The Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan
Let us pray. Holy God, open our eyes to your presence. Open our ears to your call. Open our hearts to your love. Amen. Please be seated.
More and more we have become a society of binary categories. Binary ways of thinking assume that there are typically only two categories of a group, class, gender, race, religion, or political identities among others. And that these two categories are complete opposites. Although we need categories by which to organize our lives, there is a deep level to reality in which such categories mislead us, because life is far more complicated and nuanced than categories allow. More often than not, they serve to divide us and place us at odds with each other. But more importantly, they keep us from accomplishing the work of addressing the issues and problems of our common life for the good. We may feel pressure to fit into the boxes of these categories and then to render judgements about which is better. But this is nothing new.
In the story of Mary and Martha, it can sound as though we are presented with two categories of being, two categories of people. The reflective, deep thinking prayer for Mary versus the active up and doing Martha. And that Jesus is rendering a judgment as to which type is better. Be like Mary, not like Martha. During my early teenage years, our reading from Luke’s gospel troubled me and left me uneasy because of this inferred message. You may identify with Mary or Martha, but there is a preference. Binary ways of understanding human differences are insufficient for capturing the complexities of human culture and our behavior.
We must ask, is this story about a hierarchy of gifts and styles of practice and faith? So I invite you to join me to move beyond the surface, as there is more to the story for us I believe this morning. So, what is going on here? Why is Luke sharing this story in this way? Now for context, Jesus has just been teaching his disciples and the crowd about discipleship. Today’s reading comes immediately after last week’s gospel, the story of the Good Samaritan and the demand to love God and love neighbor. In the parable, we see a radical new approach to the well-known law of loving God and neighbor, which breaks and resists cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers. It also comes after Jesus has sent out 70 disciples to spread the word.
Like those other texts, today’s gospel is also about discipleship. With the arrival of Jesus and the kingdom he brings, we have to, though, come to expect the unexpected. And that is what’s going on in our story with Martha and Mary. Now we assume Martha and Mary were important figures in early Christianity, were important enough in the memories of those earliest followers of Jesus, for they appear in the gospels of Luke and John. This particular story, though, is unique to Luke. And the only time they are mentioned in the synoptic gospels. From our text, the action takes place in a certain village, any village, a generic village. It is a similar way like Luke identified the man who fell among thieves in the story of the Good Samaritan just previous. An unidentified man, also a priest, Levite, Samaritan, who could be anyone. This is a pointer to the fact that Luke doesn’t want to make historical or biographical or geographical points, but wants to see them as pointing to a wider teaching, that includes all readers, all hearers. We could find ourselves relating to any of the characters as Canon Cope illuminated last week.
Historical theologian and Methodist Elder, Justo González, suggests that these two passages, the Good Samaritan and this story on Martha and Mary who are hosting Jesus, need to be read together because they are part of an integrated narrative. Connected this way, it appears that Martha is displaying the role of a Good Samaritan taking care of the guest needs. Making sure that food is prepared, and all is ready for her guest. Her hospitality is both expected in a cultural sense, but also from a biblical one, which can be traced back to Abraham. In today’s old Testament reading, we just heard Abraham works to offer hospitality, with Sarah, for three strangers who ultimately bring news of blessing and hope to the older couple regarding the news of a soon to be born child.
I believe that Luke included this difficult passage because he had already experienced in the early church, how challenging it can be to be joyfully working, to serve out our own gifts without resentment, without control. While serving side by side, with someone else offering a completely different gift or way of being. Let’s face it, Martha was all about comparing her behavior to that of her sister, Mary. She even tried to pull Jesus in, expecting support. But Jesus won’t have any of that. And he gives her an unexpected response. Our Colossians passage says that through Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross”. Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha frees us from this comparison and control. And Jesus gives us peace over the fear that the gift we have to offer is better or is not enough in comparison to the person next to us.
My dear siblings in Christ, whenever we invite God into the home of our hearts, our lives will be forever changed. It was true for Sarah and Abraham, the promise of a child in their older age that is inconceivable to them, both physically and intellectually, and is not something within their control. Once Martha invited Jesus into her home, he challenged her expectations, routines and habits. Perhaps Martha’s mistake was that she assumed that she could invite Jesus into her life and then carry on with that life as usual and unchanged, maintaining control and the status quo and allowing her own priorities to rule the day. But we can always count on Jesus meeting us where we are with love and compassion, just as he met Martha and her worry and distraction, to move us forward into new ways of being. We are a community of gifts and the more we each joyfully serve with what God has given us, the more we can joyfully welcome others with new gifts to serve alongside us. Like Martha and Mary, all of us gathered here in this place or online, all of us have a gift that matters to Jesus, that matters to the community, that makes a difference in this cathedral’s ministry and mission.
Through Jesus, we are free to serve joyfully, accepting ourselves and each other’s talents, with the same hospitable welcome that Christ gives to all of us. We are also left with one final thought, that the better part will not be taken away. What is the better part? I believe it encompasses both an act of faith, one open to new ideas with openness, for questioning, but doing so because of a deep trust in God’s grace and the hopeful assurance of peace that comes directly from our time with Jesus, the word made flesh. Both Mary and Martha are inside each of us, which is a good thing because this world that we live in needs both the capacity to go inward and outward. To simply be in the present moment with Jesus and to actively shape our environment with a hopeful eye to the future.
As we move through the life God gives us, the different situations in which we find ourselves call for different responses. And we do need the capacity to respond appropriately to what each moment presents and demands. Today’s story about two sisters is both a challenge and a promise. It’s a challenge and even a calling to live a life, both of service and purpose, by being in relationship with and listening to God. It’s a promise that God is here, that God is always here and that God is for us. For you and for me. Ultimately, the part which will not be taken away from Mary is the same promise and news for you and for me, that God is for us. God created you. God gifts life with hope and meaning, and wants to be in relationship with you and with me. God will not abandon us. And God is with us, even when we doubt that. God is here, God is really here. These are the better things, the knowledge of life in Christ and the hope and promise of the kingdom of God. Amen.