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!

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