Proper 11C – July 17, 2022
St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Proper 11C – July 17, 2022
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In seminary classes over the years, there were generally two overarching pieces of advice given to new budding preachers about how to preach. First, was to not bite off more than you can chew, so stick to only three points that are manageable for listeners to hear. And secondly, to say what you’re going to say, say what you’re saying, and then say what you’ve said.
As you know, I do NOT regularly do either of those things. I often will only have one major point or sometimes I have a chain of five interrelated stories or points. I often do not tell you where we’ll be going…I think you’re all smart enough to figure it out as we take the journey together.
But today, I confess I’m falling back to a modified three-point model as we come to this well-known story about Mary and Martha and the interaction with Jesus. First, I want to entice you think about it in relationship to other pairings of women in the Scripture and the models that come from these women. Secondly, I want us to view this short scene in light of the surrounding context in the Gospel of Luke. And lastly, I want to focus on what I see as the primary take-away from Jesus’s comment which is about listening, learning, and being a disciple. So, here it goes!
I’m wondering how many of you see Mary and Martha as the yin and yang of a single unit. One is busy with the manual labor of the household; the other is a studious follower of Jesus. Although they are a family unit, their relationship as sisters showcases their apparently huge differences in personality. And yet they aren’t the only women in the Bible who are paired together, and who we find central to the forward movement of Salvation History.
In the Old Testament, we have a number of sets of amazing women. Of course, I immediately think of another set of sisters, Leah and Rachel who also come into conflict with one another (and I would add squabble with God) and when added to the dyad of Bilhah and Zilpah, slaves at that, they are the mothers through whom the twelve tribes come into being. A very different pairing of women are Deborah the Judge and Jael who some refer to as the Warrior in her killing of the adversary Sisera. They showcase two very different ways that women worked to achieve a 40 year peace, Deborah through her shrewd planning and management and Jael through her action, essentially in the midst of conflict barely off the battlefield. I encourage you to read more about them if you’re not familiar with this part of the book of Judges.
In the New Testament, we find today’s story that Luke relates about Mary and Martha. The Gospel of John also presents the pair of sisters and, while not including the same episode about Mary and Martha, he names them as the sisters of Lazarus and mentions – paralleling this Lukan narrative – that when Jesus comes to Lazarus in Bethany, Martha goes out to meet Jesus while Mary sits in the house (John 11:20) and also that at dinner Martha serves and Mary anoints the feet of Jesus (John 12:1-3). So certainly sisters whose differences are showcased.
We find something very different in our next pairing of women, Lois and Eunice (2nd Timothy 1:5), grandmother and mother, respectively, of Timothy. They are both mentioned for the same reason, their faith that they passed on, a faith that lives on in Timothy. This faith passed down from grandmother and mother is mentioned in almost the same breath as the laying on of hands which kindles the spirit of power and love.
And these are just some of the pairs of women that are highlighted in Scripture. But there are more: Shifra and Puah (the amazing pair of Old Testament midwives), Ruth and Naomi, and let us not forget cousins Mary and Elizabeth, and I could go on. And not to go too far out on a tangent, I’d slip in Miriam who is not actually paired with a sister, but her brother Moses. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would invite you to become familiar with these amazing pairs of women in the Bible.
Our second focus for today is to delve into the context of the story of Mary and Martha. We find this portion of Scripture nestled in the middle of the Gospel of Luke, coming towards the beginning of the section which documents Jesus’s activity and ministry chiefly in Galilee. It follows after the passage we heard in worship last Sunday, the parable Jesus tells about the three men who encounter the beaten man alongside the road, the encounter we know as the Story of the Good Samaritan. In this story, all the players are men, presumably even the robbers and innkeeper. But, the emphasis is on hospitality and healing, defining who is the neighbor and the one to whom we should attend. And the one who acts, the Samaritan (one who would be perceived as a threat and outsider) is the one who is commended for his action.
The text from last week concludes and links to today’s passage with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.”, followed by the narrator saying, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” So, we already see hospitality in action again, welcome. And yet, as the text continues, we find that Mary, the sister of the one showing hospitality acts quite differently. While the text doesn’t recount Mary interacting verbally with Jesus, we are told that she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” This posture is the posture of a disciple, and many have seen this as not only general acceptance by Jesus, but in through his delicate rebuke to Martha as an approval of her as a woman disciple. It has been seen as counter-cultural for Jesus’ day and the roles of women.
And after this event, Luke pivots from the discussion about hospitality and listening to the topic of prayer, which has perhaps an inherently awkward transition or I should say, actually, no transition. After Jesus finishes talking to Martha, saying, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her”, the text continues, “He was praying in a certain place, and after he finished, one of his disciples said to him…” And here, Luke moves into a section on prayer and particularly Jesus presenting the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. I’m left to wonder, then if there isn’t meant to be an intentional connection between the Good Samaritan and the events with Mary and Martha, perhaps a purposeful juxtaposition with action and listening, neighborly love and discipleship.
So, we finally come to the third point for today. What might it mean for us as we listen to Jesus’ commendation supporting those who choose to listen and learn at his feet, those who know the stories Jesus tells, those who hear his words of urging and become disciples? Do we actually see ourselves sitting at his feet? Can we reduce our “busyness” to make sure we have time for this listening, studying, and being a rapt disciple? Do we regularly study Scripture and do the hard work of authentically asking questions, questions such as “Who is my neighbor?”, “How do I pray best?”, and “How do I follow Jesus on this day, month, and year as a disciple?”
Siblings in Christ, I invite you to think – since you can’t actually sit at Jesus’ feet – about making sure to spend time with scripture. I invite you to both act and follow. And perhaps for those of us who tend to be Martha-like to simplify and spend some time alongside our sister in listening.