OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL TRIANGULATION
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11C | July 18, 2004
Genesis 18:1-14; Luke 10:38-42
I spent the first week of July on vacation in Minnesota where my mother – who is nearing eighty – has finally settled down to “retire” in her hometown of Alexandria. Although I was raised in Los Angeles, summer in Minnesota was a very much part of my growing up years, and so it felt a little like going home to be back among folk who say things like “ya, sure, you betcha” – where we drink pop rather than soda as we sit by the lake and swat mosquitoes the size of seagulls – waiting for the fishermen and women among us to let us know if we’ll be frying up fish or thawing out chicken for supper.
It was a great week of “R&R”– one that I think may actually have risen to Zelda’s “Saints Alive” challenge to us to find time to rest and recreate during these months of summer. There was lots of sitting and lots of swatting – lots of food and family – lots of time to both catch up and reminisce. And because it was my partner Louise’s first visit back to “meet the folks” everybody seemed to have a story they couldn’t resist sharing – a photo they couldn’t resist dragging out – of me in my growing up years. And because my family is probably a lot like yours, many of those stories – for my money – could have gone happily un-shared.
• Yes, I remember that I talked a lot a child.
• No, I wouldn’t put my own worm on the hook, would I? (Still won’t)
• Actually, I think everyone has ALREADY heard the one about how I lost Grandpa’s fishing pole over the side of the pontoon on Lake Geneva – but why don’t you tell it again?
And she didn’t just get the stories – she got the whole SLIDE SHOW: Mom couldn’t resist dragging that out one-more-once – prom pictures and Christmas poses, confirmation and ordination photos in there right along with the “real life stuff” of bad hair days and too-long-at-the-beach sunburns -- as well as my mother’s personal fav: my bedroom – circa 1972 – looking as though it had been ransacked by invading burglars – preserved for the historical record as proof of my chronic untidiness. “That Suze was quite a mess in those days.” “Ya sure, you betcha.”
And in the end I was gratified somehow this record of our family history – this family album – tried to tell as much of the “whole story” as it could. No one picture in isolation gave more than a glimpse of who we are and where we’ve come from – but all together it gave a sense of the journey, the love, the family that we have been and continue to be. There was a truth about it, even with the messy bits left in.
In many ways the Holy Scriptures we inherit as Christians serves as a family album of our spiritual ancestors: a record of the centuries old journey of faith of a particular people of God which includes both the triumphs and the tragedies – the good stuff along with the bad. We gather to hear those stories week after week, year after year, to claim the legacy of God’s presence in our past as we listen to our own call to live into God’s future. And just as one snapshot in my Minnesota family album cannot possibly capture the whole truth about me or my family, neither can one verse -- or even a group of them -- tell the whole story we inherit. It has been said that Episcopalians take scripture too seriously to take it literally – and so we strive to read our texts in context – to avoid the temptation of looking at only one “snapshot” and thinking we know the whole story.
A case in point is our gospel lesson appointed for today. In it, Martha was doing exactly what was expected of her: exercising the ministry of hospitality – making her guests welcome – meeting their needs. The question is not WHAT she was doing but WHY she was doing it. Was it giving her joy? Was she doing it in response to the delight of offering her gifts to those she loved? What Martha had to say leads us to believe otherwise: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come help me.”
This is what we call a “Triangulation Alert” – and it is NOT the way healthy people communicate. Martha is saying “this is all about me” – a classic cry for help – the adult equivalent of the dreaded toddler tantrum in the cereal aisle – as she talks not to her sister about her need for help and support but ABOUT her sister to someone else – Jesus – who she wants to step in and fix the situation for her. It’s this snapshot -- these few verses from the Book of Luke – read in isolation from the rest of the family album – that has haunted Martha – trapped her forever in many minds as “the poster child for the one who got it wrong – who had the chance and didn’t ‘choose the better part.’” stereotyped her as what I think of as “Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation”
But let’s look at the whole story. What happens next? Jesus LISTENS to her – which is very different from AGREEING with her. First, he tells her what he hears behind her complaining about Mary: “Martha, Martha – you are worried and distracted about many things” – so busy “doing” that she doesn’t have any time for “being.” I’d like to think what happened next is Jesus saying, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her … so come, sit beside her and join us. Peter and John – why don’t you go out into the kitchen and see what you can do about getting lunch together?”
