St. Hugh Sermon, July 17, 2022
When I first looked over the Gospel reading for today, I was a little disappointed. I thought at first I would focus on the Epistle instead. There was so much to unpack in that reading. I mean, really, look at that opening:
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him.
And it goes on from there, offering lots of ideas and thoughts about Christ’s identity and purpose. There’s a lot to talk about there, and I was eager to dive in and explore it all.
But then the June 24, 2022, Supreme Court decision reversing Roe v. Wade was announced, and I went back to the Gospel reading and read and studied t in light of the SCOTUS decision. I decided this passage spoke to me and to us right where we are today.
Normally, I would not base a homily on a specific political event, especially in these contentious and divisive times. There is too much that separates us right now, and I prefer to focus on reconciliation, not on division.
However, the Supreme Court’s decision has had a profound impact on me, so much so that it triggered a response that has upended my life in a number of ways.
I began my life as a Christian when I was 14. I had a conversion experience during a weekend program at the local Methodist church. I had no knowledge of faith in any form. My family did not go to church or have any friends who went to church. I went to this program because a student in my class (who I didn’t really know) invited me.
The first few years after that led me to a more conservative Evangelical community, and I ended up attending Seattle Pacific College (now University), a very conservative Free Methodist school for two years.
There I attended an environmental studies term on Whidbey Island that helped me understand that my faith was about more than my personal salvation. I began to understand that my response to God’s love for me also required me to, as Micah says “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with God.
I began to have a different understanding of issues affecting our society, issues like the Vietnam War (and war in general), racial inequality, and poverty that I needed to do something about.
My final step away from conservative, Evangelical Christianity and toward the Episcopal Church in the early ‘80s, however, happened because I came to the realization that I would always be a second-class citizen in the church I was attending. In that church, women were not allowed to take on leadership roles in any form. Wives were to be subservient to their husbands, and if you were a single woman, you were to find a married man who would be your “covering” until you were married, through whom God would speak to you. It soon became clear to me that this was, to put it mildly, hogwash.
This understanding of God’s view of women did not conform at all to my understanding of Scripture or my experiences in my personal relationship to God.
And so, the role of women in our church and our society is an important issue to me, a Christian woman.
I believe the subordination of women in or out of church denies that women are fully human. The supposed need for an intermediary between God and women relegates them to a level that permits them to be female, but not human.
Now we come back to today’s Gospel, the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus’ statement on the role each had in the gathering in the lesson. Martha was doing all the work of providing for the guests. In fact, the passage says that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks,” while Mary was simply listening to Jesus and participating in the conversation with the others there. We tend to think that Martha and Mary were the only women there, though the passage does not say that. But the gathering was being held in the house of the sisters, and hospitality was an important value in the culture of the time.
Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not doing her part in upholding that value. She seems to have no doubt that Jesus will tell Mary to get up and help her sister. Instead, Jesus chastises Martha and says Mary has chosen “the better part” by listening to him and not tending to the guests.
The work that made me think differently many years ago about this Bible passage is from the book “Are Women Human?” by Dorothy L. Sayers, which contains the text of two addresses given to a Woman’s Society meeting by Sayers in 1938. Sayers was a scholar, a Christian apologist, and a mystery writer.
Sayers studied modern languages and medieval literature at Oxford. She graduated with first-class honors in 1915. Women were not awarded degrees at that time, but Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the position changed and in 1920 she graduated as an MA.
She is perhaps best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries, which I highly recommend if you have not read them. However, she was a renowned scholar, and her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is still considered one of the best in print today.
She was an articulate apologist for the Christian faith. For instance, her book The Mind of the Maker explores at length the analogy between a human creator (especially a writer of novels and plays) and the doctrine of the Trinity in creation. She suggests that any human creation of significance involves the Idea, the Energy (roughly: the process of writing and that actual ‘incarnation’ as a material object), and the Power (roughly: the process of reading and hearing and the effect that it has on the audience). She draws analogies between this “trinity” and the theological Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
She was friends with C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. She said of Chesterton, a fellow detective fiction novelist, essayist, critic, and Christian, that, “I think, in some ways, G.K.’s books have become more a part of my mental make-up than those of any writer you could name.”:
In the address she gave to the Women’s Society in 1938, she noted the following:
[T]he fundamental thing is that women are more like men than anything else in the world. They are human beings. Vir is male and Femina is female: but Homo is male and female.
She then goes on to show how in the society and the church, men are seen as both vir (male) and homo (human), while women are only seen as femina (female).
I have seen it solemnly stated in a newspaper that the seats on the near side of a bus are always filled before those on the off side, because ‘men find them more comfortable on account of the camber of the road, and women find they get a better view of the shop windows.’ As though the camber of the road did not affect male and female bodies equally. Men, you observe, are given a Homo reason; but Women, a Femina reason, because they are not fully human.
She goes on to humorously reverse the gender in various descriptions of women and men in newspaper accounts. These descriptions could be taken from today’s media. Finally, she addresses the story we heard today.
God, of course, may have His own opinion, but the Church is reluctant to endorse it. I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt, somehow, somewhere, to explain away its text. Mary’s, of course, was the better part—the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him. But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, He approved of her too. We could not get on without her, and indeed (having paid lip-service to God’s opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her. For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.
I am here to tell you that this still holds true today. I spent a good amount of time looking at commentaries and sermons related to this passage, and almost all of them followed this pattern.
Sayers goes on to explain how women are perceived.
Women are not human. They lie when they say they have human needs: warm and decent clothing; comfort in the bus; interests directed immediately to God and His universe, not intermediately through any child of man. They are far above man to inspire him, far beneath him to corrupt him; … their mind is not one with their nature like the minds of men; they have no human mind and no human nature.
Now we come back to the recent Supreme Court decision. It is the embodiment of this perception of women and their role in our society as a female. The reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court is not about protecting life. If it were, that concern would be about more than children being born. It would include supporting that life in all stages. But as Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister said:
I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is (qtd. in National Catholic reporter, May 23, 2019).
The SCOTUS decision brings us back to the belief that women cannot be trusted as human beings to make the right choice for themselves and their family. As I said earlier, it reflects the concept that women need an intermediary between them and God (or the right thing), and says that in our society, we are female, but not human.
I end with a final thought from Are Women Human?
There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.
But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe it, though One rose from the dead.