Sunday, July 18, 2010

Martha, Mary and other sibling rivalries....

Today I want to end up talking about the two sisters Martha and Mary, these two friends of Jesus, but first I want to begin by looking at two an earlier parable in Luke’s Gospel, the story of the prodigal son.

The prodigal son is one of two brothers. While his older brother tends the field, watches the livestock, comes home every night, fills in all the required categories in the job description; this younger brother cuts his father dead, travels to a far country, wastes time and money and substance, breaks hearts and dreams and in the end loses everything except some shred of self-preservation that tells him to go back home and start over. And he heads back with a well thought out repentance speech, a plea for pardon, hoping that he’ll forge an agreement that will let him get back on the old homestead as a sort of servant. He’s willing to cut a deal.

He’s not a likable person, this wastrel son: his prepared pardon plea is designed to get him a consolation prize, to upgrade his personal comfort level, asking to be taken back into the family business as a slave, but I there is no real sign that he is sad for breaking his father’s heart, breaking apart the family inheritance, breaking down in his duty, he is really looking out for what he needs.

But when we look at the older brother, he might not be much better. When the father prepares a feast for the returning son, the elder brother breaks out with a tantrum, telling the father that he -- the good son -- had worked like a slave and never received even an expected part of what was due him; so there’s a self-righteousness there that smells a bit suspect. Both boys are less than wonderful. The elder had been living as a son, but with the attitude of a slave, while the younger, the prodigal, in asking the father to take him on as a slave - and shows quite surprisingly that he loved him and trusted his father as a good and loving man.

So to bring that story into the Gospel for today, these two brothers, next to these two sisters. See the similarities, for the moment when the prodigal begins to come home is like the moment when Martha’s sister Mary moves to sit and listen hard to the words of Jesus, to come to see him face to face. It is a kind of baptism.

Our baptism happens when our need brings us to Christ. We might have been carried into the church as children on the day we were baptized, but our baptized journey returns us to this table, this meal, this festive feast, because of our need to be renewed members of the family, our need to start over, our need to be nourished with good words, good food, good community. It is our need that brings us home again. Just like the prodigal son, that younger brother, just like Mary moving out of the kitchen to listen to the words that bring her to life with Jesus. That’s something we hear all through Luke’s Gospel: God honors us in our need!

Simply put: the prodigal gets a break because he so badly wants one. He is unashamed in his manipulation, unrepentant about his misuse of the family resources, showing little sign of proper parental respect, he’s going home because there’s no place left to go; and still the father loves him, because he is in need. And the same with the two sisters. While Martha is doing what she probably should, fixing dinner for the men, doing a daughters or sisters or a wife’s chores; Mary is pushing boundaries, hanging out with the boys, being where she  certainly shouldn’t be according to the culture of the time, because of some compelling need in her to listen to and be near this  Jesus: and that’s good enough for Jesus, because like the prodigal, she’s gotten there just in time.

The Greeks have two words for time: Chronos has to do with linear time, clock time, accumulating time; but Kairos means time as opportune, time for planting seeds, for making harvest, time showing up or turning around, time to come home, time to sit down and listen to the word of life: time to know what you need and where you need to go to get it. And in Luke’s Gospel Mary and the prodigal need move to that place at the right kairotic time, and that is, God willing, where the Gospel finds us today.

Go back to the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, they may be good or bad, they may be unconventional or not, they may be on the margins of society, people you would rather not meet in a dark alley; the Good News seems to be that if they turn around and reach out for the larger life they see in the Lord Jesus, then he will hold his hand out to them and bring them home for the feast.

Most of us in the church are older sisters, older brothers. We work hard to do the right thing, perform the right action, say the right speech at the right time, and the fact is that  there are these other people invited to the party; people who work less, are less worthy of respect, more likely to have compromised the principles we’ve worked hard to flesh out, because we thought we were supposed to believe in: that might miff us, and it’s understandable. Because it almost seems like God loves them equally -- maybe, under the circumstances it seems as though God almost loves them more than he loves us.

And there is something in that it does not feel fair: fair for the older brother or for Martha, it feels unjust! But there is something bigger than being just, and that is being merciful, and I think that’s a better place to pitch our tent. God will be merciful to those in need, merciful to those who hunger, to those in darkness turning towards light -- half blinded by new possibilities, inarticulate of where they come from or what they want or where they might be going in the end, just beginning to listen, to turn towards the light of the Lord, and he will rush towards them with his arms held wide, welcoming them into this new Kingdom of love and that is Good news.

Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re faithful or unfaithful, if you tried so hard in the past or if you just woke up this morning and thought, “I’m going to try something new,” then, in either case, God is with you, God is loving you, and God will bring you home to the celebration party.

St. John Chrysostom wrote this in the late Fourth century, listen:

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,

as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.

He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed 
He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!

Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. 
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On the Good Samaritan

The California writer Joan Didion wrote that maturity happens when you accept yourself, whether you want to or not, and I am almost there. I am much easier, more neighborly, much kinder towards myself, than I used to be, and I think that’s better. When I was younger I wanted very much to have my life under control, well-balanced, together. I desperately want a system that would save me from the terrible business of choosing wrong.

Once I even went to a workshop where all the participants took large sheets of newsprint and pens, crayons and magic markers to write down how they wanted to live, what they wanted to do, in the next few years. One women made a map of what and how and where she was going to be for the following five years - with a place for everything and everything in its place; it even had color coding! I could have worshipped that map! How wonderful it would be to look towards the future with such certainty.

So, when I hear about the lawyer who comes to Jesus for advice, I think I can understand him: he was looking for color coding! The Gospel also says he comes to “test” Jesus, and I think there are a lot of us who have lived our lives as If there were going to be a pop quiz, a surprise exam, or an unscheduled bed check arranged by “the authorities” in order to make sure that everything is in decent shape and approved order. So we all try so hard to keep it all together, to pass the course.

So the lawyer comes to Jesus to asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How do I get prepared? And rather than giving him a straightforward answer, a plan, Jesus asks a question in return: “What is written In the Law? How do you read it?” (The implicit question here is, “What’s most important?”). The lawyer answers, “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.” Jesus answers him, “Right! do this and you will live.” The exam has been passed!

So, “desiring to justify himself,” the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Do you see what’s happening? Color coding coming, easily filed categories: the most important commandment, love; the most important persons, God and neighbor. He’s building the map, and soon he’ll have a whole new system with dietary laws, holidays weekends, hints for etiquette; everything in order.

But Jesus makes trouble for the man when He tells a story about a traveler mugged by robbers and left for dead, ignored first by a Priest, next by a Levite, finally found and cared for by a Samaritan. Because what the lawyer wants are rules and regulations that stay in place, and what Jesus gives him is a story that’s a cross between a puzzle and a moving picture. It won’t stay still; it turns everything around. Nothing (and no one) is ruled out. And all the truisms that “everybody” in the old conceptual neighborhood knows  -- Priests and Levites are good and Samaritans are bad -- fall flat because there is a new definition of neighbor which turns everything in life around.

You see, the person Jesus uses to show the quality of Neighbor is the last one you would want in the neighborhood. The lawyer, like most of his geographic neighbors, did not like Samaritans. They were outsiders, considered unclean, with suspect religious preferences and doubtful cultural practices. Our categories might nor be as blatant as his, but try this exercise: “if I were mugged on a city street, the person I would least like to come to my rescue would be....” and put that one in place of the Samaritan. It doesn’t matter who comes to mind, but hold on to the feeling, “I would just rather it not be...”  Then think of the Samaritan! It grates our sensibility to think that person might hold the definition for neighbor. can carry the sign, be a directional signal, a call from God, an icon, for something as important as the way to eternal life.

The lawyer gets a lot more than he bargained for; all he was looking for was the master list of who qualifies as a neighbor in order to build the plan on how to win eternal life. He wanted a blueprint, a diagram that would make the world safe: but what he got was how someone might be a neighbor to him. All he wanted was a ruling; what he is getting is a community, much more than he expected about who God is and how God loves and how God’s word is encountered. Jesus tells him a neighbor is simply one who does neighboring things: shows mercy and compassion; anyone who seeks out and acts up and does the daily business of living, breathing and caring as a neighbor. That is a way of meeting the world that has room for anyone, and it is both very big news and very intimate information; it makes the world more complex and maybe much more simple too.

Let me tell a story: some twenty five years ago. I took a year away from my school to work as a youth minister in a small Northern California town.In the middle of that year I took a three hour bus south San Francisco, walk a few blocks, then catch the subway to my seminary in Berkeley to report on how the year was going. All the way down I had been writing in my journal about how good the it was, how I was getting it right, I was getting it together! And as I was waiting in the subway to catch the train to Berkeley, this black guy, African American, came up alongside of me on the platform and I could see that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember: and he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was right next to me.

So I looked towards the track to our right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I thought, “Well, I am going to get mugged or worse, here it comes. And I said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!” And I took a breath and looked up at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years.  And I felt sorry, both for him and, surprisingly, for me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I looked at him and said, “the train for Oakland will be on this platform. And he looked at me for a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and walked away.

And I saw something about me that I hadn’t seen before: how narrow I was, how snobbish, self-serving, insulated by my own concerns from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked. I saw that day that I didn’t see much, about myself and about Gods’ word and Gods’ world at all. It’s been twenty-five years, and I can still see his face. I still wonder who he was.

For Jesus gets sidelined, mugged, murdered on the side of the road while a lot of good and careful people: Priests, Scribes and Pharisees, overlook what is happening for fear that they might fail the exam, and they end up missing the train, they end up missing the point of it all!  Just pray we don’t! And Jesus says: “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... Do this and you shall live.” in the name of Christ.