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Genesis 18:1-10a & Luke 10:38-42
I remember the first marathon I ever ran. It seems like another lifetime ago, but it was mid-college, I was about 21, a lean 170 with a full head of curly hair. This is not a made up story. It is real. I had been a runner for years, but never 26 miles. It’s 26.1 miles to be exact, and as anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you, it’s the .1 that gets you. Actually, it’s about the last third of the race that gets you. At that point you have probably fought off some cramps, surely had your second (or third) wind, and you have hopefully conquered what is affectionately called “the wall” by runners. It happens about mile 18 typically, and it’s the time where your body says, “Stop!” And then it says, “Stop,” loudly. And then it screams, “STOP!” And you have to be able to push through that, which is why marathon running isn’t for everyone, though the lessons it can teach certainly are.
We all have to learn to deal with adversity. We all need to build skills for coping with pain, struggle and hardship. And we all have to be able to push ourselves if we ever want to grow. At that “wall” in the marathon, the finish line seems impossible, so impossible that you probably don’t think you can finish at all. You likely consider stopping, and begin to wonder why you started in the first place, or how this could possibly be worth it. That is, as runners will tell you, the time you have to keep going.
I do have to confess to you that a little part of me hoped when I returned from my sabbatical that all the crap in the world, all the brokenness and heartache and evil would somehow be magically gone. Imagine my disappointment when it wasn’t. In fact, in some ways it’s worse. The separation of families at the border and the inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum is not only not diminishing on our southern border, it’s coming to our own state as Ft. Sill prepares to house detainees. Locally our own county apparently endorses this all as it re-ups a contract that keeps our sheriff in full cooperation with ICE, a subject he’s not only not avoiding, he’s actually running on! We have clearly racist tweets from a President – A PRESIDENT – who tells members of Congress to “go back to the country they came from,” which is not a racist dog whistle, it’s a racist tornado siren! That exact phrasehas been used for decades to disparage non-whites in the United States, supposedly the great immigrant nation. Xenophobia and racism still fester in our collective body, and manifest in our individual bodies, and human beings’ intolerance and hatred towards other human beings seems to know no bounds. On top of all that, we see drenching rains turn to blasting heat as climate change continues to map out a bleak future to decision makers who cannot see past their next paycheck.
I mean really, is it too much to ask to go away for 5 weeks and expect racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and all other injustice to be gone? Well, sure it is. Just as it is too much for us to think that it might all turn to justice and peace in our lifetimes, or our children’s lifetimes. We are in a marathon, friends, even if we didn’t realize it, and there’s so much work to do. We can’t run this like a sprint, or we’ll collapse. It’s a scenario that I’ve seen played out time and again, especially amongst people who seek peace and work for justice. The most ardent and zealous activists I have encountered are ones who burn out at some point, or burn down everything around them – relationships, trust, friendship, respect. Without something to sink their roots into, they grow quickly at first, but soon wither and fade.
When we encounter Martha and Mary, in Martha’s home no less, the visit, at least for Luke, comes just after a long trip, with Jesus giving the disciples some heavy instruction – they will be sent out like lambs among wolves, and they will be rejectedbecause of Jesus, not praised. They then witness Jesus confront a scholar with this parable of a Samaritan, a parable which would have been as shocking to them as it was to the scholar. After all that, and much more in the chapters before, they head to Martha’s house. Why is that context important? Because you need to know that there’s a dynamic here, a dynamic of change that could suggest to the disciples, as it often does to us, if they just work harder, the Kin-dom will arrive. If they just invest more energy, heal one more person, organize one more event, God’s peace will come.
It’s not a feeling that would go away. The anxiousness and sense of urgency would shape the early Jesus movement for decades to come. Paul’s letters are full of it, the later epistles written with those directives of necessity, the revelation of John written with powerful and dramatic images for all thought that the world was about to turn. Everyone thought they were in a sprint, when they were actually running a marathon.
