Martha, Mary, and Scrubbing Dishes

A few summers ago, in Wind River mountains, I found myself scrubbing dishes with Barbara Brown Taylor, the writer and Episcopal priest, one of the top preachers in America. We happened to be assigned to the same crew for chores at Ring Lake, a sort of clergy dude ranch in Wyoming. My mother, also a priest and I were there for a conference/retreat. In the day we hiked, fished, rode horses. In the evenings Brown Taylor was presenting about her New York Times bestselling book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” Since my last name started with the letter A and the author’s with B, we found ourselves on the same dish crew. The first night we were assigned, she tied the apron round her waist, and passed me a towel to dry as she rolled up her sleeves and leaned over the sudsy sink. “This will go faster if you let me scrub. I have lots of practice,” she said to me.

Other meals we were tasked with sweeping the floors, stacking the chairs, chopping vegetables for the next meal. It would have been easy for Barbara Brown Taylor to skip the chores. She could have said she needed to get her notes together for the evening’s talk. She was being paid to speak. We were paying for the privilege to listen. She was the celebrity presenter. We signed up because her name was on the billing for the retreat. She could have skipped out. She never did. “BBT” as her readers sometimes call her, she showed up to work. She often led our little crew, making sure we each had a task, a broom, a dustpan, or a dish towel. I had been a Barbara Brown Taylor fan for years. I became a bigger fan that week in Wyoming, as she passed me sparkling clean dishes and kept me laughing while we worked together.

These small moments in the kitchen came back to me this week, as I considered the story of Mary and Martha. Jesus was a storyteller, illustrating his teaching with talk of sheep, or seeds, landowners, merciful parents, merchants and pearls. Sometimes Jesus told stories. Sometimes he lived them, and his reflections in the moment are remembered like parables. The image of Martha, frustrated in the kitchen, looking for help, it’s teach-able.

Often this story is taught simply. Don’t be a Martha. Don’t be distracted. Don’t be preoccupied with work. Be a Mary. Spend time with Jesus. Spend time with God. Spend time in Contemplative prayer. Well, Laurie preached a great sermon last week extolling the benefits of contemplation, inviting folks to Contemplative Prayer. I’m grateful for Laurie’s exhortation to the contemplative life, partly because it frees me from preaching the same sermon again. Good colleagues will do that for you. They’ll challenge you to take the next step.

I found myself reflecting on Martha’s frustration. I’ve encountered more than one reflection on this text by a Biblical scholar who happened to be a woman. More often than not, women writers turn the story on its head. They identify with Martha. Women have stood in that kitchen, worried, distracted, preoccupied, busy with many tasks while the guys were out having fun. You almost want to roll your eyes at Jesus when he responds, “Mary has “chosen the better part.” Who is going to feed folks if Martha skips out on the chores?

In that sense it is refreshing to hear a perspective on Martha informed by a feminist outlook. But I wonder if we can, again, go one step further.

Something we know to be true about discrimination is that those who are oppressed often become agents of oppression toward others in their same social caste. Some of the worst perpetrators of misogyny, some of the worst opponents of feminism are women. Listen to what Martha says, “why are you letting Mary hang out with you? Why isn’t she working? Her place is in the kitchen.” Listen to what Martha doesn’t say, “guys, I need a hand, get in here. Jesus, here’s a dish towel.” No, Martha doesn’t say those words. Martha isn’t so bold.

I wonder what Martha’s mother taught her, what her aunties, and grandmother taught her, about her place in the world, her place in the home. I wonder how Mary heard her sister’s words? I wonder how Mary had courage to stay put. I wonder where Mary found the courage to disobey the teachings of her foremothers, the same teachings her sister sought to reinforce. When Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part,” I trust there is a rebuke of Martha’s assumption, her gender bias, implicit in Christ’s words. I wish it was more explicit in the Bible, but I hear it there in the margins.

One of the best definitions I know for sin is this: “Sin is that which diminishes the humanity of the other or my own humanity.” Sin dehumanizes. Me. Others. Martha’s assumption. Martha’s words, her consternation at her sister, in this sense is sinful. She wants Mary to knock Mary off her high horse. Martha wants Mary to get told, to receive a divine rebuke. Literally, she wants Jesus to say, “Woman, get thee to the kitchen.” Jesus refuses. I hope the implicit message can be heard. I hope the implicit invitation is there too. “Martha, you don’t need to worry. Come and sit with us. You matter to me. You belong with me. Don’t serve out of obligation to gender. Don’t assume you are less than your brothers. Come. Sit. Learn. Laugh. Don’t be diminished. Don’t be dehumanized.”

We know a thing or two about dehumanization these days. Two and a half years ago, as the current president was inaugurated, I stood in this pulpit and said, “He is our president. Pray for him.” I also said, “hold him responsible.” I wish I was surprised by his words this week. I wish I could muster outrage, but racist attacks are par for the course for this president.

