The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday July 21, 2019.  You can also listen to the podcast version by clicking the link below or searching for it wherever you typically listen to podcasts.



May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Not long before my great-grandmother died, I travelled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to visit her. Most of the time we talked about the weather or what my dad was like as a young child, but we also kept returning to the subject of my schooling. At first, I thought this was a random topic she chose to generate conversation but toward the end of the visit I realized it was much more than that.

My great-grandmother was the oldest child in a large American family. Although she was whip smart, she’d had to leave school at an early age because her parents couldn’t afford to send all of their children to school. In that time and place, it made sense to send the younger boys to school and have her stay home and help out around the house.

What was a girl going to do with an education anyway?

I’m not sure I love anything more than I love learning new things. It’s been a while since I was enrolled in a formal degree program and every year I look wistfully at the store shelves when they are stocked with school supplies. Does anything smell better than a brand-new box of pencil crayons?

So as I listened to my great-grandmother I tried to imagine how I would have felt if my parents had made the same decision for me, if I’d had to leave school so my brother could go—my brother who will readily admit that I loved school way more than he did. What would it have felt like to look out the kitchen window every day, a dish cloth in my hand, as he left for school?

As my great-grandmother told her story, I could imagine a different life, a life she could have lived if she’d been given the chance to continue with her studies. She was glad my life would be different than hers. I had so many more choices than she did. I had the power to choose my own destiny in a way she never did. Her story was a pain filled story, but it made me feel grateful for the choices and opportunities I’d been given. I promised her I would graduate from university and wouldn’t take any of it for granted.

Not long after she died, I had the chance to spend a week in England. When I wandered around the various colleges in Oxford I imagined what it would be like if I could study there. I tried to come up with scenarios that would make it possible and had almost convinced myself to pick up an application when, on my second day in Oxford, I took a guided tour of some of the colleges and came face to face with a harsh reality.   As a tourist in the early 2000s, I could enter the main doors of those colleges and wander the lawns imagining what it would be like to study there. I could even pick up that application, change my entire life and study there. It was all within the realm of possibility.

But each of those colleges had two doors. A front door which the students and teachers could stride confidently through on their ways to lectures, and a small back door through which the servants could enter to cook the meals and clean the rooms used by those students and teachers.

And through most of Oxford’s history, the servant’s door was the only door I would have been allowed to enter those hallowed halls of learning through.

It wasn’t until 1920 that some colleges at Oxford began to allow women to earn a degree.

For most of its history, Oxford had clearly established boundaries. Men could learn, women could cook and clean.[1]

NT Wright, referencing both last week’s story about the Good Samaritan and this week’s gospel about Mary and Martha, notes that Luke is using these stories to “alert us to something special about Jesus’ work. Not only was he redrawing the boundaries of God’s people, sending out a clear message about how the gospel would reach to those outside the traditional borders. He was redrawing the boundaries between men and women within Israel, blurring lines which had been clearly laid down.” (130)

So what boundaries are being blurred in today’s gospel story, and what does that tell us about Jesus and his kingdom?

And spoiler alert: Despite the fact that this story is often taught as if it’s about the difference between action and contemplation – Mary sat, Martha worked – that’s not what I think is happening here.

In our gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples arrive in a village and Martha welcomes them into her home. Her home. Interesting.

Martha has a sister named Mary, and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens as he talks.

Which was an incredibly daring and unconventional thing to do.

In that time, to sit at someone’s feet was literally to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi like Jesus was not only an expression of the desire to learn. To sit at the feet of a rabbi was to say, “I want to become a rabbi too.” As N.T. Wright observes, by sitting at Jesus’ feet, “Mary has quietly taken her place as a would-be preacher and teacher in the kingdom of God.” (131)

This is not a story about contemplation versus action. Mary isn’t a contemplative, at least not based on this story. Mary is a student. Mary want to learn. To learn to be a rabbi.

And that’s just not something a woman was, and in many parts of the church to this very day, is supposed to do.

Now the only person in this story who questions whether or not Mary should be sitting at Jesus’ feet is Martha, and we will get to her soon enough, but when Martha challenges Mary’s behavior Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (42)

Learning. Sitting at the feet of Jesus. Declaring her intention to become a rabbi. Jesus declares that this is good and furthermore says that it “will not be taken away from her.”

It will not be taken away from her.

But education, the right to learn, the possibility of becoming a church leader would be taken away from so many other women.

And at least in the context of the church, the person who usually gets most of the blame for this is Paul. Which is fair enough, he wrote multiple verses saying women should be silent and submissive and didn’t include even one sentence like, “Let me be clear, of course women can be church leaders.

So, he’s not my favourite person, but I’m about to say some nice things about him anyway. Nice things I learned from George Schillington who deserves most of the credit for what I’m about to tell you.

So Jesus came and ushered in this new kingdom. A kingdom where the various hierarchies and categories that people used to separate themselves no longer had any meaning. Paul tells us that in this new kingdom, which is here and is not yet here, there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek. (Galatians 3:28)

Those categories no longer mattered.

But I wonder if, in his more private frustrated moments, Paul vented and said, “Sure, that’s wonderful for you to say, Jesus, but I’m the guy who has to help people figure out how to actually live in this new way when they have only ever known the old way. Thanks a lot!”

