The Episcopal Church is my spiritual home, but it’s not the tradition I grew up in. Over 30 years ago I was enrolled at an evangelical Christian school as a “ministerial student.”
At the time in my faith journey I really enjoyed all of the classes that were required, so I did very well academically. I actually ended up making the dean’s list every semester, but that all came to a screeching halt when I finally enrolled in a class that nearly sank my academic career. It was a requirement that I take two semesters of something called homiletics. That’s church language for “learning how to preach” or as they liked to call it: “Pulpit Speech” and “Advanced Pulpit Speech.”
You see, in that tradition preaching was and is everything. The emphasis is not on the sacraments. There were no altars in the middle of the churches that I grew up in. The pulpit was not off to the side. It was always front and center of everything because the whole service revolves around the “preaching of the word.” Preaching was such a big deal that in those homiletics classes were seen as the crowning climax of preparation for ministry. You had to get it right because if one could not preach well, according to their brand of preaching, one really was not cut out to be an ordained minister at all. It was just that simple.
So, guess who just could not preach well—at all—in that tradition?
I thought I was on track to graduate with the highest honors, but I ended up with the lowest possible passing grade in that class. The professor told me the decision was made to go ahead and barely pass me so I would not end up back in his class again the following year.
What I discovered during that year was that when I stood up to preach I could not be anything other than myself. According to my homiletics instructors, I did everything wrong in my sermons. I told stories and sometimes long stories and worse, I told personal stories. That was a big “No-No” in that tradition. I smiled too much. I laughed. I was not serious enough. In that tradition sermons were meant to help rescue sinners from the hands of an angry God. You were NOT supposed to be folksy like you were from Mayberry! I remember before going to those classes I would stand in front of a mirror and try to practice my best hellfire and brimstone face. I would bite my cheeks and try to not smile, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not keep what was in me from coming out.
It was like there was this robotic process. If you entered that school of religion and went through the process, you would graduate and come out the other end as a finished product. Their graduates dressed the same way. They spoke the same way. Their very serious sermons were always the same even in small details like using the same hand gestures and facial expressions. It was a brand you can count on and I could not figure out why in the world I could not seem to fit into that brand. I could not figure out what was wrong with me.
Now, there’s nothing new about human institutions valuing uniformity and conformity over diversity, but there is some real spiritual peril when you add a layer of theological and religious authority to the mix.
It felt like everyone else was conforming to the process and getting some sort of divine stamp of approval, but I remember feeling like a complete spiritual failure.
I was in my early twenties and I felt like I was letting God down by simply being me!
Perhaps there are some people in this room who have also been made to feel this way before.If so, then I want you to pay close attention to the message of this Gospel story today.
In today’s Gospel reading, Martha gives her sister Mary an evaluation and it’s a barely passing grade. It’s a solid “D-minus” at best. These two sisters, along with their brother Lazarus, were very close to Jesus. In the glimpses that we have of Martha and Mary in the Gospel stories we can see two siblings who are wired in very different ways. (By the way, as a parent of two children, I am always amazed at how two people can come from the same parents and be raised in the same house with the same structure, but end up being so different from each other.)
Over the years I have heard so many sermons about these two siblings and this story. Preachers sometimes have a gift for taking a simple story and making it complicated. Clever preachers turn Mary into a symbol for worship (sitting at the feet of Jesus) and Martha into shorthand for service and mission (always busy getting things done). Many homilies then center around the supposed tension between those two spheres of the Christian life and one is more important to Jesus.
But what if it’s not all that complicated? What if the truth is much more simple than that? What if Martha was just supposed to be Martha and Mary was supposed to be Mary? What if the only issue here is Martha seeking divine sanction from Jesus for trying to make Mary be more like her? That seems to be the point that Jesus addresses in this story.
Clearly, Martha is exasperated with her sister. Sometimes our differences in personality can be maddening, especially when we just know for certain that our way is the best. What if Jesus is saying, “Martha you are always so active being Martha, but Mary is doing what is best for Mary and I am not going to rob her of being who she is?”
It’s very telling that Jesus refuses to tell Mary to get up and help Martha. And he never tells Martha to sit down and be more like Mary. I believe that is significant for all of us. I am not meant to be you and you are not meant to be me. Jesus doesn’t make clones or robots. Jesus makes disciples—wonderfully diverse disciples.
I remember when I came into the Epsicopal Church and I started experiencing another kind of push to conform and it felt remarkably familiar to what I experienced in fundamentalism.
There were different strands of it, but it went something like this: In order to really be spiritual, one must go deeper in contemplative prayer. Another version was if you really want to follow the Gospel, you have to get out there in the streets and march like an activist. I want to point out, byt the way, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of those things.
I quickly realized that all of the people who were saying things like that were simply projecting what came natural for them as the way everyone else should be—sort of like Martha telling Jesus that Mary needed to be more like her.
My sisters and brothers, not everyone is wired to pray or follow Jesus in the same way. Just because that might be the best way for you to follow Jesus does not make it so for everyone else.
Several years ago I had a buddy who was also a deacon here in this diocese. He is now long retired, but back then he had served in several parishes and he was due to go on his mandatory sabbatical. When it came time for him to leave on sabbatical he gave in to some peer pressure from some of our fellow clergy who told him that if he really wanted a spiritual sabbatical, he must go away on a silent retreat at this one particular monastic community. I remember when he told me where he was going to start his sabbatical, my first thought was that it would never work because he only had two speeds. He was wide open at double speed or he would just sit down in a chair and fall asleep. I suspected he would be climbing the walls on his silent retreat and that those monks might toss him out on his head.
A few days later I saw his wife at the grocery store and I asked her how he was doing at the monastery and she whispered, “He made it one night. He got up the next morning and went to the beach where he’s been walking and praying and having a wonderful sabbath time.” But he really did not want word of that getting out.
Now, I have no doubt that for some people a silent retreat in a monastery is just the thing to be drawn closer to God, but that does not make it so for everyone. What frustrated me was that here was this deeply spiritual person who genuinely loved Jesus, but he had been made to feel like he should conform to the way someone else loved Jesus. When he could not conform, he didn’t want anyone else to really know because it felt like a failure to simply be the person God made him to be.
What if the message of this Gospel today is that Jesus makes room for all of us to be who we are.
So, ironically, the worst grades I received in my whole college career ended up being in something that I now do regularly: preaching. I was never going to fit in there, but by simply being who I was led here to serve and I love it. I love what I get to do. I love being your deacon. I love preaching here at St. James. I love getting to be a part of this community of faith with all of you. There's abundant and genuine joy in it for me.
There is joy in the presence of Jesus when Martha is Martha and Mary gets to be Mary.
My sisters and brothers, don’t waste your energy trying to get others to conform and don’t let your own spiritual life wither by trying to be a copy of someone else.
Be who God made you to be. That’s the best part and it will not be taken away from you, if you don’t let it.