Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
July 17, 2016
Sermon Text - Luke 10:38-42
I’m not sure I would ever want to be assigned to a group project with Martha or Mary. Martha would be the one who frantically e-mails the group 14,000 times leading up to the due date - making edits, adding new content, perhaps even suggesting a significant change in the entire direction of the project on the last day. She would also be the one who griped to other group members that so-and-so wasn’t carrying their weight and “do you think we should tell the professor? Because, really, it’s not fair that we’re doing all this work and so-and-so has done almost nothing.” At the end of the day, sometimes it’s nice to have Martha in your group, I suppose, because you’ll probably get a good grade.
A confession? I’m certain I’ve been a bit like Martha at times in my life. It’s true. And maybe you’ve been Martha, too? Imagine that.
But what about Mary? Would we all be thrilled to have Mary join our group? Mary’s the one who goes really deep with the material. She’s not so worried about the grading rubric. Instead, she wants to really learn. She wanders off, reading extra books that don’t seem to be relevant to the work at hand. And when you ask her to help you format the bibliography on the last day, she just looks at you blankly and says, “Really? Oh, I don't think that will matter too much. Let’s not worry about it. But! I was thinking maybe we should add a slide about this article I found this morning. I think our professor would really be interested in this work.”
A confession? I’m fairly certain I’ve also been Mary a time or two in my life. Perhaps you, too, can identify?
This story. Five short verses that often hits us in a very personal way. There’s not much here to work with….just five short verses and a lot left unsaid. Which means, of course, that people have been reading between the lines for centuries now and there are more interpretations than you could shake several sticks at.
I don't know how this passage hits men when they hear it, but I know from talking to lots of woman - and from being a woman myself - that it can be a really hard one for women to hear. We get so few stories in the Bible. And when there are stories about women, we are typically unnamed or mostly known as accessories. So I feel excited when I see that Martha is welcoming Jesus into HER home. HER home. She has her own home. She exists as her own person - not by virtue of her relationship to a man. And she has a sister. And they are welcoming Jesus and they are named and they are the stars of this story. Imagine that!
And then, five short verses later, I’m kind of cringing. Because it suddenly seems like every women-competing-against-other-women and women-being-backed-up-against-some-arbitrary-patriarchal-wall story can imagine.
Martha, God bless her. Martha is doing it right. She’s playing by the rules. She lives in a society that not only values hospitality (remember the story from just last week about the Good Samaritan? That was hospitality, right?). Her culture not only places a high value on hospitality but the burden of offering that hospitality often falls right on the shoulders of women. That is to say, of course, that their time was not entirely different from our own, where women are still most often the ones who are tasked with the day-to-day tasks of feeding, cleaning, preparing, serving in households all around the world. Things are not as rigid as they used to be, of course, but we are still nowhere near a place where the tables have turned and these are thought to be primarily male tasks.
So Martha is doing what she’s supposed to do. And you really can’t blame her for being annoyed that her sister isn’t helping. I think we all know that feeling, yes? You’re following the rules, doing what you’re expected to do and the other people don’t do their part. They’re off doing something else. And so the work becomes overwhelming and you are distracted and worried and annoyed and frustrated….and maybe you’ve even been known to say it out loud to a trusted friend.
Only Martha’s trusted friend isn’t having it. Jesus does not respond as expected. Martha seems so sure that he will see it her way. That he will tell Mary to hop up and get to work - fulfill her duties, do what she’s expected to do.
But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus notices how Martha is feeling
(“You are worried and distracted with many things”) but he refuses to allow Martha’s frantic anxiety to affect Mary’s decision to sit and listen.
What Mary has chosen to do is subversive in some pretty serious ways. She’s not just sitting at Jesus’s feet because they’ve run out of chairs. She sits at Jesus’s feet because she has taken on the posture of a disciple. By positioning herself there (and let’s notice she’s probably not alone. Jesus would have been traveling with his entourage and there would have also been men sitting at his feet that night, ready to learn). By positioning herself there, Mary makes a bold claim. She claims to be one of Christ’s disciples. A female disciple? Imagine that!
This was not business as usual for women in their culture. Women would not have been expected to learn at the feet of a great teacher or claim that they could be a disciple. I think when we allow ourselves to get too bogged down in our own feelings about this text - when we jump too quickly to imagining ourselves into it and wondering “am I am Mary or a Martha?” We may miss out on an opportunity to notice something really important in Jesus’s behavior.
I like to imagine Jesus wearing a t-shirt in this interaction that says, “THIS IS WHAT A RADICAL FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE.”
