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.

Prayers for Pastors

Periscope (a prayer for pastors)

I saw them on Periscope,
standing on a curb
in Baton Rouge.

I saw them on Twitter,
singing Purple Rain
on I-94.

I saw them on Instagram,
on Facebook,
in handcuffs.

I saw them protesting
because they believe
Black Lives Matter

How will the protestors
ever know
their lives matter

to white preachers
to white people
unless we say it?

What would they see
if preachers Periscoped

Yesterday was my first day on Periscope. I installed it on my phone to see Lin-Manuel Miranda on his last day in “Hamilton.” It’s connected to my Twitter account, which meant that in the evening, I got a notification from Brittany Packnett, on the ground at the protest in Baton Rouge, and began watching a live video that took me down the street with her while police moved protestors across a street, then began to arrest them for being *in* the street. I’ve said before, it’s long past time for things to change, but today I say, this is the time. This is the moment. It won’t happen unless we all talk and work together.
Activist Deray McKesson arrested in Baton Rouge last night.
Activist DeRay McKesson arrested in Baton Rouge last night.  Read more at the Washington Post
Sermons, The Good Samaritan

Who is my neighbor?

While we were at Chautauqua, I met a retired pastor, Curt Ackley, who told me proudly about the church he attends in Sahuarita, Arizona, The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, in a community south of Tucson and less than two hours by car from Nogales, Mexico. He is proud of the ministry being done there, a commitment to save migrant lives in the desert. The ministry is called Samaritans or Los Samaritanos. Teams of three people go out at a time in a vehicle marked with the organization’s name, at least one of them a Spanish-speaker. The border control agents know what they are doing, going out into the desert to be sure no one is alone out there, to bring food and water, and to make sure people get to safety. Some agents wave; others are more grudging.

The checkpoint behind them, the Samaritans turn onto the Arivaca Road. People desperate to get into this country will pay a guide, and sometimes those guides, who are really in the business of human smuggling, will lie about how far they have to go, will leave behind people who can’t keep up. It’s particularly dangerous for women, who may trade the dangers of life in Mexico for an assault in the Arizona desert.

Kathy Babcock is one of the team members in this story from 2012:

Their journey today takes them down 22 miles of gently curving Arivaca Road. Just outside of Arivaca they come across a truck from Humane Borders and exchange greetings. The Humane Borders workers are putting 55-gallon barrels of water in the desert with the permission of the government.

Babcock doesn’t buy the argument that immigrants are more likely to attempt a crossing because they know there is water placed in the desert by humanitarian groups.

“They have no idea anybody is out here,” she says, adding that she has never come across an immigrant who has heard of the Samaritans or their work. Water or not, they will come, she says.

Immigration is a hotly contested issue in Arizona, and not everyone likes the work the church is doing, Curt told me. In fact, the church attracted a picketer, who would walk back and forth in front of their building carrying a sign that said, “Good Samaritan, Bad American.”

Why would we want to help people who don’t look like us, talk like us, worship like us? That seems to be the frame of reference of the picketer, who also sometimes carried a sign reading “Say No to Social Justice.” That particular church understands its faith in one way, and the protester understands the same faith in another way.

Our gospel story brings us just such a conundrum. You probably know this story so well you could tell it yourselves. You learned it in Sunday School or at Vacation Bible School, right? Jesus is being questioned by a lawyer, which means a person who had great knowledge of and familiarity with the religious law, not our modern-day version of a lawyer. The man pushed on Jesus, and his use of the term “teacher” was not respectful. In Luke’s gospel, the only proper way to address Jesus is “Lord.”

“Teacher,” he wants to know, implying that the real question is “Teacher, if you know so much, if you are so well-informed, so wise, riddle me this!”

“What must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus knows a lawyer will have the answer to this question, taken from the scriptures he knows well, so he answers with a question. “What does your reading tell you?”

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

They agree on the answer. Yet there remains an underlying question, a challenge directed at Jesus’ tendency to hang around with a questionable crowd: tax collectors, fishermen, lepers, women of the street.

“Who *is* my neighbor?”

Jesus offers a story in response. When my boys were younger we once acted it out in church, with a narrator and a person playing Jesus and another taking the part of the lawyer, probing the meaning of the parable. A collection of volunteer non-speaking “actors” from the congregation portrayed the Samaritan, the priest and the Levite, the victim and the robbers. When they mimed the assault, the congregation could not see the victim, only the fists flying. Although no one was harmed, or even touched, the congregation members flinched and looked away.

