And This Will Not Be Taken Away From Her: A sermon about Martha, Mary and the insidious nature of bias in our lives

This sermon is based on the readings for Proper 11 Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on July 21, 2013.

The NPR story that is quoted in the sermon can be found here

For the full context and origin of “clutching our purses, locking our doors, or looking suspiciously at poeple in department stores” please refer to the sixth paragraph of President Obama’s remarks about the death of Trayvon Martin available here.

So with whom do you identify in this story?  Are you a Mary kind of girl, someone who receives data and information, impressions about the world around you by sitting still, quietly reflecting and contemplating what is taking place?  Or are you more like Martha, moving constantly, busy, working, receiving and accepting information, interpreting and learning about the world around you as you are in motion?

How do you pray?  Do you have a spot in your house that is set aside for quiet prayer, maybe a special chair, candle that you light, even the same music that plays as you sit and read the daily office?  Or do you pray holding the steering wheel of your car, maybe as you run, maybe even as you wash the dishes?

Historically, classically we hear this reading from Luke’s Gospel as an evaluation of two spiritualties, two ways of being in the world.  And it would seem that Jesus is pointing to one and saying that this is better than the other, passing judgment on the busy ness of Martha and her need to be in motion.  But that’s a little confusing.  Jesus does go up into the mountains alone to pray.  He goes apart from the crowd to pray on a regular basis.  But Jesus is also out there in the streets, preaching, teaching, healing, working with his disciples and he calls us again and again to be servants to all, to be at work in the world working to bring God’s kingdom to fruition.  So how can it be that Jesus is passing judgment on that kind of spirituality, that “busy” way of being?  It doesn’t quite make sense.  It is confusing.  And it’s a little worrisome if, like me, the only way that you can justify sitting long enough to watch a Packer’s game is to fold the laundry or dust the baseboards while you watch the game…  Busy all of the time.

Fortunately, or maybe even predictably, I don’t think that is really the point of this story.  I don’t really think that Jesus is making distinctions about two different ways of being in the world and calling one out as preferable.  But to understand why I think that, to understand what is really happening here we have to back up just a little bit.

Last week we heard the verses that immediately precede the story from Luke that we heard today.  Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan.  And in that story a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and in the course of his interrogation he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus works through the story of the Good Samaritan to point out that “who is my neighbor” is the wrong question.  Who is my neighbor isn’t even on Jesus’ radar.  What Jesus wants this lawyer to understand is that we are to behave as neighbors to everyone in the world around us.  Who our neighbor is, who our neighbor isn’t doesn’t make sense because everyone is our neighbor and we are called to love them as we love ourselves.

Jesus is turning the social order upside down in this story.  The hero of the story, the person who actually does act like a neighbor is a Samaritan,  is someone from a despised community.  So this story about a Good Samaritan would have been shocking and upsetting to his audience.

As soon as that story ends we hear that “Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (Luke 10: 38).  Then something equally shocking happens in this story.  Martha’s sister sits at Jesus’ feet, like a disciple, in the front room, where only the men are allowed to gather, and she listens to what Jesus is saying.  Now that would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ audience as the Samaritan helping the wounded and bleeding man lying in the ditch.

We don’t really know how Martha said those words.  We don’t know what was in her mind.  They were sisters.  Maybe in all their lives they had never quite figured out how to cohabitate, whose job it is to do this, whose job it is to do that, how do we divide up the cores.  Maybe this is an ongoing feud between them and when Martha comes into the front room her words are laden with the baggage of her long struggle with her sister as she asks Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen.

We do know for sure though, that when Martha walks into that room and says, “Jesus, send her back into the kitchen where she belongs” all of the men in the room said, “Yeah!  Darn straight.  It’s about time!  Get her out of here.  She’s not supposed to be in this room!”  We know that’s how they responded because in the last line of todays Gospel Jess say, “This will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

Jesus is still on the same theme, he is still working to accomplish the same goal that he had in mind when he started telling the story of the Good Samaritan.  He is turning the social order upside down.  He is asking us to see that we are all neighbors.  And he is working to help us to identify something that is even more insidious than the racial prejudice that was in play when it was a Samaritan that was at the center of the story.  Right now Jesus is talking about bias.

