Continuing the Conversation
July 21, 2019
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley
At this year’s graduation of refugee students at the Global Institute in Lansing (GIL), one of the speakers was State Representative Sarah Anthony. Representative Anthony is articulate, wise and vibrant. She is also young, female, and African American. She says she has worries and naysayers and sometimes a nagging sense of inadequacy. When she looks around at a meeting table, she is often the only person like herself. That feeling can be intimidating and silencing. And so, on the top of each paper she writes, “I belong here.” “I belong here.” In so repeating, she claims her presence and draws strength. Representative Anthony looked around at the refugee graduates and their families and friends from all over the world. “You belong here. We need your gifts and voices and the diversity of your life experiences.” And to the director, board members and teachers, to church members, and community supporters, “You belong here. We need you.” You belong in the room where it happens—in the church, in the capital, in the community, in homes, in the world –we need you now. I belong. You belong. Remember this.[i]
Martha of Bethany welcomed Jesus into her home. This is noteworthy because it means Martha was head of her own household—not a brother or father or husband. Rules during Jesus time forbid women from learning and studying the Torah. In the first century, Rabbi Eliezer wrote that,
“Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman…Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.”(JT Sotah 3:4, 19a)[ii]
Mary wasn’t ‘supposed to be’ in the room where it happened. Mary drew near and listened to the Word. The Rabbinical tradition of studying the Torah involves wondering, questioning, bringing conflicting texts together, debating and even arguing. And Jesus blessed Mary. “You belong here.”
Luke continued, “but Martha was distracted by many things.” She asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me all the work to do by myself? Tell her to help me.”
And Jesus could see how hungry and tired Martha was, even if she did not. Jesus called her by name, not once, but twice–Martha, Martha, just as he would in the garden, in a way that called her back to herself and to the Living One. . . Jesus blessed Martha.
We don’t know what else Jesus said to Martha. On other occasions, like with the loaves and fishes, Jesus helped prepare food and fed and hosted. Jesus told the disciples that to be great, they would need to serve, to kneel, to wash feet; as he did. It wasn’t Martha’s activity, it was her anxiety, that Jesus invited her to release. I wonder if Mary, Martha and Jesus sat and talked together, and if they finished preparing and eating together. Note that the gospel of Luke records no other guests. According to the Gospel of John, at her brother Lazarus’ death, Martha would share her tears and angst, and proclaim her faith with Jesus. She stood next to Jesus as he raised her brother from the dead. While voices of the time, and later of the church, said women didn’t belong in such activities or places, we have Mary and Martha and Jesus who reveal otherwise. And as Jesus added, ‘she has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away.’
Ironically, this text has a history of interpretations that have done harm. Some have said that this text represents the only two Biblical roles woman can choose from, characterizing them as 1.) that of serving submissively, or 2.) that of sitting passively. Same text. Different interpretations. They make whole lot of difference.
Rachel Held Evans grew up immersed in the southern evangelical tradition. If there was a prize for sitting in the front row, memorizing scriptures, or seeking to convert souls, she would win. Her church taught a rigid and literal interpretation of the Bible. And when she questioned, people told her she needed more faith or needed to be more submissive. In her tradition, women were not allowed to pass the offering plate, much less teach theology or preach. “For the Bible told them so.”
Rachel’s angst grew in college as her global perspective expanded. She began to realize that the place of birth had a lot to do with the faith and traditions people practiced. She questioned whether God, who is loving and merciful, would exclude someone for eternity based on where they were born. The more she learned about science she wondered about evolution, another taboo subject. And when members of her church began to organize against same-sex marriage, she cringed at the yard signs that seemed to scream, ‘you don’t belong’.
