Our Staff Contact us
Dean's Corner
Sermon: July 17, 2022

The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan                                                     

Proper 11C 2022 

July 17, 2022

Although it is told only in Luke’s gospel, the story of Mary and Martha is well known to most of us.  We know that these two women were the sisters of Lazarus and that they were all good friends of Jesus.  They lived in Bethany, not far from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the walled city of Jerusalem and Jesus visited them frequently on his way in and out of the city.

Mary of Bethany is often identified as the woman with the alabaster jar who pours nard over the feet of Jesus and then wipes them with her hair.  And it is Martha of Bethany who meets Jesus with an extraordinary affirmation of belief after the death of her brother Lazarus in John’s gospel when she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask . . .” In these contexts, both sisters exemplify great faithfulness as followers of Jesus so the dichotomy drawn between them in this Lukan passage is troubling.

It’s a puzzling story.  No one is advocating worried, frenzied, obsessive behavior, but who could not help but be a bit resentful of the sibling, spouse, partner, colleague, or fellow congregation member who left you holding the bag of groceries or the unfinished project or all the preparations for Sunday morning here at the Cathedral?  Has anyone else had that happen? When Martha complains, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me,” we hear a question and a plea that resonate with our human experience.   They are familiar to me in just the same way that Anne Lamott’s two favorite prayers: “Help me, help me, help me.” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” strike chords deep within.  If we had to vote, I imagine, though I could be wrong because we have a deep contemplative vein in this community, that many would find Martha to be the more sympathetic character. But why should we have to choose?

Typically, we look at them as representing complementary ideals of contemplation and action, both desirable and necessary in a balanced life of faithful observance.   We recognize that contemplation and action fuel and support each other and one without the other, is diminished of meaning and power. After all, we are not so literal and divided in our thinking as to believe that Jesus really intended to minimize faithful action when everywhere else in the New Testament, he speaks of losing one’s self and one’s life in service.  But still, we are left with that final pronouncement and it is clear: “There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says. By sitting at his feet in passive contemplation, “Mary has chosen the better part.” What can he mean by so unequivocally reproaching one and affirming the other?

It isn’t all that often that we are given a Gospel reading on Sunday morning with women characters alone with Jesus.  And biblical scholars have been looking very closely at the significance of this one.  In the Episcopal Church, we understand Scripture as the inspired Word of God and we also, in this tradition, ask hard questions about the texts, translations, and historical context. That scholarship and questioning doesn’t make the story less true. What it does do is to open the gospel to us in new, revealing ways.

Feminist theologian Elizabeth Schuster Fiorenza and others have examined word choices and clues in the Greek text, as well as the historical context carefully. And they have proposed that the story of Mary and Martha may be less about an incident in Jesus’ life than it is about the struggle over the ministerial leadership of women in the Church taking place in Luke’s own community, more than fifty years after Jesus’ death.   Even though Paul writes about women leaders in the Church from that period, the early Christian movement, it seems, was having some trouble with the beautiful language and sentiments found in one of Paul’s earliest letters, written earlier than Luke’s Gospel, when he wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

Were some ministries, particularly the silent ones, viewed as more appropriate for women than others?  Shuster Fiorenza maintains that this is exactly the tension explored by the text and debated by Luke’s first century audience.  And so, she concludes, the pointed outcome spoken by Jesus is hardly surprising.  Neither is it surprising that much of the Church universal continues to struggle with similar questions today.

Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has evolved faithfully and I am very aware that I stand before you on the shoulders of so many who went before and risked so much to make it possible. Still, we all know that institutions can be slow and difficult to change, with a bias that favors the more traditional and established ways. This has been egregiously true in matters of religion and across the spectrum of denominations, especially regarding the leadership of people of color, women, gay, and gender diverse persons. There remain Anglican dioceses throughout the world, with social contexts very different than our own, where the ordination of some or all such persons is opposed or challenged on the bases of that status alone.

Those continuing differences are a source of tension in the Anglican Communion and remain in the backdrop as our bishops prepare to gather with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Lambeth Conference next week.  Ordination is a hot button topic. Yet the orders of our Church, which we took us with us from the Roman Catholics in the 17th century—the offices of the laity, deacons, priests, and bishops—are so much more than bargaining chips in a complex battle of wills or tests of influence and orthodoxy.  They are an inspired and grace-filled gift, a charism of this church.  That’s why the Holy Spirit led us to keep them centuries ago. They provide us with a framework and freedom for the full expression of God’s call to us to live our life of faith most fully realized in community.

The story of Martha and Mary shows us one way in which the community gathered around Jesus in the first century was limited in its understanding.  And the Church today is still a deeply human institution, also subject to limitations and blind spots, but just as there was room at the table for those who followed Jesus through the gospel stories, there is room for you here, in all your giftedness and all your brokenness. Can we imagine that our God, expressed most fully in Jesus, would not make room for everyone?  That our God would deny the varied giftedness of broad groups of God’s own people or that any would be judged as taking the so-called “better” or lesser part? Can we imagine that God could not or would not love those “better” or lesser parts as we identify them in ourselves?

Where we find our own place, the expression of our own rightful and faithful ministry within the orders of the Church, involves active prayerful and careful discernment over our lifetimes.  Moving along a continuum of contemplation and action, we are sometimes called to step forward and sometimes called to step back in a complicated dance. Sometimes those dance moves seem to last for seasons or for years. Since COVID, a number of us have chosen to step back.  Way back. For those with overriding health concerns, this is a matter of safety on Sunday mornings. But if that’s not true for you, I ask you to pray about it, to ask God what is “the better part” for you in living a balanced life of faith, in following Jesus. What does your ministry within the life of this community of faith look like?

And please remember that your ministry here is not only invited and welcomed.  It is vital in shaping how this community shares and lives the Gospel. If we are to serve together as the Body of Christ, if we are to be the loving and affirming community that shares all of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we have need of not “one thing,” as the Gospel passage reads. We are in need of many things and they are you and your many and diverse gifts which are all essential and honored.

 AMEN

 

 

 

Last Published: July 19, 2022 5:54 PM