Readings: Luke 10:38-42 and Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Introduction – Mary and Martha! Martha and Mary! How very different were those two memorable sisters living in a Jewish village in First Century Galilee. The passage that we heard read from the Gospel of Luke is an account of the Jewish Jesus visiting those two Jewish sisters.
How many of you women had, have a sister? And how many of you were very different from the sister? I had a sister, Phoebe, who was six years older than me. We were as different as Mary and Martha. She was the Martha busy with the work of the household. I was the layabout off reading a book while she was canning tomatoes out in the steamy kitchen. Once in mid life she declared that one of us must be a foundling, we were so different.
When we listen to the Mary Martha Gospel story it is important to remember that Jesus was a Jew. Sometimes Christians have acted as though Jesus was not a Jew. The professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University ,Shave I.D.Cohen asked in his recent article –“ Was Jesus a Jew?” And he answered – “Of course, Jesus was a Jew. He was born of a Jewish mother, in Galilee, a Jewish part of the world. All of his friends, associates colleagues, disciples, all of them were Jews. He regularly worshipped in Jewish communal worship, what we call synagogues. He preached from Jewish texts from the Jewish Bible. He celebrated the Jewish festivals. He went on pilgrimage to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem where he was under the authority of the priests. Of course, Jesus was a Jew.”
I learned that in the daily rituals of that time the Jewish male prayed “Praised be God that he has not created me a woman.” Indeed women were not even required to perform the daily prayer rituals. Men studied scripture. Women were not allowed to study the sacred texts. Rabbi Eliezer, of that time said, “Rather should the word of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.’
So it is clear that the Judaism of Jesus day was a patriarchal religion as were the customs of the Jews. And the customs and laws of the Roman overseers in Palestine were deeply patriarchal. The male head of the Roman household held supreme power over the women and children
Jewish custom and law. Roman custom and law. Women were second class for sure.
Now, the Gospel of Luke does not share much about that peasant Jewish household of Mary and Martha. We don’t know if there was a male figure there- father, brother. Only that it was located in one of the villages in Galilee where the Jewish Jesus was on his way towards Jerusalem with his disciples. He was healing, teaching, preaching and envisioning the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus had visited the home of Mary and Martha before and knew them well. Martha welcomes Jesus into their modest home, offering the accustomed Jewish hospitality. Probably it was later in the day. Jesus tired and hungry. Martha might have offered him an evening meal of rye bread baked that day and a stew of lentils then set about cleaning up the small one room home.
Luke continues- But sister Mary instead of performing the expected female role of servant sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. Martha, busy at her many tasks asks 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.” Can’t you just imagine her standing there with her dirty hands on her hips, a look of annoyance on her face?
“But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away for her.”
What was that One Thing? What then was the One Thing Mary had chosen as the better part, which will not be taken away from her? I believe that the Jewish Mary listening to the teachings of the Jewish Jesus was being treated by him as one of his male disciples. She was second class no more!
We know from all the Gospel accounts that the Jewish Jesus treated women better than was accepted in the Judaism of his day. Jesus was a counterculturist. Jesus was a liberator.
In a recent article by the Catholic scholar Barbara Leonhard titled, “Jesus’ Extraordinary Treatment of Women” she concludes that– “First, Jesus refuses to treat women as inferior. Second, Jesus refuses to view women as unclean or especially deserving of punishment. Third, Jesus steps over expected boundaries between men and women by his acceptance of women as disciples. The Gospels point us toward including women’s voices and gifts.”
What is clear is the fact that Jesus counterculture acceptance of women was soon lost. That his powerful feminist light shining on the egalitarian gatherings of Jewish followers of the Way after Jesus crucifixion and resurrection became dimmer and dimmer as men took over the leadership of the Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire. From Peter onward to this day the Roman Catholic church was led by male popes and male priests. Women second class again.
Even the radical upheavals of the Reformation which produced the growing varieties of the Protestant Church did not change the second class status of women. Only the Quakers opened up their Friends meetings to the voices of women. The English essayist Samuel Johnson in England in 1650 chortled that a woman preaching was “like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’
But women began to rise up, speak out, act up in the 19th century in this country. In the long span of history, that is not that long ago. Women became abolitionists opposing the enslavement of Negros in the South. They then turned to their own unique form of powerlessness by becoming feminists. Women met together in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. One of the most prominent leaders was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The result of their deliberations was the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments.
The Declaration starts out copying the U.S. Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal- [Quite an addition including women in the preamble]“ and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Further along the Declaration states that: “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and absolute tyranny on the part of man towards woman, having the direct object of an establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.
