All Saints, Year B, 2015

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That’s what the Gospel of John tells us right after Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ death. This family is special to Jesus. So special that Jesus stays with them in Bethany when he travels to Jerusalem to face his death. If you map out that final week or so of his life, you see him walking back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem, over and over. They gave Jesus the comfort he needed to face the most difficult time in his life. So, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are not anonymous people that are part of a crowd who follow Jesus. They aren’t even the disciples. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are Jesus’ friends, his tribe. Mary anoints Jesus. She is the only person in his life who seems to truly understand that death is in his future. In the Gospel of Luke we experience Mary and Martha as bickering sisters, but in the Gospel of John we see them both as women of faith, beloved of Jesus.

So, when their brother Lazarus dies, and Jesus does not come right away to heal him, both the sisters are understandably devastated. They have sent word to Jesus, Jesus could have come, but he doesn’t. Jesus has healed hundreds of other people’s brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, but he won’t come to Bethany to heal one of his closest friends?

One of the most painful experiences after the death of a loved one can be this sense that God has abandoned you and your loved one. That, if God really saw your pain, heard your prayers, loved you, then God would heal the people you love. This pain and sense of loss can even mutate into a belief that God chose death for your loved one, chose suffering for you. We can come to believe that God is capricious and malevolent, or that you are somehow not holy enough to be worth his attention.

One of the great gifts of this story is that Mary and Martha ask our question to Jesus. Because they are two different people, in two different emotional spaces, Jesus answers them individually. When Jesus first arrives on the scene Martha runs up to him and tells him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha goes on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus then goes on to have a theological conversation with her. He explains to her that he is the resurrection and life, that he is the Messiah that has power even over death. When she and Jesus get to the house, he encounters Mary, who is still weeping. She also says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus doesn’t give her a theological lecture. For a moment, he stops being the teacher, and simply weeps alongside of her.

This is our Jesus. He is both the power over death and the one who weeps alongside us.

There was a time when theologians understood God as impassable, so this moment when Jesus weeps alongside Mary was a real puzzler for them. Jesus must have been weeping as some kind of a show, to make a point, because if Jesus was God than Jesus could not be affected by deeper human emotions. But for all those of you who have been following along with us in the Old Testament, you’ll have noticed that God, as expressed by the Hebrew Scriptures, is the opposite of impassable. He is deeply connected to human beings. He loves them and is frustrated by them. And throughout the Gospels we have experienced Jesus as deeply moved by the humans around him and their suffering. He moves toward people, does not keep distance from them. So, Jesus’ tears seem completely in line with the God we are getting to know. A God who made us, but also identifies with us. A God who weeps with us when we face the limitations of our bodies, and makes a way for us beyond our bodies’ finitude.

Our bodies are part of Creation. And creation is by definition finite and imperfect. Only the Creator is eternal and perfect. Every human being dies. Ideally, we would all die peacefully in our sleep when we felt like we have wrung every drop out of the life we have been given. But because our bodies are created and imperfect, we can die young from any number of diseases, accidents, or acts of violence. These deaths are not God’s judgment on us as individuals; they are just what it means to be part of a broken Creation.

God does not always intervene in our illnesses and accidents, but that does not mean God has abandoned us. God has already proclaimed his love for us and our liberation from death through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus is our ally not only in mourning the death of his friend, but in actually experiencing death. He engages with us on the deepest possible level, facing our fears head on and experiencing the very worst our lives can offer.

But his Father, our Creator, does not leave Jesus to face the consequences of death. Instead he pulls Jesus from the depths of death into the fullness of life again. And in that moment he offers all of us the same eternal life. You do not need to wonder if God has abandoned you, because God has already done everything he needs to do to ensure you and God and all the Saints that have come before us and will come after us will have eternal life together.

When Jesus chooses to resurrect Lazarus he is demonstrating the radical power of God over death. He is giving his close friends a front row seat to God’s new plan for humanity. No longer will we be limited by the imperfections of creation. No longer will we be banished for our sin. Jesus is making a way for Mary, Martha and Lazarus to be his friends eternally. Jesus is making a way for all of us to be united with God forever.

Wherever you are in relationship to your own mortality or the death of someone you have loved, know this: Jesus is with you, not against you. Jesus is alongside you as you grieve and Jesus is at work preparing a place for you and the ones you love in his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus loved ordinary saints like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Jesus loves ordinary saints like us.

