Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Choosing The Best Part: Women & The Call To Ministry

Linda in Paris . . .
Photo Credit: Mark Grace

Linda was back in the pulpit on Sunday after taking the summer off due to a combination of health and work related demands.  As I watched her baptize Aley then preach, I found myself feeling unexpectedly protective, a combination of uneasy vigilance and fearful anticipation.  Every sense seemed to be heightened; my heart was pumping a little too fast the whole time. 

That is a new experience. It came as a big surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have, considering all that she has been through this summer, but that is another essay for another time. 


Linda preached about Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary’s house.  Even though I had the advantage of a sneak preview of her message, I found myself getting caught up in the story as if for the very first time.  Something that she said as we were discussing the passage hit home with much greater clarity on Sunday morning.  “A number of theologians see this story as a call narrative,” she told us, “much like the narratives that related the call of the male disciples.” As I listened, it occurred to me that Jesus encountered each of those disciples in the midst of their daily occupations just as he encounters Mary and Martha in this story.

“I was living in Barnwell, South Carolina,” Linda told us.  “I had taken a job as an industrial engineer for a carpet manufacturer there.  I began to feel, however, as though God did not intend for me to spend the rest of my life making carpet.”

As I listened to her story, I remember hearing Linda talk about how she had first felt as though God were calling her into the ministry as a teenager.  Like many teenagers, she wasn’t attracted to the idea.  “I spent my teen and college years searching.  I did not feel as though I were out of relationship to God, so much as I just found myself in one long debate.” 

Today I asked her to tell me a little more about those on-again-and-off-again debates with God.   She paused for a long time, seeming to be wrapped up in thought.  “Well, I took long drives in the country and just sort of argued with God, mostly about how I was right to do what I wanted to do.”  She laughed and said, “You know I can be pretty stubborn.”

“When I got to Barnwell, I began to feel alone and lonely.  I started going to church just to have a social group, but it gradually grew to something deeper, something that had a larger meaning for me than just passing the time.”
In her sermon yesterday, Linda lifted up for us the ways in which both Martha and Mary were paying attention to their lives.  Though the clear pattern of preaching on the story at this point in Christian history is to cast Martha as wrong and Mary as having it right, Linda invited us to take a slightly different view of the story.  “Jesus relates to both women in a respectful and affectionate manner.  He receives Mary, who sits at his feet along with the men and he talks to Martha in a gentle and patient tone.”

Indeed, ClaraBeth Speel Van de Waterin her exposition of the story, points out that the exchange between Jesus and Martha probably should be interpreted something like this: “Martha, my dear Martha, you are getting stressed by making too many things (preparing too many dishes for the meal) when we only need a simple meal . . .” Indeed, Jesus is inviting Martha to pay attention to her life, to let go of her desire to please long enough to actually learn something from her sister, and more importantly, from Jesus.

Martha’s approach was not necessarily inferior to Mary’s. Both forms of discipleship are affirmed in the early church. It was Martha’s temptation to get caught up in doing for Jesus that caused him to invite her to look at her life.

“The more I talked to my pastor, Billy Vaughn, the more I became convinced that God was calling me into full time ministry.” Billy gave Linda and her fellow church members a chance to explore God’s purpose for her life when he initiated a Wednesday night Bible study on the role of women in the New Testament. 

Whenever I hear Linda tell this part of her story, I find myself feeling a fierce gratitude to this minister whom I have never known. It was rare in Southern Baptist circles back in the eighties for male ministers to be as open as this man was to the possibility that God might be calling a woman. It was even rarer for a church leader to take the step to nurture that sense of calling within a context of deep faith in the Scriptures.


Jesus invites Martha to look at her life, and he lifts up Mary’s decision to follow Christ by choosing “the better portion.” Another image of food.  Though Martha brought lots of food to the fellowship, Mary chose the best part of the feast. 

I have developed a little breath prayer that I try to use at some point every day.  It goes like this, “I embrace God’s love even as I embody God’s love.” Both sides of the equation are so important.  I believe that is why Linda was careful not to take the popular route of condemning Martha’s “busy-ness” as opposed to Mary’s decision to sit at Jesus’ feet.  Both are needed and the decision to balance service with learning, contemplation and action sum up what following God’s call is all about.

Linda chuckled yesterday as she told us about making public her decision to follow God’s call into ministry.  “Even after weeks of bible study and a very clear description by my pastor, a number of church members came by to shake my hand and to congratulate me on ‘going to the mission field.’ It was their only way to understand how a woman would answer God’s call.”

In Mary’s time there was a similar debate raging about whether women should be taught the Torah (Hebrew Bible).  One rabbi said that you might as well teach a woman “lechery” as to teach her the Scriptures.  Other rabbis gave explicit permission for men to teach their daughters the Torah.

No matter what people might think about Mary’s act, her decision to sit at Jesus’ feet was clear to all. She chose to become a disciple and she was accepted into the company of Jesus’ followers. It required an act of courage on her part as well as one of deliberate invitation on Jesus’ part.

I am going to have to finish this essay tomorrow, but before I say good-bye to you, I would love to hear your thoughts about this scripture and its meaning for your life.  Where has God invited you to pay attention to your life and to follow in the steps of the first disciples?

Photo Credit: www.crosscards.com

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