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The Divine Secrets of the Disciple Sisterhood

Note: today's sermon was preached by The Rev. Linda S. Powers.

I am so pleased to be with you this morning to preach the Word of God. And as is the occasion whenever I preach, I find myself filled with a bit of anxiousness as well as a little bit of excitement. In addition to prayer, I sometimes prepare and center myself by watching Sister Act or Sister Act II. It always pumps me up! I’m guessing that many of you have seen these movies? Whoopi Goldberg puts on a habit and becomes a nun and joins a teaching order of real nuns and together these sisters provide hope for a group of teenage youth whose lives are often full of despair.

On the surface this relationship of nuns and a Las Vegas show girl seems very odd, but after all, God has made us to be in relationship: In relationship with God, in relationship with the creation and the creatures and in relationship with each other. Relationships- where we are God’s servants working together to do God’s work in this world. These relationships of sisterhood and brotherhood can be the most amazing gifts from God or at times, they can be the most difficult, and the most puzzling of circumstances. I have three siblings – two younger brothers and an older sister she and I shared a bedroom growing up. I have hundreds of relationship stories around that, and my guess is you do too along with maybe some new ones from Thanksgiving this past week.

Well, I believe that in our scripture, there is no more puzzling sisterhood relationship story than that of Mary and Martha. When read rather simply and traditionally, we find two sisters that seem to have been polarized by their actions and by a comment from Jesus. Martha is rebuked by Jesus for being worried and distracted by her many tasks while Mary is to be rewarded for sitting at Jesus’ feet. The story seems to paint a picture of a good sister and a bad sister – a sister that is doing things the right way and a sister who is doing things the wrong way. Martha is an uppity woman who doesn’t even ask Jesus to have Mary help her, but instead commands him to tell Mary to help. Can you just hear her – “Jesus, make Mary help!” While in contrast, we have the quiet Mary, the ever-faithful listener.

This passage has always been difficult for a woman like me. I am what some folks have affectionately described as a mover and shaker. Others have used not so affection terms to describe me –but basically I am kinetic – a take charge person. I find myself having daily running dialogues with God. It would be a challenge to find me in a quiet room with a candle speaking to God. I consider myself a dedicated warrior for God’s social justice, and yet after reading this passage, I have often felt as if there was something wrong with me. What about all people who take pride in hard work and taking charge and getting things done? What about all the women, and men, who labor heavily to make people feel welcome in their homes? What about the women and men, sweating from dawn to dusk on Thanksgiving Day to put dinner on the table? What about the women in our world who work in addition to carrying the responsibilities of house and home. They like me, have often felt rebuked right along with Martha. This passage seems to have mixed blessings. On one hand we applaud the opportunity for Mary to be a disciple or pupil of Jesus, but on the other hand this elevation seems to only be achieved at the expense of Martha’s humiliation. If you think about it, A situation we often find in our own world. What is the message meant to be?

In our world today, how could one miss that there seems to be a hyper focus on tearing others down in order to build ourselves up or to make ourselves feel better. It is the art of the put down – the ultimate trash talk. We find it on the playground in bullies, on the prefabricated reality T.V. shows, political ads and news broadcasts where we do not spend time discussing why we should vote for a candidate or evaluate current events, but instead why we should not vote for another, or why what we hear is fake news. If you trash someone enough, you are bound to win.

I once was standing in line at the Oakland Airport waiting to order a sandwich before I boarded the plane. The woman in line in front of me was having difficulty understanding the young girl who was taking her order. This young woman had a thick accent. The woman in line turned to me and said, “I didn’t know I had to speak a foreign language to order a sandwich.” I was taken aback by her comment, but I was mostly stunned at her assumption that I somehow felt the same way as she did - that I was somehow part of her sisterhood. We seem to create this bizarre pecking order or tribe inclusion at the expense of others.

This may have something to do with nature, but surely it does not have anything to do with our Christianity – our charge to love our God and love our neighbor – does it? How then can we prevent this scripture from becoming a Martha vs. Mary story?

