“Both/And in an Either/Or World”
Sunday July 18, 2010
Holy Covenant UMC
Rev. Kate Hurst Floyd
The world loves to pit women against each other:
Stay at home moms vs. moms who work outside the home;
Sarah Palin vs. Hillary Clinton;
Women who take their husband’s names vs. women who don’t;
Women who take wives instead of husbands;
Single women vs. married;
Those who want kids vs. those who want to be childless;
Those who seek fertility treatments vs. those who don’t;
Angelina Jolie vs. Jen Aniston;
The classic Madonna/Whore archetype that pervades our culture.
I could go on and on…I’m sure you have examples of your own.
We are in a dangerous (and destructive) either/or mentality. Either women are virtuous or slutty; moms or career women; friendly or the b word; Angelina is a seductress while Jen is forever a scorned woman; power hungry or passive; strong or nurturing; Hillary is smart and aggressive, Sarah is attractive and dumb; We’re not allowed to be both/and.
And somewhere along the way, men get off the hook: Brad Pitt is just considered a stud, one of the greatest actors of our time;…where are our conversations about male roles in being a partner, a father, a worker and a nurturer? Our conversations about identities that don’t have to be chopped up and defined by narrow and harmful stereotypes? This is changing, somewhat, but changing slowly.
The Bible’s no different: we are often taught to read our sacred stories as tales of women pitted against one another:
Sarah vs. Hagar; Leah vs. Rachel;
Meanwhile, Abraham and Jacob are the fathers of our faith, not perfect, but not forced into a stereotype. Heroes of their own stories.
Today we have Mary and Martha: the Christian tradition loves to pit Mary against Martha, Martha against Mary. Martha is the quintessential hostess, inviting Jesus over for dinner and then spending the whole evening in the kitchen: cooking and cleaning; chopping the veggies and prepping the lamb; arranging the flowers and setting the table; boiling the water for tea and wiping the dust off the wine glasses. If you invited Jesus over for dinner, you’d want everything to be perfect too.
Mary, though, doesn’t give a thought to dinner preparation or table presentation. She is solely focused on Jesus—his teaching, his message, the way his presence saves her, right there. Loving and accepting her exactly as she is. A devoted follower forever at his feet. Well Martha is none too happy with this and gets Jesus involved, saying: “Hey, Jesus, I’m trying to get dinner on the table, but it’s taking me twice as long because Mary is no help. Can you please tell her to get off her tush and give me a hand?”
Jesus seems to take sides, saying: “Martha, Martha, stop worrying, being so busy, stop pitting the olives and pouring the wine; Come and listen to me, like Mary, for Mary has chosen the better part and I will never take that away from her”.
Mary has chosen the better part. So do we have Jesus to blame for pitting these women against each other? For down through the tradition, we’ve been taught to be like Mary instead of Martha; stop doing and just be.
Well, as you’ve probably gathered, we are not going to participate in that power struggle this morning—choosing sides, putting these women, these sisters, against each other. We won’t leave here choosing that we either have to be a Mary or a Martha.
We spend so much time wanting to paint one as a devil and one as a saint that we forget how radical this very scene is: Y’all, Jesus is in the home of WOMEN. Teaching and eating and having conversation with WOMEN. Respecting and engaging and dining with WOMEN.
2,000 years later, we can lose sight of just what a scandalous scene we’re in! This is a culture where Rabbis didn’t even interact with women to whom they weren’t married or related, much less teach them the Torah, the holy book. Women’s place was in the home, away from learning and the religious traditions. And yet Jesus breaks all of those standards, all of those stereotypes, and decides that it’s in this home that he wants to talk about God. He could have gone to the synagogue or the rotary club or the home of the wealthiest men. Instead, he wants to talk about God with a couple of women. Nobodies. This is radical stuff! We don’t have other examples of men in the ancient world engaging women in such a way.
But we’d rather focus on the line: “Mary has chosen the better part, and I will never take that away from her”. So we vilify Martha and glorify Mary, all the while overlooking the fact that Jesus comes to the least and the lost, those on the margins of society, and dines with them.
It also sets us up for another kind of “either/or” mentality: Either we get a lot done, like Martha, and therefore neglect our spiritual lives; or we sit silent and still like Mary, but spend all our time in deep devotion. Neither, friends, is a very fulfilling way to live.
And neither is it how God is calling us to be in the world. For when we go back to the story, when we shed our stereotypes, we’ll find that something else is going on. Both women are teaching us how to follow God. For if we go back to the very beginning of the passage, the very first action in the scene, we find Martha inviting Jesus over. Martha invites Jesus into her home. She welcomes him into her life and shows him great hospitality.
Talk about radical.
Knowing he’s in your town and needing a place to eat is really different than deciding that you can provide that space. And yet Martha invites him in, without hesitation, sets the table for Jesus. And it’s because Martha had the courage, the faith, to invite him in, that Mary was able to listen, to sit as his feet.
We can try to be devoted to Jesus, like Mary, but unless we are willing to welcome him into our lives, into our homes, into our stories, like Martha, we won’t know what were listening for.
