9th Sunday after Pentecost
July 17, 2016
Let me begin by saying that I didn’t want to preach the story of Mary and Martha this morning. I have seen it in the light of the hurt it has caused many faithful church women who were consigned to roles of service and then dismissed because that was not the ‘better part’ of being The Church. Let me include my own injury from a church that wanted to consign me to the role of Martha instead of considering that women could play a different role in theology and spiritual leadership of communities. In my tradition, women were not allowed to be elders, to serve communion, to vote on church policy, teach Bible study to anyone but other women, or to become pastors. At the risk of a feminist rant this morning, just let me say that I changed my mind about preaching on Mary and Martha as a result of my reading of the Colossians text, and of reading the newspaper over the last few weeks.
So stepping outside the possibility that what Jesus was saying to Martha was not to discount her hospitality, or to accuse her of neglecting something more important, let’s suppose that what Jesus is commending is Mary’s assumption that she could chose a different role for herself, the role of disciple. It was certainly not a role that was expected of women in her day, any more than one expected of women even now. Jesus’ “Martha, Martha,” was a term of endearment, not a put down. It is as if he is saying, “Dear Martha, you have chosen the role that is expected of you, but Mary has imagined something different for herself.”
In the chaos of our present days, we too, are cast into expected roles, often pressured into reacting before we have a chance to think deeply about the implications of the positions we lean toward and how they connect with our first loyalty, our loyalty to Jesus and the world God imagines for us to live in.
The Colossians reading speaks to our loyalty to Jesus over all kingdoms or forms of government. It begins with a hymn. It lifts up Jesus, who was a human being, as the exact image (eikon) of the invisible God, declaring him to both creator of all things and above all things – visible and invisible. This put him above the Emperor, who also claimed to the son of god, and above all rulers. In a Roman – read Gentile, pagan – town like Colossae this would have been a radical statement of belief. He is our head, says the hymn, the head of our community, the church. Furthermore, his death on the cross has reconciled the whole world to peace with God because he was truly God’s presence in the world. So now, says Paul, you who used to be strangers to the true God have been invited into fellowship with God through Jesus’ reconciliation. Paul says that he is a servant of this message and in the deprivations that he suffers to bring this message – the Gospel – to the Gentile world, his work is to advance it. But that isn’t all, he says, you have a part too. As you grow into this message of Jesus’ Lordship over all the political and domestic understandings of your society, you have become part of reconciling the world to God through the message of Jesus, whom you love above all your other loyalties.
To me it says something like this: as much as you love your country, you don’t have to be blind to its shortcomings and its failures. You can be part of changing the things that have oppressed people, you can become part of correcting systemic injustices. Because you realize that you are forgiven of your failures and missed good intentions, you can open your ears and your heart to others in your community to hear their stories with the same grace, and to act to make things change when you feel your heart touched by their circumstances.
As much as you believe that your country offers the best system of governance and opportunity, you can open your heart to the rest of the world, with whom our lives become more and more entwined. You can learn that the institutions that support our freedoms are not available to most of the places in the world that are in turmoil and that our struggle is to offer the stability of our freedoms and institutions as both a light to others and our best hope to combat the fear that terrorism wants to cause.
And the reason why we do these things is simply because we are God’s presence here on earth. We are the hands of Jesus. We are the heart of God. The work of saving the world is our work, bequeathed to us by Jesus, or as Paul says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The work of feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned, restoring hope is our work because we were once those who were hungry for God’s love, strangers to God’s forgiveness, imprisoned in our narrow-mindedness, and without any hope. Our hearts are transformed to see and hear and care with the heart of God, and who are willing to let that lead us beyond our preconceived notions.
The story of Mary and Martha tells us that we don’t have to choose the roles that are expected of us, that we can listen to Jesus and find another path to serve. The message of Colossians tells us that our loyalties in this world are superseded by our invitation into the life of Christ in God, our hope of joy in this life and of glory in the next. Amen.