To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He had never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He had withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded
men-both native and foreign.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead”.
The Declaration of Sentiments goes on to enumerate the further grievances of these very angry riled up women. They were as encumbered by the misogyny of their day as they were by the multiple layers of clothing they wore.
Out of these feminists voices and words emerged the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the early decades of the 20th Century. I just watched the recent movie, Suffragette chronicling the struggles of women in England to obtain the vote. There were mass demonstrations of women on the streets of London. Many women were beaten. Many women were arrested. Many women were cruelly treated in prison. Finally in 1918 after years of protest, women in England obtained the vote and were also permitted to be elected to Parliament.
In the United States women too joined in their own marches, demonstrations demanding the vote for women. As a result, in 1919, women finally won the right to vote in the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 19th amendment states: ”The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any states on account of sex.” Second class, no more. The League of Women Voters was established in 1920 to accompany the newly enacted franchise for women. I was once a member of the League. Our lay leader, Julie Leonard, as well as Deborah Hayes have been very active in the Colorado League of Women Voters.
Eerily similar to the rise of feminism upon the heels of abolitionism, was the rise of feminism in the 1970’s after the successes of the Civil Rights movement. Some of us may remember the book by Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan believed that after the 2nd World War women had once again become the stay at home Marthas. She set the agenda for years of activism by women wakened from the slumbers of the 50’s and the freedom call by blacks in the ‘60’s. Coretta Scott King believed that “The soul of this country will be saved by women.” Women joined NOW, the National Organization of Women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg who became and still is a Justice on the Supreme Court was, in the ‘70’s, advocating for equal rights for women as an attorney for the ACLU before the Federal courts.
Indeed, in 1972 the U.S. Congress adopted the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment states that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Before you cheer too loudly the Amendment has not been adopted by the ratification of the required 37 states. Just this summer the Virginia legislature turned down the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by one male vote.
Meanwhile what was happening in the churches with the place of women as ministers? The United Church of Christ was created in 1957 joining together the Evangelical and Reform churches, and the Congregational and Christian churches. In 1853 a woman named Antoinette Brown, age 28 was ordained in a small Congregational Church in South Butler, New York. In 1889 there were only four ordained women in the Congregational churches. This year the United Church of Christ is celebrating 150 years of women clergy. Let us applaud those women pioneers opening up the ministry to women. Since I have became a member at Boulder CUCC in 1992 our church has been ably led by three women ministers- Rev. Kayrene Pearson, Rev. Ginger Taylor and now since January of this year, Rev. Nicole Lamarche.
Finally as a woman I came to feminism in mid-life. I had been a social justice activist fresh from the Civil Rights days in Durham, North Carolina when I began seminary at Duke Divinity School in 1975. I had been privileged to work beside many black women activists and became their friends. Not only did they bear the burden as women but as being black women. At Duke, I joined the Lucretia Mott Society, a feminist activist group of women. Lucretia Mott was a Quaker abolitionist and feminist in the 19th century. She believed in the equality of men and women. At Duke the Lucretia Mott Society was busily deconstructing the patriarchal language of the tradition. Of course we were met with resistance by the all male faculty at Duke Divinity School. Second class, no more.
I was ordained to the Christian ministry in October, 1978 as a campus chaplain at Duke. But thereafter served in a social justice ministry first in California for five years running a battered women’s shelter and then five years running a day center and residence for homeless women and children. I advocated for these distraught women struggling to overcome their lives as disempowered women. Every woman who regained her ability to take charge of her damaged life was a victory for the liberation of all women.
Since my retirement I have remained active here at Boulder CUCC and in the wider community. In Nov. 2016, the day after the election I joined the Womens March in Denver with my daughter, Carol, Beth Cole, and Rev. Rick Danielson and Leroy to protest the election of our misogynist President. What an amazing event. Did any of you march?
Today as liberal church members we can rejoice in the mid-term elections this year which brought a burgeoning crop of new activist women into the Congress.
May we as individuals, as church continue to be followers of that Jewish Jesus, who counter to his Jewish culture broke old enslavements liberating women. May we encourage the next generation of women to continue the struggle for equality. May Jesus light of liberation for women continue to shine into the future. Women Second class, no more. May it be so. Amen
O God of love, justice and peace be with us as we listen to the liberating words of Jesus. Help us to become not just hearers but doers of his call for healing of wounds to women both intended and unintended. Be with men that they may be freed also and join in the quest for true freedom. In Jesus name, Amen.