This is a subversivepreacher archive (6 Pentecost 2011)
Text only this week.
Let’s have a show of hands between
Martha’s and Mary’s.
Martha’s are the ones who, as Jesus says,
dither about and are distracted by many things;
while Mary’s prefer to focus on one thing at a time.
Martha’s please raise your hand.
I want to be very careful here
because this Martha and Mary story
has been appropriated in the history
of The Episcopal Church,
as one of the quote, “Women’s” stories.
And some people get a little cranky
about being labeled a Martha or a Mary.
And, somewhat unbelievably,
in the days of Church women’s groups –
which I guess still exist in some churches –
there was often a “Martha’s Guild”
and a “Mary Circle.” Yikes!
Anyway, at the risk of disturbing the sacred ground
that some people feel around this story,
I want to de-gender it.
I also want to take it out of the kitchen.
It is usually assumed that Martha
is working in the kitchen preparing a big meal
for the time when Jesus is done imparting wisdom.
But maybe she was a banker;
like the Muslim Hawala or Hundi
who handle currency in an informal network
beyond institutional banks.
Maybe she was a match-maker
or a potter or responsible for a garden
or making bread.
The story is not about women,
any more than most Jesus stories are about men:
they are about us –
male or female;
gay, lesbian, or trans;
Martha or Mary;
Max or Mark.
So let’s strip it down.
Jesus comes to town and Martha invites him over.
Martha opens her home.
We do not know anything more than Martha
The only other thing we know
is that Martha is busy doing a bunch of stuff
and her sister, Mary, is not.
Mary is sitting at Jesus feet
taking in what the master is laying down.
She is a student.
Mary is a student.
Mary takes on the posture of a disciple.
That is worth noting
for all those traditions that do not allow women
to be priests or ministers or speak in church.
It is worth noting how unusual it would have been
for a woman to be a student of a man.
Women did not study with men.
Women did not study.
Women and men did not sit together for meals.
So what was Mary doing there?
This is a theme, a really strong theme,
that the lectionary of readings has been
delivering so far this summer.
Over and over and over and over again,
Jesus crosses the boundaries,
and breaks the rules
and ignores the laws and customs and manners
of the rigid social and gender caste
within which he lived.
Martha and Mary is another such story
and it’s punch line can get lost
because we are swatting at Martha or Mary,
depending upon whose team we are on.
The fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet,
studying and learning and being a student,
is like one of those detailed painting-puzzles
in which there are tiny details out of place
that you are supposed to find.
Mary is an out-of-place detail.
So all we know about his peculiar little story
is that Martha was host and Mary was disciple.
But like all these little stories we’ve been hearing,
there is a conflict at the heart of it:
Martha wanted Mary to be a host too.
Jesus wanted Mary to be a disciple.
That is what we know;
regarding motives or activities,
is pure conjecture.
Now I could finish this sermon
by telling you the usual Church dribble that
it takes both Martha’s and Mary’s
to make a happy, wholesome world.
But that is so trite it is almost meaningless.
Or I could make us feel bad
by quoting the great choreographer, Twyla Tharp,
who says that multi-tasking corrodes creativity.
But feeling bad doesn’t do anything for us
and we are not going to stop multi-tasking.
Or I could psychologize the story
and remind us that we have both Martha’s and Mary’s
within us; and that we need to feed and care
for both our inner Martha and our inner Mary.
But while that is true, it doesn’t really
sound all that authentic coming from me.
So…what to say?
This story is like a Google map
where you can zoom in our out
to see a wider or smaller perspective.
We need to zoom out and see this story in the context
of the other stories that Luke has nested it among.
And when we look at the several stories
that precede it
and the several stories that follow it,
we see that it is of a piece with those stories.
the two stories that precedes Martha & Mary
are Jesus telling the lawyer that
the summary of Torah Wisdom is:
the Trinity of Love: God, Neighbor, Self.
These loves, Jesus says, are inseparable,
mutually dependent, and
seamlessly impossible to distinguish.
That story is followed by what we heard last Sunday,
the Good Samaritan.
That is a story that says goodness
is not defined by what we believe but by what we do;
and that what we believe
is not defined by what we say
but by what we do.
Next Sunday we will hear the follow up story,
in which Jesus presents his disciples with a prayer –
what we’ve come to know as Jesus’ prayer.
In that prayer Jesus says
that the goal of a spiritual life
is to make heaven and earth the same thing.
We are to grow up
and be like our Father or Mother in heaven;
and that when we act like our Father or Mother in heaven, then indeed,
life on earth is as it is heaven.
To make heaven and earth the same
is our prayer and our hope.
The story of Martha and Mary,
coming as it does smack dab in the middle
of these other great stories,
tells us that action and reflection are
It does not matter
whether we like one or the other better,
both are required
and required all the time.
It doesn’t matter if we would rather be doing
or we would rather be studying or listening,
we have to do both
and we have to do them in such a way
that they are not dichotomized as either/or choices.
Action and reflection,
doing and learning,
hospitality and advocacy,
spiritual and prophetic,
charitable and activist…
they are not separate, distinct activities –
they are one and the same.
If we decide
that we prefer one to the other,
and we focus on only one…then we will lose the other.
When we disconnect them
or un-tether them in any way,
we will, eventually, lose both.
What Jesus is telling us in all these stories
is that love,
are each seamless garments,
and we cannot subdivide them
into personal preferences
without doing severe damage to them.
Love of Self,
disconnected from love of Neighbor,
but love of God
divorced from love of Self,
is hot air.
Action and advocacy,
unsutured from spiritual inquiry and listening,
dries up into pessimistic cynicism.
Belief un-rooted in corresponding action,
is empty rhetoric and moral flatulence.
For whatever reasons
we are always wanting to dichotomize the world
and our own desires and preferences
into good and bad,
true and false,
religious and secular,
spiritual and activist,
godly and human…
But when we do that,
we uncouple a yin and yang
of the human heart
and we suffer irreparable harm in the process.
Martha and Mary are the same person
in different but integrated modes of being.
They are sisters not strangers,
inseparably related not
Defense and offense,
yin and yang,
blood and oxygen…
So, get your Martha and Mary game on.
Defense and offense,
yin and yang,
blood and oxygen…
we are but one and the same
and the name of the game is integration
rather than separation
or doing our own thing.
Peace be with you.