Thursday, March 8, 2012

“Woman Know Thy Place” Feminism and Gender Issues based on Luke 10:38-42

Sermon preached at English Worship Service - Methodist Theological University on International Women's Day 2012... also published in the Fiji Times - Saturday 10th March, 2012

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
            “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I live in a household where men are the minority. Even when my father was alive it was always only the two of us and my mother, two sisters and more recently my wife and my daughter. My father was perhaps a converted feminist while I have been nurtured and steeped in feminism since my childhood, witnessing the struggles of the women in my family to claim not only equal opportunities in society but also equal responsibility.
Today is the 103rd International Women’s Day and the  theme I would like us to reflect on this afternoon is, “Woman Know Thy Place”.
Together we will explore the text and what Jesus words to Martha mean for us in a society where a woman’s place is traditionally still in the home.

Martha is a homer owner.
Martha and Mary are not strangers to Jesus, their brother Lazarus is a close friend of Jesus and the Gospel of John tells of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44) and of Mary’s anointing His feet (John 12:1-11). In our reading, however, Lazarus is not mentioned and it is Martha to whom the home belongs to. She is the head of the household and it is she who opens her home to Jesus. Women had it pretty bad in 1st century Palestine, with none of the rights we advocate today afforded to them in the patriarchal Jewish society. Yet we have Martha, seemingly a woman of independent means as there is no mention of a husband and her brother, according to John, merely lives there. Martha is the head of this household and it is she who invites Jesus in.
This is in stark contrast to many of our traditions where women while often in charge of the running of the household are still required to submit to their husbands as it head. While this may have originally been due to the role of the husband as the sole breadwinner, today, through economic necessity rather than any paradigm shift in gender-equity both husband and wife and even children of working age all must contribute to the household.
Yet while accepting the equality of responsibility for the family, many women continue to be denied an equal share of leadership in the home. Jesus, by accepting Martha’s invitation, acknowledges her as the head of her household, thus recognising the equal right of women to ownership and leadership in the home and society and provides us the opportunity to do the same. As a man accepting a women as hostess, Jesus also liberates us from the notion that it is the man who is to provide for the woman and that as a man, our masculinity is safe, even if it is our spouse, mother or sister that takes on the role of provider.

Mary sits at the foot of Jesus listening while Martha is distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
While our text of scripture is very short, I have read children’s books where Martha is described in great detail, cooking up a storm in the kitchen as she, covered in flour and sweat, prepares a feast for Jesus. Her expected assistant in this endeavour is not with her but sitting and listening to Jesus.
In my family all the men must not only know how to cook but must practice this skill on a regular basis. The first reason for this as you can see from my shapely figure is that we enjoy eating the fruits of our labour in a very literal sense. We love to cook and eat and all subscribe to the creed, “If you want it cooked the way you like it, cook it yourself”. However, there is another and perhaps more ethical reason behind this. Everyone in the family not only has both the right and responsibility to work, but also to serve. So it is not uncommon for all the family to be out at meetings or still at work when dinner needs to be prepared. Household chores are divided not along gender but in terms of who is available. Over the winter break – I went home spent a lot of time in the kitchen as I was on holiday – or in front of the barbecue.
Often I have been to prayer meetings and other gatherings, where while men take prominent place in worship or discussion, women are in the kitchen and miss out on the opportunity to participate in worship, and hear, share and join in discussions that affect community. The emphasis is placed more on the role of host and hostess, than participant, audience or congregation. This is another failure by men (perhaps deliberate) to acknowledge Jesus’ advocacy for full participation by women in family, community and religious life. By placing woman in the home, male-dominated society has in effect eliminated her leadership roles from all the spheres of community, delegating her to catering, cleaning and serving positions. Many women have become trapped in this cycle, unconsciously perpetuating it as Martha does when she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her in the kitchen.

Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her
This story is primarily about the distractions that keep us from God; Jesus also uses this event to speak to us about the role of women not only in society and home but in the church as well. As Christians we are called to place God first. Love of neighbour and service to others is not done for its own sake, but because it is how we express our love for God and serve a creator that made us, male and female, in the image of God.
On International Women’s Day, the Church – that’s us, the body of Christ is called to commit to action towards the elimination of all forms of violence against women and children in church and society. We are to give a voice to the voiceless and be agents of transformation in our societies.
For that to happen our stereotypical views of women and men need to change. Jesus recognised the individual need in each person He met. So we must also look beyond the physical and recognise the same spirit within each of us. We must realise that when it is said that, “a woman’s place is in the house,” it means the business house, parliament house, perhaps even the presidents “Blue house” but most importantly the house of God.
Those of our sisters here today have chosen, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him. My prayer is that you will be allowed one day to lead your churches and not just be assistant pastors. For on that day we will have come closer to recognising that of all the disciples who were witness to the crucifixion and the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, it was the women who stood closest to him and saw him first.

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