This week, I was invited to guest-preach at St. Paul’s School of Theology, a local United Methodist seminary. Hanging out with folks from other traditions is always fun, partially because I never feel so uptight as I do in a crowd of ministers who aren’t Episcopalian (I wear a collar! I have to do and say certain things to consecrate at the altar! I am weirdly attached to a book! #oldschool) And partially because hanging out with other Christians feels like a giant relief–thank God Episcopalians are not solely responsible for representing Christ in the world. Look at the terrific variety of ways that these creative other people are doing it! Pardon me while I madly scribble notes to take back home. ***
When I said I would preach, the first question the worship coordinator (Teresa, who is fantastic) had was which text I wanted, then we would plan the whole service around it. Where did I have energy? What did I want to say? Off the top of my head, I suggested the Mary and Martha story. Immediately, I thought “Well, that’s silly. I’m probably the only one who finds that story and its interpretation troubling.” Teresa wrote back “YOU HAVE TO USE THAT TEXT. I cannot stand that Mary vs. Martha thing.”
Turns out, in talking to several of the students at lunch afterwards, the distaste towards how this story is talked about runs deep and wide. (Like that blasted fountain the kids at the Day School sing about.) I’ve decided I’m starting a new campaign: No More Awful Sermon Tropes. Who’s with me?
But in the meantime, here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
February 4, 2015
St. Paul’s School of Theology, Word and Worship
Mary and Martha story
Prior to moving to Kansas City, I lived for four years in Flagstaff, Arizona. Arizona, as you might imagine, is not the hotbed of diversity and progressivism we all might hope for, and so frequently, when I went to supply around the state, I discovered that I was the first ordained woman the congregation had ever seen or heard from.
About a year after my arrival, I was approached by the cardinal rector of the large church in Prescott (where John McCain used to attend, before marrying Cindy and realizing that continuing to be an Episcopalian was politically toxic). He invited me to please! Come preach at his church! But specifically, preach on the Sunday that this text was read. Because, he told me, he didn’t know how to preach it, and maybe I could take a stab.
This story lives in a quiet infamy. For I don’t even know how long, it’s been preached the same way: Martha was the Busy One. Mary was the Quiet One. Martha was Too Busy to have a relationship with Jesus, and Mary, through her meekness and listening, did the Right Thing, and SHOULDN’T YOU BE A MARY, TOO, WHY YES YOU SHOULD. #alltheguilt.
If you’ve been in church for any amount of time, you’re familiar with this phenomenon: There’s Team Mary and Team Martha. Like dueling soccer teams or dueling sides in a shipper war, everyone takes sides and you’re either one or the other, ESPECIALLY if you’re a woman.
If you’re a woman, well, then, your problem is that there are precious few times that preachers address what that experience looks like. In the basic RCL lectionary that the Episcopal church follows as well as the UMC, there aren’t a whole lot of women running around in the gospels. And most of those times, we focus on Jesus or focus on the male disciples’ reaction—because unless you’re Mary, the mother of Christ, if you’re a woman in the gospel narrative, you’re either an actual prostitute, or you’ve just been called that for 2,000 years.
So it’s team Martha or Mary for life. Those are your choices, ladies. Nobody else is showing up.
It goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that this is a problem. Not only because it smushes 51% of the human race into a dualism that doesn’t reflect reality,—and we’re coming back to that— but also because it does violence to the biblical text that we, on most other occasions, treat with the utmost seriousness.
For starters, Martha isn’t just bustling around doing useless tasks because she has some pathological need to avoid silence. She’s doing her job, what’s culturally expected of her at the time—she’s cooking the evening meal and preparing the house—and without women like Martha you’ve got to figure, Jesus and the male disciples wouldn’t have eaten at all.
So part of what she’s concerned about in this moment is that there literally won’t be food on the table for these guys, which is an actual issue. That’s an actual problem. But also, it’s safe to say that she is concerned with what Mary’s up to at this precise moment, because Mary is definitely not doing what she’s supposed to.
