THE HOUSE IN BETHANY
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John’s Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
July 17, 2016
“This is the day the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Amen.
So much has been said….
So much has been written…. the barrage of editorials, social media posts, emails, news reports, official and unofficial statements about the murders in the US and 80 more in France. We have heard speculation, interpretation, outrage, and threats. We have seen funerals, marches, demonstrations, and endless attempts to make sense of it all and find hope amidst the carnage. In this country, once again our innocence and ignorance have been shattered. In Europe, safety can no longer be assumed.
I can hardly recall what it was like before 911, but I do remember the civil rights marches and the blood that was shed. I do remember last month asking a black male friend if the writer James Baldwin was right in saying this in 1950: “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” My friend nodded. Now we who are white begin to understand more fully why that might be true.
My job today is to turn to the Scripture, to the Gospel of Luke and to the House in Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, often a joyous place, not without its own humor.
Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, rushes about preparing food and pouring wine, eager to see to the comfort of her guests. Perhaps a direct ancestor of a contemporary Martha—she of the eight-layered theme cakes, seasonally-appropriate door decorations, and making water from scratch. Perhaps she is like the writer-monk Brother Lawrence, renowned for finding God among the pots and pans.
Martha is, in a word, hospitable. Hospitality is a virtue praised in Scripture, often because a traveler’s life could depend on finding food, water and shelter when the weather turns bad or the way is lost. Today our lives may depend on our ability to be hospitable to unknown people and new ideas. So that is our theme today– hospitality and its place in creating a less dangerous world.
Certainly little would have appeared on the table if it was up to Mary, who plunks herself down at the feet of Jesus ignoring her sister’s requests for help. Do we detect a certain smugness in Mary when Jesus praises her? Is she sticking out her tongue at Martha behind his back?
I wonder how much of each sister’s actions are because of temperament or personality type (maybe a Meyer’s-Briggs thing or an enneagram number?). Perhaps Martha is an introvert and prefers to listen from the kitchen where she hears everything but isn’t obliged to contribute. Maybe Martha is the overly-conscientious oldest child and feels responsible for everything while Mary is younger and more laid back?
One person cautions: “We must not cartoon the scene — Martha up to her eyeballs in soapsuds. Mary pensively on a little stool in the family room and Jesus giving Scriptural warrant for letting the dishes pile up in the sink. If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether. If we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment.” (1)
Jesus assumes that a woman is just as capable of learning at the feet of a rabbi as a man is. In fact, he calls Martha away from traditional domestic female duties to learn from him. A Presbyterian pastor writes: “Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, women played prominent leadership roles in the early church. Their names are known; they’re in Paul’s letters; they’re portrayed in ancient mosaics. But then in the second century, men assumed all authority including as clergy. But the early church loved Mary – passive, subservient, quiet, and used Martha as her foil, banging her pots and pans to express her resentment.” (2)
Notice also that the siblings at Bethany are probably Jesus’ best friends. John’s Gospel tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and their brother Lazarus.” Jesus weeps when he learns Lazarus has died.
Martha is close enough to Jesus to reprimand him at least twice: once when she accuses him of not supporting her when she has to do all the work while Mary sits at his feet, and again when their brother Lazarus has died and Martha tells Jesus that it’s his fault since he waited too long to come to them (and he did wait): “Where were you?” she protests…. “What were you thinking?” When Mary finally arrives on the scene, once again she throws herself at Jesus’ feet weeping.
After weeping at his friend’s death, Jesus brings Lazarus back to life – who has been dead three days – and it is a miracle so astounding that from that point on, Jesus was a marked man.
(A sidebar here: You do have to wonder, when Lazarus is back at the table at the house in Bethany, if anyone asks him… “So, Lazarus…what it was like to be —- dead?” Wouldn’t that kind of be the elephant in the room? Scripture is silent on the point.)
So — Jesus does not condemn Martha’s actions, only says that Mary’s “choice” is better. Jesus chastises Martha not because she is busy being the hostess but because she is “distracted and worried about many things.”
Well —who isn’t?
Jesus himself was often distracted. While teaching in the synagogue or on a journey, his disciples call him away again and again because someone needs him somewhere else – and he goes.
But Martha is not only distracted; she is worried.
Most of us are on intimate terms with worry although the term now is usually “anxiety.”
