The Sunday Sermon: Send Her Back

Let’s start with a pop quiz: imagine that I say something in this sermon that you find disturbing or offensive, or even (God forbid) boring. What is your response? Do you a) make an appointment to meet with me and talk about it; b) write a letter to the bishop about it; or c) complain about it at brunch with other parishioners? I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but just make a mental note of your answer, and we will come back to it in a few minutes.

The story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel comes immediately after the story of the good Samaritan that we heard last week. Do you remember the conversation between Jesus and a lawyer that began that story? The lawyer summarized the Jewish law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And then the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, and Jesus started to teach him, with the story of the Good Samaritan as an illustration.  Today’s story continues that teaching. Martha is loving and serving her neighbor, and Mary is loving God with all her heart and mind.
Martha is offering a ministry of service, a ministry that Jesus encourages and promotes in this very Gospel when he says that the greatest among the disciples is the one who serves. She is not to be criticized for offering this ministry. Hospitality is and always has been the first obligation of civilized people: just as Abraham once provided refreshments and a resting place for the mysterious visitors in the desert, so Martha is providing what her honored guest needs. Martha is the personification of the commandment to love the neighbor. She is also doing what her culture expects her as a respectable woman to do: stay in the kitchen, cook and serve, and remain out of sight. Martha probably wouldn’t dream of going to the town well in the middle of the day by herself, as another woman elsewhere in the Gospels does: that would be scandalous.
In the Genesis story Abraham was out front with the hospitality while Sarah hovered modestly out of sight and baked the cakes. In the Gospel, Martha is evidently playing a dual role in the absence of a male householder, welcoming Jesus and then getting busy in the kitchen. She expects her sister to join her there. But Mary is called to a different ministry. She wants to be a disciple of the rabbi. This is something that women just didn’t do in the world that Mary and Martha lived in. A woman didn’t sit at the feet of an unrelated man, in public or in private. A woman didn’t participate in religious discussions. A woman didn’t aspire to be a rabbinical student.
We don’t have to go back 2,000 years to find such cultural expectations. It’s only been 45 years since eleven women were the first to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974. In many developing countries today, girls are not expected or permitted to attend school: they must stay home to care for younger siblings or to carry water; or they are married off – essentially trafficked – at an early age and expected to devote themselves to having babies and feeding their households. Mary’s conduct is still considered scandalous; even inthis country there are faith communities that bar women from leadership and prominent men who regard it as inappropriate for an unrelated woman to be close to them.
The Jesus we encounter in Luke’s Gospel teaches another way. He comes to break down artificial barriers, he comes to free us from chains of convention. Listen to the mission statement he proclaims at the beginning of his ministry, borrowed from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me: because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18,19).
Jesus brings good news for all people, and especially for those who have been shut out, whether by community or family or government. Our place in God’s Kingdom is not limited by our identity. There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female in the Jesus movement, as Luke portrays it. Shepherds can have visions of angels, Samaritans can be models of compassionate care, tax collectors and sinners can serve as hosts at the Lord’s table. Luke provides a female counterpart for almost every male character in his Gospel and continues in Acts with several examples of women in leadership in the early church.
Martha’s ministry is valuable – of course it is, but Mary has chosen a good thing too (not necessarily better, as our translation has it). This isn’t a competition: it’s a demonstration of the possibilities: love your neighbor by serving and feeding him. Love God by studying God’s word, and where better to study it than at the feet of the Word Incarnate? Jesus says Mary’s ministry will not be denied her, but sadly history has not borne that statement out: half the human race has been denied full access to ministry throughout the ages, and it is still the case in many religious traditions.
And even outside of religious contexts, women still face condemnation for being forceful in leadership, for daring to criticize a policy or a politician, for making public accusations of misconduct by powerful men. Uppity women, and especially women of color, are still a challenge for those who feel threatened by the broader sharing of power and privilege. Just take a look at the newspapers or CNN if you are dubious.
But those who are oppressed and silenced find ways to voice their pain and proclaim their truth, even if, as Emily Dickinson wrote, they have to tell it slant. Our Genesis story stops short of its ending. The mysterious trio of visitors – the Trinity? Angels? – tell Abraham that Sarah will bear a son. The story goes on: Sarah was listening at the flap of the tent. Now Abraham and Sarah were both old, Sarah was past the age for bearing children. So when she heard the promise, she laughed to herself in incredulityAnd the visitors heard her laughter and challenged her on it. But when in due course she did indeed bear a son she named him Isaac, which means Laughter. Sarah told her truth, even though she wasn’t included in the conversation with the visitors. Sarah, the first uppity woman.
Now, let’s return to that pop quiz I started with. Which of the responses, a, b, or c, is the most appropriate? It’s a, isn’t it: make an appointment with me to talk about it, and hopefully come to a reconciliation. And which response is closest to what we saw Martha doing in the Gospel? Surely it’s b: address the issue indirectly by trying to get someone with greater authority to take it on. It’s not the worst response but it’s not healthy either: it is less likely to lead to reconciliation.
Martha illustrates a behavior that is all too easy for us to fall into. She is offended and resentful that her sister isn’t helping her. She does that thing that we encounter so often in community: instead of saying directly and quietly to Mary, Come and help me pit the olives, she complains to Jesus over Mary’s head, as if Mary isn’t there, and she blames Jesus. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work? Send her back – to the kitchen.” Martha provides a great example for how not to behave in community; and just think about the irony of accusing Jesus of not caring, Jesus, who cares so much that he willingly endured an agonizing death in order to give us life.
The mission of the church, according to our Catechism, is reconciliation: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP p.855). All people. In these days of divisive rhetoric and inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants, how are we doing on that mission? St Paul writes that in Christ, “All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to [Godself] all things.” The fullness of God, the fullness of the divine image, is expressed only through the fullness of humanity. Reconciliation is possible only when all people have a seat at the table, when all are empowered to share and develop their gifts, when all find the grace to share their power and make space for the other. We need the Marthas and the Marys, the busy servants and the contemplative students. We need Showers volunteers and EfM mentors, sacristans and gardeners, musicians and social justice activists. And when the breadth of our diversity threatens to pull us apart, it is Christ who holds all things together, who calls each of us by name, and who shows us a better way, the way of love.

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