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St. Paul’s – Proper 11 – 7/17/22

This Martha-Mary story is a familiar one. You also may not be surprised to find that it has two levels, one obvious and one hidden. Let’s take the obvious one first, the one you’re used to hearing.

We start off by observing that, in many ways, the surface Martha-Mary story has got to be one of the most annoying episodes in the gospels. It’s annoying because it always seems to leave you between a rock and a hard place. If you’re too much like active Martha, then you’re all over the place and ignoring your host. If you’re too much like passive Mary, then you’re lazy and ignoring the necessities. Martha may be Martha Stewart, but you hate her for it. Mary may have chosen the better part, but dust balls are collecting beneath the beds.

I tell you, I’ve been to Martha’s house. She’s someone I haven’t seen in a while, and I want to do some catch-up time. She has welcomed me with great enthusiasm. She has put out the best china and linens and served great desserts, and every time I look down, my tea glass is miraculously refilled. She pops up and down to check the stove, thew refrigerator, the microwave, and talks while moving about, until I’ve had it and finally exclaim, For crying’ out loud, will you just sit down and talk with me?! After all I did just come to be with her, not her dishes.

I have also been to Mary’s house. the moment I arrived, she grabbed me by the arm and ushered me to the couch. We sit and talk, and talk and sit, sit and talk, and the hours go by and by, and I’m getting hungry and beginning to feel faint. I have to cough before a glass of water is offered. The room grows cold and the window is open, but she doesn’t get up to close it or turn up the heat. Well, I guess we had a good visit, and I leave cold, hungry and uncomfortable.

In popular misconceptions, Martha and Mary come off like that, the Oscar Madison and Felix Unger of the first century. They’re both wrong, of course, if they go to extremes, but, even so, it’;s Martha who usually gets the bum rap here: too busy with practical things. Why can’t she be more like Mary? Why can’t we?

Here is where we have to stop making a false opposition between the activism of Martha and the quietude of Mary–action and contemplation — as if one were better than thew other.

Jesus’s remark that Mary had chosen the better part is not to dismiss the necessary business of Martha, but is meant to underscore balance, as if Jesus was saying to the Marthas of this world: Stop what you are doing and reclaim your center. That is, What are you doing all this for? Have you lost a sense of your life’s purpose? What motivates you? How does your life, your work fit into the larger picture?

Which is to say, if, like Martha, we are all action and no reflection, we will soon dry up spiritually. Our lives will become empty routine, devoid of meaning and purpose. We all need to sit at the feet of Jesus now and then to discover why we’re doing what we’re doing. remember, we’re not here just o make money, but also to make a life–a life committed to faith, hope and love.

If on the other hand, like Mary, we’re all reflection and not action, all talk and no walk, then what Jesus asked us to do goes undone: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and so on—-and then the world suffers as we walk past the person who was robbed and beat up last week in the gospel. If we’re all Martha, the center evaporates and burnout sets in. If we’re all Mary, charity and service go undone. these two pioneering women, Martha and Mary, aren’t opposites, and we should not separate them. They are the Yin and Yang of a balanced SPiritual life.

Now, with that being said and prayed over, let’s move on and turn to a hidden and quite subversive part of this gospel that we miss, and the ones who first heard this story didn’t, and it surely gave them something to think about.

Let’s go back to Mary. Take another look at what she’s doing, where she is. The gospel says Marfa had a sister who sat beside the Lord at his feet loosening to him speak. Way is that sentence not at all shocking to us, but scandalous to those who first heard it?

Here’s why. Given the customer of the time, where male and female roles were strictly demarcated, with women confined to the kitchen and the men to the parlor, Mary crossed boundaries!

She boldly came into where Jesus was and did what only men were allowed to do: she sat at the feet of Jesus. This, you must know, was the customary sign that someone wished to be a master’s student, his disciple, something only open to men. There is, after all, the verse in the Talmud that states, The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women (Sotah 3:4). 

Obviously, Mary ignored all of this, presented herself as a disciple, and thereby assumed equality with men. AND Jesus not only allowed it, he also praised it—and so, once more, he turned the world upside down.

Now, note, lest you get your partisan antenna up, that this has nothing to do with an early kind of feminism. No, it fits squarely into Jesus’ concept of universal worth and universal love. Jesus was being consistent here. he was constantly inclusive, much to the horror of his critics, as he touched untouchable lepers, healed the Roman oppressors servant, cured a foreign woman’s daughter, and broke bread with outcasts and sinners. 

This happened once before, and here we have a reference to another well known gospel story concerning Martha. She appears in John’s gospel, where she and her sister Mary are grieving over the death of their brother Lazarus.

Do you  recall that it is forceful Martha who speaks up and does to scold Jesus? She says, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And, more than that, it is Martha, on this occasion, winds up making a stunning profession of faith every bit equal to that of St. Peter—who aT the village of Caesarea Philippi, in answer to Jesus’ question, Who do people say I am” responded, You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Well, here, near her brother’s burial place at the village of Bethany, Martha says the same thing to Jesus. After Martha’s complaint, Jesus had said to her. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. And then he asks her, Do you believe this? And Martha responded, Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world (John 11:20-27).

So there she is, proclaiming the same words, the same faith, as Peter, thereby becoming his female counterpart and co-founder of the faith!

You can see why the first hearers of the Martha-Mary stories scratched their heads. Was Jesus saying that in his community of disciples, people are equal before God; that the oppression and exclusion of others, so common in his time (and, alas, as we are so painfully aware today, in our time), was not his way; that all–women and men, Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free–are called equally to sit at his feet, become his disciples, and treat each other equally? Apparently so, even though it took a long time for it to sink in.

His latecomer apostle St. Paul would write this, a few decades down the road and was ready a few weeks ago….There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

I think that in giving our attention to the first part of the Martha-Mary tension, we tend to miss the subversive teaching of the gospel. What I am thinking though is that maybe this gospel this morning gives us a clue on how to correct that. Perhaps, like Mary, we have to sit with it a while to get its import. Perhaps like Martha, once we get the message, we will act on it.

I close with a reflection on the Martha-Mary story…

She changed the banners
He mowed the lawn
She made the coffee
He chaired the Council meetings
She recruited the Sunday School teachers
He painted the walls
She studied the scriptures
He baked the turkeys
She tended the flowerbeds

She was Mary
He was Paul
She was Martha
He was Peter

Each according to their ability
Offering what they had
Finding what they needed
Becoming St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marfa, Texas.