Genesis 18:110a, Colossians 1:2129, Luke 10:3842
So, how many of you out there with siblings can tell of a whiny time when you went to mom or dad and complained, “C’mon Mom, why doesn’t Joey have to help me?” Why doesn’t Susie have to do the dishes tonight? I did it last night.” Perhaps you can think of a million scenarios. Parents of youngsters who are here might have some immediate examples from the past week. Each time such a situation is brought up it’s usually followed by something comparable to “it just isn’t fair!” Right? It is all too familiar to all of us. So much so that when we hear Martha saying the same thing to Jesus we almost want to jump on her side and say, “yea—it isn’t fair. Her sister should help!” We set up, from the beginning, a dichotomy of either/or thinking and henceforth we are blinded from the truth of something bigger than just what’s before our noses at the moment.
Look again at this passage from Luke. If we apply the story using the preoccupations and values of our current society we can miss the profound challenge this story might have brought to the people of 1st century Palestine. First, it would have been next to unheard of for a woman to welcome a man into her home and second, it would not have been contemplated that a woman would sit as a student, figuratively, at the foot of the teacher. This story broke all kinds of expectations of “what’s right” in the eyes of the people of Jesus’ day. It just wasn’t how things were done. Yet as Luke tells the story of Jesus, it is consistently a part of his message and ministry that women are included, empowered, and valued. At this point in the gospel story, Jesus has just set forth on the long journey to Jerusalem, to his passion, death, and resurrection and this is the first home into which he is welcomed. But if we just hear the story as either/or: choosing to sit and listen or choosing to work, we get lost in that oppositional struggle that misses the point. We must be able to see the bigger truths. BOTH women were acting in an empowered way. In the gospel Jesus endorses the power of BOTH even while emphasizing that women could CHOOSE also to be students-disciples. The women are not opposed to each other—they are each doing important work.
Where I come from, what used to be the Wild West, there are countless stories of powerful women who did “a man’s job” and proved that the freedoms of the west allowed women to break out of restrictive roles. I love Nevada and it is my joy to bring greetings to all of you from my home. I am honored to be asked by the Episcopal Church to preach here today and that my state is being honored and prayed for here today. I live in a controversial state for many. The legalized gaming caused many organizations to avoid conventions there for years, and still that is true for some. We are small in numbers so our clout has been limited on the political scene—so much so that Nevada is being considered as the prime spot for depositing the country’s nuclear waste. But like every state in our land, Nevada is filled with a people diverse in race, language, religion, and way of life. Nevada is seen as the entertainment state—but when that “entertainment” is viewed in only one way either from inside or outside of the state, we surely miss the opportunity presented to us: being a place and a people of hospitality, welcoming the stranger, not for profit, but because it is what is right to do. This is the bigger truth. Nevada has been given wonderful people, climate and the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe, Mt. Charleston, the Sierra Nevadas, the Ruby Mountains and so many other places that celebrate God’s goodness we must not be blinded by looking only for “what’s in it for me.” “Tell her to help me, Lord. C’mon, it isn’t fair.” How can we live, in Nevada, in our country, and even in our world not in a dichotomy, in an either/or style, but in the inclusive way of hospitality demonstrated by the stories in our scriptures today?
In Genesis we heard how Abraham looked up on a hot day and saw three men standing near him and he immediately ran to greet them and invited them to stay and rest awhile. He and Sarah provided for these strangers and, as the story goes, it was the Lord who had appeared to them. Through this experience, a whole new direction opened up for Abraham and Sarah – new life—a new beginning through the birth of a son. How about us? What do we typically do when strangers are near? We don’t look up—we often don’t even look at each other. I like to walk for exercise and I am constantly amazed at how few people will actually make eye contact as they pass by each other on the walking path. Is it fear? Is it disinterest? Is it simply preoccupation? Of course we do much worse in the presence of strangers. Depending on what they look like, snide comments are made, some cross the street to avoid strangers. Immigrants to our land usually get the least paying jobs, minimal housing, even lesser status as human beings—a far cry from the welcome given by Abraham and Sarah.
Paul says to the people of Colossae, “you were once estranged [from] and hostile in mind” to God, but through Christ you are reconciled (1:21–22). Are we? How much do we embrace the way of Christ on the cross of love? Is it not more accepted, expected that people must conform—do their part in the kitchen, as Martha might say. And when that doesn’t happen, rather than striving to understand, to see differently, we condemn, we grow violent, we create separation.
In the past ten years our prison population in this great land has grown to over 2 million people, an increase of 78% while our general population only increased some 14%. In Nevada our jail population has almost doubled. The vast majority of incarcerated people in the United States are not violent criminals, but their crimes are often drug and alcohol related. Are we not estranged? Sadly, my state has another execution scheduled to occur this very week. So many of the people incarcerated in our land are people of color, most especially black and Latino. Are we not hostile? How are we servants of the gospel? How are we empowered like Martha and Mary to be both students and servants of the good news?
Imagine if we were to go into our prisons and jails and embrace Christ present in the stranger there? Imagine if we were to bring sincere love and basic human dignity there and to all the “stangers in our midst”, to the immigrants, and any others who feel disenfranchised. For this we might rejoice in suffering for Christ’s sake. Perhaps some of you heard about the horrible forest fire in Nevada’s capital this past week. Many homes were destroyed, people injured. Yet in the midst of such tragedy, many people beautifully reached out to the “strangers” who lost their homes and offered assistance through money, food, even places for pets and large animals. As is so often the case, we trust the goodness in ourselves and in one another when we are faced with disaster. For survival as a human race, for the sake of our faith, we must move beyond the dichotomy, the either/or thinking, the “them and us,” to the kind of unity that is supposed to be celebrated at the Lord’s table.
For me, a great sadness revolves around the table of the Lord, because we can make even it a place of division rather than a place of unity and love. As I reflected on the invitation to speak at this national cathedral, a Roman Catholic coming to the Lord’s table in your Episcopal church, I hear the dichotomous voices within our communities. The “Martha” as minister within me hears the voice that separates “us” from “them”, reminding me that we, Catholics and Episcopalians, are not yet truly one people of faith and so it is not yet time to receive this Communion. Yet the “Mary” as disciple within me hears Christ’s voice telling me “not to be worried and distracted by many things” for we are one people, of one baptism, of one Body of Christ. Please God that the Spirit will continue to breathe us into one.
Martha and Mary very much present the total Christian to us: the ministry of Martha, the discipleship of Mary. One cannot fairly exist without the other, but one does come before the other and gives it meaning. The Lord responded to Martha’s real problem: if we are so busy setting up “them against us,” telling Jesus what to do, we show that we are not truly interested in his word. The better part is to be at the feet of the Christ, to listen so to inform our life’s work, to be at the feet of the Master so to break down the walls of hatred and prejudice and fear and self-centeredness and misunderstanding, through the sacrificial love of Christ.
In Luke’s gospel, the story Jesus tells immediately before meeting Martha and Mary in their home is that of the good Samaritan, ending with the injunction, “Go and do likewise.” We listen to the word, we pray, and then we act to bring forth Christ—like love into our world. This is a love that is big enough for everyone, where all are welcome and cared for such that no one is a stranger, no one is jealous and all are served. In that experience we will, like Abraham and Sarah, know new life! Amen.