Because Jesus, especially in Luke’s gospel was unabashedly a feminist. Luke’s version of Jesus is generally subversive. There’s lots of talk of turning the world upside-down throughout this gospel. “Blessed are the poor” and all that good stuff. Jesus in Luke is constantly seeking out those who have been rejected by society and affirming them. That includes the poor, the sick, the sinners, the Samaritans...and it includes women. Luke’s gospel includes women in practically every way….women bless Jesus, women are affirmed in parables, women who are outcasts are welcomed, women are the ones who witness the Resurrection.
And a named woman, Mary, sits at Jesus’s feet, claims her right to be his disciple….and he affirms her. Imagine that.
And, oh, I know. I know that if you think of yourself as a Martha then it’s all too easy to give Mary the side-eye and be frustrated with Jesus because he doesn’t see it your way. And he’s a little rude about it. I know. I have sometimes thought of myself as a Martha, too.
But might I suggest that it’s not all that helpful to think of ourselves as Martha or Mary? Because I really believe most of us have been both at some point in our lives. We have probably all been the one running around frantically trying to get everything ready. And we have probably all been the one who sat down, ready to learn, and said, “Oh, let the world turn without me for this one night. I have other plans.”
And I know. I 100% absolutely KNOW that many of you in this room have done just what Jesus affirms in this story: and that’s be yourself, even when others have discouraged you from doing so.
That truly seems to be what this story is about. In this story, Jesus does something radical. He affirms a woman who has boldly chosen to be his disciple. And even when there is pushback - when Martha says, “Hey, Jesus. Did you notice you’ve got a woman sitting there at your feet?” Jesus doesn’t back down. He gently but firmly affirms Mary’s decision to claim her status as a disciple.
I’m not convinced that when Jesus affirms Mary it’s meant to be prescriptive for everyone in all of time. I don't see that he is saying, “Sitting and listening is ALWAYS better than bustling and serving.” Jesus was smarter than that. Surely he knew that action and service were necessary. After all, he just finished telling a story about love in action. If the Good Samaritan hadn’t acted and offered hospitality, that story would have looked very different. Jesus affirmed action and service many times throughout his life. This is not an either-or thing.
Instead, what I see Jesus affirming as “the one thing,” “the better part,” that which “will not be taken away” from Mary is her bold decision to be who she is called to be. Mary, in this moment at least, has a firm understanding of herself. She knows that, despite society’s expectations, she is called to be a disciple. And she is willing to risk ridicule and even the anger of her family to follow that call.
Jesus is affirming her careful self-awareness and her boldness in being who she is called to be, despite the obstacles in her way. That’s the one thing.
The one thing is to know who you are. And this is a story not only for women, but also for men and people of all genders. Because we know that the world will never be short on opinions about how we are supposed to behave because of our sex or gender. And we know it goes beyond gender, too. The world will place expectations on us based on our looks, our size, our age, our race, our socio-economic status, our abilities, our health, our sexual orientation, and on and on and on.
But Jesus says the one thing is to know who we are. The best thing. The thing that should never be taken from us is that knowledge of who we are.
Earlier this week I was on the phone with my good friend Leah. Leah is one of those people who clearly knows who she is. She astounds me with her rootedness, her unapologetic I-am-who-I-am-ness. And as we were talking about how challenging it can be to figure out how to prioritize time and energy in our lives, she said to me, “It’s like the story for Sunday, Caela. You have to know what the one thing is. And not get distracted by the other noise.”
Later in that same conversation she told me that every Sunday at her church, she tells the kids the same story I told our kids earlier today: Look at your thumbprint and know that you are the only person who will ever have that thumbprint. You are unique. Beloved. You are the only you who will ever exist.
One of our most important tasks and as followers of Christ is to take seriously the call to grow more fully into the people we were created to be.
We aren’t called to fit into these neat little boxes arbitrarily created by our culture. We aren’t called to try and emulate someone else (as much as I would love to be more like my friend Leah, that’s not who I was created to be). We aren’t called to worry so much about how others will perceive us if we’re doing something that goes against society’s expectations.
We are called to look deep within. Down, down, down past the noise of the worries and distractions of the world. Down to the place where God resides. We are called to listen to that still speaking voice and see who God dreams for us to be. And then we are called to walk boldly into the fullness of that call. My call is not your call. Your call is not the same as the one of the person sitting next to you. Martha’s call was not Mary’s and vice versa.
Who is God calling you to be? What is God calling you to do? If you weren’t so worried about what others might think of you, who might you be?
Because this is the good news from the story of Mary and Martha: Jesus frees you to grow more fully into that person. Jesus affirms your longing to break out of the box the world has placed you in. Jesus stands next to you, ready to defend you when others push back.
Jesus gently but firmly affirms the boldness of YOU. Just as God created you. The only person who will ever have that thumbprint that’s resting in your lap right now.