Monday, July 22, 2013

Understanding Martha: We're Doing it Wrong

Pentecost 9 (Year C)
21 July 2013

Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

            With this cartoon in mind, I think that the common interpretation of this story might have been wrong for several hundred years. Each story in Scripture has three contexts, all of which we are relying on the Holy Spirit and God’s gift of reason to help us interpret. With today’s gospel reading, we have to determine what was happening when the actual event occurred, why the writer thought it was important to include over nearly fifty years later, and what God is saying to us today with regard to the story.

         When Jesus first came to Bethany and stayed with Martha and Mary, he already knows them. They are friends of his. Martha is apparently the older sister, since the house is listed as hers. Maybe there is some sibling rivalry between Mary and Martha (younger and older) or maybe Martha has always done most of the work. Regardless, Martha has begun the culturally appropriate tasks of preparing her home to host a guest (or several) and Mary is not helping. When Martha complains about her burden, Jesus tells her Mary has made a different choice.

         The implication of Jesus’ words is that what Mary has chosen is more important that what Martha has chosen. It doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t understand that dinner has to get made, but that Martha shouldn’t be consumed with what has to be done, but should instead focus on who she’s hosting. Having Jesus present means that the focus isn’t on what you can do for him, but what he does for you. Mary is learning from him, hearing his radical teaching,… she is actually paying attention to who their guest is, as opposed to what has to be done for a guest. Even when we hear this story this way, most of us still have a lot of sympathy for Martha and what it takes to get things done. We are able to understand, however briefly, what Jesus is saying about Mary.

         When Luke is writing sometime in the 70s A.D./C.E., the early church is struggling with what to say about the role of women. Are they able to sit and learn with men? Do they have the capacity? Is it appropriate? When Luke includes this story in that context, it is a rebuke to those who believe women are better suited to the tasks of hospitality at the edges of the early church, rather than the work of discipleship through learning (and maybe teaching!). Luke’s story makes the space for people to hear Jesus say that a woman learning is right and proper and even part of their duties as his followers. Luke understands the importance of hospitality and the work of the community, but it is not to be done solely by women to the exclusion of their ability to participate otherwise in the life of the community.

         When we hear that interpretation, we are a little more able to understand the meaning and the layers of the story. Furthermore, in that context, we are able to see how wrong later church interpretation has been around this story. How many years have Marthas- people who are on the go or active or who get things done- been denigrated instead of Marys- people who want to sit, perhaps let someone else do things, and who learn well in traditional classroom settings? How many women have felt frustrated and hurt by this story? How many women have been told that they can learn, but then they can’t teach? How many men feel frustrated by this as well, but left out because the parable mostly seems to be about women?

         And, in all this, what if we’ve been very, very, very wrong about what the parable means for us in our time? The following saints have their feast days in the coming week (among others): Macrina (early church monastic and teacher), Margaret of Antioch (martyr), Mary Magdalene, Bridget of Sweden (mystic), James the apostle, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, Bach, Handel, and Henry Purcell. None of these were content with sitting, but all worked… all were active in their faith- even in doubt- to the glory of God.

         Every single one of those people probably related more to Martha of Bethany than to her sister, Mary. By venerating Mary over Martha all these years, the church has mistakenly promoted the idea that orthodoxy (right thinking/teaching) will always trump orthopraxy (right practice). Jesus never expected anyone to sit at his feet forever, but to learn and to go out into the world- knowing he’s with them!

         The gift of the Holy Spirit is not so we can continue to brood over Scripture, waiting and hoping for complete clarity. If we understand anything at all, it is that the love of Christ compels us to go out into the world and live- asking God to help and guide us. We are called to the hospitality of Martha, without her worry, knowing that we will be hosting Jesus everywhere we go. We will be encountered by Christ in the store and the school, in music and in art, in knitting and in running, in cooking and in shopping, in study and in action.

         The lives of the saints teach us that the church has been carried forward not merely by Marys, but primarily by Marthas. Marthas who have learned that Jesus is for them as well. Marthas who cannot be still, but learn on the go and on the move. Marthas who appreciate the call of hospitality, but also know whom they are hosting and Who is hosting them. Marthas who compose, teach, learn, make, and wait on the Lord.

