No longer strangers and aliens

as preached on 10/31/2018 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Staten Island, NY

Ephesians 2:13-22: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Bible Gateway).

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…

Less than a week from today, those of us who are 18 years old or older and hold citizenship in the United States of America will have the opportunity to go to a local polling site and cast our vote for people to represent us in our government. After what has been a lively campaign season, we’ll go to the local school cafeteria or church auditorium, get a ballot from a poll worker, fill in the dot next to the candidates we prefer, indicate whether we agree with a particular ballot initiative, and slide our ballots into the reader, trusting – maybe – that our votes will be counted accurately and that perhaps this time the candidates we voted for will win.

This year, I will have voted three times. I voted once in the primary for US Congress, again in statewide primaries for governor, assembly, and senate, and will vote next week for the House of Representatives, the US senate, NYS Assembly, NYS Senate, and governor. I’ll dutifully post a selfie of myself on social media with my “I voted” sticker, and will be sure to check on results before I go to bed.

Thus I proclaim my status as citizen.

In our reading today, the author of Ephesians uses the language of alien, stranger, and citizen to call to mind a certain paradigm in the minds of their readers. The power of this language came through to the audiences of ancient Rome – people who were the first readers of this letter – just as it comes through to us today. In the Roman Empire, there was a clear divide between the citizens and non-citizens of Rome: entering into marriage, owning property, running for office: the ability to do these things was a function of your citizenship status.

Some people were in, others were out.

Today, here in the United States, the language of aliens, strangers, and citizens is a red-hot political ember. We hear of caravans of migrants about to “invade” our borders as military troops are deployed in an unprecedented move. We learn that the Department of Homeland Security is setting up an office specifically designed to find people who may have lied on their immigration forms and de-naturalize them, strip them of their citizenship.  We go to the polls and find that our names are not on the rolls, that our polling site has moved, that we need ID we didn’t know we needed – this says to us: prove you belong, that you’re not “one of them” – alien, stranger. And just yesterday, news broke of the federal administration’s plan to end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants, a legally dubious maneuver that is adding chum to already shark-infested waters.

I find this drumbeat relentless, exhausting, and infuriating.

Which draws me back into Ephesians. Now, there’s plenty in this book of the Bible that I struggle with. Later in this book, we read the infamous sections on wives being subject to their husbands and slaves needing to obey earthly masters – we can struggle with that another day. But the relentless rhetoric around illegal aliens and voter fraud and terrorists hiding among refugees drives me to dwell here, in the second chapter of Ephesians, and this vision of walls breaking down, peace being proclaimed, and reconciliation happening. Here in Ephesians, the establishment of peace and reconciliation becomes a foundation for a “holy temple,” a “dwelling place for God.” Here in Ephesians, strangers and aliens become citizens, become equal members in the Body of Christ.  Everyone belongs.

Let me say that again: everyone belongs.

What does that mean about how we treat people who are different?

Jay T. Rock, writing in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, puts it this way: “We are to move beyond the walls that separate us from other human beings,” Rock writes, answering the “call to (be) one community…formed by Christians’ engaging in the active dissolving of separating between peoples and breaking down walls of alienation (118).”

Rock also writes, “…those who follow Jesus are not to treat people as ‘other’ but as neighbors or sisters and brothers, with whom to share food and love and the practices of the reign of God. The Christian writings…offer a theology not of exclusion but of embrace (117).”

We need to remember that all people are created in the image of God.

We need to recall what we promise at our baptism: to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

A good place to start would be, when you hear of how strangers and aliens are treated, to think to yourself, “is this how I would want Jesus to be treated? Is this a response that preserves human dignity?”

When you can confidently answer “yes” to these questions, your heart can be at ease.

But when there’s a hesitation, or when you say “no,” spend some time imagining and praying: imagining what the Jesus-focused, humane and dignified response would be, praying for that outcome to come to be, and asking for the strength and fortitude to do the work to bring that outcome…and then, in community with others, start seeking, serving, and striving.

The Gospel gives us this authority: we are to go out into the world and share this news of love, of reconciliation, of peace.

For there is no “other” in Christ.

