Summer internship sermon four out of five has been preached. Finally got around to the New Testament. May not have blown up anything major in tiptoeing through this particular minefield. And I'm rather sad to have only one sermon left to preach this summer.
Ashland Presbyterian Church
21 July 2013 (Ordinary 16C)
Charles S. Freeman
Before I begin I am going to admit to you that I am will break two of the significant “unwritten rules” of sermon writing and preaching today. Actually, admitting this is probably a third such rule-breaking, but I do believe in being as open and transparent with you as possible in these last few weeks of my time here at Ashland, and I want to be up front about what I am preaching here.
One of the rules I am breaking involves actually using and discussing a Greek word from the text in my sermon, but that’s later. First I am going to admit to you that initially, I really didn’t want to preach on this text.
This is a very familiar story, this one of Martha and Mary. Too familiar. The story is often told and preached with particular “tweaks” added and unexamined presumptions included without even thinking about it. And, with its two female protagonists face-to-face with Jesus, it is a major, major trap for any preacher who falls into the mistake of “choosing sides” with either industrious Martha or contemplative Mary, or even of reducing the two characters to stereotypes of (female) Christian discipleship. Given the (hopefully) evident fact that I am not female and the potential questions of gender roles and restrictions embedded like tripwires in this story, it’s too easy to get in trouble preaching this text. Try to defend Martha, and you’re reinforcing old gender stereotypes about a woman’s place being in the kitchen – and only in the kitchen. But, endorse Mary and her breaking out of that stereotype, and you’re still in trouble; now you’re endorsing the passive, submissive role of a woman sitting at the feet of a (male) authority figure. Really, you can’t win.
Before negotiating this particular theological minefield, it is helpful to remind ourselves of where we are and how we got to this place. The tenth chapter of Luke is part of this gospel’s travel narrative, the story of the teachings, confrontations, and other events that are recounted as part of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem. The narrative actually is initiated towards the end of chapter nine, when the text notes that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.”
So far on the journey the primary events have included an unpleasant encounter with a Samaritan village, in which the disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in return for not receiving them (Jesus had to rebuke them for that); the “mission of the seventy,” in which Jesus sends out pairs of disciples to preach, teach, and heal across the region, and from which those disciples return rejoicing that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”; and, finally, the story heard in last week’s sermon, in which a lawyer who challenges Jesus on the law ends up getting a lesson in being a neighbor.
We do need to keep this background in mind, because it offers us the chance to break out of some of the assumptions and stereotypes that have clung to this story over the generations, and might allow us to hear in it a warning that is not at all gender-bound or stereotyped.
Jesus enters a village. Our subconscious ears, accustomed to the Mary-and-Martha background supplied in the Gospel of John, probably want to fill in the name “Bethany” for that village, but that isn’t supplied here; just “a village.” Jesus is greeted by a woman named Martha who welcomes him into her home. Catch that? Her home. Interestingly, the scene described here looks very much like the kind of scene that might have awaited those seventy disciples sent out by Jesus earlier in chapter ten, given the very specific instructions Jesus gave those disciples about their travel and receiving the welcome of those in the villages they visited.
In the next verse sister Mary is introduced, sitting at Jesus’s feet as Jesus teaches. Unlike the richly narrative account of the Good Samaritan incident, we get only bullet points here, and barely that – Jesus arrives; welcomed by Martha, etc. Also, where’s Lazarus? Don’t these two have a brother who dies and is raised by Christ? In the Gospel of John, yes, but there is no mention of Lazarus here.
Back to the bullet points; Mary sits at feet, Martha distracted by tasks. Now here’s the most fertile place in the story for readers over the ages to start “filling in” unmentioned details. Think about it: in your own hearing and reading of this story, what “tasks” is Martha distracted with? Be honest – you don’t learn when you cheat.
How many of you were picturing Martha distracted with “kitchen” tasks – cooking, or otherwise preparing a meal? Or perhaps “cleaning” tasks?
Now would we have conjured such images if the folks welcoming Jesus were two brothers named Samuel and Simon?