         Mary and Martha of Bethany… we’ve been thinking about them all wrong. The grace of God is for both doers and thinkers, for teachers and students, for active learners and introspective ponderers. The grace of God is for all of them. For all of us. And so is the work of the kingdom. Amen. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Pentecost 8 (Year C)
14 July 2013

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Luke 10:25-37

Last night, as I was trying to get the baby to go to sleep, I heard the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial. He was found not guilty of murder in the second degree. Last March, Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in an altercation. Zimmerman suspected Martin of trespassing or other wrongdoing and pursued him (against police advice and warning). They got into a fight and Zimmerman had a gun and used it.

Who was the neighbor?

             In 1973, a psychological experiment was conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary. Students were told they were in a study on religious education. They completed surveys about their own religious thoughts. Then they were given a task- to either talk about seminary jobs or to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were told to give the talk in another building. Some were told they had plenty of time, but others were told they were already late.

On the way to the other building, they passed a man moaning and calling for help. Regardless of their speech topic, students who thought they were late stopped 10% of the time. Only 10%. Those who thought they had plenty of time stopped 63 % of the time. Overall, 40% of the students offered some help to the victim.

Who was the neighbor?

The parable of the merciful Samaritan isn’t just a story with the upshot of being nice. It is not something we get to do when we have time (Princeton study) or when people are not frightening to us (Zimmerman/Martin story). It is the way we are supposed to live our lives. It is the essence of the commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself

When I say the word commandment, we all get a little indigestion. A commandment sounds like something we know we should keep and at which we expect ourselves to fail. Well, what if we came to understand it in a different way? What if we came to hear those words as a blessing: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

These words are a blessing, a gift from God, when we understand them to be one of the ways God is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. It is not drudgery, not a task that we can ignore because we have received grace, not something we can wait on until we have time or money or both. To love God and to love our neighbor is God’s gift for this moment and every moment.

            We have lost the sense that the author of Deuteronomy is trying to impart: Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

            In ancient Israel, the sea represents chaos and fear. In the passage, God’s commandments toward a just society, neighbor love, and worship life are neither stored in heaven nor far away in hell. You don’t have to extra pious to hear them or receive them. You don’t have to have an arduous journey or send an adventurer to retrieve them. The commandments are part of God’s blessing. Do we work for the blessing or does it come to us through Jesus Christ? Just as we aren’t striving for grace, we aren’t working for God’s laws. They are written all over us with the grace of God… and, just like the grace that we only begin to understand as we rely on it, the commandments begin to reveal our freedom as we follow them.

            My great-uncle, my paternal grandfather’s brother, died last month. My dad saw Uncle Max a week before he died and Max told him this story:

Sometime in the ’50s, Uncle Max and Cousin JE Dunlap went to Fayetteville to help JE’s sister on some project, maybe a move or building a porch. On the way home by way of Raeford, they came upon a couple of teenage Indian (Native American) boys selling watermelons. They stopped and discussed the virtue and price for a few moments before JE remarked what a nice farm it was and if they owned it, angling toward an invitation to come bird hunt. One of the boys said, “Mister, these watermelons are the only thing we have in this world.” Max and JE bought them out without further negotiation.

Who was the neighbor?

            In a movie, an interaction between two white men in their 30s and two teenage Native American boys would not look like this. Yet, this is the story. And who is the neighbor? The neighbor is the person we stop to help and the neighbor is the person from whom we are willing to accept help.

            The commandments of God and the story of the neighbor who showed mercy aren’t merely about “being nice” or even “doing the right thing”. They are about the nearness of God, the nearness of grace in our hands and our mouths. Every. Single. Day.

            You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.  It is both a commandment and a blessing. It opens us to the closeness of grace and the ways God uses us. When we trust in the blessing (not burden) of this commandment, God helps us to see how we can help those around us. We learn to trust our neighbors and we are more clearly involved in how God’s kingdom comes.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.  Fewer young black men will end up dead or in prison. Fewer trials will end with verdicts that frustrate and disappoint and seem far from justice.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.  Sometimes you end up with a bill at a hotel on the road to Jericho. Sometimes you end up with a bunch of watermelons. Sometimes someone pays your bill or buys all your watermelons. But “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe”. And it is a blessing.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Five: Silly Sentences

Use these five words (in any tense) in a sentence:

1. pulpit, puppy, wrench, word, mouse

2. weep, love, prayer, bassoon, chair
3. heart, shutter, wish, turtle, walk
4. howl, worry, window, story, trust
5. garden, hat, shepherd, laugh, sigh.