Bias.  It was about a year ago that I heard a story on NPR that I immediately looked up on their web site because I knew that there would come a moment when we would need to hear it together.  In this story they were talking to a sociologist who had written a book about bias and in her book she tells this story:

There was a woman who was washing dishes in her sink when she dropped and broke a crystal bowl.  The glass gashed her hand from the top of her palm to her wrist.  She rushed to the emergency room and the very fist thing that she told the surgeons and doctors who examined her was that she was, “I am a quilter and I don’t want to lose and functionality in my hand.  Please make sure that there are no nerves severed, no tendons cut.”  The Emergency room doctor told her that he was doing a perfectly “competent” job stitching up her hand.  Then a nures who knew the patient walked into the room and said, “Professor Johnson, what are you doing in the emergency room?”  The doctor who was stitching up her hand looked at her and asked, “Are you a professor at Yale?”  The patient answered, “Yes I am.”  Suddenly the room was filled with hand specialists, surgeons, neurologists and other specialists, all of them there to make sure that she retained all of the functionality of her fingers.  Something remarkable had happened because suddenly this person sitting on the stool having her hand stitched up was a person of rank and status in the community.

Bias is an insidious thing.

You know the story about the Samaritan… that seems kind of foreign to us.  Samaritans, people who had intermarried with the people of the land, whose religious practice doesn’t match our own, who worship on the mountain tops instead of in the temples…  that might seem pretty foreign to us.  That’s easy for us to hold at a distance as if it doesn’t have any relevance to or impact on our lives.  But this story is different.  Mary looks like us.  She is a member of our tribe. She is a member of our household.  And yet there is this bias that says where her place is and where it is not.  Where she belongs, and where she may not be.  And so it is this story, I think, that grabs us today.

This story call us to look deep within ourselves and identify those insidious places that don’t rise quite to the level of prejudice or bigotry, but which lurk down there, just a little deeper, at the level of bias.  This passage calls us to look within ourselves and to find those biases and to bring them out into the light so that we don’t find ourselves clutching our purses on the elevator, locking the doors of our cars, or looking suspiciously at people in the department stores. 

We are called to something more.  We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength.  And we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves (BCP page 351).

Jesus has been working very hard these last two Sundays to help us to understand that our neighbors are everyone that we encounter.

This morning Jesus says that our neighbors place is here, in the room, at his feet, with us and that this, this place, this moment, this right, will not be taken away from them.


Who Is My Neighbor? A sermon for July 14, 2013

This sermon is based on the readings for Proper 10 Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on July 14th, 2013, the morning after George Zimmerman was found “not guilty” in the death of Trayvon Martin.

The Good Samaritan.  Those words just roll off our tongues.  We say them so often, we hear them so often, that we probably don’t think very much about them when we hear them.  We hear that phrase used on the news for the person who stops to give aid at a traffic accident, at a fire, for anyone who goes out of their way to help someone that they don’t know.   There’s even, if you look it up on the Internet, a “Good Sams Club.”  And so if you are someone who goes out of you way to help others you can sign up and be a member of the Good Sams Club.

But I think all of that repetition and easy usage has domesticated the story that we heard this morning so that when we think of the story of the good Samaritan we probably hear a version very similar to this “Beginners Bible,” this well thumbed volume that lives on the bookshelves in my son’s room.  The version that is in this Bible goes like this:

A Good Neighbor

“I know that I should love God,”

a man once said to Jesus.

“I should love him with all my heart.

And I should love my neighbor too.

But who is my neighbor?”

Jesus told him a story.

There was a man walking along a road.

He was going on a trip.

Suddenly, robbers jumped out at him.

They hit him.

They took all the things that he had with him.

Andy they left him, hurt, lying by the road.

A short time later, step, step, step,

Someone came down the road.

It was a man who worked in God’s temple.

He could help the hurt man!

But, not, when he saw the hurt man,

He crossed the road.

He passed by on the other side!

Soon another man came.

But he passed by, too.

Then, clop, clop, clip, clop,

Along came a man with a Donkey.

This was a man from a different country.

