Sermon preached earlier on Mary and Martha

I preached this a couple of weeks ago but forgot to post it here too.

So, there I was, walking down Whitehall on holiday a few days ago. I had a ticket for the theatre in my pocket and I was in a hurry to get to the show.

And I was thinking those happy thoughts that you have when you are on holiday. I was thinking – “Why did I think it was a good idea to come to London in July… in a heatwave”

But anyway, I was on holiday and apart from melting like the tarmac all around me, I was happy.

On I went. Downing Street on my left. The Cenotaph on my right.

The Scottish Office. Banqueting House.

I was on my way to the old Whitehall theatre, now masquerading under another name.

Walking up Whitehall is something I’ve done countless times. I often stay in Westminster when I’m back in London. I know the sights and sounds well enough. I don’t consider myself a tourist when I’m there – after all I used to live down there.

And then suddenly, something caught my eye. Something pulled me up short.

Just before I got to the theatre, I saw something out of the corner of my eye that startled me.

I was just by Horse Guards. And the usual throng of people were looking at the soldiers on their horses. One soldier on either side of the gate, swords in hand. No doubt silently cursing the heat.

They were members of the Kings Horse Royal Artillery and very smart they looked.

But one of the soldiers had caught my eye. One of the soldiers was wearing his hair in a bun – a tight bun at back of his head.

All of a sudden, I seemed to turn into the Queen inspecting the troops. Are soldiers suddenly allowed long hair?

And then I looked carefully. And realised that the soldier who had caught my eye was not the male soldier that I had expected to see but rather was a soldier who happened to be female.

And I hurried on to the theatre somewhat chastened at my own expectations about gender being so fixed.

Now, when I look at the gospel reading this morning, I find myself having the same kind of experience. Something catches my gaze out of the corner of my eye and makes me look again at the passage.

You all know about sermons about Mary and Martha. You’ve all heard the standard Mary and Martha sermons plenty of times before.

Mary sits at his feet. Martha busies herself in the kitchen and gets cross with her sister who offers no help. And then Jesus takes Mary’s side and says that she has chosen the better part.

I’ve always thought it odd that the gospel writer does not record Martha giving Our Lord and her sister each a holy clip around the ear before heading back into the kitchen to get on with what needed to be done.

However, she isn’t recorded as saying anything.

Well, the standard sermon, which I dare say that you’ve heard before is to say that Mary and Martha represent the active and contemplative sides of religious faith and that each is important. You might hear something imaginative about how the contemplative sometimes needs to get up of his knees from time to time and get things done. And about how the activist sometimes needs to sit still and bring her world to God in prayer because people need both aspects of their personality to be nourished.

And so far so good. If you want to think about Mary and Martha today in those terms then do so. It isn’t a bad interpretation of what this little gospel snippet is there for.

But my mind is caught by the question of whether this little periscope is actually very helpful to men and women as we think about gender roles.

I’ve a feeling that it isn’t terribly helpful at all except as the starting point in a conversation.

The thing is, one of the women is in the kitchen making food for the travelling preacher. The other woman is kneeling at his feet lapping up everything the great man has to say.

I just find myself wanting to ask what we really think about that.

This week, the First Minister made headlines by his refusal to go to Muirfield because it is an all male golf club. I thought that quite a brave decision and one that I rather admired.

Those wanting to defend the status quo quickly put out the information that there are more women only golf clubs in Scotland than all male ones as though that was an adequate response.

It seems to me that Alex Salmond correctly saw that it isn’t just a question of gender but one of power.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with groups of women or groups of men wanting to form golf clubs. However such clubs as we have them now are products of a patriarchal system whereby those all male institutions are made up of a lot of deeply embedded all male power structures.

The question the First Minister has raised is whether there are social clubs where the most powerful and wealthy get to meet in a situation which institutionally ensures that women are not part of their conversations. (Which I think we can assume are not always about golf).

I was further struck this week by one of the church statements in England condemning the new same sex marriage laws. They said, “The new Act breaks the existing legal links between the institution of marriage and sexual complementarity.”

Well good. The idea of complementarily between the sexes has been used to keep women quiet and says nothing to those for whom gender is a more complex and interesting question than a simple polarity.

As I’ve said before, the Scottish Episcopal Church treats men and women as equals in its wedding service which was agreed in 2007. It describes couples as being mutual rather than complementary.

As I’ve sometimes said to bishops who claim that offering marriage to gay couples is a departure from 2000 years of tradition, the change that we made in our marriage service by regarding men and women as equals was actually more profound and more earth shattering than anything we are proposing to do now.

We regard people as equal – an idea that the biblical authors and characters had no concept of.

When we think about gender and the bible, it is a reminder that the bible is an excellent starting point for conversations about how we should live today. It is the people who think the bible is the last word on modern human behaviour who are distorting the text and abusing the text in ways which we should properly find offensive.

But back to Mary and Martha. How are we to leave them today.

Well, let me invite you to ask them some questions as you reflect on this gospel reading.

What do you want to say to Mary as she sits at Jesus’s feet. What do you want to say to Martha as she busies herself in the kitchen.

And what would you want to say to the Lord of heaven and earth if he pitched up in your home? Where would he sit. And what would you ask him?

Work out your questions before you get home from church today.

You see. He’s already there.

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