1. pulpit, puppy, wrench, word, mouse.
 As the mouse walked her puppy around the pulpit, she slipped in the last lap, wrenched her knee, and uttered a church parking lot word!

2. weep, love, prayer, bassoon, chair

The weeping prayer of the bassoon and the chair was that the love in the room would be felt and understood.

3. heart, shutter, wish, turtle, walk

When I press the shutter, I wish to be Ansel Adams, but the every day miracle of a turtle walking toward the pond is not captured in my photograph, only in my heart.

4. howl, worry, window, story, trust

The best nights with friends ring with howling laughter, have no worries, and are full of trust and stories that open a window with both past and future views.

5. garden, hat, shepherd, laugh, sigh

Called to be a shepherd in God’s garden, I wear many hats and laugh and sigh daily. 

Resisting Cargo Culture (Bold Cafe)

This is an article I wrote for this month's edition of Bold Café- an online magazine for young adult women (or anyone who reads it). The magazine is a ministry of the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The article has a companion faith reflection (see previous post).

I saw the pair of shoes on the shelf near the window, when I was almost out the door. Their eye-catching color and unusual heel shape pulled me like a magnet. “Please don’t be my size, please don’t be my size,” I chanted, as I lifted the right one. Phew! The number suggests they’ll be too large. “You never know until you try them on,” whispers a little voice in my ear.  
I shake my head to clear it and firmly say out loud, “Cargo cult.” I put the shoe back and walk out of the store, completely empty-handed.   
The little bag of yarn reels me in like the catch of the day. With eight balls of coordinating yarn, I think of the fun little projects I could make. Sure I have yarn at home I haven’t used yet, but not like this. I could make a… “Cargo cult.” 
And I push the cart on to complete my grocery list. I have talked with my husband again and again about making a weekly meal plan, but something always comes up and so we never do. I buy groceries for the week, attempting to guess what we might eat. I usually forget something I bought, only to find it later—rotting in a corner or drawer of the fridge or dust-covered in the back of the pantry. Embarrassed, I throw it away or compost it, muttering: “Cargo cult.” 
In reality, a cargo cult is a complex spiritual and religious system—most frequently found in islands of the South Pacific. The belief system is oriented around specific worship practices and living habits that organize the social relationships of the community. There is also an expectation that the correct religious practice will result in material blessings from gods or ancestors... See more after the jump to the Café website. 

- See more at:

Consumerism and Faith (Bold Cafe)

This is a faith reflection I wrote that was published in this month's issue of Bold Cafe- an online magazine for young adult women (or anyone who reads it). It is a ministry of the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

 A recent advertisement from a cosmetics company went viral on television and on the Internet. In the commercial, women described themselves to a forensic artist who could not see them. He made a second sketch based on a description from a stranger who encountered the woman in the waiting room. The drawings from the women’s own characterizations of themselves were often more grim and less attractive. Many did not actually resemble the person depicted.

This was not the fault of the artist, though, because the second drawings, made from a stranger’s description, were easily matched with their real-life counterparts. Each woman’s face, as described by a stranger, was more open and far more realistic to her appearance and demeanor. Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign garnered lots of positive attention for encouraging women (and men) to see themselves as others do–with kindness and openness.
Regardless of the overt emotional impact of the campaign, this cosmetics company and its parent company, Unilever, want to sell products. Unilever also makes Axe body spray. Axe commercials frequently objectify women in the way the Dove commercials attempt to alleviate. Unilever also manufactures a skin lightener called “Fair and Lovely” specifically to Middle Eastern and Indian consumers. Suggesting that lighter skin is more beautiful skin is not exactly a “real beauty” message, even though it comes from the same company... (continued after the jump to the Cafe website)