A Woman’s Place
“A Woman’s Place,” was my title for my sermon today at Joseph United Methodist Church in Joseph, Oregon. Gutsy (or foolish) title, don’t you think? Anyhow it was my sermon on today’s lectionary gospel text, the story of Martha and Mary. Sermon below for those interested.
A Woman’s Place
Luke 10: 38 – 42
July 17, 2022
It’s good to be here with you — if in a somewhat different role and place in the sanctuary than I usually am, from pew to, for this one day, pulpit.
I recall one of the early Sundays I visited here and was sitting about there . . . As it got closer to the time for the service to begin a white-haired woman, who I later learned was Sharon, came and stood by me. Sharon said, “That’s where I sit.” I said, “Of course it is, let me move over.” I miss Sharon, as I’m sure you do too. Was there ever a Sunday Sharon didn’t request “On Eagles Wings” for the hymn sing? She was a brave and faithful soul who was not only a regular here, but as she was happy to tell anyone, a regular at her AA group. (Note to reader: “Sharon” passed away last year, during COVID.)
Linda and I have been summer worshippers with you at JUMC for a decade or so now, ever since we have been in a position to spend most of our summers in the Wallowas. The story of my connections here is not unusual. I’ve been coming to this special place — Wallowa County — since my earliest days. My grandparents, on both sides, lived in Enterprise. My parents grew up there. And though I did not grow up here myself, I have been coming here to our family cabin at the Lake for, well, let’s just say many years.
It was really Linda who got us looking for a church and landed us here. I want you to know that you have been a blessing to us. We’ve enjoyed pastors Kay and Cherie. We, Linda more than me, have workied at the Magic Garden. I got to make root beer floats with some of you for the Chief Joseph Days booth a couple years. We’ve come to know at least some of you as friends. So thank you. You, and God working through you, have made a difference in our lives, and helped us to be part of the community in new and good ways.
Before I read today’s Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke, let me say just a word about why this particular passage is our reading this morning. Throughout my ministry I’ve been a “lectionary preacher.” The lectionary is basically a selection of Scripture readings for each Sunday of the year. Some of your pastors, at some times, have also worked from Common Ecumenical Lectionary which is used across many churches and denominations.
You don’t have to use it. It’s a resource. It is intended to make sure that preachers and congregations hear a wide range of Scripture and not just their favorites. At any rate, I mention this to say, I didn’t choose today’s Scripture. It was given to me, to us, and so now it’s up to us to listen and trust that God will use it to speak his message to us. But before I read our lesson, will you join me in prayer?
Read Luke 10: 38 – 42
If you’ve been around church for a while, this is likely a familiar story, the story of two sisters, Martha and Mary. If you haven’t been around church long enough to have heard it before, it probably still sounds pretty familiar, because it’s a story that is just such a slice of ordinary life.
Company comes to visit. A woman, who interestingly enough is the homeowner, welcomes her guests and sets to the tasks of taking care of them, getting busy in the kitchen fixing dinner. This woman is Martha. Her sister, Mary, apparently a slacker, just sits down with the honored guest and soaks it all in. After a while, the sister in the kitchen — Martha — is tired of doing all the work of hosting company by herself and lets Jesus and her sister know she’s, let’s just say, not entirely happy with the arrangement. Perhaps surprisingly, Jesus seems to take the slacker’s side, saying to Martha, “Mary has chose the better part, which will not be taken from her.”
Linda called my attention to a section in a new and popular novel she is reading, The Lincoln Highway. Here the character Sally writes about hearing this very story of Martha and Mary in church. Let me read you a little bit.
“At last week’s Sunday service, Reverend Pike read a parable from the Gospels in which Jesus and His disciples, having arrived at a village, are invited by a woman into her home. Having made them comfortable, this woman, Martha, retreats into her kitchen to fix them something to eat. And all the while she’s cooking and generally seeing to everyone’s needs by filling empty glasses and getting second helping, her sister, Mary, is sitting at Jesus’ feet.
“Eventually, Martha has had enough and let’s her feeling be known. Lord, she says, can’t you see that my idler of a sister has left me to do all the work? Why don’t you tell her to lend me a hand? Or something to that effect. And Jesus, He replies: Martha, you are troubled by too many things when only one thing is needrul. And it is Mary who has chosen the better way.
“Well, I’m sorry,” continues Sally. “But if you ever needed proof that the Bible was written by a man, there you have it.”
A little further on, Sally continues,
“From a man’s point of view, the one thing that is needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before. By his figuring, you have plenty of time for sitting and listening because a meal is something that makes itself. The manna, it falls from heaven, and with a snap of the fingers the water can be turned into wine. Any woman who’s gone to the trouble of baking an apple pie can tell you that’s how a man sees the world.”
There is a common tendency, when preaching on this story, to be pretty hard on Martha, to make Mary the faithful and perfect one, and Martha out to be a pain in the you know what. Martha is chided for her “busyness,” and Mary exalted for her “spirituality.”
But that seems to me a little harsh and unfair. After all, women get programmed from an early age to take care of everyone else, and then when all of that care giving kind of pushes them over the edge, they are told that’s their problem.
So that’s not the sermon I want to preach, nor is it really, I think, the point of the story — that is, to beat up on poor, frazzled Martha. Besides, it isn’t only women who can get a little irritated by having to do all the housework or clean up other people’s messes.
