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422 Brenau Avenue, Gainesville, GA 30501
a poem by Eliza Griswold
What are we now but voices
who promise each other a life
neither one can deliver
not for lack of wanting
but wanting won’t make it so
We cling to a vine
at the cliff’s edge.
There are tigers above
and below. Let us love
one another and let go.”
Once, there were two sisters. No, not Mary and Martha. Ancestors long before them, two sisters hid in a cave on the desolate plains, along with their father, the sole survivors of a disaster in their hometown. These sisters found themselves without husbands or children watching the noxious smoke columns rise over the smoldering ruins of Sodom, the only world they knew, leaving behind their fiancẻs, their siblings, their mother – dead now – and fearful that their father hiding with them was very likely the only man left alive on earth. According to their religious tradition, only one’s descendants could keep one’s memory alive until the messiah came. Their solution would be so unspeakable that the editors of the text would alter the details in an unsuccessful attempt to help them save face in this situation that literally looks like the end of their world.
Later, their distant descendants, were two more sisters. Their shrewd father Laban was a successful rancher with a labor shortage problem. He knew the young man who had stumbled into his village, who turned out to be a distant relative, was smitten with Rachel, the younger of his two daughters, but Laban was up against custom and public opinion, and couldn’t consider the feelings of two lovesick kids. He had a plan, a plan that worked for him, if not for his daughters or for his newly-hired hand Jacob.
Work for me for seven years and you can marry Rachel. And Jacob described those seven years as though they were seven days, so great was his single love for Rachel. Except that on his wedding night, he discovered too late that it was Rachel’s older sister Leah, not his beloved Rachel, who was in his bed. The next morning his father in law explained that ‘rules are rules’ and older daughters are married before their younger sisters. Work for me another seven years and I’ll give you Rachel, too. Eventually, the two sisters would figure out how to collaborate as rival sister wives and conspire to save each other and their children. But, their efforts would meet with qualified success, triggering collateral damage that would stretch out for four hundred years.
Four hundred and forty years after Rachel and Leah, in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, there were five sisters who would work up the courage to publicly challenge the lawgiver Moses about the unfairness of his statutes regarding the laws of property inheritance. These laws that would have left them impoverished in the light of their father’s death, because they had no male relatives to marry in order to keep their father’s territory in the family. In this parade of speculative horribles, these sisters risked a present security to secure a hypothetical future promise. Their bold move succeeded in securing their property, but it came at the expense of alienating them from the other women and the men. They would gain their territory, but lose their neighbors.
And now finally we meet Mary and Martha. Didn’t see that coming did you? A story can be so much tidier when we cut it off from all the other stories around it. But, at the risk of messing up one of our tidiest stories, one that we feel we know so well that we can identify women as “Marys” or “Marthas”, I feel it is only fair that we let the Bible talk to itself, and see if we can make something new of Jesus’ commentary on the argument between these two sisters, an argument that seems to be about more than just helping out in the kitchen.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.”
“He’s right,” say all these other sisters. “We’ve all got tigers above and tigers below. There’s no doubt but that to survive we’re going to have to jump. What we’re talking about here is how to know when to jump.” That is, in THIS case, what’s the “right” thing to do? So, let’s look at this case.
Until the end of Mary and Martha’s lives, they will share a home with a man who was not only once dead but dead and buried and was brought back to life by Jesus! That’s pretty much a game-changer. Theirs is not just any old house in Bethany. It’s “that” house, the one where Lazarus lives, the man whose death made the Son of God weep.
Like it or not, these sisters are thrust into roles as caretakers and docents of a sacred and thin place, a shrine of the miraculous. Theirs is a life in a threshold moment, a place between heaven and earth, between life and death, a place where the unthinkable happened. Here’s who goes on sacred pilgrimages to places like that: the desperate, the terrified, the hopeful and hopeless, the ones who’ve tried everything and have nothing left. People who have nothing but tigers above and tigers below. Who the hell cares whether the house is clean?!?
And in this context, Martha did have the wrong end of things. We so want for there to be set roles and fixed rules. And there are. But all situations are different, and each has its set roles and fixed rules.
Ooh, this feels “slippery.” Indeed, it does. It feels serious, too. And, fortunately, there is guidance, wisdom, that can inform each situation. These grounding principles are theological concepts of mercy, humility, and justice.
Indeed, there are always many distracting issues that make it hard to focus on what is critical. I, for one, cannot function, cannot think straight in a cluttered mess. I would find it very hard to hear Jesus say that sitting and listening is a better choice for me.
“You made me this way!” I would argue. Are you saying that the very thing that seems to be essential to my sense of balance is not the “better” choice? You intentionally wired me to be drawn to the inferior choice?
Is the very fact that this feels so foreign to me the thing that captures my attention and helps me see what in this moment is critical for me to see?
Perhaps we have come to talk too easily about “thin” places, liminal threshold spaces between what is and what will be. This morning, with all of our sisters’ stories, a better word might be “narrow.”
The Hebrew word for narrow is the root of same word they used to talk about Egypt, that crucible in their own salvation story of rescue and resettlement. Rather than evoking the ethereal, this image of a tight squeeze evokes the walls closing in around us. For a heart stopping moment, it seems impossible to move backward, forward, or to remain alive where one is.
Now, with that image, I can hear Jesus’ words as life-saving. “Drop that broom woman and look at me!”
Many of you are at this very moment sitting there holding in your hearts family or business situations that are deeply troubling and which appear to have no perfect solutions — you are hanging by a vine on a ledge, tigers above and below. Perhaps these are problems of your own making or perhaps you just opened your front door one day and there they were along with their luggage. In times like these, people either feel abandoned by God or very close to God, suddenly realizing how much of our time we spend on things that do not matter, and how ill-equipped we feel to respond appropriately to what seems to truly matter.
The “perfect” solution is not always an option. So, right now, in this desperate moment, clinging by a vine, what to do…how to pray. Pain cannot be avoided in life, but suffering can be. When we make choices out of a sense of justice, mercy, and consideration of the “Other” to the same degree that we are considering ourselves, then we may be left with the pain but we will not be left with the suffering.
Not surprisingly, there is a prayer for those of us hanging from a ledge with no perfect answers:
“Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knows our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of your son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” Amen.
If I cannot preach about a kingdom of God that can reach from heaven all the way to the ledge you’re standing on, then I’ve got nothing to preach about. But I believe I can. I’ve felt it in my own life and seen it played out countless times in my office.
Here is the hope – the vine – we cling to: “[I]n him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
July 21, 2019
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost