Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Martha-Mary Double Bind (a sermon)

True confessions: I preached this today, but it is a largely recycled homily (hey, it's summer and we are trying to live an environmentally responsible life) from exactly three years ago. I preached the earlier version on a lovely summer weekend in Northern California at the Joint Worship of the Gualala Lutheran Mission and St. Innocent of Alaska Episcopal Mission. The small town of Gualala (pronounced "Walala") is in Southern Mendocino County, just a little North of Northernmost Sonoma County, right on the coast. The congregation is the fruit of the Episcopal/Lutheran Common Mission efforts and agreement.

But I preached today's version here in the Southland. We are a small, university-related, though not entirely university-populated, Episcopal/Anglican congregation in a medium-size (small compared to your basic metropolis) North Carolina city, with members ranging from young to eighty-ish years old. Enjoy.

* * * * * * * *
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 11)
Sunday, July 22, 2007
St. Mary’s House Episcopal/Anglican
Greensboro, North Carolina

Genesis 18:1-10a Psalm 15 Colossians1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42

Over the years,
I have come to refer to this Sunday’s Gospel as
“The Martha-Mary Double Bind.”

It reminds me of an episode in my life
when I was a young campus minister in her mid-twenties –
just a few weeks, in fact, before I preached on this text for the first time.

I had gone home for the holidays with my then-boyfriend,
and we were having supper
with his very friendly and somewhat traditional family
in Brooklyn, New York.
One father, one mother, siblings of both genders, and us.
I think there were an uncle and aunt there that evening,
perhaps a cousin or two as well.

The end of the meal arrived.
The women headed for the kitchen.
It was their job to clean up.
The men headed for the living room.
It was their job to sit around and talk.
And there I was, as full of feminist fervor
as I was of good manners.

My inner conversation
went something like this:
I am not going to go in the kitchen just because
that’s what the women in this family do.
I don’t approve of this setup
and I don’t want to be a part of it.
I’m staying here and hanging out with the guys.
I don’t want them to think of me as
“the little woman.”

The other half
of my inner conversation
went like this:
I can’t abandon these women
who are doing all the work!
These are my sisters.
Besides, it would be rude.
I don’t want them to see me as
some snooty young thing
who thinks she’s too good for the kitchen.
I’m not too good for the kitchen.
Plus, I want to spend time with them too;
they probably have interesting things to say,
and none of them
about football.

It was
an impossible situation.

Dammed if I did,
dammed if I didn’t.

Eventually of course,
though I was still a Roman Catholic at the time,
I carried out some awkward version
of the Anglican via media,
the “middle way” on which Episcopalians and other Anglicans pride ourselves:
I stayed for a while chatting with the men,
and then
joined the women for the second half
of that post-dessert period,
chatting with them,
and stacking plates.

The upshot of that little episode
in a middle-class Irish-American household in Brooklyn
was not the fact that I managed some sort of poor compromise,
but that the impossibility of the situation
stayed with me as I encountered this Gospel
as a preacher a few weeks later.
Thirty years later, it is still with me.

The story of Martha and Mary
in their Jewish household in Bethany
resonates in my mind and heart with the same impossibility,
the same flavor of dilemma,
the same lack of resolution
as that evening of many years ago
in a Christian household in Brooklyn.

It’s got that same
“What's wrong with this whole picture?” feel.

Every time I read or hear this Gospel story,
I think:
“This is a bad resolution.
If everyone went into the kitchen –including Jesus–
we’d all have more time for contemplation and study.
And the dishes would get done, too.”

And, of course, we’d be in the presence of Christ
the whole time.

Now, Jesus’ point in the story seems to be
not to condemn Martha, who was
exercising a ministry of hospitality
that is sacred in most cultures
and goes back a long time
–witness Abraham and Sarah,
her ancestors in faith
and ours.
His point is
to remind Martha and Mary
that hearing the word of God
and dwelling with Jesus the living Word
and following him
take precedence over everything else
including respectability
and time honored traditions and roles and customs.

And of course we today
need the same reminder,
since we live
not only with habits and roles and traditions
which we may or may not question
but with a culture of busy-ness
that overschedules us nearly to death
and literally beeps in our ears
in such a way as to muffle the voice of God in our lives
which is sometimes just a whisper
albeit an insistent one:
a voice that invites us to slow down
and sit down
and listen.

We need to refocus our attention.
That’s why we come here on Sundays
to break open the word together,
to sing, to pray,
to meet at the table of God’s hospitality
where all are welcome.

