Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Simple question: are you a beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe?

One of these creatures is suddenly living in your imagination, and while you ponder that, I’ll tell you what I’m on about. For a few years now, I have had the privilege of training internship supervisors, the brave few who are willing to assist student ministers reflect on their practical training.

When we get to the module on learning styles, we begin by inviting them to move into groups: beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. And like a moment ago, we pose the question out-of-the-blue, with little time for second guessing or overthinking the exercise. We hope people will just know.

So having arrived in their groups—beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe—we further invite them to describe themselves: how they learn, how they relate to others as they learn, and the kinds of things that can get in the way of learning. This is usually the moment we have to tell the monkeys to be more serious, maybe stop grooming and self-grooming, and the lesson begins.

I’m going to suggest that the story of Mary and Martha is akin to beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. There are two sisters with very different roles in the story, and I expect you can somehow identify with one or the other. Leaving aside some of what seems like judgment in the passage (more on that later), which character can you best relate to? Where would you find yourself? Serving or sitting? Doing or being? Beaver or giraffe?

Remembering that we have set aside the judgment for a moment, we find ourselves in one or the other character. So then, like beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe, there is no correct answer. There is only the nagging awareness that we do tend to one sister or the other: listening at the Master’s feet, or busy serving everyone else.

I said “nagging awareness” because I’m not sure many are happy in the self-awareness that they are Mary or Martha. Maybe it’s the binary choice you reject, or maybe the truth is a little uncomfortable, or maybe it’s one of those compromise situations when no one is happy with their choice—making it a good comparison.

The church, the mainline-Protestant-present day church where we sit, is filled with doers. This is not judgement—remember we set it aside for the time being—it is simply the recognition that many of us will choose action over reflection, doing over being, activity over contemplation. Not that we’re averse to reflection or contemplation, it’s just that we like to DO something—the more meaningful the better.

We could spend the afternoon debating the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, but Weber was clearly on to something, maybe best summarized by John Wesley (founder of Methodism) who said “earn all you can, save all you can, and give away all you can.” Keeping busy is imprinted on our DNA, and it needs to be balanced with the ability to stop once in a while and ponder.

In an earlier time, and in a much different context, St. Benedict was busy drafting his outline of monastic life. The summary, his summary, is captured in the Latin phrase “Ora et Labora,” meaning “prayer and work,” the model of life in community. People drawn to holy orders were naturally drawn to a life of contemplation, and needed to be reminded, it would seem, that prayer must be balanced with work.

We seem to be drifting into judgment, but before we arrive there, I would point out something else about our passage. Jesus does bless Mary and the contemplative life she is leading, but he is also doing something else: he is blowing up gender norms along the way. To explain, I give you Luke 4.38 and following, one of those ‘so-true-it-makes-you-laugh’ passages that only a man could write:

38 Now [Jesus] arose from the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. But Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a high fever, and they made a request of [Jesus] concerning her. 39 So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them.

I’m sure she was healed for the sake of healing, and not because they were waiting for tea and scones. Forward to Luke 10, and the tea and scones are on their way, but there is Mary, sitting at the Master’s feet, adopting the role of student or acolyte, fostering her own small revolution in religious practice. This passage has lost the power to shock, since we know both Marys and Marthas, but to the first reader, this was an extraordinary turn-of-events.

But hardly a surprise in the context of the early church. Paul’s first convert in Europe is a woman, and many of the leaders he cites in his letters are women. Even the pseudo-Paul instruction that women should remain silent in church presupposes that women were not previously silent. They may have been silenced by the church that lost its way for a few centuries, but we know that silence was never the original plan. Christianity was a ‘religion from below,’ made up of women, slaves, ex-slaves, people at the bottom of the social ladder who truly understood (that in God’s mind) the last shall be first, and the least shall be the greatest of all.

My resident bible scholar tells me that women began to lose their place as leaders when the church moved from homes into purpose-built churches. Our passage marks the beginning of the previous phase, when student-minister Mary is receiving the training required to lead a house church, and her sister Martha is struggling to understand what is happening.

(If you will allow me a topical aside, it is no accident that the four members of the United States Congress being singled out for torment are women. Being women of colour adds a racist overtone to the story, but the first scandal in the minds of many is that these women have forgotten their place. Their strength and moral clarity are a threat to many who cling to an outdated way of thinking.)

It seems we have arrived at the judgment phase of the sermon. Looking over the short passage we have been given this morning, on turn of phrase leaps of the page for me and that is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Maybe Jesus meant to say ‘she has chosen what is better for her,’ toning down the either-or of the passage, but he is very clear at the end of this remarks: It will not be taken away from her. Student, contemplative, revolutionary—it will not be taken away from her.

In the end, we all get to be Mary or Martha, and like the opening exercise, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. We can be either, and we need to be both. Like ora et labora, we need to be dedicated to prayer and work, being and doing, action and reflection.

Prayer and study feeds our service and serving must be grounded in prayer and study. It’s not binary, it’s mutually-dependent. Like our friends in Mount Dennis, it’s the church of St. Mary and St. Martha, and may it always be so, Amen.


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