Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies


Sunday 17th July

Luke 10: 38-42. What’s going on with Martha and Mary (July 21st, 2013)

All good liturgy draws from Scripture – and Cranmer’s gift during the English Reformation was to get together a Book of Common Prayer that did just that. And in this first part of the Colossians passage Paul breaks into what is often seen as ‘the Colossian hymn’. Like the prayer and blessing we used last Sunday from earlier in the chapter (if you remember - that “they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and understanding) - this is an amazing hymn of praise to all that Jesus is, full of statements that harmonize beautifully  (have a look) – the statements declare Jesus to be:

·         the One who is before all things,

·         the One who holds all things together,

·         the One in whom the fullness of God - the very essence of God himself - dwells.

It’s not surprising that we have to get our heads around how God has brought a radical reshaping of the whole cosmos - through this same Jesus. You can feel the emotion of the words, the build up of praise and the lofty declarations. In fact the language Paul uses has in its sights on some of the heresies going around in his day - as Paul shows that nothing and no-one can compare to Jesus, because he holds all things – everything - in his hands. Jesus is the hope to which we have been called – and which will change everything. Christ in us is the hope of glory. And we see this radical nature of the Christian message – the gospel - in the Gospel passage today, continuing on from last week, but instead of a lawyer, Jesus meets two women – and this time, unlike many that Jesus met - he is shown the hospitality expected of the day.

Now if you thought that Jesus equating the neighbour with a ‘good Samaritan’ was outrageous, this powerful little story of Martha and Mary suggests that Luke the gospel writer has “plenty more where that came from…” – as Tom Wright beautifully puts it in his ‘Luke for Everyone’ commentary. And once again there are ways this interaction between two sisters has been generally understood that don’t seem to fully grasp how scandalous this incident might have seemed at the time. (I hope you’re getting the sense from looking into these gospel stories a bit, that Jesus was an incredible risk-taker? Because he certainly wasn’t from the Dale Carnegie school of ‘winning friends and influencing people’ especially when it came to the religious traditionalists of his time). Let’s have a quick look.

Because of where the story is placed in his gospel Luke is alerting us to something special about Jesus’ ministry. Not only was he redrawing the traditional boundaries of who counts as God’s people – who’s in and who’s out (if you like) – by including the Gentiles and, as we saw last week, even calling Samaritans ‘good’, now he’s redrawing boundaries between men and woman – and this time within Israel – blurring the lines which had been clearly laid down; redefining what it really means to belong to God – and what it means to give God’s Son a welcome.

I think I’ve said this before: the real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload Martha was struggling with in the kitchen. No doubt that was real enough, but it wasn’t the main thing that was upsetting poor old Martha. Nor was it that she was necessarily jealous that her sister got to look adoringly at Jesus, like she was romantically smitten while she couldn’t get a look in because of all the cooking and washing up! Luke gives no hint of our rather modern take on this.

No (do you remember what the real problem was?) – the real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she was a man. And in that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male ‘space’ and female ‘space’. Male and female roles were strictly demarcated - and Mary had crossed over from one to the other… and we have to try and picture this – because it’s the crux of what’s happening.

The public room was where only the men would meet (and yes I know this seems crazy to our ears).The kitchen, and other quarters never seen by outsiders, belonged to the women. Only outside, where little children would play, and in the marital bedroom (of course), would male and female mix. (Let’s not forget this was the ancient near east - so it’s going to appear very strange to us in the modern West.) So for a woman to settle down comfortably among men was bordering on the scandalous. Who on earth did Mary think she was? Only a shameless woman would behave in such a way. She should get back to the women’s quarters where she belonged and behave more appropriately....!

So (if we’ve got this): to sit at the feet of a teacher – a rabbi - was a decidedly male role – and sitting at someone’s feet (?) – well it doesn’t mean (as it might sound to us) assuming a servile, devoted, dog-like, adoring posture, as though the teacher were a rock star or celebrity. We hear about the Apostle Paul sitting at the feet of Gamaliel in Acts 22. He wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be his student. And more than this - to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you wanted to do if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. (So) worse still Mary had the audacity to quietly take her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God!

And what is outstanding – and in the context probably regarded as “off the wall” – is that Jesus completely affirms Mary’s right to be there – just like the Apostle Paul later would affirm the woman’s right to prophesy and to lead the churches; just as the Church affirms Julie and the other women in their priestly ordained ministry – and just as he affirms every one of his precious children to be part of the building of his kingdom “because there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (as Paul says in Galatians 3)

And let’s not try and demean what’s happening here and present the ‘Jesus was an Equal Opportunities employer’ kind of idea. Jesus wasn’t endorsing what we might think would have been a politically correct agenda. (Like last week) this is all about the outrageous, extravagant love and grace of God which overflows from who he is. It’s like refreshing, life-giving rain falling on  a parched countryside - irrigating parts of the desert that until now were barren, dry and unfruitful.

Mary stands for all those women who, when they hear Jesus speaking the good news about the kingdom, know that God is calling them to listen carefully - so that they can speak of it too. And by extension (since convention would say she had absolutely no right to be there) – Mary stands for all those who feel like their faces would never fit – all those who feel they are always overlooked and don’t have the respect or dignity enjoyed by others – those regarded as unimportant. Now then...don’t you think this is amazingly good news?.

The other thing that often gets trotted out about this story is that Martha and Mary are seen as models of the active and the contemplative styles of spirituality – doing – and being - leaving you guilty if you’re not like Mary. But let’s be clear: both action and contemplation are important. And of course most people are called to balance both. But what we can’t avoid is the challenge the passage presents us to really listen to Jesus.

So if it’s not a comment about different kinds of Christian lifestyle to make us feel guilty – it certainly is about the boundary-breaking call of Jesus to offer him the kind of hospitality he’s after – ensuring that he has first place in our affections, in the way we use our time, spend our money.

This is God in Christ the ‘iconoclast’ – the one who shatters images. Jesus doesn’t just bend the rules or overstep the boundaries, he utterly breaks them – blows them up - smashes to smithereens the containers and restrictions we always try and place God in – in our futile attempts to render him tame, safe and unthreatening...

So here he is again – our King Jesus – going up to Jerusalem to die – leaving behind him whole towns, villages, households and individuals who have all glimpsed a new vision of what the kingdom of God is all about – and for whom, after meeting him, life will never be the same again. This same Jesus who is saying ‘you don’t need to get hung up about all the rules’ – I’ve fulfilled them all – look I’ve started something completely new – can’t you sense it?!

May we have such an encounter with the living God as we worship. (I think I’ve probably said this just a few times before…!) Aren’t you tired of church being harmless, unthreatening and boring – and hung up with organizational survival)? This gospel is dangerous stuff – it’s no mistake that the word dunamis is the one for the work of the Holy Spirit, because it’s the same word from which we get (?) dynamite.  My  late friend Caroline loved the books of an American woman author Annie Dillard and here’s that quote she sent me soon after we were both ordained – ...lawks way back in 2004: from her book ’Teaching a Stone to Talk’, it reminds us of just how powerful is the God we worship: She writes:

”… Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke (as worship)?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to have ever worn straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offence, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return".

This Christianity; this Gospel message isn’t bland – it’s explosive, life-changing good news! It’s all about a God who is like a shepherd to us, who cares for us, protects us, never leaves us… Paul and Luke offer us a powerful reminder that Jesus challenges and changes absolutely everything. It’s what John the apostle John was asked to write down during his Revelation (Chapter 21 v 5 if you want to look it up) And the one seated on the throne said: "Look! I am making all things new!" Amen to that!