Date: July 17, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Luke 10:38-42
Sermon: Martha and Mary
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
When we were in seminary, preparing for ministry, the United Church of Christ required that candidates go through psychological analysis and career counseling in order to be approved for ordination. This is still a requirement today. I did my counseling through the career development center at Lancaster Theological Seminary, a UCC school in Pennsylvania. In preparation, I had to do lots of questionnaires and psychological assessments. Then on the day I spent at the center, I met with several professional therapists and career counselors who had reviewed my materials. Frankly, it was very daunting. Maybe they would find something that would prevent them from recommending me for ordination. Maybe there would be a red flag. What would I do then?
At one point in the review process, my 24 year old self was in a wood paneled office with a middle aged white male authority figure kind of person who held my future in his hands. He was going over one of my assessments. And he said, So when you have a day off, you are likely to make a long list of things to do that could never actually be accomplished in one day. I was stunned. Nothing like that was asked on any of the questionnaires. How did he know that? I felt like I had been stripped bare naked. What should I say. Was it better to lie? Or confess? Guilty.
We have a code at our house. When I get home from work, someone asks, How was your day at church. And there are two possible answers. ED. Or NED. ED stands for Enough Done. NED signals Not Enough Done. And far and away, my response is NED. That is just who I am. So, you can line me up right behind Martha. Every time.
I know the need for balance. I have read the books about keeping Sabbath. About the Slow movement. About voluntary simplicity. And I know from Genesis that even God rested on the seventh day.
But I will be waving my hand for the Martha team every time. I might advise you to rest, to do less, to spend more time in silent reflection. But that’s because I am doing my job. You see, Martha always comes through!
Now, I know these matters can be personal. And we don’t want anyone to feel exposed here at church. So, I am not going to ask you if you identify more with Mary or with Martha. You know where you stand. And we’ll leave it at that.
In our time, we are witnessing the unraveling of society around us. We are seeing the implosion of the eco system. We are watching the erosion of civility and safety. These things are not unrelated. And we are being constantly bombarded with choices and activities clawing for our time. So many problems. So many things that need attention. And so little time.
There is competition even for our entertainment time. Which show to watch. Which movie to see. Never enough time to keep up on social media.
We live by our calendars – be they posted on the wall or on our phones or in a diary or managed by Alexa.
So, this story is fraught for us. Decades ago, we were told this would be the age of leisure. All those labor saving devices would give us oodles of free time. Wrong. Instead, we are in a season of famine, time famine. Even retired people don’t seem to have all the leisure they were led to expect. So this story of Martha and Mary glares at us. Reminding us of the need to be attentive to the spiritual life. And the importance of having that inform the rest of what we do and who we are.
But that message is embedded in this story in an even bigger way than the immediate contemplation and action drama between Mary and Martha. And because we are so caught up in the busy-ness eddy, and because we may have slight familiarity with first century Biblical culture, we might miss it. So let’s take a deeper dive.
To look deeper, we have to notice some details in this story. We are told that “a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her home.” This means that this is a female headed household. That is extremely unconventional for the times. And we’ll say more about that in a minute. And we are told that Martha’s sister, Mary, “seated herself at Jesus’ feet and listened to his words.”
Now, in the first century, when a rabbi taught, he sat down. And his pupils sat at his feet. To listen. To learn. For us, this happens with a professor behind the podium and the students in amphitheater seating. Or around a seminar table. Or when the preacher is in the pulpit and the congregation is in the pews. In the context of the story from Luke, the rabbi sat. And the students sat at the rabbi’s feet. And what do we know about the students sitting at the rabbi’s feet in the first century? They were men. Always men. Only men. Never women. So, the sentence, “She had a sister named Mary, who seated herself at Jesus’ feet and listened to his words,” — this would trigger alarm bells, red flags, stunned shock and loud contempt. There’s a big issue here.