We have a fair amount of company at our cabin at the Lake. Some of that company are our grandchildren and their parents. It’s a lot of fun . . . and it’s a lot of work. My grandkids, for instance, think there’s nothing better than strewing peanuts all over my carefully maintained yard for the chipmunks, squirrels and blue jays. Well, some of God’s creatures are thoughtful enough to carry the whole peanut off with them to their house, but some leave peanut shells all over my grass. Truth to tell, after a week of this, with my nice lawn looking like the floor of a tavern, I can go pretty “full Martha” on one or more of the happy peanut distributors. “Who do you think cleans up all this?” I may blurt out. Most all of us have some Martha in us. Responsible, hard-working and capable of irritation when others aren’t pulling their weight.
So if beating up on Martha, or the Martha in us, isn’t the whole or the important point here, what is? How about this . . . this is a story about the fact that even Mary, even a woman, and even those we have determined to be outside of God’s grace, can imagine themselves as full disciples of Jesus.
Or maybe this . . . our Lord can make disciples out of the most unexpected and unlikely people. He can work with and through people we don’t expect to be his instruments or witnesses — which might include even me, even you.
Here’s the deal, when Mary plops herself down at the feet of Jesus to listen to what he has to say, she is out of bounds, off the reservation, acting up, and generally turning the accustomed order of the world upside down and inside out. It’s like a young woman leaving the sidelines and her cheerleader’s pom-poms behind, though leading cheers is in itself is a fine thing to do, and stepping onto the field to play the game, or put a whistle around her neck and a flag in her pocket and be an official or a coach in the NFL or NBA.
It’s like a woman saying, “Being a nurse is great; I totally respect nurses — whether they are women or men — but I just think God wants me to be a doctor, a brain surgeon in fact.” Or it’s a like a girl saying to her Mom, “Yes, I know that there’s a place for me in the church kitchen or teaching Sunday School and helping out and that’s great, but I think my job is to preach the gospel.”
And, to flip the coin and the narrative, there are probably some boys whose father wanted them to be preachers, doctors or athletes, but really weren’t cut out for that or called to it. Maybe they were called to be a nurse, or good lay man in the church, or a musician.
Women, in the time of Martha and Mary, did not become disciples of a teacher, all of whom were men. Women raised the kids but were not themselves prize pupils. No rabbi would allow a woman to “sit at his feet,” which is code for “be his student.” It just wasn’t done by any rabbi or teacher.
Except this rabbi. This strange rabbi Jesus. Jesus, who was forever finding his disciples in the wrong places and among impossible people. Smelly fishermen, morally compromised tax collectors, zealots and a hated Samaritan — people no one thought likely or possible or appropriate.
A woman’s place, according to this story, is as a full disciple of our Lord. This story does not so much put Martha down — it’s true, apple pies don’t make themselves — as it honors Mary, telling us it is proper for a woman to leave the stereotypical role assigned to women to be a full and faithful disciple. Mary, with Jesus’ blessing, pushed the boundaries of her time and culture.
But let’s take that a little further. For while sometimes the barriers are external to us — barriers of gender or race, of class or background — the stereotypes and limits every society creates . . . there are other boundaries and limits, one’s that we create for ourselves. Not all these limits are external, some are internal.
Have you, for example, ever found yourself thinking, “I’m not really good enough to think of myself as a Christian?” Have you ever thought, maybe, even said, “I wish I had as much faith as my wife, or brother, friend or pastor does.” Or even maybe you’ve thought, “I think I am losing my faith.” “I’m not sure I really belong here at all.”
Sometimes, perhaps often, the boundaries and limits we bump up against are internal. We compare ourselves to others who we think more faithful, more accomplished, better than us. They belong at the feet of, in the presence of Jesus. But not us. We know our secrets and failures. We feel inadequate, unworthy. I don’t belong, I don’t have a place here at the feet of Jesus, we think to ourselves. That’s reserved for the really good, the really faithful, the really accomplished people — and that’s not me.
But what if Jesus said, what if Jesus is saying to you right now, this day, this moment, here at my feet is where you totally belong. What if Jesus said, “I know about your failures and foibles. I know your fears and feelings of inadequacy. I know your struggles, your addictions. None of that matters, not utimately, not to me.
All that matters is my grace. That is the one thing needful. That is the better part. My grace is for you, my blessing rests on you — this is exactly where you belong.
Come lay your burdens down at my feet. Come lay down, your fears and your failures, your sadness and sorrow. Lay down your pride and accomplishments as well. Come lay it down at the foot of the cross. Here is where you belong. This is your place, the place of forgiveness, the place of freedom, the place of joy. It belongs to you. It is for you. I am for you. I love you.
I’m thinking back to Sharon. As I told you, on one of my first Sundays here, I sat where Sharon was accustomed to sit. She wasn’t rude or angry about it. She just said, matter of factly, “That’s where I sit.” As if she were saying, “That’s my place where I sit at the feet of Jesus, because I know that he will lift me up, even me, old, recovering alcoholic, weary, on eagle’s wings and make this old body shine like the sun.”
Sharon understood, didn’t she, that what mattered wasn’t whether we were good enough or had done enough or were perfect or beautiful in the world’s eyes. What mattered, and all that matters, is the unending grace and love of Jesus for the broken, for every sinner and outcast, for the unlikely and the impossible — even us when we lose it and go “full Martha.”
Mary, Sharon, and so many more have chosen the better part, the promise of God’s grace and power to save even us, to use even us. This is truly the better part, and this shall not be taken from you.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.