Friends, let’s pray together:

God of love, when those in power seek to divide, let us proclaim that we are stronger together. Let us recognize the image of God in all whom we encounter. Let us hold them in our hearts as we vote, petition, and gather for justice. Amen (Sojourners).


“Ephesians 2 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).” Bible Gateway,

Rock, Jay T. “No Longer Strangers or Aliens: “Otherness” as a Binding to Be Loosed in Christian Tradition.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 52, issue 1, 2017, pp. 113-119.

Sojourners. “prayer of the day,” Verse & Voice 10.25.2018 (Oct. 2018): Email 31 October, 2018.


Identifying the Christ

preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, Brooklyn, NY, 7/22 & 7/23/2018

Mark 8: 22-30: They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

The last time I was up here preaching, it was Lent, and we were engaged in responding to the #metoo movement. It was a time of confession: through our words we called the church and its members to confession about their complicity in sexual abuse and assault and harassment. Today, we’re back into our journey reading through Mark. And in this story is a different kind of confession: one of identity and faith.

There are three definitions of “confession”. The first is the type of confession we dealt with in Lent: “admit or state that one has committed a crime or is at fault in some way.” The second is “admit or acknowledge something reluctantly, typically because one feels slightly ashamed or embarrassed.” This isn’t what’s happening in this story.  

The third definition, “declare (one’s religious faith)” is in line with what’s happening here. Peter, whose name means Rock, in a moment of what he perceives of as true clarity, declares Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, the chosen one.

And then Jesus tells him to not tell anyone.

What is going on here? Does Jesus really think that no one knows who he is? He made a blind man see! Before coming to Bethsaida, he’s already calmed the sea, healed a hemorrhaging woman, raised a girl from the dead, fed 5,000 people, walked on water, fed another 4,000 people, and cast one but a legion of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs.

Who really thinks this secret is under wraps?

But twice just in this reading Jesus tells people to keep secrets . To the blind man: don’t tell anyone about this healing – in fact, don’t even go home.

To Peter and the rest of his followers: tell no one who you say I am.

Why all the secrecy?

I think that the problem is, the disciples, and the people who are witnessing his miracles, don’t quite get who Jesus is. This is really a case of mistaken identity.

When I was a kid I loved watching movies where people switched lives when they discovered they looked just like someone else. More than once, I watched The Parent Trap, where twins who were separated not long after they were born because of their parents’ divorce discover each other at summer camp and hatch an elaborate plan to switch places and get their parents back together.

Then there’s The Prince and the Pauper, where, upon meeting on the street and noting their resemblance, Prince Edward switches places with a boy named Tom, and they live each other’s lives for years, until Edward interrupts Tom’s coronation and all is revealed. In each of these cases, people who look like each other use their clothing, hairstyles, and surroundings to trick others into thinking they are someone else.

These stories – though fictional – fascinate me. How can you be mistaken for someone else so easily, especially when you are surrounded by people who claim to know you so well?

Let’s get back to what’s happening in Mark, specifically looking at the interaction between Peter and Jesus.

In today’s story, Peter, after witnessing an overwhelming number of miracles, responds simply and clearly when Jesus asks who his disciples say he is: “You are the Christ.”

Peter gets something right in his answer to Jesus. He knows that Jesus is truly someone special. That people around him have their lives changed just by being near him. That Jesus always errs on the side of compassion. Jesus knows faith when he sees it, and he is always expanding who he shares his message with, moving beyond Israel into Gentile territory.

For Jesus, love is big.

Peter, knowing there is something special about Jesus, calls him The Christ. Jesus orders him not to tell anyone. I think that’s because Peter is missing the mark.

What does it mean to call Jesus the Christ?

The root of the word “Christ” is from the Greek Kristos, a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, or anointed one. Peter calls Jesus anointed, calling to mind the long line of kings in the Kingdom of Israel. These kings were literally anointed: they had oil poured lavishly over their heads, indicating their choseness. It may be that Peter saw Jesus standing in this long line of kings, ready to take his place at the head of a Jewish nation – throwing off their Roman oppressors and re-establishing the kingdom of Israel.

Spoiler alert: this isn’t what happens.