While Martha is off doing her important “make the food” work, Mary has plopped down at the feet of Jesus, and is listening to him teach. This sounds fairly innocuous, but sitting at a teacher’s feet was a very specific posture at the time. It was how male students signaled that they wanted to learn from a particular rabbi—they sat at his feet and learned.
So not only is Martha concerned about what’s going to happen with the food situation, she’s more than a little concerned that her sister is doing something that is culturally inappropriate, and not a little bit dangerous. Women weren’t disciples. Women did other stuff. They didn’t learn from rabbis, at least not openly. Martha, at the very least, wants to check in with Jesus to see how he feels about this particular turn of events, which is why she protests—and he reassures her that Mary has chosen a good part, and ’this will not be taken away from her.’
Neither of them is wrong. Neither of them is doing something that is dishonorable or sinful or unChristian. In the text, when you incorporate the historical context and you give it the attention we tend to give other parts of the gospel—Mary and Martha aren’t pitted against each other. In fact, when Martha panics that her sister might be doing something wrong, Jesus reassures her that it’s fine that Mary is doing her own thing.
So why, then, why do we preachers continually insist on shrinking this story, and stories like it into this dichotomy? Why do we fall into the trap of the good Team Mary vs the evil Team Martha, and try to shrink the rest of the world into the same mold?
The simple answer, for so long, perhaps is that preachers, and the ones who write the commentaries and the tomes of theology, have been men, concerned about an audience of men, so how the nuances of how women are presented and spoken about hasn’t been a chief concern. But my friends, it’s 2015 and that’s actually a pretty wretched excuse.
We have such enormous power when we stand in the pulpit. I know, and I believe in the priesthood of all believers, and the full empowerment of the laity, and I endeavor to live that out in my ministry, but when you speak from the pulpit, with the full emotional force of the liturgy, the music, the sacramental moment all structured to drive home what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter how approachable you might be the moment you step down—for those 10-15 moments, you are answerable to no one. You hold an enormous club in your hands, to wield as you please. And over time, your words, your presence help shape the worldview of those who listen to you.
So, as responsible preachers, we need to remember our audience, and what they hear from us. We need to make sure that they hear the gospel preached to them—all of them, all the people who come to us need to hear the good news of God’s saving action.
Our God is so big, God’s action in the Incarnation so enormous, that to shrink it down like this misrepresents just what God did. God acted to save everyone, to save all of creation in its diversity and complexity—not just the people we are familiar with, or the ones we can describe with ease, or the ones we can assign to a Team. God came to us in Christ for everyone—this is good news for everyone.
And the gospel ceases to be good news when it tells women the only acceptable way to live is to be meek, passive, and quietly sitting somewhere. It ceases to be good news when it ignores the real contributions of half of the community because of who made them. It ceases to be good news when it confines the concerns of so much of humanity to a few neat, pat stereotypes.
So when we preach, we need to preach it all. Preach it all. Preach the whole thing. Preach Martha and her dedicated hospitality and her impassioned questioning when her brother died. Preach Mary and her rebellious discipleship when the world thought she should be doing something else. Preach the Samaritan woman at the well who argued and questioned and figured out who Jesus was before anyone else did. Preach Mary Magdalene who proclaimed the resurrection to the disciples and preach Mary the mother of Christ who proclaimed the coming of a new world where the hungry would be fed, the poor satisfied and the rich sent away empty, and taught her son to believe the same.
Preach the whole damn** thing. Don’t forget anyone’s story. Don’t exclude anyone’s voice. Because the wider we draw the circle, the more stories we tell, the more people we include, the more we learn of the God who created us all, who came to save us, and who gave us to each other’s care.
***This is similar to my sense of relief around people of other faiths. “Hooray! Abrahamic faiths are here! Can y’all talk about praxis because American Christianity is just the worst at that, right? Oh, thank God–we might not all die.” Seriously, anytime I imagine a world without diversity, I get very stressed, and have to go lay down.
**Not what I said from the pulpit. I think I said something like “preach the whole blessed thing” or “preach the entire thing.” I was on a roll when I was writing and kept it in for emphasis.