Lectionary sermon on Luke 10:38-42 for July 21, 2013, Pentecost + 9, 16th Ordinary C
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named
Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Martha, Mary and Jesus walk into a bar…
It’s not easy to grow up in times of change, is it? When I was a child, my parents taught me how men are supposed to treat women. I learned that we were supposed to open doors and pull out chairs for them, help them on with their coats, and be generally chivalrous. Then the 60’s happened, and though I was still young, I “got it” that role expectations were changing. Now, instead of worrying about looking like I wasn’t a gentleman, I had to worry about looking like a male chauvinist.
Those changes were part of the ongoing plot of the TV show “All in the Family.” I remember how stumped Archie Bunker was when he was asked this riddle:
“A man is driving his son to school. they get into an accident and the man dies. the son is rushed to the hospital and when he arrives for emergency surgery the doctor says “I can’t operate on this boy, HE’S MY SON!”
How is this possible?”
Neither Archie nor any of his friends in the bar figured out the obvious: that the surgeon was the boy’s mother. Archie’s liberal son-in-law whom he calls “meat-head” got it immediately.
Those were the early days of the “women’s liberation” movement. Women, for all of human history had been treated like second class humans, even as property. Even here in America with our emphasis on democracy, freedom and equality, it was not until 1920, already the 20th century, before women had the right to vote.
Bondage and Ignorance
We are still living in a tremendous time of transition. Gender issues continue to be a source of a lot of uncertainty, and often, of pain. But as issues of equality and liberation have been analyzed, from South Africa to South Alabama, it has become clear that men had to be liberated along with the women. Men’s thinking and perceptions had to be freed from the bondage of misinformation, prejudice, and from the blind arrogance of power.
Consider this: that to think incorrectly about something is itself a form of bondage. It is the truth that sets us free, as Jesus taught. And yet how in the world do you get someone in power to change? How do petrified positions ever soften to new information and new ways of understanding? It’s not easy to admit being wrong – never; for anybody. Especially when you benefit from the error, has men always have.
There are two issues this text puts forward that are both important, both concern forms of liberation from our bondage, and we need to consider both of them today if we are to live into the truth that can make us free. I want to start this way:
The Oddness and what it teaches
“Martha, Mary and Jesus walk into a bar…”. Does that sound funny? It sounds like it’s the start of a joke. But it also sounds funny because the whole situation is odd. Mary, Martha and Jesus show up together in the bible, but not in a bar. But in the same way that it strikes us as oddly inappropriate to picture the three of them in a bar, so it would have seemed odd to people in Jesus’ time for him to go into the house of a woman with no man around. (I know we are used to thinking of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, being around, but he never shows up in this story or this gospel – only in John’s gospel).
Where are we, in this story? Jesus and his followers are on a long journey to Jerusalem, the capital city, the site of King Herod’s palace and the temple, the heart and soul of Jewish culture and religion.
On this journey, Jesus was intentionally forming his disciples into a new community. As they watched what he did, who he took time for, and as they heard what he said, they were getting a course in spiritual direction. The way Luke tells it, every detail was important.
There are two levels to this, and every gospel story. On one level, this is a story about a journey Jesus is on. But something else is going on as we read about this journey. Many years after Jesus’ life on earth, and in a different place, Luke was re-telling the story of Jesus for his faith-community, his new church. Luke was telling the story of Jesus in such a way as to help form his gentile community as disciples of Jesus. Both levels are in operation all the time as we read the gospels.
The Woman who Takes the Initiative
So, back to the story. On this journey, something odd happens. Jesus receives an invitation from an apparently single woman to come into her home were she lives with her apparently single sister. This gives Jesus a chance to teach his disciples a powerful truth, one that, if they grasp it, will liberate them and many others. They watch Martha make the invitation and they wait for Jesus’s reply. Picture the disciples all raising their eyebrows simultaneously.
I don’t know if the eyebrows in Luke’s Gentile congregation would have raised as highly as they did in the Jewish world Jesus inhabited, but certainly everyone would have noticed. Gender rules in this new Jesus-community were not the same as they had always been in the wider culture, not in Palestine where Jesus lived or in Luke’s world of the Roman Empire.
What is the role of gender in our lives? It’s huge. Every time we have to say who we are we use identity-categories like race, nationality, and gender to define ourselves. “I’m a Caucasian, American man.” It is part of our self-identity. Gender opens doors for us, or else it shuts doors, depending on which doors they are, and who is on the other side.
So, Martha makes the invitation to Jesus; can a woman do that? Take the initiative? Invite a single man in? I can picture Jesus looking around at his raised-eyebrow crew and saying, “Watch closely, gentlemen,” then, turning back to Martha with a hearty, “Yes, thank you.” Luke’s church too, is hearing and learning a new way to live.
What about the culturally appropriate separation of the sexes? Shouldn’t Martha have found a man, a friend, a neighbor perhaps to go give the invitation while she stayed dutifully behind closed doors? Separate but equal?
The truth is that “separate” always means unequal, and always will. If the women are not in the room, they are not part of the conversation. If the women are not at the table, their voices are not heard. That may be the Taliban way, but it is not the Jesus way.