Anxiety often stems from fear and from perfectionism,
Fear is always close to the surface. We worry not only about pain but about potential pain, about loss and the probability of loss and about the randomness and unpredictability of life.
Perfectionism is a component of worry. The expectation that life can and should be as close to perfect as we can make it is bound to produce anxiety, as if the fear that we won’t” live up to our potential.”
I think the core of the lesson is this: Jesus says that the most important component of hospitality is listening. THAT is why Mary has made the better choice.
This is a theme Jesus revisits again and again, in fact, is a Biblical mandate if there ever was one. “This is my son,” the Creator says, “Listen to him.” So many parts of Scripture are preceded by the word: “Listen. Or Behold…” Again and again Jesus chastises the disciples for not listening and for missing things due to their thickheadness or lack of attention. Jesus sees listening as a central act of the disciple – to God, to creation, to each other. You can be hospitable by providing gourmet food and French wine and roses on the table, but if you don’t listen to your guests, if their visit is mainly an opportunity to showcase your life and your opinions, you have not made the better choice. This is not only true in the domestic sphere but also in the sphere of social action when we are called to listen first instead of just rushing in to fix things.
But here’s what my own experience brings me to add…… Listening can not always be done in the context we want it to be. Some time ago I was working with the women’s group of a small, nearby predominantly African-American Episcopal church, helping them to collect the stories of their founders. I was there because I had written a profile of a 104-year-old black man who had been a soldier, an activist and played in the Ellington band. I got to sit in Tela Burke’s living room and hear his story as he fried us up some chicken in the kitchen. What a privilege… I listened for hours. I’m still in love with him although he died before the interview was published.
At one point I said to the women I hoped that a couple of them would come to St. John’s to adult education and tell the stories of some of these remarkable people and also tell us little about Holy Trinity parish, so near to us. It was then that one of them said to me, gently, “Or maybe you all should come here.”
I’ve thought about that a lot as I’ve planned guest speakers and educational events, as I ‘ve thought about our relationship with Holy Apostles our “companion’s parish.” The humility and risk of going to the other in good will and acceptance, to their home turf, to the place where we are the other — with the precious allotment of time and inconvenience that may be involved for us. Context, setting, makes a difference.
It is in response to Martha’s distress over Lazarus that the famous requiem words now in our Prayer Book are addressed: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet will they live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha responds that she does believe. Martha—pushy, overbearing, demanding, gets to the very heart of the matter.
We tend to compartmentalize resurrection. That’s church talk. That’s the Bible. That’s for after you die. An English priest, Giles Francis, wrote this: “The resurrection is more an identity than an argument. It is who we are—our word for how we go out in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s the Christian word for defiance. It is the way we push back against the darkness.” A resurrection perspective is what Christians can bring to social justice.
I have become less troubled and even paralyzed by the intellectual ambiguity of Christianity, its mystery. Through the events of my own life I also have come to accept the Cross and the resurrection as the bedrock of my own identify. I’ve been through the death-resurrection. Loss-rebirth cycle dozens of times as have many of you.
A belief in resurrection is gift and responsibility. It is law and gospel. It is hope and heartbreak because death of some kind precedes resurrection. Look at the past two weeks. And we don’t always move forward automatically. The stone has to be rolled back from the tomb again and again every year, every month, every day.
The writer Christian Wiman says that that we don’t have to go to church every day or donate all that we have to the poor: “All too often,” he says, “the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self enclosed sleep.” (3)
I shop in Midway since I like the diversity there. The day after Philando Castile was shot, the air seemed more charged than usual. I was looking at some sweet corn at Cub when a black woman came to the counter near me. I was feeling so emotional and guilty about the shootings and I wanted to tell her …. Look, I am so sorry for what my race has done to yours…. but I didn’t dare, and so, keeping my eyes down I said, in a small voice, “I wonder if you keep corn in the refrigerator.”
Without looking at me, she said, “I don’t know. I think I’m going to cook mine up today. But it looks really nice.”
“Yes,” I said, “it does. Look nice.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Without a look at each other, even a glance, there was something so intense about that tiny connection on that terrible day that I still remember it. It was a kind of cautious hospitality extended, one to another.
And in such exchanges, I think, grace happens, as we step up to the tomb and help each other push back the stone.….
References: 1. Fred Craddock, cited somewhere I can’t find. 2. John Buchanan, “Distract4ed” Fourth Presbyterian church website 2010. 3. Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 2013.