Uncomfortable Conversations

Hi. I’m Martha. I share a name with one of the heroines of our gospel lesson (Luke 10:38-42), or perhaps I should say the anti-heroine. If you heard me preach on this passage last summer, you might remember that I called this one of my favorite Bible stories. You might also remember that I leaned on the idea that we can’t hear the tone Jesus uses when he calls Martha out for being so busy and distracted by things that are not all that important from his point of view. I suggested we might consider their friendship, which plays out at greater length and in more detail in John’s gospel, the intimacy Jesus had with Martha and her whole family, and hear his words as affectionately corrective rather than harsh.

It’s a very short story, packed full of possible meaning. These five verses have been translated, studied, deconstructed and reimagined through lenses of literature, historical-critical analysis and a feminist hermeneutic – and given my interest in Martha, I have read a lot about her. The truth is that we can take almost any five verses from the Bible, and depending on our context and, frankly, the preacher’s bias, we can reach some different conclusion. And the additional truth is, I don’t like to do that with this story because, well, Martha.

“Martha, Martha…you are worried and distracted by many things.”

I’ve been like Martha, more times than I like to admit, and that has made me one of her passionate defenders. But for today, I hope you’ll make the leap with me to a different angle on the story. Just this once.

Picture a painful domestic scene, a competition set up between the two sisters. If you’ve ever lived through an awkward holiday meal, sharing space with someone who doesn’t help much, Mary-like, or someone who over-functions, Martha-like, you’ll know what I mean. It’s incredibly frustrating.

As a Martha myself, I feel tempted to say on her behalf, “Get thee behind me, Mary!”

But nothing in the text says Mary is smug, or trying to get the advantage with Jesus, or to tempt Martha to something she should not do. She is sitting quietly at our Lord’s feet, listening.

And if the scripture doesn’t say directly that Martha was brusque, well, the text certainly suggests it.

When I hear Jesus scold Martha, my heart breaks with hers. Because it must’ve felt like the end of the world. She’s living through a little apocalypse, right there in her living room, the same space she set up to make Jesus welcome. She didn’t know she was going to be a guest at one of the original “Come to Jesus” meetings.

Apocalyptic language isn’t just about the words you use. It’s about the feelings of the people hearing them. Jesus knew Martha meant well, with her will to serve, but he also wanted to get through to her. Sometimes we need to slow down and listen. If we don’t, we may miss the message.

I understand this because I am very worried and distracted, by many things, and I often need to figure out how to choose the better part.

Yesterday an alert flashed by on my iPhone, a headline from the Washington Post about a poll they did with ABC News. The story begins, “Pessimism about race relations in America is higher than it has been in nearly a generation.” 63 percent think things are bad, a jump from 48 percent this spring. Have things really gotten worse, or are we simply admitting how bad things are? The poll would seem to indicate the latter, that people who used to deny that racial discrimination played much of a part in our national life are now saying it does.

I wonder if we have reached a “come to Jesus” time?

Memorial to Michael Brown
Memorial to Michael Brown

This is the bleakest public opinion has looked, but the numbers have gone up and down in these polls over the past two years, the two years I have been here with you, ever since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, Black Lives Matter has become part of our national vocabulary, a movement meant not to devalue white people but to remind us of the ways Black lives have been counted as less valuable.

I’ll be honest with you, because why not be? Other than an occasional Martin Luther King Day sermon, I had never preached much about the sin of racism until Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. I lived in the mostly white bubble of Maine, in a fantasy land where racism was concerned.

I believed things had gotten better since my childhood in the segregated South.

I really wanted to believe it.

Because acknowledging otherwise can be hard to do. I know that in the time between Travyon’s death and Michael Brown’s, I let concerns about race slip to the back of my mind. After all, I had a lot of other things to think about and tend to and manage.

It’s easy to focus on our own affairs and lose a sense of the big picture. After all, if we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, if we have a job to go to or families to love, we can be quite taken up with maintaining that status quo. The trouble is that keeping what we have can come at the expense of others, and that’s the situation the prophet Amos was talking about in the Old Testament lesson today (Amos 8:1-12).

Amos is the earliest book of prophecy in the Bible, and he tells the reader right up front that he is not a professional prophet of the kind found hanging around the king’s courts. He is a shepherd, a landowner of the lower classes, and it takes a lot to spur him to speak to the elites of his time. The kingdom of Israel was prosperous, but this time of plenty and success came at a cost to the poor and the needy.

The warning is directed at people who say,

When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (Amos 8:5-6)

In other words, when will we be allowed to get back to business? When can we cheat our business competitors? When can we buy the poor for cash money? When can we own the needy in exchange for a pair of sandals? When can we sell what’s left in the wheat fields, the chaff that cheats the buyer?

God’s people are messed up, and God sends Amos to give them fair warning. They have misused their prosperity, and that lovely Edible Fruit Arrangement on the sideboard? It’s the end of the line. There is going to be weeping and suffering. Y’all need to get it together, and get your priorities in order. The coming famine will be so terrible it will not just be a lack of food and water. God’s own self and God’s own words will be missing.

Look around at the world, at the news from Nice and Istanbul. Look at the grief and turmoil in our own nation. Listen for the prophets who are speaking to us now. Listen quick, before God’s words go missing again!

Now, if you had told me when I turned the TV on Wednesday night and caught a few minutes of the red carpet for ESPN’s ESPY sports awards that I would hear some prophecy, I would have been surprised by it. As the show began, instead of a joke-cracking host, four NBA players came onto the stage, looking dead serious. They were Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James. (I’ll confess I could only identify one of them on sight.) The story is they approached the producers of the show and asked for a few minutes to talk about the escalating violence in our country. They spoke eloquently and gravely.

Dwayne Wade said,

“The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also, the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando, it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough.”

He went on,

“Now, as athletes, it’s on us to challenge each other to do even more than we already do in our own communities. And the conversation, it cannot stop as our schedules get busy again. It won’t always be convenient. It won’t. It won’t always be comfortable, but it is necessary.”

I’m sure there are people who watched, or heard about their statements later who thought they were too hard or easy on the police, or too hard or easy on Black people; maybe thought they were too careful, or maybe they took too big a risk. We may disagree among ourselves on that. But they talked. They called the community of athletes for a “come to Jesus.” I expect quite a few people in that well-dressed and well-off crowd felt the sting of that little apocalypse, a mark that the way the world is now needs to come to an end.

Wade’s words apply to us as well. The conversation about racism and gun violence “won’t always be convenient. It won’t.”

God knows, that’s the truth.

“It won’t always be comfortable, but it is necessary.”

St. Martha, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
St. Martha, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Jesus had an uncomfortable, necessary conversation with Martha, who he loved. He told her the truth, even though it hurt to hear it. And although Luke doesn’t tell the rest of her story, scripture and tradition let us know that she was a treasured and influential person in the early church, pictured in artwork near the disciples in the garden, known in legend as a dragonslayer, and claimed as the patron saint of cooks.

Our sister, Martha, loved to serve. There are many kinds of service, many ways to help change the world, many ways to change the conversation. We just have to keep talking to each other. It may feel like the end of the world, but I trust in God’s new beginning. I trust there will be more baskets of summer fruit to come.

In the name of the One who sits down with us, and talks truth to us, and loves us into new life, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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