And Peter, even though he was part of Jesus’ inner circle, didn’t see it coming (even though Jesus, as you’ll hear next week, told the disciples exactly what was coming). He didn’t understand yet how Jesus was going to live out his choseness. The identity of Jesus as “The Christ” hadn’t been fully revealed.

Jesus continues his work, performing miracles, arguing with religious authorities about how to interpret the law, telling stories, until finally he becomes such a threat to public peace that he is crucified by the Roman state. He dies a painful and lonely death after almost everyone he loves abandons him.

Three days later, he returns to his body, resurrected but scarred, proving that, in the end, love conquers death. This is how he becomes the Christ: conquering death, not Rome, and proving that love really does win.

Where does this leave us today?

Nearly everyday, I wake up to yet another reminder that it is not an easy time for love. Children snatched from their parents, worker protections stripped, pollutants freed from regulation into the air, and equal protection based on gender, sexuality, and race constantly under threat. How can love possibly ever win? Where is our resurrection story?

Where is Jesus?

Jesus is here.

In 1 Corinthians 12:27, Paul writes: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

That’s not just the people of first century Corith. That’s us too.

Look at the person to your right. The person to your left. The one across the table. If Jesus really is the Christ, and we are members of Christ’s body, we are anointed too, but not to be kings or queens. We are to be compassionate people, people who challenge assumptions and authority, who share stories and speak truth and ultimately become a threat to the status quo.

It Ain’t Liberal Hate

Like many of us, I probably spend too much time on social media, following the news outlets and politicians, liking friends’ photos and wondering how my life really compares to theirs.

I suspect many of us also do this: follow the pages of politicians and political figures we’re not fans of but who represent us anyway. It’s a way of following what they’re doing and giving them instant feedback on their public statements and policy actions. Facebook even gives you the option of choosing to comment as a constituent: a little black and white icon shows up on your comments to representatives when you choose that option.

However, engaging in this kind of “conversation” is not without its pitfalls. Whether on the feed of your elected representative or on the comment section of your local newspaper, if, like me, you are a liberal in a sea of conservatives, you will probably at some point be called a “libtard,” a “Democrook,” or accused of “liberal hate.”

It’s that last one that really gets me. Hate? Really? Nah, it ain’t liberal hate. It’s love.

See, I am angry. I am furious that the federal government has separated over 2,000 children from their adult family members in the last two months. I am livid that it took a celebrity speaking out to give momentum to the #metoo movement, but that it still goes unremarked upon from statehouses and pulpits. It infuriates me that we are on the verge of a trade war that is likely to undo all the work we did as a country to fix the mess that was left behind after the 2008 financial crisis. And I am outraged that the world’s nations seem to be closing in on themselves, locking in on national identities and locking out people whose lives are threatened.

But hate? I can be angry and full of love. As a mother, I get angry when my children fight, not because I hate them, but because I love them and know they can do better. As an employee, I get angry when people are mistreated in the workplace, not because I hate to work, but because work can be a place where we can use our gifts and talents, and bullying and harassment have no place in that space. As a Christian, I get angry when people invoke God as a way to uphold an inhumane situation, not because I hate the person doing it, but because I love the people whose lives are at stake, for God is always on the side of the oppressed, and not the oppressor.

There’s a story that appears in all four Gospels: Jesus cleansing the Temple. In the story, Jesus drives money-changers and people selling animals for sacrifice from the Temple courtyard, saying something along the lines of “stop commodifying what we’re doing here.” It happens at varying times in the story of Jesus’ life, but it’s always there. In John’s version, we hear that Jesus made a whip of cords. This is a strong image. He didn’t have a whip with him. He saw what was happening, and it made him angry, because he loved his religion, his God, and, looking around, decided to make a whip and drive the bums out.

So yes: I am angry. But that doesn’t make me full of hate. I am looking around my environment to figure out what I can pull together to drive the bums out. Because I love my God, my family, and my country.

It ain’t liberal hate. It’s love.

Holy Week. Holy Words.

This is, for Western Christians at least, the holiest week of the year. Starting on Palm Sunday through to Easter, those of us part of Western Christian traditions remember this week the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. After forty days of engaging in a personal practice with the goal of self-examination and change, we sit with the disciples, consider how we betray each other and our faith, and wait until Jesus’ resurrection banishes our fear and restores us.