We come here
to be reminded that all our tables
and households and communities
are to be welcoming as God is welcoming
and that this hospitality
is our calling, our vocation;
that in welcoming
both friend and stranger
we also welcome God.

But the double bind
in the story from Luke’s Gospel
after all, someone has to do the cooking.
I often ask, quite seriously:
“While the great theologian was writing all those books,
who was doing the laundry?”

How can we make room
for all of us
to take Sabbath time,
that time of prayer and reflection
and resting in God
and lingering with Jesus and with each other?
How can we live
so that all of us,
male and female, young and old,
rich or working class
or middle class or poor
can answer God’s call to each of us
to all of us
and still survive the daily demands
that few of us can avoid?

This may involve some rearranging
of all our priorities.

Following Jesus, yes,
that is our call.
No ducking that one.

But how can we free
our imaginations
and then our relationships
and our household arrangements
and work arrangements
so that all who so desire
can be free to follow the call?

Speaking of imagination –
let’s go back to the Gospel story
of the two sisters, Martha and Mary,
and their guest, Jesus.
It turns out
that my mixed reaction to this story
is not an isolated phenomenon.

A little detective work
in the history of interpretation,
both visual and verbal,
yields many traces of this ambivalence in the Christian community
down through the centuries.

See, biblical stories come to us
not only with the history of their writing, their composition,
but with the history of their use,
the history of their hearing and their retelling.

And this story of Martha and Mary has been heard and used
in multiple ways.
It has resonated in ears, hearts and minds
in as many ways, perhaps,
as it echoed in our many ears and hearts and minds right here:
Some of you may have the same reaction I do to the story; others not at all.
God has given us different ears and hearts and minds.

A wealth of clues attest to the long history
of hearing and re-telling,
from Renaissance paintings of the two sisters
to church groups named for Martha
to contemporary feminist readings of the Gospel.

The scholars and artists and popular story-tellers
who have picked up on the story
and each heard it and retold it
–in words, in painting, in actions, in institutions–
do not agree with each other.

They disagree in living color.

We have Mary the contemplative
and Martha the busybody do-gooder.

We also have Mary in more recent decades
reinterpreted as
the model for women in theological education.
We have a biblical commentary by a Filipina scholar
reminding us that Martha
was a head of household.
We have an English group
once opposed to the emancipation of women
named the Martha Movement.
We have a Martha Church
adjoining an ancient hospital and dedicated to the care of the sick.

And we have a little ditty produced by a Reformation-era pastor:
Martha and Mary in one life
Make up the perfect vicar’s wife.

We also have forgotten images of Martha,
including frequent medieval European paintings of her
“a proud housewife with a fettered dragon stretched out at her feet.”*
That’s right: Martha, brave housewife and capturer of dragons.
Move over, Saint George.

And there is a Fra Angelico depiction of Gethsemane
–the place of Jesus’ agony,
the night before his capture and crucifixion–
in which Martha and Mary
sit awake in the foreground, vigiling,
while the male disciples
Mary reads a book
with bowed head;
head raised,
is alert,
her hands in prayer
in the same gesture
as Jesus.

Clearly, there is something going on here.

Is Martha kitchen worker
or dragon-slayer?
Or is she both?
Is Mary meek in silence
or bold in learning?
Are the two sisters competitors or partners?

If the history of the text’s life after its writing
is this complex and contradictory,
you can be pretty sure
that it contains some hot-button issues for the Christian community,
issues traveling the centuries
from the early church to the present day:

Household arrangements.
The roles of women and men.
And the nature and shape of Christian discipleship.
Just for starters.

As for the text before and during its writing,
we have a few clues as well,
in the conflict that is written right into the story.

We know the conflict is written into the story.
But we look at one side and the other,
and not always at the reality of the conflict and
the nature of the conflict.

Martha and Mary were friends of Jesus:
their names have come down to us
in two of the New Testament Gospels.
Did they also represent, in the story’s conversation and conflict,
a set of questions and conflicts
the early Christian communities had?
About ministry,
household arrangements,
and authority?
And the nature of Christian discipleship
for all persons, women and men?

Interestingly, Martha and Mary
–same sisters, same friends of Jesus–
have a whole other flavor in the Gospel of John,
where they are portrayed very differently
in the story of the raising of Lazarus, their brother.
Remember that other story of Martha and Mary?
–the edgy Hausfrau who gets put down, or at least admonished, by Jesus
in the Gospel of Luke–
in the Gospel of John is the one
who calls Jesus to task,
not the other way around.
“If you had been here, my brother would still be alive!” she says to Jesus
when he arrives at the house.
Martha –in the Gospel of John–
is the one to whom Jesus reveals who he is,
and who boldly and openly acknowledges him as Messiah.
Only Peter
holds such a privileged position.

