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Claiming the Call

John 12.1-11

Claire Chadwick, preaching

Thank you so much for inviting me to preach here at FBC this morning. It is a blessing to be here with you, especially in honoring Martha Stearns Marshall. As you may already know, Martha Stearns Marshall was a preacher in her own right, an exhorter, a missionary and a powerful evangelist. She played an integral role in bringing about “The Great Awakening” to the southern colonies in the 1700s and did so alongside her husband and brother.

We celebrate her and we remember her not just for the work she did but recognizing the work that she did in spite of incredible odds. The church she helped to found faced great criticism for allowing women to preach. Other Baptist churches in the area refused to ordain her husband because his wife, Martha, often preached alongside him as well as on her own. It was not easy, in that time, for a woman to take on such a leadership role and to do so with confidence in her call from God, but she did. Martha Stearns Marshall worked tirelessly proclaiming the gospel under difficult circumstances. Rev. Dr. Eileen Campbell-Reed wrote of Martha “[She] has become a symbol of the power of God’s spirit to use all people, male and female, to proclaim the gospel, share in the work of ministry and dedicate one’s life to the cause of answering God’s call.”

Despite the odds she faced, Martha not only heard the call from God but she claimed her call, worked towards that call, and would not allow naysayers, bullies, societal norms, anything or anyone to cause her to stray from that call. The call to lead, to preach, to do justice work, or whatever work God has called a person to do can be incredibly intimidating on its own. Being called on by God is a blessing and it humbles a person but when that call is not recognized by others, it becomes necessary for a person, like Martha Stearns Marshall, to claim that call, to know that no matter what negative things those around you may say, you have indeed been called by God, and to answer the call.

We have many leaders like Martha in the story of our faith. Leaders who faced oppression, who were not valued as leaders but who were called by God and who claimed that call to leadership even in the midst of those who would deny them. These stories can be found in our scriptures, in the collective history of our faith and in leaders today who are serving, claiming God’s call upon their lives to serve as leaders for justice and mercy in a world filled with division and oppression.

 

In the Gospel reading, John 12, we read of another Martha and her sister Mary in a passage often referred to as the anointing of Jesus. Often read during Eastertide, this passage tells the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet prior to his crucifixion with a costly perfume. It is set in the midst of a dangerous time for Jesus and the disciples in the community. Word had gotten out about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and others were already plotting to kill him.

Soon after Mary anoints Jesus, Jesus mimics her act by washing the feet of the disciples and yet, for many of the disciples, doubts linger, questions persist, and confusion reigns. They do not understand what is happening to Jesus. Nor do they understand, at this point in the gospels, the significance of Mary’s actions in anointing Jesus. She is questioned, called out by Judas who wonders why she would do such a thing instead of the money going to charity.

But Mary understands far more than the disciples do at this point. Mary does not need to be convinced by an empty tomb that Jesus is the Messiah, the Resurrection and the Life. Indeed it is Jesus himself, his words and his actions that have already convinced her. She is, in many respects, the first true believer. Even her chosen form of anointing, costly perfume on Jesus’ feet and washing his feet with her hair, shows her depth of understanding. She knows what it means to be a follower of Jesus; it means that one must serve others. In this way, she is a leader amongst the Jesus followers.

By modeling the ministry that she has learned from Jesus himself, she is showing to the disciples, her fellow travellers and followers and community members, what servant leadership looks like. Mary did that. A woman. Not one of the chosen 12. And she did so with confidence in her Savior and confidence in herself. That her beliefs were true and her Messiah was real and she was called to serve him in this way. She had spent much time listening at the feet of Jesus and heard him call her to serve others, as a servant leader, and she claimed that call, instead of letting it pass her by or letting the criticisms of others stand in her way.

 

A similar story to this one is told to us in Matthew, chapter 26, where an unnamed woman anoints Jesus on his head with costly ointment and the disciples scoff at such extravagance. But Jesus asks “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For
you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

“In remembrance of her.” This is special phrasing. Reminiscent of the communion act, Jesus tells the disciples that the woman’s actions will be told, not in remembrance of “me” but in remembrance of “her.” In her book Always With Us: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis says, “Poverty Scholars pointed out the role of the unnamed woman in the remembering and honoring of Jesus as a new kind of ruler, who does not oppress but, instead, liberates hearts, minds, bodies and souls. The unnamed woman is a model to be emulated today but many have forgotten what she does for Jesus, and in doing so, have forgotten Jesus’ teachings on how to remember and honor the poor (by ending poverty).”

We have heard that in Jesus’ time women were subordinate, not equal, to men but the Jesus-following community treated women much differently. Women were recognized as leaders as well as followers. They were called to follow and to lead just as men were and they claimed that call and held it closely, answering the call with confidence and passion and conviction. Perhaps it is this reason why Mary or the unnamed woman can be the first to recognize Jesus as Savior. Perhaps it is those who have been oppressed, who have been kept out, who can first recognize the liberator in Jesus Christ and who can truly understand the gospel message that Jesus had brought.

 

Mary and the unnamed woman understand. They already see Jesus as liberator and Messiah. Jesus modeled for us what it looks like to live in true beloved community together—where the oppressed are lifted up, where the captives are set free, where debts are erased, where we take care of one another and love one another. As Jesus said in Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

True community and radical hospitality and life-giving love are the hallmarks of being a Christ follower. In that type of community, leadership is often in opposition to societal norms. It emerges from the unexpected and is a form of resistance to oppression. Like Martha Stearns Marshall, and Mary and the unnamed woman, we must each be brave enough to claim that call when we hear it, even, or perhaps especially, if it goes against what society tells us is acceptable, is normal, is appropriate. And we must learn to recognize that leadership in others even when society would tell us that leadership and leaders look different.