Certain Lenten readings this year stuck with me. It was as if I heard them again with new ears and saw them fresh in my mind’s eye. Early in Lent, we heard the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. This scene is a meme-worthy event, perhaps you’ve seen it?

“If anyone asks you ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with whips is within the realm of possibility.”

This year, we heard this lesson as told in John. This Gospel is unique in that it sets this event early in Jesus’ ministry, right after his mother tells him it’s time to get started at the Wedding at Cana. Here’s part of what we heard that Sunday (emphasis mine):

John 2:15: 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

The thing I never realized is that Jesus essentially MacGyvered himself a whip in order to cleanse the temple. In my mind’s eye, I saw Jesus entering the Temple, becoming incensed by what he saw there, and looking around for a way to set things right. He was not the safe, peaceful, contemplative Jesus of soft-painted portraits and platitudes. He was angry, and did not hold back. He drove out the cattle and turned over tables (1).

The last Sunday of Lent features what is called the “Passion Gospel:” a longer-than-usual reading from the Gospel which covers a lot of ground, from the institution of the Eucharist as a central sacrament through Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, death, and burial. This year, we heard the story as told by Mark, an author noted for his more rough and down to earth picture of Jesus.

We hear in Mark 14:35 that Jesus, after his last meal with the disciples, prayed in the garden that he be able to forgo the hard road that was just ahead. We read (emphasis mine) “and going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.”

This is not a peaceful, at ease Jesus either. He knows betrayal is coming, he knows pain and torture is coming, and he does not want it. He is not praying with hands uplifted, light shining on his face, confident. He is in agony.

Later, in chapter 14, we watch as Peter, a leader among the disciples, fulfills Jesus’ prediction that Peter will deny Jesus three times. In verse 72 (emphasis mine): “At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.”

Peter, who had bumbled his way through life as a disciple, confident in the identity of Jesus as the Messiah though always responding in ways that are not quite right, realized immediately what he had done and just broke down. Could you blame him, really, for any of it? If he had said yes, he was with Jesus, surely he’d have been arrested and killed too. But the betrayal cut him like a knife, and he was overwhelmed. He wept. Here I imagine body-wracking sobs, ugly, which leave your throat sore and your head throbbing.

After the crucifixion, and before the resurrection, in the middle of the darkness, there is this breaking in of light. I’ll let Mark speak for himself (again emphasis mine):

Mark 15:43-45 :43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45 When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.

Two things struck me here. First, that there was a member of the council, described as “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” who acted with boldness. This is someone outside of the circle of the disciples, in a position of power, who acted in a way that would help set the stage for the resurrection. He used his power to approach a person in power to help a movement that was empowering the dispossessed. Joseph used his privilege to ultimately challenge privilege.

Second: Jesus’ death was so small in the eyes of Pilate (and by extension the Roman state) that when Joseph came to him, asking for Jesus’ body, Pilate did not even know if Jesus was dead. The life of this one man, living in an occupied nation, did not register now that it had been dispatched. Ultimately, the resurrection repudiates this dismissal.

As of right now, there are only three days left of Lent: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The stories we will hear over the next three days are hard ones: calls to service, acts of betrayal and state-sanctioned violence, and feelings of fear and abandonment. These hard stories remind us that our own feelings are real and genuine, that people who you love and who love you sometimes do things that hurt you, that governments sometimes unjustly put people to death.

Those of us who call ourselves Christians need to be witnesses to these realities, and, together, depend on the love of God revealed through Jesus to pull us through, both through Holy Week to Easter, and through the trials and injustices of our own lives and world.

Footnote: (1) It is worth noting that, contrary to the meme version, nothing in the actual passage of scripture says he used this whip on people.



Hammers and Guns

This Wednesday, one million students around the country walked out of their classrooms, speaking with many voices about the scourge of gun violence in American schools. Guns are too easy to get, they said, and because of the nearly two decades of inaction since the Columbine shooting, too many of us are traumatized or dead.

Adults, we don’t have the power to change this, they said. Start acting like grown-ups and protect your children.