On All Saints day we celebrate this reality as we give thanks for all the Saints that have gone before us. We lift up their names in gratitude and in the deep joy that they are now living their resurrected lives alongside Lazarus.

Thanks Be to God.

Amen.

Proper 11, Year C, 2013

Matt and Charlie’s birthdays are one day apart in April.  This creates no small amount of pressure.  But this year, we decided to keep things low key.  Matt’s parents came to stay with us and we planned a quiet day together.

But there had to be a homemade cake, of course.  I mean, I do CARE about my husband and my child. I decided not to get carried away.  No Thomas the Trains carved out of fondant or Legos made from melted white chocolate.  I would make a simple angel food cake.  An angel food cake festooned with whipped cream and strawberries would be the perfect, simple harbinger of spring.

I woke up early the morning of Matt’s birthday and followed the Cooks Illustrated recipe perfectly.  I whipped my eggwhites, measured my flour and sugar, carefully folded the two together.  By this time, everything was taking a little longer than I expected and other members of the family were starting to trickle in, looking hopeful that they might get started on the breakfast biscuit part of the morning.  Moving a little faster, I got the cake ready for the oven.  Cooks Illustrated said to line the bottom of my pan with parchment paper, so I did.  And to really demonstrate my care for this cake, I also lined the sides of the pan.  With great confidence I put the cake in the oven.

About twenty minutes later, I took a look in the oven.  Disaster.  The cake was collapsing in on itself because of that extra parchment paper. Apparently an angel food cake needs to cling to the side of a pan to rise properly.

I might have handled this with great grace, but I didn’t. I flung cookbooks around to see what other kind of cake I could make in the next hour. I questioned my ability to be a mother.  I threw myself on my bed and cried.

I, in other words, had a serious Martha moment.

I would argue about 90% of women identify with Martha.  And so, about 90% of women hate this biblical passage.

Although women are no longer trapped in the sphere of our kitchens, we are still judged by our homes, our gardens, our food.  We judge ourselves for these things.  We go to Pinterest and post pictures of dream bathrooms and creative crafts to do with children and recipes that we’re sure to try one day.  We take our homes and our families seriously.

Martha has been working her tail off in the kitchen getting ready for Jesus.  Jesus never traveled by himself, so she’s getting lunch ready for him and who knows how many disciples.  She has disrupted her entire routine to have this man in her home.  And she’s not the first woman to do so.  Think of all the places Jesus has stayed, all the hospitality he has enjoyed, the hundreds of invisible women who have made him breakfast, lunch, dinner, cleaned his clothes, made sure he had somewhere to sleep.  These women have been incredibly hospitable.

The translator of this passage demeans Martha’s hospitality.  Martha’s work is translated as “tasks” here, evoking the image of a list stuck to a refrigerator with a magnet.  But the Greek word is diakonia.  Everywhere else in the New Testament, that word is translated as ministry or mission.  That’s right.  Whenever a man in the New Testament is doing diakonia it is ministry, but when Martha does diakonia, she is distracted by her “tasks”.

So, it’s no wonder women get grumpy reading about poor Martha!

Mary has abandoned her.  Her sister has left the hot kitchen, trespassing convention and unspoken family bonds.  Her sister has chosen this new role as student without as much as consulting Martha.  Mary just walks away from the kitchen like she can!  Like hundreds of years of history and tradition can just be unmade by sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Martha is left hot and frustrated and alone.

And so, she does something else we can relate to.  Instead of dealing directly with the person who is irritating her she gets passive aggressive with Jesus trying to shame her sister into getting with the program.

Jesus’ reaction to Martha feels like a slap in the face to all of us who have been in her shoes.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. .  .”  To our defensive ears, Jesus sounds patronizing and dismissive.  After all, it’s Jesus’ lunch that is distracting her!  Who is he to criticize?

But what if Jesus is not insulting Martha?  What if Jesus is issuing Martha an invitation?  What if he is saying to her, “Mary has chosen the better part. . .and you can, too.”  What if his response is an invitation to sit at his feet?  To walk away from the roles Martha thinks she has to fill?

This summer, a group of us have been reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly together.  The book is all about how embracing vulnerability can lead to wholehearted and transformative lives.  Brown argues that in our culture women are judged on how we look, how our homes look, how our children behave, and how effortlessly we pull all that perfection off.  All summer we have been talking about what it would mean to embrace our imperfection, to let go of the myth of perfection and live our lives as our authentic selves.

