Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon; 9 Pentecost, Proper 11C; Luke 10:38-42

Today we hear the story of Martha and Mary.  It's a short story in which Martha plays hostess to Jesus while her sister, Mary, does nothing but sit at Jesus' feet listening to him teach.  Within this short story are deep issues around theology, gender roles, and worldly distractions.

There are many interpretations that criticize and demean Martha for her many distractions.  They paint an image of her that reminds me of my grandmother.  We would often have Thanksgiving dinner at her house, and the place was packed with family and relatives.  But from the time people began showing up until they went home, she was never able to sit and enjoy the meal.  She was always up getting this or that, or moving things around in one way or another.  Like Martha, she was distracted by her many tasks and she had to be told several times to sit down and relax.

There are also many interpretations that overly praise Mary for her decision to sit at Jesus' feet, listening to and learning from what he has to say.  This often comes from the line that says she has chosen the better part, and is presented as reminding us to focus on heavenly things over earthly desires.

The way these women are typically presented is, “Mary good, Martha bad.”  But, as my favorite NT professor often said, “It's more complicated than that.”

One other way we can interpret this story is to demean both women.  Martha is too overcome with the details and distractions of her many tasks to take any notice of what Jesus is saying.  On top of that, she whines to him to intercede on her part and tell Mary to quit being lazy and get to work, rather than deal directly with her sister.  In family systems theory, we call that 'triangulation.'  Don't be a Martha, we are told.

Mary doesn't fare much better.  Yes, she is attentive to what Jesus is saying, but she is completely passive.  Unlike the male disciples, she never speaks, nor does she ask any questions.  She seems to be living out the directives to women as found in 1 Tim. 2:11-12 – “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  Mary becomes yet another symbol and example of male dominance.

Another way to look at this, though, is to make some positive observations.  The first is that Mary and Martha are not binary examples, one good and one bad.  We need to understand that while the gospels provide us with a new way to live our lives, the gospels very rarely provide us with black and white answers.

A second observation is to note that the gospels are not to be used as a resource on how to demean people.  We aren't to use this particular passage as a way to tell busy people (distracted or otherwise) that Jesus doesn't like the way they handle their business, or their busy-ness.  Nor are we to use this passage to keep women submissive and silent as Mary.

The final and most important observation we can make is that this is a both/and passage.  It doesn't provide black and white answers, but it does show us how to live.  It doesn't berate Martha for her actions, but it does teach us about perspective.  The truth of the matter is that we need both.

We need both hearers and doers of the Word.  We need both the thinkers who plan the feast and the laborers who make it all come together.

In several places throughout Christian history Martha is praised for her work.  She is the one who was ready to serve Jesus before he even arrived.  She is the one who prepared, as Augustine said, a foreshadowing of the meal Christ would share with his disciples.  She also, in another gospel, is the one who had the discussion with Jesus about the resurrection.  Martha has many reasons for which to be praised.

Mary, on the other hand, is much more introspective and/or introverted.  We don't know if she helped with the pre-arrival preparations, but it's clear that once Jesus arrived she was totally focused on him.  In that other gospel story about her brother Lazarus, she was most likely sitting in prayer next to her brother while he died; and she was probably playing the part of a proper mourner when Jesus arrived.

Both of these women have qualities for which to be praised.  Both of these women love Jesus.  Each woman expresses that love in different ways, just as all of us here have our own unique way of expressing our love for Christ.  This doesn't make any one way better or worse than another, it just makes it different.  Within those differences, however, are things to which we may want to pay attention.

First, we need to understand that Martha's work is necessary.  It is necessary for us to be hospitable and serve others.  It is necessary for us to prepare this house for the arrival of Jesus.  It is necessary that we offer food and drink, both literal and spiritual, to those who need it.  These things are necessary, but they won't last.  All of this – the planning, the meals, the concern, the building – all of this is transitory.  Later in Luke (in a passage we wont' hear until Advent 2019) Jesus will say, “Heaven and earth will pass away.”  This is all temporary, and Martha, while doing important work, gets caught up in thinking it's permanent.

Mary, on the other hand, chooses the better part.  Again, in Advent 2019 we will hear Jesus say, “But my words will never pass away.”  As Augustine said so beautifully, “This tiresome journey brings us closer to home and rest where, all our busy activities over and done with, the only thing remaining will be, 'Alleluia'.”  Knowing and dwelling on what will last is choosing the better part.

We have things to do here.  We have people to feed and clothe.  We have sick to visit.  We have services and potlucks to organize.  But let us never forget why we do these things.  Let us never get distracted by that which we know to be transitory.  Let us always, in all our busy works, choose the better part.



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