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Seminary Intern Jeannie Shear
July 21, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
There’s a beautiful short poem by Mary Oliver called, “Mysteries, Yes.” In it, she writes:
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
Bow their heads. Oliver’s poem reminds us that mysteries–things we can glimpse but never see fully, things beyond the reach of our complete understanding, explanation, and control–these mysteries cause us to bow our heads. They humble us. They fill us with wonder. They make us worshipful.
Mysteries make us worshipful, in part, because when we recognize the mysteries of the everyday, we are, even if slowly and subconsciously, pulled towards an awareness that we stand, always, in the presence of the greatest mystery of all:
The God of everything, met in a particular human being. The God who died, and yet, lives. The God who loves us just as we are and yet calls us to become. The God of justice that chooses grace.
In those moments, when the veil lifts a little, and the fog clears a little, we recognize that we move, live, and breathe, and have always done so, in the presence of that mystery…our heads are bowed.
When we think about the defining moments of our lives, we often find them to be those head-bowing moments of mystery, rather than the moments where we had it all figured out.
The birth of a child. The loss of a dear one. Forgiveness you did not deserve. The view from a mountain, that catches your breath…and the way that sight stays with you differently because you shared it with someone you love. We cannot put those moments on a resume. They do not fit on an Instagram bio. But they somehow form us, deeply.
“Let me keep my distance,” Oliver writes, “let me keep my distance from those who think they have the answers and company with those who say, Look!… And bow their heads.”
I think that in today’s scripture, we find in Martha, one who thinks she has all the answers. One who knows the work that has to be done, how to do it, and who should do it. And in Mary, I think we encounter one humbled by mystery. It’s not just her head that is bowed, it is her body. She sits at Jesus’ feet.
Of course, we shouldn’t “keep our distance” from the Marthas in our lives, as my use of this poem could suggest. But in truth, I think there is little danger of that. More often than not, we find ourselves striving to be or pressured to be the people who have the answers. The people who look capable and in control.
But to the extent that this passage does call us to be like Mary, it asks us to do something quite different. To sit at the feet of Jesus and bow ourselves before the Mystery of God.
What does it mean, or look like, to bow our heads and kneel our bodies before the Mystery of God? And why should we? One event these questions call to mind for me is the famous reading of Genesis by the Astronauts on Apollo 8.
On that mission, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first people to leave Earth’s orbit and enter the orbit of the moon. In later years, they describe the overwhelming sense of mystery they felt. Lovell describes the experience of watching the craters of the moon slide by, and he says, “We forgot the flight plan. We were like three kids in a candy store window.” He recalls a moment where held up his thumb, and from that distance, his thumb covered the entire Earth. He felt so small. Everything they held dear felt small.
But it was Christmas Eve…and they were going to be broadcast to Earth…and they had to say something. And so they read Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
And Borman signed off: “from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”
It was a breathtaking moment. Millions were listening, awe-struck, tears in their eyes. And part of why it was so moving, was that it was 1968. The Holocaust and WWII were not distant memories. We were in the middle of the ugliness of the Cold War and the brutality Vietnam. It was a tragic year of bloodshed and riots. Everything that makes it difficult to call the Earth–let alone God–Good, was staring us right in the face.
Given that, it is amazing to me that Borman did not say, “Merry Christmas and God bless America.” And it is amazing to me that somehow, they chose to read Genesis. But they were in the presence of a mystery. And they saw it. And that changes us. So when war and death and the human capacity for destruction were the certainties, three astronauts proclaimed a mystery: a hope that contradicted the realities before them and nonetheless rang with truth. “God bless all of you on the good Earth.”
Now, I could stand here and pretend that this story is, simply, the perfect demonstration of how wonder and mystery enlarge our hearts and make us better people. Because I think it is. But it is also more complicated. In 1968, as in the present, the space program was polarizing. Some people saw it as a stunning expression of our ability to dream new dreams, and others saw it as a horrifically expensive expression of power, a distraction from the real problems. Today, there are still those of us captivated by these famous stories of space exploration and those of us frustrated by the way these stories tend to revolve around white men and obscure the other heroes.
The thing is, we can do that with every story. We can idealize the goodness so much that we become blind to the gravity of the problems. And, we can also throw away all goodness as corrupt by any imperfection or brokenness. We do this, regularly: with stories, with institutions, with people. We can even do that with today’s scripture reading. We can throw the story away as one that celebrates the image of a woman sitting demurely at a man’s feet, righteously asking, “what good can such a story do in this world that has always asked women to sit, literally or metaphorically, at mens’ feet?” Or we can pass over that complicated image altogether, and in doing so commit the crime of reinforcing sexist stereotypes.