Martha has this idea that she has to work, work, work to care for Jesus.  But Jesus would be perfectly satisfied if Martha did not do a stitch of work on his behalf, but really connected with him instead.

Our lives as modern women are really complicated.  There are areas of our lives where we are as free as any women have ever been free.  Women my age have been brought up believing we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be.   We can be scientists and politicians and editors and soldiers.  Even priests.  We can be mothers and wives and travel and write novels in our spare time.  And so we get it in our heads that we have to be all these things.  We have to be professional women at the top of our field.  We have to be incredibly attentive wives and girlfriends, fulfilling unspoken fantasies with our perfect gym-toned bodies.  We have to be the most nurturing mothers of any generation.  We have to be best friends, and excellent hostesses, and affectionate pet owners.  And we have to do all of this without breaking a sweat.

We work and we work and we work and in the end, if we’re lucky, we realize that this is all baloney!  Or, we end up weeping on our beds because our stupid cake has fallen and we are exhausted from trying to keep everything together.

And this where grace can enter in.  Because it’s hard for grace to wedge its way into a perfect life.  Grace is like light—it prefers cracks to make itself known.

When you are weeping on your bed because your cake fell apart, your husband can reassure you that all he wanted was cake and berries mashed together and you realize you can make a trifle!  When you are weeping on your bed, you realize the only person in the house that gave a hoot about the cake was you and what everyone in the house wants is for you to be happy and to join them in the kitchen and to eat a biscuit slathered in peach butter.

In that kitchen, surrounded by love, you really understand Jesus’ invitation.  Because Jesus loves Martha—not for what she does for him, but just because he loves her.  And if Martha would be happier sitting by Jesus’ feet, then she should sit by Jesus’ feet.  But if Martha would rather make sandwiches in love, that’s great, too!  Both are ministry, no matter what the translators think.

All of us Marthas need to realize that there is not one way to be.  There is not one way to serve Jesus.  There is not one way to be a woman, a friend, a wife, a daughter, a mother.  Human beings are infinitely varied and flawed and interesting.  We are loved.  Full stop.  Not for how we look, not for how we perform at work, not for how our children behave, not for how much volunteer work we do.  We are loved by God because God wants to love us.  Full stop.

And as we baptize three infants today (at 10:30) we can remember that sometimes the best way to help them live into their baptismal identities is by living as if are worthy of being loved.  What better way to teach them about the generous grace of God and the value of their small lives?

May God’s grace shine through the cracks of your lives.  Amen.

 

Lent 5, Year A, 2008

The time is getting close.

The clock is ticking.

Our gospel story today has all the passion and intensity of the cliffhanger season finale of some character drama.

Immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some of the witnesses get freaked out and run to tell the Pharisees what happened.  This act, of course, leads to Jesus’ arrest and execution.  But, we’ll get to that next week.

For now, Jesus is still safe and sound.

We meet up with Jesus as he is traveling with his disciples.  Jesus gets the news that his friend Lazarus is ill in Judea.  We don’t know how Jesus knew Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, but they are the only people described as Jesus’ personal friends in the Bible.  Janice, our parish administrator, and I spent some time speculating about this.  We’ve decided, that we would like them to be childhood friends.  Maybe they went to grade school together.  Maybe they have known Jesus since before he was this big shot miracle worker.  Maybe they knew him when he was just Jesus, that carpenter’s kid.  Maybe they tossed a ball around or caught lizards in jugs and surprised their mothers with them.  Maybe with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Jesus does not feel any pressure to be “the Holy Son of God”.  They quietly accept him for who he is, they do not fawn over him or demand to be healed.

However they know each other, it is well enough that Mary pours expensive oil all over Jesus’ feet to anoint him.  They also know each other well enough that Martha and Jesus snap at each other when Mary is too lazy to help with the dishes at a dinner party.  Their intimacy with each other has a domestic, everyday feel to it.

We should feel no surprise then, at how intense Jesus’ emotions are around the event of Lazarus’s death.  Jesus seems to experience incredible internal conflict around Lazarus’s illness and death.  At first, he seems almost indifferent, delaying the trip to Judea and casually mentioning that the illness will lead to God’s glory.  Even after he hears of Lazarus’s death, Jesus seems very nonchalant as he tells his disciples he is going to Judea to “wake Lazarus up”.

