As I continue to face the challenges of living a new life in a new land, I was recently reminded of a question presented to Prof. Howard Thurman many years ago, which he described so vividly in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. The question he was asked was this: “Why are you HERE?”
Dr. Thurman, then dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University, had led a pilgrimage of students to India (where he later met Mahatma Gandhi). Since the journey was a kind of ambassadorship opportunity for the students, there were visits to various schools. During those visits, Dr. Thurman also had the opportunity to meet with the principals of the schools and upon one such visit he was asked point blank, “why are you here?
The man continued by questioning his motivation for coming halfway around the world to the subcontinent of India representing Christianity as one of African descent who had experienced so much suffering at the hands of fellow “Christians” in America. The principal stated many known facts about the religion of Christianity in America; how the men who bought, transported, and sold slaves—Thurman’s ancestors (and mine) were Christians; how Sir John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame had been a slaver; and how living in a “Christian” nation had brought nothing but tears and heartache for centuries and then years into the present time for people who look like us. As a Christian Mr. Thurman, “why are you here?” (Do you honestly hold to that “Christian” story?)
Why are you here, Freda Marie? Where is Christ in the Christianity that you proclaim?
I often must remind myself that Jesus of Nazareth was not sent to the earth to establish Christianity; that he was a good Jewish man of his time who fulfilled the purpose of the commandments of YHWH by living them out. I remind myself that the Christ, I am following is the foundation of the story that has been passed down from a people who knew both hope and suffering in their lives.
I hold to the Christian story, because I was taught to hold to that story by the lives of my parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and even neighbors around me. They held to the story because they held to Jesus as Christ in that story all the while living out hope and suffering as well. They taught me how to do the same. I have learned that it’s not just the story, but the reality of the ever- Present ONE who keeps me holding on. I have come to know him and to experience his presence continually in my life. It is through his embodied Presence at The Church of the Redeemer, and life as life presents itself to me, that I hold on. Challenges may abound; but life is STILL GOOD! ???? And that’s why I am here.
What do you do when a stranger comes to call? Ignore the knock? Bolt the door? Invite her in? Make a feast? What if the person is not quite a stranger, but someone you’ve heard about, a person that your friend or family knows? What do you do when you notice someone new at work or school, on your street or in the grocery store, or at church? Do you have a sense that there is something you should do, but don’t for any number of reasons, or could do, if you had more clarity or direction? I find the story of Mary and Martha unsettling, perhaps because the narrator does not make it clear what the sisters are “supposed” to do.
Here’s what we know: after Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, he enters a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. Martha has a sister, named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet, and listened to what he was saying. In contrast to Mary’s stillness, Martha is distracted by her many tasks, and she comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” And not waiting for his response, Martha continues, “Tell her then to help me.” But instead of following her admonition and speaking to Mary, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, and there is need of only one thing (or a few, according to some translations.)” And Jesus says finally, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
To make sense of it, we should try to reclaim the strangeness of the story. In 1st century Israel, women don’t play the role of student sitting at the feet of the teacher. Nor do women ordinarily welcome men into their home and act as host. And it would be shameful to ask a visitor to intervene in a family squabble.
A couple of other things surprise me. We don’t know whether Martha and Mary live in the same house. So I wonder: does sharing a home (or school or church) with someone presume sharing the role and responsibility of host? And if Mary is a visitor, do different rules apply to her? Martha’s sister may connect to the stranger Jesus, then, because she is a guest, as well. And despite Martha’s frustration, what if Mary is waiting for Martha to ask her to help?
We are told that Mary listens. Does Martha? We do know that Martha is “worried and distracted,” and that her feelings are intense—the word translated as “distracted” literally means that she is “beside herself.” But it’s not clear what the “many things” are that trouble her, only that her legion is compared to the “few” or the “one” which is needed. Is Martha bothered by the work itself, or by Mary, or by the delusion that Jesus needs to talk with her sister for her and fix the problem? There is a chasm between the sisters that only coming near to each other can heal.
However one might identify with one or the other woman, or criticize them, both come to the living God and engage this stirring One intensely. Each does what hospitality demands: paying close attention to the guest and providing what the guest needs. So is sitting at Jesus’s feet really “better” than the kitchen tête-à-tête? Maybe the better part is for us to listen for God’s voice instead of talking about our sister! And maybe that will finally get us talking to each other.
Because of the placement of this story after the Good Samaritan, it’s hard not to hear in Mary and Martha another opportunity to redefine who the neighbor is, and again it’s not who we expect. It’s a woman; it’s someone on the margin; it’s a person that I don’t understand or agree with or think has anything to teach me. But if I listen to the other, if I give her the better part of my heart, then I will encounter the living God, and both of us will be a little bit more whole.
Every week, will you reach out to someone at Redeemer that you don’t know, and then follow up in a week or so? Thanks!