When he saw the hurt man, he stopped.

He put bandages on his hurt places.

And he took the man to a house w

Where he could rest and get will.

Jesus finished his story.

He looked at the man.

“Who was the neighbor to the hurt man?”

Jesus asked.

“The one who helped him”, said the man.

“Then you can be a neighbor to anyone

Who needs your help,” said Jesus.

                                      The Beginner’s Bible: Timeless Children’s Stories

This is a very different version that the one that we heard from Luke’s Gospel this morning.  There are lots of details that are omitted from this reading.  I think that they are omitted because the original version, the one from Luke’s Gospel, is filled with tension, conflict, and, at its heart, an accusation.

A man, a lawyer well versed in the Mosaic Law, a master of the traditions of his community, stands to trap Jesus and he asks him a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Now Jesus employs an age-old clerical trick, one that I am sure he learned in an Episcopal seminary, he answers the man’s question with a question of his own,  “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  And this lawyer, true to form, rises to the top of the class.  He gives the perfect answer, “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” (Luke 10:26).  And Jesus says give the man a prize, top student of the day.  But then the real tension begins.

“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor”  Luke 10:29)?  Seeking to justify himself…  we know that somewhere in the back of this person’s mind he knows.  He knows that he is not living up to this commandment to love his neighbor as himself.  He can probably review the tapes and he can see moments where he has failed to love the “other.  So he asks Jesus to limit the scope of this commandment.  “Surely you don’t mean them.  Surely you don’t mean him.  You can’t possible mean her.  Love my neighbor as myself?  You must mean these folks here with me, the people with whom I have surrounded myself,  The people I have chosen as my neighbors.

I think that we need to re hear this original version of Luke’s Gospel because it is in this moment that we are convicted.  This is a story that tells us how to live according to God’s commandment and love.  We call the answer that the lawyer gave “The Summary of the Law” and we can probably all recite those words.  But in that moment where Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live,” there are those tapes playing in our heads confronting us with those moments when we have not quite fulfilled our vocation as the children of God by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  And so we, like the lawyer engage in a process of self-justification.

Listen to what Jesus does.  He tells the lawyer a story.  A man is beset by robbers and is left lying, bleeding in the ditch.  He is passed by, his plight ignored, by a Priest and a Levite.  Now everyone in the audience hearing this story, and certainly the lawyer, knew that if the Priest or the Levite had ventured into the ditch and touched this bleeding man they would have been ritually impure, unclean, and could not have gone into the temple to perform their sacred duties.  And so at some level, somewhere, in the back of our mind, these two people are “justified” in not loving this person as they love themselves.  All of the people listening to Jesus tell this story to the Lawyer also knew that it was a ruse that robbers frequently used; putting someone in the ditch who appeared to be injured and wounded to lure you off the road and into the brush where you could be attacked and robbed yourself.  So as the people were listening to this story they would have been checking their way down through their internal list and would have thought, “look there’s another way to let these guys off the hook.”  They would have been endangering themselves personally f they had ventured into the ditch to help.

You can hear the self-talk now…  They were on important business, probably visiting parishioners in the hospital.  They had things to do, places to be, people to meet.  They are important people and they just didn’t have time to get involved.

So they didn’t want to become impure, tainted by association, they didn’t want to risk their personal safety.  They didn’t want to interrupt their busy schedule…  The list of justifications goes on and on.  This is the moment in the story where Jesus pulls all the stops and says something really shocking to get our attention.  The person who does stop to lend aid to the man lying in the ditch is a Samaritan.

The Samaritans were people from the tribes of Israel who had intermarried with the people of the land of Canaan and whose worship practices were a mixture of the Jewish peoples practice and the practices of the people of the land.  The Samaritans and the Jews did not get along.  They despised one another.  So the task of being a neighbor falls to this despised person, who takes the time, who risks going into the brush, who becomes even more impure and unclean by tending to his bloody wounds pouring wine and oil on them.  He takes a day out of his busy schedule to stay with him at the inn.  And then he gives of his own resources to help.  Here is the accusation.

How far will we go to justify our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.  And do we have to see someone in whom we think that behavior so unlikely that it’s almost unimaginable, to convict us of our own hard heartedness?