Jesus does not fall apart until he sees his friends.  You know the feeling. You’re holding everything together, just barely, and then you see a person you trust and love and all your defenses crumble around you.  Jesus manages to hold it together through his conversation with Martha, where she makes great proclamations of faith in him, but when he sees Mary weeping, he falls apart. His dear friend Mary, who is so open and free with her feelings.  Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and then anointed those same feet with expensive oil.  Mary, who had such faith in Jesus and now seems so disappointed.

When Jesus does weep, he does not weep in the same  way that Mary does.  The Greek word used to describe Mary’s weeping is klaio.  The word for Jesus’s weeping is dakruo.  This is the only time in the bible the word dakruo is used.  We don’t know why the author of this story chose to use a different word.  I imagine the quality of weeping was different.  The culture of the time had a kind of ritualistic weeping that was done at funerals to properly honor the dead.  Perhaps the author wanted to distinguish what Jesus was doing from that kind of ritualistic weeping.

I imagine Jesus’ tears came from somewhere deep, deep inside himself.  I wonder if, because Jesus knew God had given him the power of resurrection, he was unprepared for the reality of Lazarus’s death. Jesus had grieved before—the death of John the Baptist was deeply upsetting to him—but never before do we see him weeping.  Not only does Jesus weep, but he also feels “greatly disturbed in his spirit”.  While some Bibles translate this word to mean compassion, the word has a more disruptive, angry edge to it.   Jesus was really traumatized by Lazarus’s death.

There is no passage in the bible, in my opinion, that better sheds light on Jesus’ humanity than this one.  Jesus has been ministering to people for years by this point, but somehow the reality of what it means to be human—to be finite, to have a beginning and an end, to be born and to die—really seem to sink in for him here.

Immediately before this passage, Jesus has been describing himself quite frequently as the Good Shepherd.  And in fact, he goes on and calls Lazarus by name, just as shepherds call their sheep by name.  Lazarus hears his voice, and obeys, even after death.  But for now, Jesus is just another sheep.  He is one of us.  For now, in this moment, he understands our feelings of grief and hopelessness.  He tastes the bitter reality of loss.

In this moment, Jesus cements himself as someone we can trust.  In this moment we realize that he has credibility—that he truly understands what it means to be us.

Because of this, we know we can trust him as a Shepherd, who will guide us gently and compassionately. Because of this, we can have the courage to follow Jesus on the rest of his journey to Jerusalem.  We feel empathy for him because of his own experience of loss, but Lazarus’ resurrection also makes us wonder if perhaps Jesus can outsmart his enemies, after all.

Maybe the road to Jerusalem, into the heart of political and religious power, is not a one way road.  Maybe Jesus still has something to show us.  Maybe the rising of Lazarus is just the beginning.

Starting next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we’ll spend eight days in Jerusalem with Jesus.  Come join us and find out how the story ends!

Proper 11, Year C, 2007

I have a secret.

I have a very long term, very intense, shameful love/hate relationship with housework.  I love the idea of housework.  Years ago I bought the Cheryl Mendelson’s book Home Comforts.  Mendelson is a lawyer, who grew up in a farm in Pennsylvania and her passion is housekeeping.  She loves to sort and clean and cook. Her book is so beautifully written that it seduces you into the idea that housekeeping is an art.  She writes,

What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping.  Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home.  Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.

(Sigh)  Isn’t that lovely?  I’ll read that paragraph and swear to myself that I will become a capital H housekeeper.  My house will be airy and light, dust free, with clutter put into its rightful place.  The sink will sparkle. No crumb will mar my hygienic kitchen counters.  My home will be a place of peace and beauty. 

Yeah, right. 

I come from a long line of people unable to deal with clutter.  Both my grandmothers had decade’s worth of bills and papers piled on their useless dining room tables.  My father’s favorite home video is a really boring one he took when I was about eleven.  The video is an inventory of the house he did for insurance purposes-the camera slowly sweeps across our home recording our few valuables.  My dad loves this video because as the camera recorded our life together, it also recorded the fact that every flat surface was covered with clutter.  If a ledge dared to just out more than an inch and a half, we would put something on it.  This clutter drove my father crazy, but he participated in its creation as much as we did.

So, I live in the tension of deeply desiring a clean home, but a seeming inability to maintain one.  Housekeeping has alternated between feeling virtuous and oppressive throughout my life, but now that I’m married it takes on a whole other component.  Poor, poor Matt.  Three Fridays ago, I decided while he was at work, I would clean the house.  My intensions started out as true.  Out of my love for him, I would create a welcoming, clean home.  After about four hours and six loads of laundry, though, resentment began creeping in like the insidious beast that it is.  And when I called him about six and learned he was having a beer with co-workers, I lost it.  When he came home, he found a sniveling, weepy, housewife.  When he asked what he could do, I whimpered, “I need to leave the house.  Take me out to dinner.”  And he did, and all ended well. 