So imagine it for a moment. One day you go to bed and the lives of men and women are very different – they have different and distinct roles, they have different and distinct expectations placed upon them – and the next day you wake up and “poof” none of those things are supposed to matter anymore.

It would be messy, and confusing, and it would definitely take some getting used to.

So imagine, you’re a Jewish woman, and for your entire life, religious life has been strictly segregated and suddenly you’re allowed to worship with the men.

There is no way you would automatically know what you were supposed to do, and it’s likely that you’d have a lot of questions.

Now, imagine a church service where 50 percent of the people have been worshiping in a particular way for their entire lives and sitting next to them are their wives, their mothers, their sisters who have never worshipped in this way in their entire lives.

And imagine all of those women turning to all of those men at roughly the same time and whispering their questions, “Why are we doing that, what does that mean etc. etc. etc.”

This in the context into which Paul writes, “Let a woman learn in silence…” (1 Timothy 2:11)

For waaaaaay too long, the church has focused on the word “silence” and ignored the verb “learn.”

If women are indeed to keep silent, then it’s not silence for the sake of silence, it’s silence for the sake of learning.

Let a woman learn.

Paul expects women to learn. That learning should be done in an appropriate manner that doesn’t disrupt public worship but they are supposed to learn.

It wasn’t enough to simply say that men and women were equal and then – poof! – women suddenly knew everything men did, they needed to learn.

And so, at first, men would need to be the teachers and the leaders while women caught up. But what should happen when the society got to the point where women were equally as educated and experienced as their male counterparts?

They could lead.

George Schillington notes that, “The learning will equalize both genders for the work of the ministry of the churchThe women, through their diligent, peaceable learning will come to know as much as the men in due course. If that is the outcome, as indeed it must be, then the learned women will qualify to lead in church with equal grace and equal insights and equal gifts.” (52)

Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus doesn’t tell her to leave. He says that she has chosen the better part and asserts that it will not be taken from her.

Which for so many people sounds like dangerous, world view shifting news. News they will fight to ignore and bury, but for me, for me, it sounds like such good news.

Now what about Martha?

We are told that Martha has invited Jesus and his disciples into her home and that she is “distracted by her many tasks; so she came to [Jesus] 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.” (40)

To which Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”

Now I’ve been going to church and listening to sermons about this passage my entire life, and I’ve never heard a preacher actually wonder what these “many things were.” In every sermon I have ever heard, Martha is only ever distracted by one thing.

With the exception of a truly disturbing interpretation where Martha is in love with Jesus and jealous of Mary, somehow, Martha is always stuck in the kitchen worrying about preparing supper. Supper is the one thing. The text doesn’t say she is in the kitchen and it doesn’t say she’s making supper, but that’s how I have almost always heard this preached.

As if supper is literally the only thing she’d need to worry about when she’s suddenly found herself with at least 13 extra people in her home. I’ve never heard a sermon where she’s busily trying to make beds or wash dirty feet or …. Any of the other myriad things she could be attending to.

Nope. She’s always in the kitchen making supper.

And the solution that the preachers I’ve heard always seem to find for Martha’s problem fall into one of two categories:

They either try to find some strange way of saying that Martha’s work in the kitchen is indeed valuable, which it totally is, although this is a strange story with which to make that point, or…

They say that the problem isn’t that she legitimately has a lot of work to do and could use some help, the problem is that she’s too uptight. She should just relax and throw together some sandwiches and come and join the party.

As if sandwiches for at least 15 hungry people on short notice was an easy task in and of itself. Skip the Dishes didn’t exist yet.

This sort of reading is simplistic and belittles the hard work of hospitality. It dismisses Martha and the essential work of hospitality by turning her into a caricature.

And so, I wonder if, while it is certainly possible that Martha would like some additional help, I wonder if when she asks Jesus to tell Mary to come and help her that there is something else going on underneath the surface of that question and that Jesus gets it, and responds accordingly.

Have you ever gone to a party and before you get there you turn to your roommate, friend, or spouse and say, “OK, so I’m not sure this party is going to be any fun and so if it’s not, I’m going to talk about pickles and that’s your signal to suddenly get a head ache so we can go home.”

What if what’s happening looks a little bit more like that?

What if Martha views her job as making sure her guests are comfortable in her home and she sees her sister doing something that should make any man of that time profoundly uncomfortable. What if she looks at her sister at Jesus’ feet and thinks, “Poor Jesus, Mary is up to her old tricks again, transgressing every single boundary our society has for women, and he’s just too nice to tell her to go away. I’ll give him an excuse to send her away without having to look like the bad guy.”

Because, as NT Wright says, “The real problem between Mary and Martha wasn’t the workload that Martha had in the kitchen. That, no doubt, was real enough but it wasn’t the main thing that was upsetting to Martha…No: The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man…” (130)

And what if Jesus knows exactly what Martha is doing and so his words, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” are less of a rebuke and more of an invitation?   What if those words are not only good news for Mary, but for Martha as well?

Martha, Mary can learn to lead in the new kingdom I am bringing about and, what’s more, you can too.”

Which is very, very good news indeed.

Let the women learn. And when they have learned, let them lead.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] To say nothing of the additional challenges you might face if you were poor or a person of colour.