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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2013

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

I am reading a book that chronicles the lives of religious sisters in the Catholic Church at a time when their number has been reduced drastically from what it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. The author visited about a dozen convents and monasteries and interviewed a wide and diverse sampling of nuns.

The big divide she unveiled is between those who perceived that the traditional habit and rule of life was an instrument of separation between them and the laity and nuns who see the religious habit as a sign of their obedience to God, their religious superiors, and the Pope. For the latter group, the separation from the outside world is just what they want.

There are other issues at play like the kind of ministry in which sisters are now engaged, very different from those who staffed Catholic schools for years. Some live in the thick of a ghetto running a half-way house, homeless shelter, or teaching the poor. Others are committed to prayer and fasting and cloistered from society. A surprise is that it is younger women who seem to be attracted to the traditional model and the almost medieval practices while women who have been in the convent since their early twenties and are now seventy or older see no purpose to it anymore nor do they understand obedience to be blind and dumb. A few even said things like “I’m a Benedictine nun but I’m not so sure I’m a Roman Catholic anymore.” This disparity reminded me of the story of Martha and Mary—the secluded, contemplative life versus the active, engaged life.

It is a very short Gospel but it is a familiar one. It’s also a story which allows us to make assumptions not supported by the text. We might imagine a big dinner party with Martha cooking up a storm and Mary setting the table, yet Luke merely tells us that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home and had many tasks to do. We don’t even know the hour of the day. The temptation here is to take sides and it has for centuries suggested that these two women are models for the active versus the contemplative life. Is that what Jesus intended? Does this story pit the ministry of good management against attention to God’s Word?

Of course we busy ourselves with too many things—today much more so than in first century Palestine. And, yes, hospitality was among the highest and noblest expressions of faithfulness in the time of Jesus. Hospitality was a core value in the Bible and in this church still is.
What might help us find the balance here is to see the relationship between this story and the one that precedes it—the story of the Good Samaritan. Does the side-by-side position of these two Gospels teach us that it is hearing AND doing—not hearing OR doing—that matters?

The bottom line is that Jesus cares about our relationships—with God and one another. What is a wonderful meal, served with care and grace, if we have to eat it in solitude, without the company of friends and good conversation?

Still, we may stumble over and struggle with this thing about Mary’s “choosing the better part.”

What we have here is a translation glitch. The original Greek word does not really mean “better” but “good” and the entire phrase is best translated “Mary is playing the good part, ” accent on the word “part.” It’s not that Martha’s part is bad just that Martha is playing her part and Mary is playing hers. Each role is different but a good and a necessary part of discipleship.

Actually, there are three characters in this story: Mary, Martha, and Jesus and what we have here is an example of a radically counter-cultural violation: that a woman would sit at the feet of a single man—a rabbi, no less—and be instructed in the faith. I wonder if Martha’s distraction and worry was focused on the possible ramifications of these single women inviting a man into their home and sitting down to have conversation with him—extremely taboo.

Could the better part Mary chose have less to do with her desire to hear what Jesus had to say or with Martha’s fussing in the kitchen and more about Mary’s willingness to ignore the norms of a society that treated women and children as second-class citizens? To claim her rightful place as a beloved child of God? Is this reflective of the struggle in the early church, in the church throughout the centuries, and even in the church today over the proper ministerial roles of women—perhaps in the struggle women religious in the church are confronted with today?

The story teaches us that we must learn to be whole, to do both the everyday life things and to set aside time to reflect and hear what God is saying to us. It’s a mistake to say Martha is second rate. Jesus was just reminding Martha not to be cranky while serving her guests.

In the end, the “one thing” that is needful is to be open to the great challenge to play whatever part God has given each of us to play whether we are more inclined to be Martha or Mary. We really don’t have to choose. We just need to serve, unapologetically, in the roles to which we are called. When we do that, and do it well and faithfully, we discover that it is the better way.

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