So, all this to say: I get Martha.  Martha and I would have been pals.  When she told me her story, I would have shaken my head at Mary’s abandonment of her and felt her deep pain at Jesus’ rebuke.  I would have taken Martha out for a drink, and shaken my head and said, “Men. They just don’t get it.”

Imagine the scene.  Luke tells us that Martha was the one who welcomed Jesus into her home. She probably loved to entertain and was so excited about hosting this special person.  She had probably scrubbed the floor, dusted the furniture, cut some flowers and put them in a vase. . .but anyone who has entertained knows that is not the end of the story.  When your guest is in your house, you’re cooking and refilling his glass, and doing everything you can to make sure he’s comfortable.  When Martha extended the offer to Jesus, she was being hospitable.  She also probably thought she could count on her sister’s help.  But instead, Martha works her tail off, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him teach.  When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to get up off her butt, he is NOT receptive.

Jesus may have rebuked Martha here, but he has certainly been the recipient of housekeeping throughout his ministry.  The New Testament is filled with stories of him going to other people’s houses to eat.  At one point in the 12th chapter of Luke he tells his followers, And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things.  And that’s all well and good, but SOMEONE was going to be preparing all these mysteriously provided meals. 

At least Jesus knows a bit of what he speaks-he did, after all, provide food for 5000 with only a few loaves and fishes.  You think having to throw that kind of dinner party, he’d have a little sympathy for Martha’s dilemma.

We know from the Gospel of John that Mary, Martha, their brother Lazarus, and Jesus were all really good friends.  Not only disciples-but friends.  That helps me when I read this passage.  Jesus’ rebuke is somehow easier to hear if it comes from a frustrated friend rather than Jesus as an authority figure.  I wish we knew what happened next.  I really hope that Martha said, “Well, fine.  I’ll just sit and listen, too.  You can make your own darn sandwiches.  For that matter, you can clean the dishes, too.” 

Now, this is the point in most sermons about Mary and Martha, where the preacher would do a reversal and talk about how sometimes our ministry is to sit still and “be” and bask in Jesus’ presence, etc. etc.  And all of that is true, but for this sermon, I’m going to continue to support Martha.  And here’s why. 

In our translation, we read that Martha was distracted by her many tasks.  Tasks is also sometimes translated as preparations.  But the Greek word that is translated as tasks is actually diakonia-a word that everywhere else in the New Testament is described as service or ministry.  So if a man in the New Testament is  participating in diakonia, he is participating in ministry.  When Martha is participating in diakonia, it is “distracting tasks”.  That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Martha was not just a fussbudget, she was a woman who ministered through her housekeeping. Her conflict with Mary and Jesus was about different ways of ministering to Jesus, not about housework versus ministry. 

So, despite my own love-hate relationship with housework, today I preach for housework as ministry.  Today we commiserate and celebrate with Martha and all women (and maybe in 2007 a healthy number of men, too!) who lug a vacuum, wash endless piles of laundry, haul recycling, wash off the mud, empty the dishwasher, make the bed, feed the dog, and cook dinner. 

Our culture tells us we are not whole human beings unless we are working hard outside the home.  I cannot tell you how many women I have heard tell me that they don’t do anything important-they just work at home and raise children.  That belief could not be farther from the truth!

This work, this drudgery is not just a never ending cycle of chores the gods have invented to torture us, this work is ministry-the ministry of hospitality.  And I would argue that hospitality is one of the most important ministries of the church-Hospitality is what draws people to church and to Jesus.  When we open our church or our homes to others we tell them they are valuable and precious to us.  When we clean and cook for our families or guests we are helping them to be in, as Cheryl Mendleson says, “the place where [they]can be more [themselves] than they can be anywhere else”.  In this kind of home they can experience their full humanity and also experience the love of Christ for them.

And yes, there are times we need to lay down the broom to attend to something Christ may have to teach us.  Frankly, I would happily lay down my broom.  Sometimes in the middle of mopping I put my hand to my ear and say, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you’d have me do, Jesus?”  But in the meantime, until we get that other call, when we are getting out grass stains and polishing the silver, we can know we are doing holy work-the work of ministry.