 

I would like to tell you a little known story about leadership coming from unexpected places and those leaders claiming the call that God had placed on their lives. We have all heard of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the amazing work he did during the Civil Rights Movement. What is less known about King’s life and work is what he did after the Civil Rights Movement.

After winning civil rights, Dr. King was visiting in the South and what he saw shocked him. He saw incredible poverty with people living in dire conditions, struggling to afford food, living in dilapidated housing. He asked the question, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” And he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, saying that “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It begins to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” This Campaign claimed that the system of poverty was designed this way—to keep some people at the bottom so that some people could be at the top—and King said that in a land of abundance, there is plenty to go around.

However, a key piece of King’s strategy, as it was in the Civil Rights Movement, was that those most affected by the system of poverty had to be at the forefront—they had to be in leadership of the Campaign. And so King had begun the work of bringing together organizations that had already been organizing poor folks across the country.

But for the first two years of the campaign, this did not go so well. They weren’t bringing together the number of people that they needed to in order to make an impact. King needed help; he needed “foot soldiers.” One of those groups that he sought a meeting with was the National Welfare Rights Organization. This group had organized thousands and thousands of people across the country around specific welfare bills that they were opposed to. They had ten thousand people on their rolls and had done tremendous work in organizing the poor. There was even a Kansas Welfare Rights Organization that was a part of this national group, and at least one seminary student from Central Baptist Theological Seminary who was a part of that organization.

This group, the national organization with ten thousand people, was led by 3 welfare moms. Three women from across the country: Johnnie  Tillman from California, Etta Horn from Washington D.C., and Beulah Sanders from New York. They had been directly affected by the invasive welfare requirements at the time and had worked to organize people to protest these requirements. Three welfare moms had done this amazing work—three women who society would say did not have the capacity or the knowledge or the leadership skills to do such work— but in spite of the odds, they answered the call and they did the work. They claimed the call to seek justice and love mercy as their own and they organized with gusto.

They went to this meeting with Dr. King, who they were not at all pleased with. You see, Dr. King had just recently entered this fight of organizing the poor and these three women had been doing this work for a long time. They felt as though Dr. King was not giving them their due and was, instead, trying to use the organizing work that they had done, for his own purposes, without really understanding it. And in this meeting, they let him know of their displeasure.

Can you imagine that? Dr. King, this powerful and well-known preacher, taken to task by three moms on welfare. And they were right. And during this first meeting, King came to understand that he knew very little about the work they had been doing or how to do it, but he
wanted to work together with them. And eventually these three women became leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign alongside King and helped to organize historic events in D.C. like Resurrection City and Solidarity Day.

God calls leaders from all types of backgrounds, demographics, and economic status but these three women—Johnnie, Beulah, and Etta—had not only heard the call to do justice work, but they claimed that call as their own.

 

Unfortunately, the Poor People’s Campaign dissolved soon after Solidarity Day in 1968, which was just a month after the assassination of Dr. King. But it has again been resurrected, born again, as the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. It is the poor organizing the poor, it is demanding that everybody has a right to live and, in my estimation, it is creating that beloved community that Jesus called us to. And the most radical part about the Campaign is that it is led by folks that society has thrown away or written off as lazy, worthless, no-good, uneducated, the wrong gender, don’t live in the nicest houses or don’t live in houses at all, following the model of Martha and Mary and the unnamed woman. It is the people who have been oppressed, who society has claimed must be subordinate and cannot be in leadership, who, as King said, “have very little or even nothing to lose,” who rise up and claim that call to lead.

 

Three moms on welfare, Johnnie, Beulah, Etta; Mary; an unnamed woman in Scripture; Martha Stearns Marshall—none of these women had an easy time in the work that they were called to do. They were women, they were to be subordinate, they were poor, and society did not honor their calls as leaders. But in Christ Jesus each of them had found a Liberator, a Savior, and so they not only answered the call that God had placed on their lives but they claimed it as their own and embraced it wholeheartedly despite the naysayers, despite the criticism they faced. In this community of believers, a community of faith and Jesus-followers, a community that, as the Gospel writer Luke says, strives to preach the Good News to the poor, we are all called—no matter what society says about who we are and what we can do. We are all called. As Parker Palmer once wrote, “if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the closer-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows and everyone leads.”

 

Questions then arise for each of us. What has God called you to do? In what ways are you following, and in what ways are you leading? Will you step back and recognize the call of others who did not look like traditional societal leaders?

For those of us who feel we do not have what it takes to lead in the way that we heard God ask us to, for those of us of whom society says, “Not her!” that doesn’t make sense. Our task becomes even harder, but we must follow the example of Mary, of Beulah and Johnnie and Etta, of Martha, and of the unnamed woman—those Christ followers who have come before us surrounding us in the great cloud of witnesses—we must wholeheartedly answer the call that God has placed on our lives despite the odds. We must claim the call.

 

Claire Chadwick is a licensed American Baptist pastor and has recently started a graduate program at Central Seminary working towards a Masters in Counseling. In addition to schooling, she has been involved in anti-poverty campaigns with the Kairos Center, out of Union Theological Seminary, for over 10 years. She is currently a community organizer with the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign and Kansas Interfaith Action. She is FBC Lawrence’s 2020 Marsha Stearns Marshall guest preacher.

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