But we do not have to succumb to this rigid either/or thinking that shapes most political and social discourse today. We have another option.
We can remember that God is mysterious, that the way God moves is mysterious, and that therefore the stories in which God acts are mysterious. We can want to see the mystery.
And so, in the Luke reading, we can be struck by the fact that we don’t just have a story about women sitting at male feet, but one about Mary sitting at God’s feet. And we can wonder…and be changed, convicted, and called by what we find.
And in the case of Apollo 8, we can be struck by the fact that in a messy time in history, in the midst of a program deeply enmeshed in that mess, three white men said something that mattered. And we can wonder…. and be changed, convicted, and called by what we find.
Because we are certainly called to see and name injustice. But as we do so, we remember that we are followers of an Incarnate God…. who was born into a broken and unjust world and is still working to redeem that broken, unjust world. We don’t join that work by despising brokenness, but by seeking and naming the goodness that we somehow, always, mysteriously, encounter in its very midst.
The Church today is being called to rediscover Mystery. We are being called to wonder…and to teach people how to wonder. We shy away from this task for several reasons. For one thing, mysteries are unnerving. But we also shy away because we are afraid to look foolish proclaiming a mystery in a world that loves answers. Today, no land is unmapped and no waters uncharted. Answers seem instant, we just pick up our phones. Every side thinks the lines of good and evil are obvious and rigid. And in that world, I think celebrating mystery can be painted as a cop-out. “Sitting at the feet of Jesus in wonder,” sounds like fancy language for cowardly inaction, like justification for not fighting the good fight.
But I think the Gospels call us to resist that lie and to live in such a way that we make it plain that that is a lie. Make no mistake: to shrug our shoulders and simply say “we cannot know” is not what we are about here. That is not what it means to proclaim a mystery. Saying “we can never know,” is, ironically, a form of certainty. It leaves no room for the mystery of what we might discover.
The mystery is not that we cannot know God at all, the mystery is that we can know God, at all. We worship a God that wants to be known. And when we bow ourselves at Jesus’ feet, we proclaim that we want to know that God to every degree possible, and that we want all the fights we fight, and the way we fight them, to be guided by that loving God of all, and not our own agendas.
At Christ’s feet, we decide that we will not join in that tempting competition to own the truth, but will instead strive to point to and follow the One that is the Truth.
That is a hard task. It will take us down scary and surprising roads. Roads of loving when hating is easier. Roads to precisely the places from which we think no good will come. Roads of resisting the claims of rival authorities over our lives…for when we sit at the feet of Jesus, we cannot sit at the feet of anything else. Not money. Not power. Not success. Not comfort.
I will say that I often have viewed today’s scripture reading as though it does promote a sort of inaction. We know those familiar comparisons: Martha is worried; Mary is calm. Martha lives with anxiety about the future; Mary sits still, embracing the moment.
Something key is lost in that binary reading. Even if this passage simply recounts a casual moment of friendship…we are talking about a casual moment of friendship with God! What a mystery!
And when we read Luke 10, we cannot forget the other women in the gospels whom Mary joins at the feet of Christ:
The woman who pours oil on Jesus feet, washing them with her hair…she is weeping, and onlookers rebuke her.
The bleeding, desperate woman who touches the edge of his cloak in the crowd. When she falls at Jesus feet, she is trembling.
And this very same Mary from today’s story throws herself at Jesus’ feet a second time, in despair: her brother, Lazarus, has died.
Sitting at the feet of Jesus is not calm, is not comfortable, is not the place of the docile and demure. It is where brave women threw themselves both despite and because of their pain and fear and hope. As a Church that believes in mystery and strives to bow before it, we should expect our stances to be more difficult, not easier, to take. We should expect rebuke. We should tremble.
And. We should expect to encounter beauty and hope beyond our imaginings. Because bowing ourselves at the feet of Jesus is not the moment of still nothingness. It is the moment when something shifts…the moment where exquisite and unforeseeable transformations begin:
The weeping woman kneels at Jesus’ feet, and learns that she is forgiven.
The bleeding woman throws herself at Jesus’ feet and finds that she is healed.
Mary falls at Jesus’ feet, and Lazarus is raised from the dead.
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood. But may we see them. May we be moved by them. And may we laugh in astonishment or weep for joy…and bow our heads.