Proper 11C / Ordinary 16C / Pentecost +9
July 21, 2013
For the past two weeks, we have been doing a lot of contemplating about welcoming – first, about how welcoming the outsider was critical to the early church’s survival (“A First Century Guide to the Hospitable Host“), then about how Jesus’ vision of the neighbor we should be welcoming is often offensive to our ethno-religious sensibilities (“Good Samaritans and Other Alleged Oxymorons“). One of the things that we (I) have discovered in this process is that welcoming … is work. Welcoming guests means doing a host of un-sexy drudgeries like cleaning the house, buying food, sending out invitations, setting up enough chairs, tastefully arranging food and (of course) cleaning up after everyone is gone.
In Jesus’ time (and in ours), the un-sexy drudgery of church welcoming has often fallen on … women. Isn’t it always the stalwart churchwomen’s group that briskly and efficiently hosts the church bazaars, provides and serves the food at the funerals and can be counted on in the kitchen for clean-up afterwards? However, in a 21st Century culture – where women have higher educations, full-time jobs and families of their own – this division of labor is increasingly going by the wayside. Frustrated older churchwomen are finding that younger women simply cannot be coaxed into churchwomens’ groups and activities. Young author Rachel Held Evans – in her article “15 Reasons I Left Church,” – succinctly explains why in the reason at the top of her list: “1. I left the church because I’m better at planning Bible studies than baby showers … but they only wanted me to plan baby showers.”
This division between women of the kitchen and women of the Word was even present in the First Century Church. In the Gospel reading today, we have the well-known story of the sisters Martha and Mary who welcome Jesus and the Disciples into their home. Martha asks Jesus to chide her sister Mary who is being less than helpful with the many duties required of a host. Instead, Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet (with the men!), listening to His teaching. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus chides, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). Such an action was (for Jesus’ time and ours) shocking. Commentator John Petty says, “In her revolutionary action of ditching her expected gender role of ‘helping in the kitchen’ and instead sitting and listening to Jesus, Mary has shown pluck and courage, and Jesus–the Lord!–backs her up” (Progressive Involvement; Lectionary blogging: Luke 10:38-42).
So should women take this as a sign to throw down their towels and ditch the parish hall kitchen? The problem with this scenario is that consequently – as the veteran churchwomens’ groups can tell you – no one would be left to do the welcoming. The invitations don’t go out, the tables aren’t set on time, there is no one to bring the dishes, and church events turn into a giant, unwelcoming flop. Well, then, who does Martha’s work?
Commentator David Ewart has a telling observation: “If we really do desire that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to ask, ‘Who is doing the chores in heaven?’ And if the answer is, ‘No one,’ then the second best answer for here on earth would be, ‘Everyone'” (Holy Textures; Luke 10:38-42). Perhaps if we really take the work of welcoming seriously, we should treat it as a universal church obligation, and not the sole burden of the churchwomen’s group. Perhaps there should be an explicit requirement for every church group – from the men’s breakfast group to the choir to the youth group – to sign up for and perform some sort of church service on a regular basis. And perhaps there should be a paid coordinator or project manager to ensure that all these volunteer positions are filled, trained and equipped on a timely basis. If the central task of the church is welcoming, then we need to do it like we mean business – and simply sticking the unpaid, overworked churchwomen’s group with it will not cut it any more. The alternative (and I will talk more about this later), is completely “de-churching” the church, taking it online, and removing the church building and parish hall kitchen from the equation altogether.
The Kingdom of God does not happen spontaneously, by someone waving a magic wand. The welcoming Kingdom happens because everyone, altogether, does the planning, the sign-ups, the cooking, the serving and the cleaning to make it happen. Only then can we all have “the greater portion” that Mary claimed for herself.