This is the story Jesus tells, of a victim beaten almost to the point of death, left in a ditch, abandoned to his fate. This is the story Jesus tells, in which the religious authority figures pass by on the other side of the road, avoiding contact with horror, looking away from suffering, ignoring the outcome of evil. The listener feels a sense of relief when a Samaritan comes along and takes care of the wounded man. Thank God! There is some caring in the world!

Then Jesus returns to the question, and again asks another one. Who was the *injured man’s* neighbor?

The lawyer knows the law, and he answers the question correctly. The neighbor is the one who showed him mercy.


But wait. Who was this neighbor?

That’s the uncomfortable core of the story.

The person who showed kindness was not a member of the victim’s own community. The person who showed kindness was from a despised group.

He was a Samaritan. And while we have co-opted that word to mean caring, and we have added the word “Good” to describe him more fully, a Samaritan would have been low in the estimation of the original audience of the gospel.

He Qi, “Good Samaritan” (2001)

Although they followed the same religious Law, the two groups each thought their own interpretation was correct. Samaritans were descended from the villains of Jewish history, from rapists and murderers. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes that a Jewish crowd hearing the story would have expected a priest and a Levite to be followed by an Israelite. To change the pattern this way “would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden.”

The lawyer wanted to hear Jesus explain the letter of the Law; instead Jesus taught him the spirit of the Law. No one is outside the neighborhood of God’s Love. From the man on the Jericho Road, modern-day Samaritans draw inspiration for their work on the Arivaca Road.

Neither of them are safe routes.

Just before Easter I was over in Harrisburg visiting some Faith members, and I’ll be honest with you, my grip on Harrisburg geography remains pretty sketchy. I blame this on Google Maps. I rely too heavily on a voice that tells me when to turn, and haven’t had to really learn the shape of things. I was way, way out on Derry Street, heading back toward 83, on my way home. But when I turned from Brookwood onto 17th Street, there was a back-up so bad on 83 South that cars were lined up beyond the on-ramp into local traffic. I pulled into a parking lot and regrouped. I didn’t want to crawl across the bridge. There are other bridges, right? Surely I could make my way, well, thattaway, and get to a place I recognized and make my way home through Lemoyne or Camp Hill. I turned back onto 17th Street the other way, then took a left on Derry, and I prayed that the Google lady would get me somewhere recognizable.

Then I realized I must be in Allison Hill, and reflexively, I locked my doors. It embarrasses me to tell you this, but it’s true. I didn’t breathe deeply until I saw the bridge that would carry me over the railroad tracks to the part of Harrisburg I know better.

I’m ashamed by how relieved I was. I’m ashamed to be so racist.

When I think about this parable, this old, familiar story, I want to be the good guy. I want to be the one who helps another human being, without worrying about whether we dress alike, or worship the same way, or have the same skin color. I want to think I am one of those good people who is above the prejudices so common in our country.

I want it after this horrifying week of violence, in which we saw Black people killed by police officers on video. I want it after this terrible week, in which a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest organized with police cooperation turned into a massacre that also played out on our television and computer screens. I want to be a person who can help make things better, who can engage in conversations about guns and racism and policing, about white privilege and white supremacy, and what our Lord Jesus Christ taught that can help us untangle the mess we’ve made. He taught us that no one is outside God’s love; all people are our neighbors. He taught us that the first requirement to be a neighbor, to love our neighbors, is to show them mercy.

I don’t think we can reach a future of mutual mercy without first confessing our urge to pass by certain places and people as quickly as we can.

I don’t think we can reach a future of mutual mercy without first confessing our urge to lock our doors, to lock our hearts.

Kathy Babcock got started helping migrants because three days after she moved into her house, two migrants knocked on her door and asked for food and water. It leaves me wondering. Whose neighbor am I?

Because this isn’t a story about who is a neighbor to us. It’s a story about what it means to be a neighbor, to love another as we love ourselves.

Remember the picketer? One day he came to the door of the church and asked to speak to the pastor. “I’ll be away for a few weeks,” he said, “and I didn’t want you to worry that something had happened to me.” He figured they would care. He trusted they would show him mercy. He knew they would be neighbors to him, too.

In the name of the One who never passes us by, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Life and death: GV Samaritans comb desert for immigrants,” Green Valley News, October 10, 2012.
  2. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Amy-Jill Levine (2014: HarperOne), p. 95.