In John’s story, the women,
and their respective places and roles in the community,
are not in competition with each other,
nor placed in an impossible situation that leaves
both of them incomplete.

But we have here today
the Martha and Mary of the Gospel of Luke.
Tricky Luke.
The story is almost set up to make us take sides
and still to feel uncomfortable after we have done so.

Now, taking sides is often necessary; it’s not always something to avoid.
Lukewarm is not a Gospel temperature!
But this story
is not one of those cases where taking sides will be life-giving.
Why pit the sisters against each other,
or oppose, even for the sake of making a point,
their ministries
of domestic management and service on the one hand
and attention to the living Word
on the other?

The story challenges us to discover or rediscover
godly priorities
in daily life.
the story can and does and should
fill us with holy suspicion:
We need to ask,
what is the cost of taking sides here?
And for whom will there be a cost?

It’s good to ask questions of the story
and to let the story, with its ambiguities and rough edges,
ask questions of us.

Are you uncomfortable with some part of the story?
This is good! Use it!
Are you suspicious? Pray the suspicion!
Let’s use the discomfort and the suspicion
to break open our imaginations
to try out new possibilities
of discipleship,
of ministry,
or Sabbath and work,
of household arrangements,
of community structures.

We are the sequel
–not just the heirs, but also the living sequel–
of all those artists
and story-tellers
and hospital founders
and students and householders
and people who argued with each other in communities of faith.

It’s our turn.
It’s our godly challenge
as we take strength, together,
from the Word of God
which is both demanding
and open-ended;
as we receive hope, together,
from the welcoming table
set by Jesus for his friends,
for us.

We are part of a long tradition
of hearing and telling
and conversation and conflict,
and action.
How can we converse with each other,
with our traditions,
and with Christ,
in a way that will build a church and a world
in which all ministries are honored,
whether in the kitchen or in the living room,
in the factory or in the pulpit,
at a computer or in a committee meeting
in intimate settings and in public ones?

How can we do so in a way that enables all of us
to have time and space
to hear and respond to the call of God,
whether it leads us to deepen our current path of life
or to change it in radical ways?

How can we converse with each other,
with our traditions,
and with Christ,
so that the shape of our ministries
can meet the needs of a hungry world?

*This description comes to us from the German scholar Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, who has done her own detective work on the story. The Western art references are mostly from Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel's The Women Around Jesus. Feminist biblical commentaries are many and I consulted several, from The Women's Bible Commentary (Jane Schaberg's article) to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Luise Schottroff, as well as some older, less sophisticated ones which paved the way for the more recent works. I am also indebted to a commentary by Jurgette Honculada of the Philippines in a collection of biblical reflections by Asian women (published in Korea) for the reminder that Martha was a head of household, and to Dylan's Lectionary Blog (summer 2004) for pointing out the issue of respectability.


gabe said...

well done, well done! Thanks for grabbing what sticks in almost everyone's craw about the Mary and Martha story and laying it out, asking great questions, truly illuminating text and context.

Jane R said...

Gabe! Our Gabe from North Carolina?! Bless your heart. Thanks for stopping by, and glad you liked the take on Mary and Martha. Is there a chance of seeing you guys before you depart for NY? Drop me a line off-blog. I am in hiding writing but may go to Durham one day to see our mutual friends before their departure. And in any case I always end up in NYC about once a year. Gotta get that big-city fix ;-).

Deirdre said...

Well done on the inclusion of material from John to round out the strange Lucan take. What a great sermon! Wish it were an mp3 file :)

Magdalene6127 said...

Oh Jane, Brava, Brava!!! I am completely breathless at this gorgeous exegesis and perfect place of pastoral balance. You should recycle this every chance you get!



Jane R said...

Thanks. It is one of my favorite sermons, hence my decision to recycle it. But sermons live in the ear of the hearer, so thank you for the compliments(and yes they did like it at church, very much). Deirdre, high praise from you, the biblical scholar. It's actually ESF who, at some workshop back in Marssachusetts (at the Womancenter in Plainville, whew, that takes us back), challenged a bunch of us on this Luke account and asked, "so, is this a femninist story?" And thanks to you, Mags, the erudite Presbyterian preacher. (The Episcopal Church's General Ordination Exams are equalled, or topped, only by the Presbyterian ordination exams--whatever they are called-- in their difficulty and extensiveness. Gaaah.)