The story of Mary and Martha is heavy with family dynamics that are all too familiar. It’s a story many of us will be familiar with, one of sibling rivalry, one where competition between sisters, between women, stands out. How often it is that the gender dynamic we have created in our own culture pits women against each other. Professor Karolyn Lewis reminds us, “Our society fosters and depends on the socialization of women toward competition, judgment, and expectation…It is a way to control women. To elevate and exacerbate our insecurities which are the result of unrealistic expectations of performance and beauty. To put women in a place where they are too busy competing against each other to rise up against the injustice of sexism.”
That’s what seemsat work when Jesus “compares” the two sisters, and supposedly claims that Mary has chosen the “better” part. Dr. Lewis continues, “The danger of this story is its invitation to what is better. To pit one expression of belief, of discipleship, of service, of vocation, against the other. We are exceedingly skilled in such comparison. Yet, when we make these kinds of moves and assumptions, we rarely stop to think about what we then assume about Jesus. To favor Mary is to say Jesus discounts service. Which, if you read the Gospel of Luke, makes no sense at all…To favor Martha would be to say service is all that matters. Clearly, both matter, if you read the Gospel of Luke carefully.”
The word translated as “better,” is agathos. Likely influenced more by this sexism-supporting “competition” that is not unique to our culture, that word has traditionally been translated as “better.” And that translation limits these two sisters’ place in the whole story. But agathosis used far more often to describe something as “healthy” than it is to describe something as “better.” It changes the whole story if Jesus is describing Mary’s actions as healthierthan Martha’s, especially if he is speaking in the moment. Now is the time for rest, Martha. I appreciate your hospitality, but now is the time for restoration. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Martha is, of course, only doing what is expected. She is being hospitable, she is doing what Abraham and Sarah do to the angelic visitors in our passage from Genesis. But that story, like this one from Luke, uses those cultural norms to express something else. In Genesis, theover-the-tophospitality – enough food for three days being prepared – is a precursor to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where the sin portrayed is not homosexuality, as often claimed, but clearly the sin of inhospitality, shown in inverse proportion to these same visitors by the residents of that region. The expectations of hospitality are used to make another point, like Luke is doing with his story.
Surely both service and learning are part of following Jesus, action and contemplation, work and rest. It’s not that one is ultimately “better” than the other, but, like the famous passage from Ecclesiastes says – there is a time for everything. There must be balance, for if we work ourselves too hard, we won’t be of any use to anyone, and if we only sit and contemplate the nature of the universe, we’re not of much good to the person who is suffering just outside our door.
One of the great challenges of following Jesus is accepting what Jesus accepted. “Why do you call me good?”, he once responded to a questioner, “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus knew he wasn’t God, and in our following of him, we must know that not only are we not God, we aren’t even Jesus. There’s already been one of those. Instead, we must learn to operate in the manner the great Irish vagabond Oscar Wilde suggests – “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
We need Marthas and Marys, and we each need those capacities inside of us. We must be able to sit still long enough to actually learn something and we need to be able to roll up our sleeves and get some work done. And we need those characteristics because the race is long, and the road is twisted and hilly and we’re a long way from the finish line. It can be easy to think that it’s “all on us,” that we have been left alone to do the work of repairing this broken world all by ourselves. That’s a disheartening and lonely frame of mind.
The road is long, my friends. And maybe you’ve hit your wall. I think I’m on my fifth wall, and that’s just since 2016. But we need more who will resist the temptation to burn bright and hot and brief, and will instead join the slow, steady burn that deep change will take. For the race is not to the swift, it is to those who will develop all of the skills needed, who will work and rest, to learn to love themselves so they can love others, and who will tend the garden, taking time to remind ourselves that it isn’t all on us alone, it’s on us together, and, ultimately, it’s not on us at all. It’s on God. We are helpersin the repairing of the breach, what the rabbinic tradition teaches when it reminds us – you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free from participating in it.
May God’s Grace and Mercy be with us all. Amen.