It’s really tough to let him enter in, to extend the invitation. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves, believing that we know what he wants for our lives, like Mary, without first inviting him into our life of prayer and devotion. So we end up with our own ideas about who he is calling us to be and what he wants for our lives, without even bothering to ask. It’s also easy to think we’re not prepared or ready, to believe it’s either/or:
Either we’re the model of perfect Christians and ready to invite him in, or we’re questioning and struggling and so must keep him out. We figure it must have been easier for Martha, after all, his physical presence was right there. How do we invite Jesus into our lives, in 2010, when he’s not walking around our city?
I’ve known my good friend Anjie now for 6 years, when we started seminary together. The whole time I’ve known her she has wanted to have a baby. She loves kids and kids love her–in fact she works as a children’s minister. And when I say Anjie wanted to have a baby, I mean she really wanted to have a baby—we couldn’t pass a child in a stroller without her making friends with the mom or dad and becoming best friends with the child in 2 seconds flat; When we went to Target, looking for cheap shoes and cleaning supplies, she’d always have us wander over to the baby section and look at onesies and pick out bedding. (In fact, she’s had nursery bedding for a couple of years now, tucked away in a closet).
Giving birth is more than simply a desire or a wish or a hope, Anjie described giving birth as a call on her life from God. She is passionate about the sacredness of creation, especially the creation of a new human life, through the good gift of our bodies. Of women’s bodies. Believing that the God who came to earth as a human being, in human flesh through the body of a young woman, is present and active in birth. She read all the books she could get her hands on about natural childbirth, even explored becoming a mid-wife herself to help guide other women through this sacred experience. She’s passionate and evangelical about natural childbirth: If you want to hear a really good sermon, you should hear her preach about birth as a sacrament, as God’s grace made manifest.
So she and her husband have been trying to have a child for several years now and she’s yet to get pregnant. Each month, it got a little harder, the disappointment more raw, the grief more real. This isn’t what was supposed to happen, what she expected, what they wanted—where was God’s plan for their family? So they went to doctors, and more doctors, and finally faced the reality that they were not able to get pregnant on their own.
This is a difficult truth for anyone to hear, and it hit them hard. And yet, not nearly as hard as I expected. I anticipated that Anjie would be sad, and she was; they both were. But what I really expected was that she would be pissed off at God, believing that God had abandoned them.
They decided to begin the process of adoption, which they had always considered at some point in their lives. They were excited, and I knew they would love their child the same no matter what; but I also knew she must be really grieving the loss of giving birth, more than most people I know. So I asked her what it is like to know she will never give birth like she always imagined, like she believed God was calling her to. What it felt like to give up this sacred experience.
And her response totally floored me: She said “Yes, giving birth is sacred. But as we enter this journey of adoption, as I pray more and more about the future of our family, I realize that this process is just as sacred. Imagine, just imagine! A parent will choose us to raise their child, put their trust in us to care for their baby. As we go through this process of open adoption, the mother will be part of our lives forever. God is joining together families and we are being entrusted provide a home for a new life—what’s more sacred than that”?
Adoption, for Anjie, is a sacrament, and God’s presence is as real and sacred in this act of new life as if she were the one giving birth.
She could have easily shut God out, believing that either God was going to allow them to get pregnant, like she always dreamed, or else she’d never have a child. Anjie was standing at the door of her home, her life, her story and she chose, like Martha, to invite Jesus in. To provide hospitality to the one whose way is love. I’m in awe of her strength and her faith, because it would have been really easy to give up on God. To say: no thanks, I’m too tired, too sad, my house is too messy to welcome you in. We’re closed for business. I’m gonna figure this one out on my own…we’re not up for company.
But even though her life didn’t work out exactly like she planned, she continued to pray and to recognize God in the midst of it. To invite Jesus in even, and especially, when the script wasn’t one she wrote.
It’s tempting to want to invite Jesus into our lives when it’s convenient: to recognize blessings when they are readily apparent and abundant, when life works out just as we hoped. But it’s harder to search out the sacred when life doesn’t go as we expected. When we get stuck in an either/or mentality: Either I’ll get this job or I’ll never work again; either this relationship will work out exactly how I want it to, in my timing, or nobody will love me; either I go back to grad school or I’ll be miserable. It’s in these either/or times, when we see our lives as having limited options, that we need Jesus the most.
Anjie continued to invite Jesus in and they are building a family. Like Mary, once Jesus was part of her story, she listened intently through prayer, recognizing his call for their family. If all goes as planned, they will be adopting a little girl who is due at the end of August. And Jesus, like he did 2,000 years ago, will once again enter the home of two women.
Our call this morning, is to break through all those either/or’s that the world gives us and live into the radical claim that life is both/and:
Jesus comes to both the rich and the poor; men and women; straight and gay; children and adults; the found and the lost; he calls us to be both grace-filled and judgmental; both forgiving and justice-oriented; committed to the truth and open to questions; to embrace both death and life, knowing that the first leads to the second.
When we expect that God has more than an either/or story for our lives, we’ll start to live like both Martha and Mary. Inviting Jesus into our lives, our stories, especially when we are most in need of teaching. The good news from this text is he will come, even, and especially, when we think we’re unworthy, or society tells us we’re not good enough. He will come to us!
And then we’ll listen, at his feet, and discern where he is calling us to go. Who he is calling us to be. And you can be sure that he’s got an expansive, both/and plan for our lives.
So let’s invite him into our stories, listen to his story, and live life as a sacrament.
For when we welcome the presence of Jesus in all that we do, we have chosen the better part.
Thanks be to God.