This same week, a dog was put in an overhead bin on a plane and died. Within days, a bill was drafted in Congress that would make it illegal to put an animal in an overhead bin.

Why, in the nearly twenty years since the shooting at Columbine High School, have we not been able to have a real, informed conversation about guns in this country?

And why does it take the concerted action of a group of relatively privileged middle class kids from am overwhelmingly white town in Florida to move the needle even a little bit on this issue?

These two questions, and variations thereof, have been rolling around in my head making my soul restless.

I don’t like guns. I think they exist simply to kill people. Improvements in gun technology simply make it easier to kill more people faster. Handguns are dangerous. In people’s homes they become agents of accidental death, weapons in domestic abuse, and tools for swift suicide. On city streets they are used to intimidate and kill. High capacity automatic and semi-automatic guns make mass murder quicker and more efficient.

I don’t like guns. They are tools, yes, but tools with one purpose: to kill. If you live in a place where it is necessary to hunt in order to survive, or if your large county is patrolled by two law enforcement officials, we can talk. But that does not mean you should be able to have inter-state rights to concealed handgun carry. I don’t want your guns in my city, my home, my church, or where I work.

I especially don’t want your guns in my children’s school.

I don’t like guns, and I don’t want to have to be the one to try to understand “gun culture.” I want those of you enmeshed in it to take time to understand that there is a different way.

There’s a saying you may have heard: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Finish this phrase: when all you have is a gun…

Revisiting Martha and Mary

This is the script for a sermon I delivered at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, NY on February 18th and 19th so it’s a little longer than my usual posts. Be patient and see where it takes you.

Luke 10:38 – 42: Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him 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.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

This scripture may be familiar. It shares the story of Mary, Martha and Jesus. A traditional interpretation of this story tells the reader that Martha, the domestic diva who is waiting on Jesus, chastises her sister Mary by telling Jesus he has to tell Mary to help her. Jesus retorts that Martha is worrying about things which are unimportant; Mary has made the better choice.

Who are you, Martha, to worry about food prep and dishes when there are lessons to learn at the feet of Jesus?

I chose to preach from this scripture because I heard in it a lesson about how Jesus treated the women in his life. I felt that, in this #metoo moment, we needed to look at Jesus’ actual interactions with women to develop a response that is compassionate and authentically Christian.

Today St. Lydia’s begins a series of sermons inspired by the #metoo movement. In the last several months, women and men around the country have shared their stories of harassment and violence using the #metoo hashtag.

One day last year, I took to Facebook and posted a status expressing my own frustration at the Church’s lack of response to the avalanche of allegations tumbling from Hollywood sets, the corridors of Congress and the White House, the quiet offices where night crews clean, and the hot fields where farm workers harvest. Women across the country were calling out for healing and the church felt eerily silent. This is an issue of justice, of equality. Churches were standing up against the hate and anger sweeping our country, issuing statements on immigration, on white supremacy, on economic injustice.

Where was the church’s voice on this?

This Facebook post prompted fellow congregant Angela Morris to reach out and let me know that my post impacted her, and asked if I would consider preaching on this issue. That blossomed into the series of conversations St. Lydia’s will be having this week and for the next five weeks as we observe Lent.

Last Wednesday, St. Lydia’s joined with churches around the world to mark the beginning of Lent. This is a season of the church year that calls people to look at their lives and consider whether they are responding fully to God’s call. As part of this reflection, during Lent, St. Lydia’s takes on the discipline of confession.

This season, you will hear the voices of several St. Lydia’s women try to weave together a tapestry of understanding, to present stories and experiences that point towards Jesus and how his example calls us to respond. Together, we will also reflect on how we may unwittingly perpetuate the conditions of patriarchy which led to the need for this movement, and then turn, and do better.

Maybe our first confession needs to be about Martha and Mary.

I have a mother who one could say is firmly on the Mary side of the Martha-Mary dichotomy. She is rarely in the kitchen preparing meals when company is over; she’d rather cater so as to not miss any of the action, and encourages a casual, potluck approach. She lives a life that challenges conceptions about a woman’s place: an ordained deacon, she left the Roman Catholic Church when my brother was a baby. In the book of advice my bridesmaids passed around at my bridal shower she wrote: “a clean house is a sign of a life not lived.” Clearly, a Mary.