Creating a Transformed Community
Look at what Jesus is doing here: by his inclusion of women, Jesus was teaching his followers to be a transformed and transformative community. Who cares if nobody else did it this way? Who cares if all of male-dominated history had done it another way? Jesus’ community was about restoring God’s good creation to the original vision: male and female, both equally created in the image of God.
It is only after things go wrong in the garden, only after humans choose the knowledge of good and evil in their vain attempt to be “like god” that we hear the language of domination. In the creation story, God tells women how men will treat them:
“he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)
Truer words were never spoken. The burqa was not unpredictable.
The Woman who Wanted an Education
Luke continues the story inside the home. Jesus the teacher is seated as was the custom for teachers. His disciples are sitting at his feet. Probably no one is on a chair. Luke sets the stage:
“a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”
Eyebrows raise again. Here is a second woman, Mary, also apparently unaccompanied by a man, doing what the culture believes that only men could do: learning from a Rabbi, a teacher. That was not women’s role. They were supposed to stay in the kitchen.
Jesus was pushing gender stereo-types and boundaries. Not only could women take the initiative and approach men as equals, as Martha did, they could even be students, learners as Mary was.
Every culture of domination has known how dangerous education is. Slaves were not allowed to become literate in America. Black people were met at the university door with police dogs here in Alabama, not so long ago. The Taliban would rather shoot a girl in the head than let her go to school.
Hard-headedness and Change
But it is hard for men to hear teaching about gender stereo-types that contradict the way we have always believed. Even in the church, the very community that preserved this story – and all the other stories of Jesus and women – and read them, and copied them, and passed them down to the next generation, took nearly 2,000 years to ordain women clergy. We are a stubborn species. And we men like our privileges. Gender stereo-types die hard, and with great resistance.
Some churches are still stuck in the gender stereo-types of the ancient world. Happily, our denomination moved beyond them in the 1970’s (though there is much work left to be done). But today we are deeply divided by gender stereo-types of other sorts. We all know that the binary alternative of the majority, male or female, is simply inadequate to describe the complex world of human beings. But our old habits of thinking die hard.
Even knowing what we know now, it’s still hard. We now know about things that the ancient world was clueless about, like the concept of sexual orientation.
Although the ancient world knew that sometimes people of the same gender loved each other romantically, in fact, one of the great ancient Greek lyric poets, Sappho, from the Isle of Lesbos, is the source of our word “lesbian.” But the ancient view was that homosexuals were merely over-sexed heterosexuals. Now we know differently.
Sexual orientation is not chosen, any more than eye color is chosen, and it is not about out of control appetites at all. But discrimination still exists because old habits of thinking about gender-related issues die hard.
Jesus taught us to deconstruct culturally created gender and sexuality categories that keep people in bondage. Martha, a woman, takes the initiative, and Jesus accepts her in that role. Mary is welcomed as a learner, siting as a disciple at Jesus’ feet. This is a transformed community.
So the first issue was the liberation of women which happened in the new Jesus-community. But what about the liberation of men?
How can we hard-headed, stubborn people soften to the voice of the Spirit as she coaxes us forward? Here is where the next part of the story comes in. We will never make spiritual progress as long as our focus is doing. We have to take time to be still, and listen.
Being both Martha and Mary: Doing and Being modes
Martha is the fall-guy here. She does what Peter usually did: say just the wrong thing and get corrected by Jesus. But this time, instead of giving Martha a bad rap, perhaps we should think of these two sisters with the similar-starting names as two alternative aspects of one person. Maybe we all have a Martha and a Mary in us.
All of us have the capacity to live in the Martha “doing mode” or the Mary “being mode.” In the doing mode, we are active, productive, accomplishing, getting things done. We have to live that way, at least some of the time, or nobody gets supper. Our Martha mode gets it done.
But if the doing mode is all we know, then we never stop to listen and to learn. Even “doing church” or religion will not accomplish the spiritual transformation we long for. All of us have to hush the Martha voices of compulsive doing, and purposefully spend time in silence at the feet of Rabbi Jesus as Mary did.
It is when we learn to sit in silence and turn away from our own mental chatter that we open ourselves to the gentle voice of the Spirit. Compassion grows with time spent in contemplative prayer and meditation. Compassion opens our hearts to people who had been shut out or shut down. We can become open to hearing the voices of those who have been silenced by culture and custom as we allow our Mary-sides time to sit in silence before the Teacher.
How do we make progress as a church instead of remaining in the bondage of old and incorrect ways of being? We make spiritual progress towards inner liberation and transformation as we softened to the stories of pain and suffering told by those who had been shut out of conversations for centuries. This is the fruit of sitting in silence, in the Mary-mode of being.
Well, Jesus was about two thousand years ahead of us. Perhaps it was his many hours of solitary prayer that softened his heart to the pain around him: to women, to children, to diseased people, to the poor and to the hungry.
May we follow his example and be his transformed disciples. May we soften to compassion, to new ideas, and even to admitting that we had been wrong in the past. May we push the boundaries as far as they need to go, so that no one is left out of the room, or excluded from the table.
Let’s let Jesus’ voice be the last word, as he addresses both sides of our lives, saying to each one of us, men and women:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”