Today’s Gospel lesson reminds me of times when I’ve had to act as peacemaker between people who don’t get along.
When I was Executive Director of The Aliveness Project, we had an onsite meal program that served hot meals for people living with HIV/AIDS. We served 10 meals per week, with about 80 people at each meal.
Deb was the Director of Food Services. She had worked for us on and off over the years. Deb was a dedicated, hard worker. And her Meal Program staff were our front-line workers—dealing face-to-face with just about everyone who came through our front door.
They served as gracious hosts to the newly-infected young man, or the homeless woman who was so grateful for a hot meal on a cold winter day. They also were the sounding board for clients who sometimes said critical and hurtful things. Deb and her staff and volunteers faced that on a daily basis.
Another major program was our Medical Case Management Program. Our case managers helped individuals who were often in crisis—with overdue rent, unpaid utility bills, debilitating depression, abusive relationships, and huge medical expenses.
Each social worker had 40-50 clients, a daunting caseload. Laurie was director of that program. Normally, Deb and Laurie got along. For they had a lot in common.
Both were strong, independent women. Both were in their 40s with husbands. Both were Jewish. Both were skilled managers. Both were fierce advocates for their clients. Both were unafraid to say what they thought. And, let me tell you, they did. Often. To me.
Their major disagreement with each other focused on the silos that separated their programs. Deb would complain the case managers never stepped up to help on days when the kitchen was understaffed and overwhelmed with the number of meals to be served.
Laurie would tell me that the meal program staff seemed to think her case managers just sat in their offices chatting with clients. And sometimes their cooks seemed unwilling to bend the rules, like giving a sandwich-to-go for a client who had no food at home.
Our directors’ meetings could sometime dissolve into a gripe session about who had said what, or what someone did or didn’t do. My job was to listen, and listen, and listen. To make sure everyone felt heard. And then negotiate and reconcile and navigate a solution to the most recent disagreement.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus faces a similar dilemma. Martha and Mary. Two strong women. Two fierce followers of Jesus. Two female faith leaders who didn’t get much recognition from their male team members.
Two very different personalities. A talkative extrovert who says what she thinks. A reserved introvert, who likes to reflect and listen.
Along all with that, you throw in family dynamics. Two sisters who don’t always get along. One kind of bossy, who acts like a mother. The other a baby sister, used to getting away with things her older sibling could never do. Predictable behavior related to birth order.
Yet, together, they form a family. We assume both parents died long before. For it was unusual in that day for two women to run a household.
It’s easy to read this passage from Luke simply as an argument between two sisters. And to hear what Jesus says as a shame-filled admonishment to the stressed-out Martha.
However, I think there are deeper layers of meaning hidden behind their bickering.
Today, we read this story with a very domesticated eye. And a lot of gender-based assumptions. We assume Martha is serving a meal. After all, that’s what women do, right?
But the text doesn’t mention food. The original Greek word is “diakonia,” which can refer to any kind of service. “Diakonia” is also used in the New Testament to refer to Christian ministry. That’s where we get our English word “deacon.”
So, instead of cooking a meal, you could read this passage as Martha being busy coordinating various ministries offered to the followers of Jesus. Instead of a stereotypical church lady, Martha is a pastor ministering to all those who came to hear Jesus. And her home was probably one of the original house churches used by the first Christians, and popular again today.
Thinking of Martha and Mary as deacons or pastors opens up a new vantage point see this story. To recognize these women as significant leaders.
In fact, in the Jewish faith community at that time, sitting at a teacher’s feet was considered a place of honor for a male disciple. So, when Jesus praises Mary for acting that way, he shatters traditional expectations for women.
The New Testament points toward extensive female leadership in the early Church. For example, in the last chapter of Romans, Paul thanks 27 people for their missionary work—one third of whom are women, including the female pair Tryphena and Tryphosa.
Early missionaries often worked in pairs, and male-female couples were assumed to be married. Which makes me wonder about the nature of Martha and Mary’s relationship.
In English translations, they’re called sisters, but in the original text, the language is less exact— “sisters” could refer to sisters in Christ, or biological siblings, but also possibly lesbian partners.
I love the idea of imagining them as positive role models in Scripture for us queer Christians—especially because the Bible has been used in so many negative ways against us.
For like Martha and Mary, Jesus calls people of all genders and sexual orientations to serve God in the style that best fits your and my personal identity, skills and gifts. Or, as Jesus says, to choose “the better part” or role for you.
Each of us has our way of doing ministry. You might prefer doing things like Martha. Here at St. Mark’s some of you enjoy doing ministries focused on people or social justice activities. Like Jane serving meals to the homeless at Churches United. Or Tara serving as council president. Or Mary Jane leading a Habitat for Humanity project. Or Linda going with a group to Guatemala.
On the other hand, some of you might like to follow Mary’s example by focusing on spiritual reflection and worship. Like Ruth reading a lesson today. Or Ryu playing the piano. Or Amelia bringing forward the communion bread. Or Rabbi Janeen leading services at Temple Beth El Synagogue, our new interfaith partner.
Like Martha and Mary, we have many female leaders who play major roles here at St. Mark’s, alongside male and transgender friends and members.
And today, Jesus calls all of us to be part of God’s reconciling ministry in our world. As St. Paul writes in our second lesson: “For through [Christ Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile all things to [God].”
As reconciled members of the Body of Christ, this is the promise we have together: that God loves us and empowers each of us—despite our personal differences—to do ministry in our own unique way.
And like Martha and Mary, we share God’s love through worship, prayer and service with those in need in our community. Amen.
+ + +
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 10:38-42
Now as Jesus and the disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."