may engage in practices that shake one free of acedia. They start with learning to be mindful and present in order to calm the distractions of the mind.

And now if you have questions for Ann or myself, please raise your hand. If necessary I will repeat or paraphrase your question so we are sure that everyone understands it. We are also going to take a moment with each question to reflect on what was said before we move on.

[after discussion play song]

Copyright © 2011 Ann Beirne and David Freiman


Ann Beirne is a lifelong practicing Catholic and a member of St. Augustine’s Church in Park Slope, where she is also the leader of song. She has been a Unitarian Universalist for the past two years and is a member of All Souls Church in Manhattan. Ann is a behavior analyst and special education teacher with fifteen years experience of working with children with autism spectrum disorders. She is currently working as a consultant to schools designing classroom programming and training teachers to work with children with autism. She is clinical director of the Global Autism Project and has twice delivered training in Accra, Ghana. Ann is a graduate of Binghamton University and Columbia Teachers College. She is the mother of two and stepmother of two with her husband David Freiman.

David Freiman is a certified yoga teacher who specializes in doing yoga with children with autism spectrum disorders.  As a yoga therapy practitioner he works privately with stressed out adults. A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music he has directed plays and musicals and conducted opera, which is how he met his wife Ann Beirne, a soprano. David also had a fourteen year career as a certified software trainer and computer consultant working with Fortune 100 clients. A native New Yorker, David became a Unitarian Universalist in college. He has been a member of All Souls Church in New York since 1998, where he directed the children’s choir for eight years. For the past four years he has taught fourth graders the UU principles and the Our Whole Lives lifespan human sexuality curriculum. In addition to his children with Ann, David has two children from a previous marriage, a daughter who as a high school senior was co-recipient of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Youth Activist Award, and a son who this year completed Coming of Age.  Ann and David were married five years ago by Rev. Cheryl M. Walker in a ceremony in Northampton, Massachusetts as protest to win marriage equality in New York State.