July 21, 2019 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
In March 2013, when our daughter was five, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected by the College of Cardinals to be the next Pope. When we told our daughter that the Bishop of Rome had chosen Francis to be his papal name, she was ecstatic. “That’s my name!” Frances exclaimed. “Maybe I can be the Pope someday, too!” Anticipating her disappointment, I tried to explain that a woman could not be the Pope, and, for the first time in my life, I found myself telling my first-born child that there was a dream that she could not pursue because she was a girl.
Indeed, the list of male-only dreams has shrunk considerably over the last decade. Women now serve in combat roles in our military. The Olympics now allow women to compete in boxing and ski jumping. (Maybe Greco-Roman wrestling and nordic combined will come next.) A few years ago, a woman was almost elected President of the United States, and perhaps it’s worth noting that, as a teenager, Hillary Rodham wanted to be an astronaut until NASA let her know that they only accepted men into their program.
As a five-year-old girl who had grown up in the Episcopal Church, our daughter was confused to find that a position in the church was closed to her. She had seen women preach from the pulpit and preside at the altar. Why couldn’t a woman be Pope? I tried to explain the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and The Episcopal Church, but, as I did, as much as I would have liked to define misogyny as an exclusively Roman problem, I had to confess that patriarchy isn’t confined to the other side of the Tiber. And so, as both her father and as an embodiment of the patriarchy that still plagues the church, I explained to my little girl that she could do anything she set her mind to…unless the men in this world decided that she couldn’t. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We see a different view of how the world might be in today’s Gospel lesson. On their way toward Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples stopped in a town, where they were received as guests in the home of a woman named Martha. Entertaining a dozen or more men from out of town is quite an undertaking in any era, and Luke lets us know that Martha was overwhelmed by the task of being the host. Actually, he uses a strange word to describe what Martha experienced—a word that, as my friend and colleague Steve Pankey noted in his blog this week, literally means “drawn about.” Martha was drawn about—pulled apart, running all over the place—trying to get everything done, and finally she had had enough. “Lord,” she said to Jesus, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving by myself? Tell her, then, to help me!”
Mary, on the other hand, had been sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, listening to him the way that a disciple would. She was captivated by the teacher’s words. All of the necessary tasks—the cooking and serving and filling glasses and making sure the guests were enjoying themselves—they all fell away as Mary sat intently focused on the visiting rabbi. Her failure to help wasn’t just a selfish indulgence. In the eyes of everyone in the room, it was a failure both as sister and as woman—at least in the eyes of everyone except Mary and Jesus. Everyone who noticed that Martha was overwhelmed by her tasks would have expected Mary to get up and help. When Martha reached her breaking point, she turned to the religious authority in the room because she knew that an arbiter of their ancestral faith would surely agree that Mary’s place was by her sister’s side, back in the kitchen, gaining personal satisfaction from working hard to be sure that the men were happy. But that’s now how Jesus saw things.
“Martha, Martha,” he replied, “you are worried and distracted by many things—by the many chores you have set yourself to accomplish. Actually, only one thing is needed.” For a split-second, Martha must have wondered what that one thing was. Did Jesus need a glass of water? Or maybe he meant that a single dish or a loaf of bread would be sufficient. Or perhaps he noticed that there was only one more thing to do before Martha could sit down and relax beside her sister. “Only one thing is needed,” Jesus said to her. “Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Some translations use the comparative form and describe Mary’s portion as the “better” part, but the Greek text is ambiguous, and I think it makes more sense to hear Jesus naming Mary’s choice as good without needing to compare it with her sister’s decision to serve the guests. Jesus says to Martha, “Mary’s choice is a good one. It is good for her to be here among my disciples. This is where she belongs. What about you? Where do you belong? Don’t be drawn about—pulled in so many different directions. Where do you want to be? Where is your place? Don’t let other people tell you where you belong. Don’t worry about what they say or do. Let go of all their chatter. Stay focused in your own mind. Only one thing is needed. Where do you know that you belong? Find that place, and no one will take it away from you, even if that place is here as one of my disciples."
In many ways, the church still claims to be the moral framework for our society. Despite declining attendance and declining influence, representatives of Christianity still tell us what the world is supposed to look like, and the world is listening to them. But most Christians (and certainly the loudest ones) who are telling us what is right and what is wrong aren’t articulating God’s vision for the world. They are sharing their own self-serving vision wrapped up in a Christian disguise. We know this because their vision is nothing like God’s vision for the world. Their vision limits access to healthcare, promotes economic disparity, seeks to silence the voices of those with black or brown skin, and treats women and minorities as second-class citizens—as less important, less valuable than white men. How else could the President of the United States tell four female members of Congress, “Go back where you came from,” and gain support from his supposedly Christian base?
That isn’t how Jesus sees the world. Jesus envisions healing for all, prosperity for all, freedom for all, and dignity for all. That’s why he healed the lepers, celebrated the poor and the helpless, criticized the rich and the powerful, and welcomed women like Mary among his disciples. Jesus shows us that God unconditionally loves and values every single human being, and that doesn’t leave any room for racism or classism or toxic masculinity. Jesus makes room among his beloved followers for those whom the powerful would prefer to send back to the place where they presume that they belong. But Jesus shows us that they belong right next to him, right here with us.
That is God’s vision for the world, and, if we are going to be followers of Jesus, it must be our vision as well. For too long the church has stood on the side of the powerful, the connected, and the privileged. We have allowed Jesus’ voice to be coopted by those who seek to serve themselves and not the welfare of every human being. Their vision for the world seems to be unfolding all around us, and it is not only different from God’s vision but a threat to it. We cannot, therefore, be silent any longer. We must take back Jesus’ voice and let it speak to those in power. We must let Jesus’ voice be our voice. Only one thing is needed. If Jesus wouldn’t let the good portion be taken away from anyone, why would we?