And This Will Not Be Taken Away From Her: A sermon about Martha, Mary and the insidious nature of bias in our lives

This sermon is based on the readings for Proper 11 Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on July 21, 2013.

The NPR story that is quoted in the sermon can be found here

For the full context and origin of “clutching our purses, locking our doors, or looking suspiciously at poeple in department stores” please refer to the sixth paragraph of President Obama’s remarks about the death of Trayvon Martin available here.

So with whom do you identify in this story?  Are you a Mary kind of girl, someone who receives data and information, impressions about the world around you by sitting still, quietly reflecting and contemplating what is taking place?  Or are you more like Martha, moving constantly, busy, working, receiving and accepting information, interpreting and learning about the world around you as you are in motion?

How do you pray?  Do you have a spot in your house that is set aside for quiet prayer, maybe a special chair, candle that you light, even the same music that plays as you sit and read the daily office?  Or do you pray holding the steering wheel of your car, maybe as you run, maybe even as you wash the dishes?

Historically, classically we hear this reading from Luke’s Gospel as an evaluation of two spiritualties, two ways of being in the world.  And it would seem that Jesus is pointing to one and saying that this is better than the other, passing judgment on the busy ness of Martha and her need to be in motion.  But that’s a little confusing.  Jesus does go up into the mountains alone to pray.  He goes apart from the crowd to pray on a regular basis.  But Jesus is also out there in the streets, preaching, teaching, healing, working with his disciples and he calls us again and again to be servants to all, to be at work in the world working to bring God’s kingdom to fruition.  So how can it be that Jesus is passing judgment on that kind of spirituality, that “busy” way of being?  It doesn’t quite make sense.  It is confusing.  And it’s a little worrisome if, like me, the only way that you can justify sitting long enough to watch a Packer’s game is to fold the laundry or dust the baseboards while you watch the game…  Busy all of the time.

Fortunately, or maybe even predictably, I don’t think that is really the point of this story.  I don’t really think that Jesus is making distinctions about two different ways of being in the world and calling one out as preferable.  But to understand why I think that, to understand what is really happening here we have to back up just a little bit.

Last week we heard the verses that immediately precede the story from Luke that we heard today.  Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan.  And in that story a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and in the course of his interrogation he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus works through the story of the Good Samaritan to point out that “who is my neighbor” is the wrong question.  Who is my neighbor isn’t even on Jesus’ radar.  What Jesus wants this lawyer to understand is that we are to behave as neighbors to everyone in the world around us.  Who our neighbor is, who our neighbor isn’t doesn’t make sense because everyone is our neighbor and we are called to love them as we love ourselves.

Jesus is turning the social order upside down in this story.  The hero of the story, the person who actually does act like a neighbor is a Samaritan,  is someone from a despised community.  So this story about a Good Samaritan would have been shocking and upsetting to his audience.

As soon as that story ends we hear that “Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (Luke 10: 38).  Then something equally shocking happens in this story.  Martha’s sister sits at Jesus’ feet, like a disciple, in the front room, where only the men are allowed to gather, and she listens to what Jesus is saying.  Now that would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ audience as the Samaritan helping the wounded and bleeding man lying in the ditch.

We don’t really know how Martha said those words.  We don’t know what was in her mind.  They were sisters.  Maybe in all their lives they had never quite figured out how to cohabitate, whose job it is to do this, whose job it is to do that, how do we divide up the cores.  Maybe this is an ongoing feud between them and when Martha comes into the front room her words are laden with the baggage of her long struggle with her sister as she asks Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen.

We do know for sure though, that when Martha walks into that room and says, “Jesus, send her back into the kitchen where she belongs” all of the men in the room said, “Yeah!  Darn straight.  It’s about time!  Get her out of here.  She’s not supposed to be in this room!”  We know that’s how they responded because in the last line of todays Gospel Jess say, “This will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

Jesus is still on the same theme, he is still working to accomplish the same goal that he had in mind when he started telling the story of the Good Samaritan.  He is turning the social order upside down.  He is asking us to see that we are all neighbors.  And he is working to help us to identify something that is even more insidious than the racial prejudice that was in play when it was a Samaritan that was at the center of the story.  Right now Jesus is talking about bias.

Bias.  It was about a year ago that I heard a story on NPR that I immediately looked up on their web site because I knew that there would come a moment when we would need to hear it together.  In this story they were talking to a sociologist who had written a book about bias and in her book she tells this story:

There was a woman who was washing dishes in her sink when she dropped and broke a crystal bowl.  The glass gashed her hand from the top of her palm to her wrist.  She rushed to the emergency room and the very fist thing that she told the surgeons and doctors who examined her was that she was, “I am a quilter and I don’t want to lose and functionality in my hand.  Please make sure that there are no nerves severed, no tendons cut.”  The Emergency room doctor told her that he was doing a perfectly “competent” job stitching up her hand.  Then a nures who knew the patient walked into the room and said, “Professor Johnson, what are you doing in the emergency room?”  The doctor who was stitching up her hand looked at her and asked, “Are you a professor at Yale?”  The patient answered, “Yes I am.”  Suddenly the room was filled with hand specialists, surgeons, neurologists and other specialists, all of them there to make sure that she retained all of the functionality of her fingers.  Something remarkable had happened because suddenly this person sitting on the stool having her hand stitched up was a person of rank and status in the community.

Bias is an insidious thing.

You know the story about the Samaritan… that seems kind of foreign to us.  Samaritans, people who had intermarried with the people of the land, whose religious practice doesn’t match our own, who worship on the mountain tops instead of in the temples…  that might seem pretty foreign to us.  That’s easy for us to hold at a distance as if it doesn’t have any relevance to or impact on our lives.  But this story is different.  Mary looks like us.  She is a member of our tribe. She is a member of our household.  And yet there is this bias that says where her place is and where it is not.  Where she belongs, and where she may not be.  And so it is this story, I think, that grabs us today.

This story call us to look deep within ourselves and identify those insidious places that don’t rise quite to the level of prejudice or bigotry, but which lurk down there, just a little deeper, at the level of bias.  This passage calls us to look within ourselves and to find those biases and to bring them out into the light so that we don’t find ourselves clutching our purses on the elevator, locking the doors of our cars, or looking suspiciously at people in the department stores. 

We are called to something more.  We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength.  And we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves (BCP page 351).

Jesus has been working very hard these last two Sundays to help us to understand that our neighbors are everyone that we encounter.

This morning Jesus says that our neighbors place is here, in the room, at his feet, with us and that this, this place, this moment, this right, will not be taken away from them.


1 thought on “And This Will Not Be Taken Away From Her: A sermon about Martha, Mary and the insidious nature of bias in our lives

  1. Hello!
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