Eighth Sunday after Pentecost 2007 (Proper 11, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on July 22, 2007. 

“It’s not fair!” Justice is a big theme at our house. Especially when it comes to doling out ice cream (He got more than me!), cleaning up toys (I didn’t play with Superman, make him put it away), and the care of pets (I fed Delilah yesterday). This is nothing new; I made the same arguments when I was a kid. And I really should have been able to stay up later than my younger brother. If you have a sibling I’m sure you had your own personal battleground of justice. Martha sure did. “Lord, don’t you care that Mary’s left me to do all the work myself? Tell her to help me.” In other words, it’s not fair! And this kind of complaint sounds awfully familiar to me and, I’d imagine, to every other parent here this morning.

And on the surface of things, it’s not fair. Martha opened her home, did all the cooking for the guest of honor, and was then stuck with the dishes while her sister sat around listening to Jesus without lifting a finger. That’s not fair.  

But like most good parents, Jesus doesn’t engage the conflict. You can never win the battle over equality between siblings. Even when you use a ruler to measure out equal amounts of strawberry milkshake in each glass, one still claims that he’s been short changed. I know; I’ve done this. So Jesus doesn’t try to arbitrate between the two sisters – he’s not going to get sucked into that losing cause. 

Instead, he brings the conversation back to what really matters here: discipleship. It’s not that “being” with the Lord is greater than “doing” for the Lord. There are times and places for both. Doing and being are the double-sided coin of discipleship. Sometimes we must be engaged in actively serving God through mission work, good deeds, and generosity. At others, we must contemplate God through prayer, meditation on God’s word, and silence. If we pray all the time and never act, we’re not fully living out the Christian life. And, conversely, if we act all the time and never pray, we’re not fully living out the Christian life. That’s what Jesus is trying to convey to Martha and Mary and us.

What’s interesting about this story is that Martha was doing everything right. Culturally, she was acting in precisely the way a first century Jewish woman would have been expected to act. She was dutifully fulfilling her obligations by attending to the domestic tasks at hand. She had warmly welcomed Jesus into her home and provided abundant hospitality to Jesus and, most likely, a bunch of his disciples. 

What makes this story radical is that Mary, on the other hand, was not acting like a lady; she was not playing the role laid out for her by societal norms. She should have been helping Martha! But instead, she was acting like a disciple. And it’s all about that phrase, “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet.” Mary wasn’t just sitting submissively and gazing up in awe at Jesus. She was engaged in active learning not passive adoration. Because to sit at the feet of a teacher was the posture of formal education for disciples gathered around their teacher. Sitting at Jesus’ feet with the others meant that she was being trained as a disciple. And this was decidedly not accepted practice for women. In Jesus’ day there was absolutely no reason for a woman to be sitting at the feet of a teacher. It just didn’t happen – there was domestic work to be done – and discipleship of any kind was reserved for men. And as such, her participation with the other disciples was scandalous. And it made Martha furious. 

It’s hard to overstate just how powerful a statement this was. Mary’s actions shattered every single pre-conceived notion about the role of women in ancient Palestine. And it also makes it that much more incredible that women have been so silenced in the church over the centuries. Here is Jesus lifting up a woman to the status of disciple and yet it took nearly 2,000 more years for women to be ordained in the church – at least in some churches. And it may be why the truly radical nature of this encounter has been either ignored or suppressed. 

When Jesus tells Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part” he’s not saying that Martha’s actions are wrong – quite the contrary. But the goal of the spiritual life, for anybody, is always discipleship and that starts at the feet of Jesus.

Discipleship, like life, often isn’t fair. It can be a hard road and everyone takes different paths. Sometimes it means reaching out to those in need like the Good Samaritan; sometimes it means serving through ministries like the Altar Guild or cooking at the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper like Martha; sometimes it means reflecting on the words of Scripture like Mary. But it all brings us closer to God. And that, ultimately, is the point of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007

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