A meditation on Luke 10:38-42, the story of two sisters named Mary and Martha...
Among the six hundred thousand words in the English language, there are four that are guaranteed to get my attention. Those four words are:
You Can’t Do That!!!
This morning’s Gospel reading talks about Jesus visiting the home of two sisters. Martha is busy, busy, busy taking care of the dinner party, but sister Mary just sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to what he has to say. At some point, Martha asks Jesus: please tell my sister to come here and help me! To which Jesus says, Nah. “Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken away from her.” In essence, Martha is trying to politely tell Mary, “You can’t do that!” But when Jesus, her guest of honor, overrules her, there’s nothing more she can say.
Some of the most ancient commentaries on this story interpret it as an allegory. Martha is always working. Martha is a human doing. Mary, on the other hand, is a human be-ing. She takes time out to listen to Jesus. If we want to grow in faith, most of us probably need to do a little less Martha and a little more Mary. That’s the traditional view of the meaning of the story. This morning, though, I want to look at it from a different angle.
Given the rules about gender and gender-appropriate behavior in 1st Century Palestine, Martha may well have more on her mind than what needs to be done in the kitchen. You see, Mary is NOT showing gender-appropriate behavior. Jesus has come to their home for a meal, and it is expected that the men will sit and listen to what he has to say. The women, on the other hand, are expected to stay behind the scenes. In the kitchen, waiting on the men, you name it. They are NOT supposed to join in the discussion. In fact, in ancient Greek cultures, the only women who would be allowed into the symposium were what we would now call “courtesans” – women who were not just arm candy, but also well educated and well versed in the topics of discussion. So when Martha says to her sister, in effect, “You can’t do that,” what she really means may be more like “stop it, or everyone will think you’re a call girl.” Which makes Jesus’ reply all the more interesting. He’s not interested in public opinion – of himself, or of anyone else. He simply has a message to deliver – the message of God’s unconditional love for all people, realizable here and now – and he refuses to create barriers for people who want to hear that message. And for that matter, this passage makes it clear that although we may think of just the twelve guys when we hear the word “disciples,” Jesus’s disciples included women as well. Shocking!
Consider how Jesus did his ministry. He was willing to hang out with absolutely anybody, good reputation or bad reputation, as long as they sincerely wanted to engage with him. He was generous with his attention, to the point of needing to get away now and then. With very few exceptions, when someone comes to him asking for healing, they receive it, for free, no questions asked. He is more interested in maintaining relationships, even if they meet with social disapproval, than he is about obeying rules. I can imagine that if anyone told Jesus “You can’t do that,” he would have answered with two words. “Watch me.”
Things have changed a lot in the past two millennia. The movement that takes its name from Jesus, the Christ, has become part of respectable culture in much of the world… and it is in the time, I believe, of a great reformation. For although many people literally find it life-saving to hear a message that they are loved by God and can love in return, many others have given up on the whole concept.
You have probably heard, by now, that the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the “Nones”. Not “Nuns” as in Sister Act, but “None” as in “None of the above.” A recent survey of unchurched young adults revealed that the top three traits they associate with “Christian church” are: homophobic; judgmental; and boring. “Christianity” has a serious branding problem. We can ignore it, or we can take it seriously and look at how we might “re-brand” ourselves as people who travel the path of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
Sharilyn and I caught some glimpses of that transformation earlier this month at the General Conference of Metropolitan Community Churches. We gathered in Chicago, over 1500 people in person with some churches joining us virtually from around the world. In MCC, we strive to be radically inclusive, and when we pull it off it is a wonder to behold. We were blessed to be with people of many colors – not just in the audience, but in every level of leadership – many abilities, ages, sexual orientations, genders, languages, and countries. We are learning to affirm and celebrate our differences, rather than to try to homogenize the church into a supposedly “colorblind” whole. We struggle, but often succeed, in finding unity in diversity rather than in uniformity. What binds us together is love of God, love of each other, and passion for our message: that every person is worthy of respect and is loved by God. We are transforming ourselves, with God’s help, into the image of Jesus Christ, so that we might transform the world. And… although it scares some of our church people… there is not a single cross in our new public advertising materials. Why??? Because that symbol of the Christian church has come to represent something for a new generation that Jesus certainly was NOT: homophobic, judgmental, and boring.
I don’t have any particular prophecy or even advice, this morning, for First Community Church – just a question, and a glimpse of one possible answer. The question: how are we doing? Are we a barrier that keeps other people from finding God? Or, are we following in Jesus’ footsteps, bringing good news and healing to a world that is in desperate need of both?
As for a glimpse of an answer… there is a story that I may have told some of you before, but not quite in this way. Ten years ago, Sharilyn and I moved to Medford from Dorchester. I was in the process of leaving the pastorate that I had served for six years, in the only Metropolitan Community Church in Massachusetts. Once we got settled, we looked for a new place to worship.
Because we had seen the Methodist church sign on the Fellsway, we drove by this church one evening. I didn’t know what the church would be like, but I saw a familiar name on the sign outside. I had met Tony and Susan Jarek-Glidden in 1998, at a prayer vigil for gay people who were murdered during the Holocaust, and I knew that Tony wouldn’t give us a hard time for being lesbians.
If I had not seen Tony’s name on the sign, I probably would never have walked through that door. Once I came in, I came back; but before I could come a second time, there had to be that first time.
Mary, rather than Martha, got the better part. As Jesus’ disciples, we are here because of Mary and so many others who passed the word down through the ages. We have a life-changing message to bring to the world. How are you going to bring it this week?