As the president told four members of the US House, four women of color to “go back where they came from,” I wish I had been shocked. But such dehumanization has become common from the office of this president. Those words, “go back where you came from” are words known by immigrants, by people of color. Folks have heard those words in shopping malls, in school lunch rooms, uttered under the breath. Those words drip with the poison of white nationalism, the idea that people of color do not belong, at least not in the same way as white folk, in America. Those words have done damage, and now they have become the words of our president. His words must be denounced. His words were dehumanizing.

As the rhetorical wars played out around the president’s racist words, a racist policy change also came this week. The Administration is attempting to deny all asylum claims for Central Americans arriving at our Southern border. The president has unilaterally decided that death threats from gangs in Central America do not count toward “credible fear.” The administration has made a policy of denying the human rights of Latin American asylum seekers. Our government now categorically dehumanizes a whole class of immigrant, based on national origin. This is nothing less than diminishment of their god-given humanity. Lord forgive us our sins. I pray the policy will not stand in the courts. I pray our repentance involves writing new just policy for immigrants, for asylum seekers, and implicates us in working for justice in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and the whole region. As a priest I declare that our penance should be working with allies for justice in Central America so that folks do not have to flee their homes in fear.

How do we respond to dehumanization? How do we respond when racism is the language and the policy of our president, of our government? How do we respond? How do we repent for the evil done on our behalf?

If sin is dehumanizing, the diminishment of another’s humanity or our own, then spirituality is about humanizing. St. Ireneus said as much: “The glory of God is the human being, fully alive.” Jesus, in John’s Gospel said, “I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” How do we respond to dehumanizing forces in ourselves, in our society, in our government? By humanizing our neighbor.

Today Jesus invites Martha to see beyond her assumption, to move past her prejudice, to stop assuming her sister’s place is serving the men. Jesus invites her to take her place. Implicit in Jesus’ invitation is a subversive understanding of human relationships, of human rights. Women are not made to serve men. Women are not less than. Jesus’ subversive understanding about human relationship permeates this story, and his whole body of teaching. For millennia, Jesus followers have told the surprising stories of who Jesus table, how he ate with outcasts, sinners, the poor, the hungry, people of every race, and color and creed. Jesus did not care about respectability politics. Jesus cared about the full humanity, the God-given humanity, of each and every person, ESPECIALLY those whose humanity had been diminished by their sisters and brothers.

Jesus healed the sick. He restored folks to community. Jesus gave people their humanity back, time and again. Jesus restored dignity. How do you do the same?

Sometimes the invitation is big. I am not yet sure if I will be able to accept a particularly big invitation. I arrived back from vacation to a full voicemail and email box. Our area Jewish community has invited us all to get on the bus to Oklahoma. Leaders from Central Reform Congregation and the Jewish Community Relations Council are leading a trip to a children’s immigration detention center in Oklahoma on July 30. Some of the leaders are planning to be arrested. I am hoping to attend. I know I can’t afford the time in jail, but I hope to stand in solidarity. Even if I’m not able to be on the bus, I will hold the trip in my prayers and I’d be happy to help support some of our congregation in going. Sometimes the invitation is big, to stand and witness to the humanity of children who are being illegally detained, held in unsuitable conditions. Sometimes the invitation to humanize is big.

Often the invitation is small. Often the invitation to witness the God-given humanity of our neighbor is simple. It means knowing the name of the person who empties your garbage can at work, knowing their kids’ names. It means echoing the words of a woman colleague in a meeting, when a good idea is ignored, and then giving her credit for when you repeat her words. “I think Sara’s idea was a great one when she said…” It’s amazing how far something like that will go in our still gender-biased workplaces.

Sometimes the invitation seems very small, even frustrating. I always groan a bit, at least internally, when I arrive at a monastery or spiritual retreat, and find out there are chores. Internally I think, “but I came to get away from work, why do I have to clean floors, wash dishes? I’m paying to be here after all.” Then one of America’s top preachers, a bestselling author, gets assigned to your dish crew. She doesn’t shirk the duty. She hands you a dish rag and says, “this will go faster if you let me scrub. I have lots of practice.” I hardly remember what she said in the formal lectures about her book, but I will never forget how Barbara Brown Taylor made me laugh as we did chores.

I wish Jesus had said the same to Martha in today’s Gospel. I wish he had joined her in the kitchen. Maybe Jesus did, and the guys who wrote down the story just couldn’t stomach putting that bit in print. The legacy of misogyny in the church still needs dismantling. Sometimes the invitation is very small, it isn’t about glory, it just means deciding to serve the person who expected to serve you. We live in a dehumanizing world. Sometimes the invitation to give back our neighbor’s God-given humanity, means simply rolling up our sleeves, letting go of our assumptions, and working together to get the dishes done.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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