Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
21 July 2019
The audio recording for this sermon can be found here.
Recently, I’ve noticed an interesting trend among Christians to identify themselves as either a “Martha” or a “Mary.” If you’re a “Martha,” you’re the busy, active type, involved in various activities of the Church. If you’re a “Mary,” on the other hand, you’re the quiet, contemplative type, preferring to spend time in prayer and devotion. When we read today’s Gospel from Luke, we certainly get that kind of contrast between Martha and Mary; they appear to be two sisters with very different personalities. It also appears that Jesus favors Mary, privileging the life of contemplation over work.
When we delve deeper into the text, however, the story becomes a bit more complex. To begin with, there are certain rules of hospitality to consider. Martha and Mary have invited Jesus over for a meal, and it is their job as hosts to prepare the table. The fact is, both Martha and Mary can’t be sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. Then who would prepare the food? At the same time, if Mary were to join Martha in the kitchen, that would leave Jesus to sit alone by himself. That wouldn’t be very polite either. In the story, both Martha and Mary are doing what they should be doing. Martha takes care of the food, and Mary keeps Jesus company.
The problem for Jesus is not that Martha is busy preparing; it is her attitude. We read in verse 40 that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” Martha is stressing out and irritated, and she complains to Jesus: “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 how does Jesus respond? Instead of sympathizing with Martha, he says: “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 from her.”
What, then, is this “one thing, the better part” that Mary has chosen? Biblical scholars believe that the reason Jesus holds up Mary in this story is not to argue for the primacy of the contemplative over the active life. The reason is actually much more profound and radical. When Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, she is physically assuming the position of a disciple. In first-century Judaism, disciples sit at the feet of their master to listen and learn. Mary is thus no longer just the host engaging in polite conversation with her guest; Mary is claiming her place as one of Jesus’ disciples, a follower of his teachings.
This would have been unthinkable for a woman at the time. Yet, for Jesus and the movement that he began, women disciples formed an integral part of his ministry. The Gospels mention by name several women followers of Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of James and Joses. Women stood at the cross, they were the first to enter the empty tomb, and it is Mary Magdalene who is the first among the followers to encounter the resurrected Jesus. Since then, over the past two thousand years of Christian history, countless women have become disciples and leaders in the Church. And they are only recently beginning to receive the recognition and credit that they deserve. Our seminarian, Isaac Petty, is currently taking a fascinating course on the Early Mothers of the Church. You’ve probably heard the names of such Church Fathers as Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose, but how many of you have heard of the Church Mothers – Macrina, Thekla, Melania, Paula? During the Middle Ages, the monastic life of the convent provided opportunities for leadership and scholarship for brilliant women like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. In the modern period, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Protestant missionary movement inspired thousands of American and European women to fan out across the globe as teachers, preachers, nurses, and doctors – all of them disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church still has a long way to go in realizing gender equality, but at the same time we can rightfully claim a history of women’s liberation and empowerment.
If you would please indulge me, I would like to share a personal example and tell you about my maternal grandmother, Shin Ae Lee. She, too, was a disciple of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Grandmother was born in the early twentieth century into a privileged background. Her family belonged to the old, traditional Korean aristocracy. But like all women in Korea at that time, including high-born women, she was denied any form of education because of the prevailing Confucian patriarchy. She had to teach herself how to read and write. In Confucian Korea, women were valued only as wives and mothers, and even rudimentary learning was considered improper. Moreover, women were physically confined to certain quarters of the house and were not permitted to go outside unaccompanied. Grandmother had a hard life, including the death of three of her children in infancy. During the Korean War, she along with the rest of my mother’s family became war refugees and suffered hunger and grinding poverty. Fortunately, by the time I was born, Grandmother was able to enjoy more stable, prosperous times.
And late in her life, she found her calling to serve as a deacon in the Methodist Church. Grandmother committed herself to working in the various ministries of the church. Her special passion was evangelism. She even partnered with a minister to plant a new church that grew to several hundred members. I was born in Korea and came to the states when I was eight years old. When I was growing up in Korea, my maternal grandparents lived with us. In spite of Grandmother’s busy schedule, she made time to take me to church every Sunday and vacation Bible School every summer. She planted and nurtured in me the seeds of the Christian faith. Grandmother found personal liberation and empowerment in the Church. Like Mary in the Gospel story, Grandmother claimed her identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ in spite of the oppressive patriarchy of her society and culture. But she was no quiet, contemplative type. She had a strong personality, and she was so busy with church work every day that I rarely saw her at home. In temperament, she was a “Martha.”
To return to the Gospel story of Mary and Martha that we began with, Jesus holds up Mary for claiming her place as his disciple, but that doesn’t mean that Martha is to be dismissed. In fact, the Church remembers and honors both Mary and Martha with a feast day, coming up soon on July 29. According to tradition, Mary and Martha represent two inseparable dimensions of the Christian faith. Mary represents contemplation, a life of prayer and devotion. And Martha represents action, a life of good works and helping others. Or to put it another way, Mary embodies the love of God, and Martha embodies the love of neighbor. Christ calls us to follow the examples of both women, minus Martha’s attitude, of course. Our personalities and dispositions may incline us in one direction, but we cannot neglect the other. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to both the contemplative and the active life. In loving God, we love our neighbor, and in loving our neighbor, we love God.
As we look to Mary and Martha as pioneers and models of our faith, I would like to close with the Collect that we pray on their Feast Day:
O God, heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany: Give us the will to love thee, open our hearts to hear thee, and strengthen our hands to serve thee in others for his sake; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p.1875.
 Calendar of the Church Year, according to the Episcopal Church. satucket.com/Calendar.htm (accessed July 19, 2019).