I was too scared to speak up in support of LGBT people, so I ignored my conscience and let it go. I played my role as the good Christian girl and spared everyone the drama of an argument. But that decision—to remain silent—split me in two. It convinced me that I could never really be myself in church, that I had to check my heart and mind at the door. I regret that decision for a lot of reasons, but most of all because sometimes I think I would have gotten a fair hearing. Sometimes I think my church would have loved me through that disagreement if I’d only been bold enough to ask them to. Like a difficult marriage, my relationship with church buckled under the weight of years of silent assumptions. So I checked out—first in spirit, then in body.[iii]
Around that time social media was taking off and Rachel discovered blogging, and a whole community of people from across the world smiled back, giving the gift of two very powerful words, ‘me too.’ Turns out she wasn’t the only one struggling with doubt, with the church’s position on homosexuality, and gender roles, and a whole lot more. Blogging gave her a platform to ask faith questions and wonder about answers that as a woman, and as a young lay person, she would not have had at her church table. Rachel blogged as she tried to literally follow all the biblical rules for women—and in so doing, revealed the humor and skewed meanings. Her experiment became her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on a Roof, Covering Her Head, and calling her Husband ‘Master.’
It was the sacraments that brought her back to church, not some list of beliefs to be affirmed or denied. It was in experiencing Jesus in the bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community and among the least of these.[iv] She quoted Barbara Brown Taylor, “in an age of information overload . . . the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned them dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.”[v]
She chronicled her return to faith in Searching for Sunday, which she said was less about searching for a Sunday church, and more about searching for Sunday resurrection. About all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again.[vi]
When Trayvon Martin died and the verdict came out, Rachel blogged about complicity and doubt and her role as a white woman in that. While a mainstream white male evangelical preached, “Quite frankly, I think it’s more a sin problem than a skin problem. And when I hear people, you know, scream Black Lives Matter, I’m thinking, of course they do, but all lives matter.”[vii] Rachel Held Evans did the opposite and started sharing her blog, speaking invitations, and book agent so that the voices of black women and other women of color could be heard. “You belong here” she said to so many. She expanded the table in which she had boldly claimed her own presence.
I was in Krogers on May 4th when I received a text from a clergy girlfriend, “I can’t believe Rachel Held Evans has died.” Stunned, I started crying in the deli. At age 37, leaving a husband and two small children, ages 3 and not yet 1, Rachel died unexpectedly of an infection.
After her death, the New York Times featured her legacy in The Daily podcast. They opened with playing a recording of her voice next to Billy Graham’s. His was booming, and certain, and threatened damnation or salvation based on a personal decision that could be made that night. Her voice was soft, and wondering, and proclaimed
living in faith — tried, tested, hard-won faith — is so much better than living in fear . . . the folks you’re shutting out of the church today will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the spirit works. The future is in the margins. [viii]
In her living, Rachel claimed her place seated next to Jesus, to study and grow and proclaim the Word. Rachel opened the door to many, like herself, who had felt shut out. And that will not be taken away, even in her dying.
And so, may we also remember our place of belonging alongside Jesus—in actively serving, in listening, in feasting. May we open the door and cross some barriers. May we continue the conversation with Mary and Martha and Rachel. May we with Representative Anthony, write on our papers each day, “I belong here.” May we look into the eyes of refugees, and immigrants and others feeling marginalized, “You belong here.” May we share the good news and embody the Word that resurrects.
[i] Representative Sarah Anthony, in her address to the graduates of the Global Institute of Lansing, June 2019, drawn from my memory, not a transcript, and used with permission from a member of her office staff.
[ii]Rachel Held Evans blog, “Who’s Who Among Biblical Women Leaders,” June 6, 2007, https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/mutuality-women-leaders
[iii] 61-62, Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday.
[iv] xiv, Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday.
[v] 45, Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, as quoted: xvi, Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday .
[vi] xviii, Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday.
[vii] “The Legacy of Rachel Held Evans,” hosted by Michael Barbaro, “The Daily,” The New York Times, Monday, June 3rd, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/podcasts/the-daily/rachel-held-evans.html?showTranscript=1
[viii]“The Legacy of Rachel Held Evans,” hosted by Michael Barbaro, “The Daily,” The New York Times, Monday, June 3rd, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/podcasts/the-daily/rachel-held-evans.html?showTranscript=1