If we rotate this story just a bit and look at it from several different angles, it may reveal some new truths for us. Starting with verse 38, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and unlike the social situation we normally see in Bible stories, it is Martha’s home not her husband’s or brother’s or father’s. She is obviously a woman of means and in a position to offer Jesus appropriate hospitality.

In verse 39, there are different translations among the various Greek texts. Some include a tiny little article, eta (h]) and some do not. If that little eta is included in the sentence then this verse is translated as “she (Martha) had a sister named Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” This makes Martha an equal disciple with Mary. If this is the translation, then we can also connect with a concept in verse 40. Martha is described as distracted. Maybe what she is distracted from is her normal role as a pupil or disciple of Jesus. Another thought for verse 39 is that there is no mention in Luke about Mary and Martha being blood sisters. Perhaps they were part of a sisterhood in this new family of Jesus. Assumptions can be wrong.

When I was on a mission trip to Lithuania, a young Lithuanian woman who was helping on our project asked our translator if my best friend and I were sisters. When I had the translator ask why she thought that, she answered “because they argue all the time and they eat off of each other’s plates.” Our behavior made her think we were part of the same sisterhood and we are; the sisterhood of sisterfriends and the sisterhood of people serving in mission.

Verse 40 gives the most promise if you are a Martha fan. You know that old riddle about the man and his son that were in a terrible automobile accident? When the boy is rushed into operating room, the surgeon says, I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son – who is the doctor? In the 50’s and 60’s it was a difficult riddle to solve. Today, however any fan of Grey’s Anatomy or Chicago Med - or probably most anyone would have no trouble in knowing immediately that the doctor was the boy’s mother.

Similarly, Martha has been looked at with what now can be described as a previously traditional role. Historically, commentators have painted Martha as busy with many kitchen tasks because of their assumption that the Greek word for tasks, should be translated as “serving table” instead of one of its many other meanings. There is nothing else in this passage that indicates that a meal was being served, and yet probably because Martha is a woman, it was assumed that the tasks she was busy with were those in the kitchen. The other translations for the Greek word for “tasks” are: service, help, support, mission and even ministry. Martha may have provided one of the first house churches where Jesus - and yes, even Martha may have preached.

Verses 41-42 are the most dramatic of this passage because they contain the words of Jesus, but we must ask ourselves “what was Jesus’ intent?” Is his comment about Martha being worried and distracted a rebuke or a concern? I believe that Jesus was showing concern for Martha. In Luke, Jesus has a lot to say about worry. He teaches his followers how this world causes a significant amount of worry, but lesson is that the worry is taken care of or eased by God. If Jesus’ intent is to teach this to Martha also, then he is demonstrating concern for Martha, not chastising her.

The last verse is the most problematic. It is hard not to fall into the trap of judging Martha, but if we remain in the context of care, Martha is not being rebuked for her actions, but instead Jesus is sharing how better off she would be (at least for the moment) if she would come and sit, and listen, and learn. Jesus is offering Martha and us peace – Shalom. This story comes at a time in Luke when Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus may have been desperate to share as much as he could especially with those he loved, while he still could. He knew after all what lay ahead.

The look at this passage yields for us several secrets. Jesus does not choose one sister over another, but instead shows love and care for both. The sisters do not have adversarial positions, but one of co-discipleship. One is involved in the ministry of faith while the other in the ministry of faithfulness.

The divine secret is that they both serve. Not as adversaries at the expense of one another, but as sisters and brothers in the ministry of Jesus just as we come together today to serve as Christ’s hands and feet in this world:

As Presbyterian women and men serving together on session, on disaster mission trips, on community boards and in marches for social justice. We absorb our roles as servants not like water that is soaked up in a sponge to later dry up or be squeezed out, but instead like a crouton on top of French onion soup. We soak up the dark rich broth until it blends together and becomes part of our very essence, and when the bread is tasted, so is the heart of the soup – each ingredient contributing their part to make the final, delectable taste on our palate that eventually becomes our nutrition. We are both nurtured by this rich broth and at the same time, we nurture others.

What I wish for all of us is that we eat heartily of the crouton of life through our upcoming Advent journey, and we experience its nurturing qualities. Not by finding ways to separate ourselves from others, but by finding ways to come together to do God’s work in the world. May it be so for you and may it be so for me.

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