My grandmother, her mother-in-law, was firmly a Martha. She taught me sewing, how to make bookmarks from plastic canvas, the importance of perfectly filed nails, and how to set a well-appointed table. She baked, she cooked, and her home was always impeccably clean. Towards the end of her life she complained that her home health aide couldn’t vacuum without leaving tracks behind in the wall-to-wall carpeting.

She had standards. Martha, all the way.

These two women are, we are traditionally told, who we need to choose between.

Are you a Martha?

Or a Mary?

Or are you sometimes one or the other?

And what does Jesus have against Martha anyway?

What if I told you, “nothing”?

That maybe Martha is suffering from the same linguistic assumptions that punish modern women for being aggressive, or loud, or strong?

That maybe we got Martha and Mary all wrong?

OK, so here is where I am going to get a little granular and take a close look at language. Because sometimes what a writer writes is different than what a reader reads. What we hear is always shaped by context.

So first: where is this story in the Bible and who are the characters?

This story is part of the Gospel according to Luke, one of the four books in the Bible that tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The author of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early church immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Remember this: it’s important later.

Mary and Martha are sisters, and have a brother named Lazarus. They live in Bethany, outside of Jerusalem. In another Gospel, the Gospel according to John, we hear more of the close relationship between Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In John, Jesus comes to Bethany to respond to the sisters’ call for help when Lazarus falls ill and dies. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. These siblings are Jesus’ friends and disciples. He loves them and they love him.

This is important too.

Let’s dive, then, into this story from Luke.

Luke 10:40 says: “Martha was distracted with much serving.” Feminist theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza casts doubt on a key component of the traditional interpretation of this text. Fiorenza focuses on the Greek word for “serve”, diakonia. This word is the origin of the word “deacon.” While this word could be interpreted as serving food, this is not how the word must be interpreted. Assuming that Martha must have been serving food says more about what we hear as listeners than what Martha was actually doing.

Might Martha instead be burned out from her work as a deacon? Could her ministry in Bethany be wearing her out? Let’s dig a little bit deeper.

Biblical scholar Mary Stromer Hanson has delved deeply into the language of this passage, and I highlight two of her concerns with the traditional interpretation here. First: many translations of this passage leave out a key word: “also”. As in “Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” Does this mean Martha did too? And if our translation of diakonia was off, what else are we missing here?

In the Book of Acts, Paul, one of Christianity’s earliest and most prolific writers and missionaries, describes himself in his pre-conversion life as one who sat at the feet of Gamaliel. An important detail of Paul’s life is that, before he converted to Christianity, he was not only Jewish, but persecuted followers of Jesus. Gamaliel trained Paul; you could say that, before Paul became a Christian, he was Gamaliel’s disciple. Now remember: Luke wrote the book of Acts. Could this phrase, “sit at the feet of,” used in two places by the same author, have a non-literal meaning?

Traditionally, the image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus conjures up a different scene than Paul at the feet of Gamaliel.

Google it. You’ll see what I mean. Paul, at the feet of Gamaliel, is hard at work as a scholar. Mary, at the feet of Jesus, looks like a love-sick teenager. She doesn’t even have a notebook!

Hanson suggests that this phrase, “to sit at the feet of,” is an idiom referring to one who follows, one who is a disciple. In this rendering, Mary and Martha are disciples of Jesus, on equal footing with each other, and partners in his work on earth.

Are you with me so far? OK. Let’s take another step away from the usual scene.

What if Mary is not even there?

What if it’s just Martha and Jesus?

A second point from Hanson is that there is no direct evidence in the text that Mary is present.

She never actually speaks.

Now imagine a different scene. Martha is worn out from her work as a disciple in Bethany. Jesus arrives and she greets him…and launches right into the complaints. Mary is so busy with what Jesus has her doing that Martha is struggling to get all her ministry done herself. She asks Jesus to redeploy the resources he has in Bethany: assign Mary to me!

Let’s listen to a different translation of this scripture, one Hanson proposes:

As they were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha received him. She had a sister called Mary, who also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words. But Martha was constantly torn apart concerning much ministry. She suddenly approached him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone? Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.”