And there’s more. Next, Martha drags Jesus into what at first glance appears to be a sister’s spat over who is going to do the dishes. “Rabbi, don’t you care that my sister has left me all alone to do the household tasks? Tell her to help me!” To our ears, this makes Martha seem so petty compared with Mary who appears so holy. We are told that this is Martha’s house. Why is she dragging Jesus, her special guest, into this domestic squabble? Shouldn’t the sisters be in the kitchen with the door closed and voices lowered to have this conversation? But Martha calls on Jesus to mediate. Why? Because Jesus is a man. Yes, it is Martha’s house, but as soon as a man present, his authority trumps that of any woman present, even the home owner, the head of household. So, with Jesus there, Mary, and even Martha, must defer to him because he is a man. He has the authority. So Martha needs Jesus to set Mary straight. Mary does not need to listen to Martha with Jesus there because she is under Jesus’ authority, the man, not Martha’s authority, a mere woman, albeit the head of the household.
So, the real drama here is not about the division between action and contemplation, a false split anyway because we all know they are related and both are important and needed. But the real drama here is about being liberated from the constraints of society, even around gender roles and authority. Jesus is springing us from gender roles and the dictates of sexual identity. Jesus is cutting us loose from societal and cultural constraints, expectations, categories and definitions. Of every kind. Including class, ethnicity, educational attainment, race, all of it. Jesus is confronting patriarchy head on. Martha is still enmeshed and embedded in patriarchy – the woman’s role, and deferring to the authority of a male guest even though she is the head of the household. She is not supportive of Mary casting off her assigned gender role. While it is comfortable for us to see this story as a commentary on action versus contemplation, Jesus is going far deeper with a critique of the fundamental organizing principles of society. He is removing the categories and definitions that create barriers and limits for people in society. That’s about as revolutionary as you can get. He is cutting down the tree and grinding out the stump. He’s liberating us from the labels and definitions that mould and shape us as well as limit us.
Jesus is taking it all away. And replacing it with one thing. Really only one thing is necessary. Not the coffee. Not the napkins. Not the food. Not the dishes. One thing. God. Love. Being a child of God created in the Divine Image. Beloved. Created to love. One thing. The reality of God.
After that, you’re free. To love. To serve. Every which way. Busy. Contemplative. Using mind. Body. Heart. Outside. Inside. However you are called. Whatever you are suited for. However you are needed. No restraints or constraints. Free.
I am listening to an audio book, The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. The story is about a family. The mother and father meet at the Marian Anderson concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday in 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution forbid Anderson from singing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. and Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady, arranged for the free outdoor performance at the Lincoln Memorial which was attended by some 75,000 people. The father in the book is a Jewish scientist whose family was all killed in the Holocaust. And the mother is an African American woman from Philadelphia. They marry and have three children. They raise the children as individuals, not as part of the racial caste system. It’s the 1960’s. The one son becomes a professional singer. At one point, he auditions for the Metropolitan Opera. A wild stretch for someone with his background. But he has the voice. He is offered a part. A bit part in an obscure opera. He turns it down. Then he is offered another part. In a new opera. The story: “A young sensualist university student is arrested and forced to stand a surreal trial for mysterious crimes he has no knowledge of committing. He’s found guilty and then lynched. The man is never named. Throughout the score, he’s identified only as ‘the Negro.’” [The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers, p, 390.] Jonah is offered that lead. And he turns it down. He wants to be hired for his voice, not his perceived race. This young black man, in the 1960’s turns down what would be any singer’s dream – the Met. You see, he refuses to be limited by perceived racial identity.
That is what Jesus is showing us in this story of Mary and Martha. He is telling us to refuse to be defined, limited, by the constructs of the society around us. Including gender roles. And certainly racial casting. Mary and Martha is a story about freedom. Being free to love. The one thing.
And when we devote ourselves to the one thing, we are free. And then we are not restricted by the messaging of the world around us about what we can and can’t do. Who we can and can’t be. Who are are and who we are not. We can give ourselves freely in service to Love. And more gets done. And more people are happier. And more people live with dignity. And there is less need and suffering. And the one thing, the reality of God, emerges in our midst.
You won’t be surprised that the Martha in me wants to have the last word.
During the pandemic, there was an article about the division of labor in the household with both partners confined to the home. The article happened to feature Japan. Aki Kataoka gave her husband, Susumu, a spreadsheet that listed her 210 household chores. We can only wonder what would be on his spreadsheet. [“During Pandemic, Japan’s Men See the Real Meaning of Domestic Bliss,” May 17, 2020, New York Times.]
We still have a lot of work to do. On gender roles and justice and equality of every kind. Because we are devoted to the one thing. The better part. The reality of God. Proclaimed by Jesus.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.