We all know the Good Samaritan story: a fellow is set upon by thieves, who strip him, beat him up, and leave him lying in a ditch, half dead and needing help. First a priest walks by him; then another religious person walks by “on the other side.” Finally a Samaritan while traveling comes near the man and is moved with pity. So he goes to him, bathes and bandages his wounds, carries him on his animal to an inn, spends the night tending to him, and then leaves money for the man’s continued care, promising to come back and pay more if he needs it.
So familiar is the moniker “good Samaritan” that the phrase appears in legal statutes in this country and abroad to describe people who stop to help a stranger. It’s so well known that I’ve seen late night talk show hosts send reporters out to ask the person on the street to define a “good Samaritan.” Most folks when asked assert selfless assistance to a stranger as their understanding of the phrase, which is not all bad, especially since many people have no idea that the character appears in the Bible.
I’ve read articles in the New York Times with headlines like “Good Samaritan jumps on subway tracks to save stranger” or received clips on my news feed that feature “Man gives shoes to barefoot stranger in good Samaritan move.” Clearly this kind of action touches something deep within us—helping someone in need that you don’t know, who you literally stumble upon, affirms our capacity to be good.
But Jesus’s story is more than an admonishment to follow our better angels.
The man in the ditch represents the audience of the story—upstanding citizens, respected by society, people of means who are likely to help others (unless they get too busy!). And if Jesus wanted to make the point that all of us can stop and offer assistance, if we will only pay attention and be aware of the needs of others, he could have told this story with an average person helping the man on the side of the road. Instead, Jesus has a Samaritan person stop and help, which is outrageous to his listeners. The internal structure of the story and its historical setting challenges the hearer to put together two impossible and contradictory words for the same person: “Samaritan” and “neighbor.” In the mind of the original audience, it is impossible to say “Good Samaritan” in one breath.
The point of the story, it seems, is not just to ask the audience to help the neighbor in need. Rather, it redefines “neighbor” altogether, and then, in a shocking twist, it has the accustomed enemy help the person who is not at all used to being a victim. All of us are in need of help, the parable asserts, all of us are in a ditch somehow or another, and so the vision Jesus proposes here is of a brand new world in which the wall between enemies, strangers, and neighbors no longer exists. The strong and the weak, the haves and the have nots, those who are customarily on different sides of some chasm, can step across it and come to the aid of each other, in surprising and life-changing ways. We are each other’s business; we need each other; I am in pain if you are not well. Each of us has needs that we don’t like to admit, and all of us have the capacity to help and hold and heal.
Who is reaching out to you, in whatever ditch you’ve created or fallen into? Can you let yourself be helped by someone that you are likely to call “enemy”? And who can you help, who has fallen nearby, right along the way you are accustomed to travel?
There is only one neighborhood in Baltimore, or whatever paths you walk down. Will you be my neighbor?
My Brothers & Sisters in Christ Jesus,
From the writings of Frederick Buechner, I’ve learned to “listen to my life,” and in that listening to recall a certain truth …Christianity is NOT a religion…it IS a lifestyle! And if it is a lifestyle, its precepts and Presence encompasses all aspects of my life. The big question for me now is how to integrate and make sense of the current reality I am experiencing into my understanding and dynamic image of God. An even bigger question is, where is God in the minutiae of my life as it is now unfolding?
My baby brother did 3 tours of duty as an Army Ranger in the Middle East and describes how he felt each time he returned safely to American soil. He said, “Freda, I tell you no lie, I got down on my knees, in the middle of the tarmac and said, “Thank you Jesus!” Describing how much prayer has informed his life he said, “Sometimes, you just gotta go-for-what-you-know.”
Recalling his words, has caused me to think about going-for-what-you-know a lot lately. As I’ve struggled with feelings of discouragement, anger, and self-pity over these past 2— almost 3 weeks in Baltimore because I still do not have permanent housing, I’ve allowed myself to really reflect on those others who are refugees or homeless within our community and nation. These reflections have been overwhelming if not for a central way of bringing God into the story that is our lives.
Today over lunch, time spent with a sister and brother in Christ reminded me of the most essential tool I’ve learned to use to carry me through such times as these. That tool is Centering Prayer.
You see if I live into what I profess, that CHRIST is indeed risen and ascended and that I am living in Christ (cf John 17:22-23), then there is no-thing that can really steal my peace, take away my joy, or douse my hope. No-thing stands in the way of the truth that I am love and I am the beloved as well; both/and. In fact, I stand reminded that there is always an inner well of eternal water springing up within me and I can only access this well in the SILENCE. It is at times like these when my centering prayer discipline keeps me centered and focused on the bigger picture. Since I AM LOVE and I AM the BELOVED, I live into a reality much larger than the one of my immediate 5 senses. I am so aware that creation by the Creator (GOD) and the co-creator (me) is ongoing and always in process. So, I live in hope. I KNOW my home is here, within the community of Redeemer, within the larger community of Baltimore. It’s just a matter of Kairos, God’s time—and walking into it. Truly, “All is well.”
With Peace and much Love,