The audio recording of today's sermon can be found here.
Today’s Gospel reading from John recounts the final words of Jesus before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In anticipation of his separation from his disciples, Jesus gathers them for their last meal together, preaches his final message to them, and concludes with a parting prayer – his farewell. In the prayer, Jesus asks God to unite his disciples and followers and make them all be one: “For you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me that they may become completely one…” (John 17:21-22). In his prayer for unity, Jesus envisions the relationship of the Father and the Son as the model and foundation for the relationship of his followers to one another. Just as the Father and the Son form a perfect and harmonious union, we, too, are called to be united with one another.
But if we look at the historical experience of the Church over the past two thousand years, we have fallen far short of this goal of unity for which Jesus prayed. Christian history is filled with strife and division. From the letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, we read about the various theological disputes in the early church, such as whether to keep Jewish customs like circumcision and dietary laws. Then, there are the many heresies and schisms that plagued the first centuries of the church: Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and so on. About a thousand years after the founding of the Church, the Christian world in the eleventh century suffered its first major division, when the churches on the eastern side of the Mediterranean and those on the western side mutually condemned each other. The eastern wing of the Church became the Orthodox, and the western, the Roman Catholic. Then, about a half century later came the Protestant Reformation, when the unity of the Church in the West was forever shattered, and countless different churches proliferated. You probably didn’t realize you were going to get a lecture on church history today, but that’s what you get when you hire a historian as your priest. I will restrain myself, though, and stop there – at least for now.
One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians ask about Christianity – and it is often a stumbling block to faith – is why there are so many churches: Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox. The fact of the matter is we Christians have not done such a good job fulfilling Jesus’ prayer for unity. Even in our own denomination, the Episcopal Church, we have recently suffered tragic divisions over issues of gender and sexuality.
And I have to confess that I am no impartial observer of the divisiveness. I am symptomatic of the divisiveness. I am complicit in the divisiveness. Let me give you a very recent example. This past week, I went to my office as usual at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg where I teach. As I drove in, I saw all these people, mostly young teenagers, that I would ordinarily not see on campus. The boys were wearing monochromatic dress shirts with slacks, and the girls were wearing long dresses, some of them wearing head coverings. This was quite a change from seeing our students during the school year with their sweats, flip-flops, and even pajama bottoms. It turned out that the university had rented space to a fundamentalist Christian group that runs private schools and homeschooling, and they were holding their annual conference. In my initial response, my prejudices and biases immediately kicked in. I thought to myself: “They look and act strange. They hold onto values that contradict my own.” Quite frankly, I found their presence intrusive and inconvenient. Needless to say, I wasn’t thinking very positive thoughts. And I am sure that if they were to see me today in my vestments and our liturgy at St. Mary’s or if they had seen me this past Friday evening at our church booth for the Kansas City Pridefest, they wouldn’t think such positive thoughts about me.
If I could have it my way, I would prefer to avoid or ignore such people altogether. But here is the problem. They belong to the same Christian faith that I profess, and, what’s more, Jesus calls us to be one. How do we do that? How do we work for unity with people who are so different from us? For many of us, the issue of Christian unity is more than just an abstract theological problem. We have family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues who belong to different and often conflicting branches of Christianity. In what ways can we achieve in our daily, personal interactions the kind of unity of faith envisioned by Jesus?
The technical term for working toward Christian unity is ecumenism. And I am no expert on ecumenism. But I would like to offer up some ideas and suggestions as we reflect on this challenge of Christian unity. To begin with, we can focus on what we share in common rather than what divides us. In spite of the variety of different expressions, there are certain basic, core beliefs and practices that define us as Christians. The great Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis, calls this “mere Christianity,” and it is the title of his book, which many of you may have read. The book explains the core of the Christian faith, our common ground with all Christians. This ecumenical vision is also central to the work of our current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry. He calls our church “the Episcopal wing of the Jesus Movement.” Whether you call it mere Christianity or the Jesus Movement, all Christians hold in common the core beliefs that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, and that the Bible is the Word of God. Moreover, central to the practice of our faith are the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion; these are the core rituals that define and distinguish Christian faith. In a moment, Norah will be baptized, and in the waters of baptism, she will be uniting not only with our community of faith here at St. Mary’s but with the community of all Christians on earth and in heaven. Likewise, as we come up for the Eucharist, we will join countless other Christians around the world this day to unite with Christ through his Body and Blood. Sadly, in the midst of all our divisions and squabbling, we often lose sight of these common bonds of faith.
Another way to work for unity in our faith is to pray together. This past Thursday, we had a glorious Evensong and Benediction in celebration of the Ascension, and, following the service, several of us have accepted the invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to join him in the global prayer movement called Thy Kingdom Come. From Ascension to the Pentecost, which is next Sunday, we will join Anglicans around the world as well as with Christians from many other denominations in daily prayer as we seek to bring more people to come to know Jesus Christ. Through such movements of common prayer, we lay aside our differences and divisions, and unite and lift up our voices together to the throne of God.
Focusing on our common faith and praying together can promote Christian unity, but for the ultimate answer to the question of how we Christians can become one, we return to the passage from the Gospel of John that we heard earlier. It is here that Jesus himself points the way to unity. In the conclusion to his prayer, Jesus asks the Father that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Matthew 17:26). Love defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it is that same love that will bind together all of us. Perhaps the most eloquent and concrete definition of Christian love in Scripture is found in the words of the Apostle Paul in that famous chapter on love from I Corinthians 13:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13: 5-7)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let us join together to work for the unity and oneness of faith for which Jesus prayed. Let us focus on what we share in common, let us pray together, let us love one another as Christ has loved us. In spite of our divisions, we are, in the end, one family of faith – children of God.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!