Monday, July 23, 2007

Mary and Martha

Yesterday I preached at Haxby and Wiggington Methodist Church. I believe it is always a privilege to be invited into people's lives, and I do not take this lightly. It is also amazing to cross cultures and still be asked for a religious opinion. I do not believe that I have any right to presume to know about York and how Christian people in York should live. So the best I could do was to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in South Africa. I have included an edited version of the sermon so that you can see what I said:

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

The story, of Mary and Martha seems seems to be a story about laziness:
Here is Martha working hard in the kitchen to prepare food for guests.
In the middle-eastern culture of hospitality there were probably more
than just Jesus the 12 disciples. It is no wonder that Luke tells us that
Martha ‘was distracted by all the preparations.’ The one person who could
have helped her was her sister Mary. But Mary is sitting in the lounge with all the guests – and so Martha is angry.

You would be too!

At first glance this seems to be a family squabble (which we all understand), But why write this story into our Holy Scriptures? There were plenty of other stories that never made it into this book – so why this one?

The fact that what seems to be a minor incident is remembered, tells us that there is more going on than we understand. I am convinced that this is one of the great moments of the New Testament. This is far more than a spat between sisters: This is a moment where Jesus challenges human prejudice.

We need a little background to this story.
Jesus lived in a culture where only the men talked about religious matters. Each man was expected to talk to his wife about the religious practices of his family – but only men would talk in public. It was thought that women were incapable of understanding the things of God. There is a well known prayer of a rabbi who prayed: “I thank you Lord that I was not born a dog or a woman” .because he would not be able to pray to God.

So here is the situation:
Jesus is sitting teaching about the things of God. And in a good middle-eastern household the women would have withdrawn to the kitchen and left their men to talk with the rabbi….And the kitchen here was probably a fire outside the home. So Martha withdraws, but Mary stays to listen to Jesus. Mary breaks the cultural taboos. She wants to hear the teachings. Martha then marches into this male circle and demands that Jesus should tell Mary to take up her culturally ordained place. And Jesus refuses to do this.
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her”

I believe that if it were not for moments like this, then all the women here today would have been back at home preparing Sunday tea while us men worshipped God.

Some thoughts:

1. Jesus did not make distinction in the religious participation of men and women. Gender was not an issue to Jesus (In fact let us be clear that Jesus did not have 12 men as his disciples. If you read the first few verses of Luke Chapter 8 you will find a list of the women disciples who accompanied Jesus too).
Let us get beyond the idea that somehow men are spiritually superior to women.

2. This is a story that speaks of Jesus welcoming people into his circle:
This particular instance it was a woman: but the underlying principle is that “All are welcome – and in particular those who our culture send to the kitchen of life”

I don’t know how things work here:
But South Africans have had to hear Jesus challenging our cultural habits that want to include some people – and send other people to the kitchen. We are learning to include people:

As you know, we had a cultural norm called Apartheid – where literally white people would sit in the lounge, and black people would be in the kitchen. And sadly this was part of the culture of the Christian Church. But the Gospel of Jesus has challenged us to repent of our ways. And we have learned to share the lounge together.

But there are other categories of people who we are still learning to include:
Such as
- Gay and Lesbian people
- refugees and asylum seekers
- poor people who do not live in formal housing and have regular income.
The issue is not one of whether we will be nice to people: I am convinced that my congregation will welcome anyone who walks through the door of the church.
My question is about what we do after this.

I know my members buy copies of the ‘Big Issue’ – but I often wonder if they actually stop to ask the seller her name. You see, when you ask a person’s name you bring them from the kitchen into the living room.

I know my congregation prays for countries that generate refugees – but will they invite a refugee family into their home for a meal: bring then from the fire outside the door into the warmth of a family.

The fact is that it is far easier to drop some money into a box than to make the effort to engage people. And while we might be kind to dogs and strangers, we only become Christ-followers when we make the effort to get up off our comfortable chairs and go to speak those who are in the kitchen.
Si I am inviting you to aks yourself - "Who are the people in my kitchen?"

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