This Gospel reading today calls us to look within ourselves and find the places where we seek to justify our failure to love those who speak differently than we do, who dress differently, who look different, who love differently, even those who speak of God using different names and different images that we do.  The truth is that all of God’s children are our neighbors.  And we are called to embrace that reality and to live our lives in a way that demonstrates that truth to the entire world.

We have had a little too much of courtroom drama this week.  But that’s exactly what we have here in this story as this lawyer rises to challenge Jesus and to try and entrap him.   And it is we who are being convicted in the court of the Gospel of our hard heartedness and failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We have had a clear demonstration of the consequences of failing to love our neighbor as ourselves and we know that we cannot afford to live in guarded and gated communities; ghettos of like-minded people who look and dress just like us.  We cannot afford to live in a world where we are suspicious of those who do not look like us, dress like us, talk and walk like us.  We cannot afford to live in communities where to be “other” is to be immediately suspect.  We are called to something more.  We are called to help build a world where rather than getting out of the car, armed with a gun, to confronting a young man with a bag of skittles and an iced tea, we roll down our window and offer him a ride home in the rain.


Turning the Page to a New Chapter: A sermon for June 30, 2013

This sermon is based on the readings for Proper 8 Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

This sermon was preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church On September 30, 2013, the day after Bishop Steven Miller ordained the Reverend Dorota Pruski to the Sacred order of Priests, and on the occasion of her first celebration of the Eucharist.

What a wonderful and glorious moment this is.  We have been following this story for such a long time. Clinging to every detail, paying attention to every nuance of this story, waiting and waiting for this moment to come, maybe even thinking that it might never get here.  It’s sort of like reading a great book.  You are reading and the chapter is moving along, you’ve flipped ahead and you know that there are only a few more pages left in this chapter…  but that page that is only half filled with text and has all that white space at the bottom is elusive, it’s still far out there.  The tension builds, things are moving along… “Ok only two pages to the end of the chapter, I know there going to wrap this up somehow.  There’s go to be some sort of conclusion here…”  And then it happens!  You get to the end of the chapter and everything changes.  And then you realize, “wow!  There’s still a lot of this book left!  This story isn’t over yet!”  And so the excitement and the thrill that you’ve had there in that moment as you concluded that chapter and got to all that white space at the end of the page is only heightened because you know the story will go on.

That’s exactly where we are this morning.  We come in here this morning to celebrate the ending of a chapter and the beginning of a new one and it happens with these words,  When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up he set his face to go to Jerusalem”  (Luke  9:51).  Well that is that chapter you thought I was talking about isn’t it?  That is the beginning of a new thing that we are here to celebrate this morning… isn’t it?  It is.  Believe me.  And it is important to take a moment to think about what Luke is doing for us here in this part of his narrative.

Jesus has been ministering in Galilee.  He is at home with his people, gathering his disciples, building his support base, gathering resources, and today, with this chapter and this verse something dramatic changes.  It’s important for us to recognize that for Luke the Gospel all funnels down to that one climactic moment, when there on that Holy Hill Jesus demonstrates to us beyond the shadow of a doubt that God will love us forever.  And the people who are traveling with him are so transformed by that revelation and that moment that the Gospel then explodes form that place and that moment into all the world.  So for Luke, there is this distinct shape to the story that is Gospel.  Everything moves to this one climactic moment in history narrowing down to this one focus and then it expands exponentially, taking off into, and transforming the whole world.  This is the moment when Jesus begins his movement towards Jerusalem.

For the next ten chapters we will hear that Jesus is “on his way,”  “on his way,” “on his way” to Jerusalem.  And so Luke wants to make sure that everything that Jesus says and does is now focused on that moment.  Here we are standing at this moment of transition and Jesus encounters three would be disciples, three people from the crowd who come to him and want to follow him.  I believe that there is some instruction for us in the words that Jesus speaks to them.

The first one come to him and says I will follow you wherever you go.  Jesus points out to him that there is a cost to discipleship.  Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests (Luke 9:58).  They have homes.  They are secure. They know their place.  But to be on the road with me means losing that security, that sense of home and of place.  It means putting those things at risk so that you might find them in me.