But the Lord answered her saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and agitated concerning much, but only one thing is needed: For Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus tells Martha not that Mary’s choice is better, but that it is her calling. Martha’s got to re-focus. Mary has her ministry, and Martha’s got hers. These ministries are both good; each is suited to the woman who carries them out. Each woman needs to be free to live into her call.

What is not abundantly clear is what ministry Mary and Martha are engaged in. Some scholarship suggests Martha is engaged in some sort of home-based ministry, something along the lines of a house church, while Mary is more of an itinerant missionary, out in the world sharing the message of Jesus. This could be an additional source of distress for Martha: she loves her sister and worries for her safety as she engages in this outwardly-focused ministry.

So what does this mean for #metoo? What does this little corner of the tapestry tell us today?

First: Jesus was a good boss! He knew from his relationship with Mary and Martha what Martha needed to hear to get going again. I imagine his words not like a reproach, but as a soothing response – and I would like to imagine the conversation continuing.

Secondly: everyone gets burned out at work. We all need to be able to bring our concerns to our bosses and get support – not a quid pro quo proposition.

Finally: women’s work is valuable, valued, and varied. There is no one way for women to live and move in this world: each of us has a call to answer. You do not have to choose between Martha and Mary. You only have to choose Jesus, and then choose you.

A question for reflection: how has your language been shaped by perceptions of gender, or your perceptions of gender shaped your language?

Sermon Sources:

A New View of Mary and Martha:

Mary of Bethany: Her Leadership Uncovered:

What was Martha Doing? Diakonia in Luke 10:38-42

Songs we Sing by Heart

Even though I have never received the education and training that go along with being a professional musician, I have been engaged in the appreciation and creation of music for most of my life.  While my appreciation of music has crossed boundaries (secular, sacred, popular, classical, rock, hip-hop), my creation of music has largely been confined to the sacred space: singing in church, and singing in church choirs.

(Full disclosure: this does not include ill-fated attempts at the clarinet, piano, and recorder. While learning these instruments taught me how to read music and about music theory, the output was not always pleasant. Singing was – and is – better for me!)

My experience singing in these sacred spaces has largely been in the traditional, liturgical, churchy way. Books of music, with proscribed melodies and often four parts. I was put quickly in the soprano sections of the choirs I sang with: complete with descants and optional high notes for certain hymns, taking on the challenge of those notes up above the treble clef (those notes, my friends, were a lot easier 20 years ago). Singing, they say, is praying twice. And a house of worship, they also say, is one of the last places where people sing together in public for their own edification, for reasons other than being entertained (as you might see at a concert).

I recently gave up singing in the choir at Christ Church in order to be in the pew with my family. My children are past the age where staying in the nursery is a viable option, and parenting in the pew is more than a one person job, so the four of us now sit together (if you can call what my children do “sitting”). I do miss the role that the choir plays, to guide the people in one aspect of their worship. While I sit in the nave, though, I look around, and listen, and wonder why more people are not lifting their voices. How do we invite more of the people to sing?

I ask this question with the full understanding that, for some people, listening to music is their form of worship. I embrace that. Worship God the way you know best, that is most uniquely you, that offers God the best of who you are. And sometimes we need to sit back because we have no words, we are overwhelmed – by grief, by sadness, by joy, by the beauty of it all. But we all have voices we can lift up, and our songs can give expression to the feelings we cannot otherwise express, or that can be best expressed against a line of music.

As I have written before, I am involved not only with Christ Church, but also with St. Lydia’s church in Brooklyn. One of the things that makes their worship accessible and unique is the integration of paperless music into liturgy. Congregants are taught songs on the spot, in the worship service, by a song leader. I recently attended the pre-Advent song leader training, and then a practice session of Music that Makes Community, and then served as song leader at Monday night’s Dinner Church service. Despite one misstep halfway through the service, it was an amazing experience. Not only did I face my fear of singing alone, it felt like, even when my voice was the only one in the room, we were worshipping together.

So, my friends, what do we do with this? How do we worship together, singing by heart? How can we invite more voices in, to become the choir? We each have a voice to share: start with sharing yours.