Over the years many, many scholars, commentators, preachers and others have presumptively “filled in the blank” about Martha’s tasks with the stereotyped “women’s work” of their own ages, so you’re hardly alone – you’ve been well conditioned. But here’s where that other bit of sermon rule-breaking comes in, the one about quoting Greek in your sermon. Where the New Revised Standard Version translation uses the word “tasks,” the Greek texts have a form of the word διακονια. It might sound familiar, or perhaps sound like the English word “deacon,” which indeed is related to that Greek word.
Now διακονια has a wide range of meanings, centered around the concept of serving. The kind of kitchen tasks we were just considering can be included but are hardly exhaustive of the full definition. In fact, as biblical scholar Warren Carter points out, the overwhelming majority of the times when this author uses the word, either in the Gospel of Luke or the book of Acts, these domestic tasks are not what the author has in mind; rather, the tasks are those of service as in a “church” or church-like body, tasks that might include caring for the needy, distributing gifts given for the poor, or possibly even including proclamation (that would be preaching). Hmm. Thinking of Martha and Mary as house preachers certainly puts a different spin on this story, doesn’t it?
At any rate I hope that such a consideration allows us to lay aside questions about “women’s work” and get to the thing that seems, to me, to be the vital word of warning to any follower of Christ, of any gender, who hears this passage today.
In the movie City Slickers, one of the title characters, played by Billy Crystal, comes under the scrutiny of Curly, a crusty but enigmatic cowboy played by Jack Palance. Crystal’s character is one of a handful of urban folk who have signed up for an authentic old-fashioned cattle drive; these folks are to Curly a confused and messed-up lot. They come out to do a cattle drive thinking it will suddenly straighten out their confused and messed-up lives, when in fact those same confused and messed-up lives will just be waiting for them when they return. Curly continues to suggest that folks don’t take time to know what’s important; too many things get in the way. To Curly the secret of life is: “this,” as he holds up one finger. “One thing.” Crystal’s character asks what the “one thing” is, and Curly answers, “That’s what you have to find out.”
The virtue of Mary in today’s scripture lesson is that, in that moment, she chose “the better part,” or as most Greek texts would really translate, the “good part” or “good thing.” Such passive sitting is not always the right thing to do. But in that moment, with Jesus in the house teaching, Mary figured out what the “better part,” the “good thing,” even the “one thing” was and fixed on it. Martha, on the other hand, got distracted or disturbed by many things when the “one thing” was sitting right in her living room.
The tasks of ministry are needed, now more than ever. But without the “one thing,” the teaching, the life, the very presence of Christ at the center of our doing and serving, it can too easily become distraction, disturbance, even uproar. And we don’t have time for that.
We live in a world where society is too willing, gleeful even, to enshrine injustice into law, and to enshrine poverty as a necessary condition of a thriving economy. For example: McDonald’s has launched a new program for employees to teach them how to live on the $8.25 an hour the typical full-time employee makes. The worksheet immediately tells you the first thing you need to do for that to work is…get a second job. Seriously. The budget worksheet includes “second job” income. Poverty enshrined as necessary for others to prosper? Check.
You all heard about the Trayvon Martin verdict, I know. Did you hear that just the day before, also in Florida, a black woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing warning shots in an attempt to prevent her abusive husband from beating her again. Black woman shoots no one: twenty years. Unarmed black youth killed: no crime. Injustice enshrined into law? Check.
In this world we do not have time to get caught up in sniping over who’s not doing what, and we certainly can’t get cut off from the One Thing. We must take the time, as counterintuitive as it feels, to stop. Stop and listen for the Word that gives meaning to our doing, that is the motivation and source of strength for all of the tasks that await us as a church. When we fail to do so, we get distracted, disturbed, in an uproar over many things without recourse to the One Thing that makes them matter. On that day, that one time, Mary got it right, and as Jesus said, it wouldn’t be taken away from her. Neither will it be taken from us to sit and listen at Jesus’s feet. At least, not until it’s time to get back to work.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.