Then Jesus says to another person in the crowd, “Follow me” (Luke 9:59).  And the response is, “I will follow you but let me bury my father first.”  Jesus said leave the dead to bury their own dead.  Now I think that we can get into trouble if we take that line too literally.  Clearly, in the rest of the Gospel Jesus’ compassion would instruct us to care for our families, to care for our parents.  What Jesus is trying to so is help this person recognize that he needs to reorient his sense of who his family is and what comes first.  You need to make sure that the way you interact with and relate to your family is building the kingdom of God.  Jesus goes on to say, “As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”  (Luke 9:60).  Don’t bury the dead out of a sense of duty, out of a sense of guilt, but care for the people around you the way that I am about to care for you as I walk this path to Jerusalem.  So it’s with a reorientation of our relationships with people, based on this path, that we are called to walk with Jesus.

Another person comes to him from the crowd and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.  But first, let me go and say goodbye to the people in my home.”  Here is the moment where we hear Jesus’ urgency.  You have recognized what is happening here.  You have seen what is changing in the world and so you need to follow now.  You need to follow now.

There is some risk in discipleship.  We risk losing things that we are familiar with and a sense of security.  There is a reorientation of our values and our relationships that comes with discipleship, and there is a sense of urgency to move now.

As this chapter of Luke’s Gospel comes to a close and we look forward to what is to come we find ourselves this morning in a very similar place.  Saint Andrew’s will celebrate its Centennial a year from now.  We will have been in this place for one hundred years.  We are in the process of looking back at where we have been, who we have been, what we have done, and dreaming and visioning for our next century, looking into the future trying to discern who it is that God is calling us to be.  And above all else we need to make sure that as we move in to this new period of our life together we are on the same road that Jesus walks.  We need to make sure that we are on our way to Jerusalem.

So the advice that Jesus gives to the three people for m the crowd who confront him this day he also give to us…  As you look to your future, as you move into your second century, there is some risk.  You may have to let go of some of the things that allow you to feel secure, some of the things that make you feel at home.  You may need to let go of some things and to change.  Jesus also tells us that this will not be easy and we will need to make sure that our relationships with one another and with this place are guided by our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, that they are guided by the love that God reveals to us in the person of Jesus hanging on a cross.  And we are reminded that as we move forward we should do so with a sense of urgency that hastens our feet, that keeps us on the path and that moves us towards the goal with intentionality and with a sense of mission.

There are lots and lots of story lines here this morning and lots and lots of chapters that are coming to and end, lots and lots of chapters that are beginning.  Each and every one of us here today has our own story to write.  But there is one that we  want to hold up and celebrate on this day and it is the one that you thought I was talking about when I started speaking this morning.

I used the words “the Holy Hill” to describe Golgotha, the place outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.  That is code language for some of us sitting in the room today because that’s the language that we use to describe Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria Virginia.  I am not sure that we would say that we were crucified there.  But we made sacrifices.  Dorota moved away from family and friends, from a life in Milwaukee, to a place thirteen, fourteen hours away.  She has face those reorientations of relationships, of filial responsibility, has moved with a sense of urgency to arrive here in our midst today.  And we thank God for people who are in her position of leadership, who have walked the path before us, and who are willing to walk the path with us as we make our way towards Jerusalem.

Dorota and her experience of discipleship will help to form and shape us in the years to come.  And we, you, will help to form and shape her at the same time.  The difficulties that Jesus describes, the difficulties associated with the path of discipleship are real.  And they are formidable.  But we can face them and we can move forward in spite of them because we do it as a community, because we do it together.  And when one of us stumbles there is another to hold us up and to help us to walk.

So today, as we come to the conclusion of a chapter and look forward to the beginning of another, I would like to invite you to imagine that last page of the chapter that we have been on.  There is only a third of the page that is covered with text.  There is a white field at the bottom of that page where something might be added.  As we move into this next chapter of our common life together on the road to Jerusalem I would like to invite you to imagine what story you will add, what words you will write on that page, what images, what pictures, what dreams, what joys, what struggles and what triumphs you will add to the story of our journey together.