A fantasy perhaps, but I have some scriptural evidence to believe something like that happened – if not on this occasion, at some point in Martha’s journey. For if I don’t settle for just this “snapshot” of Martha – if I look ahead in the album to another set of family photos – I find the “other” Martha story – the one in the gospel according to John – the one where her brother Lazarus died before Jesus, who was traveling to Bethany, had arrived in Bethany.
“When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.” A reversal of the roles in Luke, where Mary crosses over the cultural expectation – here’s it’s Martha who leaves the women mourning and goes out to meet Jesus: a radical departure.
And no more of this triangulation stuff: she goes directly to meet Jesus as he is coming into town – and then confronts him in the road just outside the city: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What courage – what chutzpah! And then, in response to Jesus’ question: “Do you believe?” we have her wonderful words of faithful affirmation, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world.”
The same kind of transformation that turned Saul from the persecutor to Paul the evangelist – that turned Peter from the blustery fisherman who denied Jesus in the courtyard into the “rock” on which the church was founded – changed Martha from a woman whining about needing help in the kitchen to a woman empowered to go out and ask for what she wanted. That transformation is nothing less than the power of the Spirit of God calling each and every one of us to health – to wholeness – to realizing our full potential as children of God and to the life abundant which is our inheritance.
Reading this text in context – the context of the whole of the scriptural story – we find that Martha was changed by the experience of Jesus listening to her – challenging her – and most of all, loving her. And that’s the kind of change that Jesus continues to call each and every one of us to be open to – a change that isn’t about making us someone we’re not but making us more authentically who we are. It’s a change described best for me in a song I learned years ago at a women’s retreat:
I will change your name. You shall no longer be called Wounded, Outcast, Lonely or Afraid I will change your name. Your new name shall be Joyfulness. Confidence. Overcoming One. Faithfulness. Friend of God. One who seeks my face.
That’s the life abundant God intends for each and every one of us. Be joyful in our work, confident in our gifts, secure in the love of the God who calls us to live not in the anxiety of earning approval but in the peace of knowing that we are both fully loved and fully known. We began our worship this morning as we do every Sunday by say together the prayer we call The Collect for Purity: the prayer that reminds us that we belong to a God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom NO secrets are hid. This is a God who knows and loves all of us – all of “me’ – who looks at the whole album which is Susan Russell … not just the snapshots I choose to share or the ones others choose to remember. This is a God who loves me enough to challenge me to settle for nothing less than wholeness.
And challenges us, as well, not to settle for a “snapshot” of any other child of God – to believe that God’s offer of health and wholeness extends to every single one of us – and as those who’ve been called to take up the ministry of Jesus on earth – as the Body of Christ – we are the ones called to reach out the Marthas who come to us: anxious and distracted, stressed out and overwhelmed. Called to follow the example of our Lord who both listened and challenged – held out the gift of health that it was up to Martha to claim.
Back to this morning’s “snapshot”: It is possible that Martha put her hands on her hips, huffed back into the kitchen and muttered under her breath the rest of the day about the Jesus how hadn’t listened to her, the sister who hadn’t pulled her weight and how “if anything is going to get done I guess I’ll have to do it myself.” It is possible, but I submit that if that were the case, those wise enough to preserve these stories of our scriptural ancestors – those in charge of our Biblical Family Album – wouldn’t have bothered to keep this one.
I imagine instead that on the day Lazarus was raised – after the dust had settled, the hoards of onlookers had left and Peter and John had cleaned up the kitchen -- Martha had some time to reflect and she looked back in amazement at the events of the day and was given the grace to recognize just how far she’d come from her days as “Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation.”
Where are you today? Lonely and afraid? Joyful and confident? Somewhere in between? Wherever you are in your journey of faith know that here there is food for the journey in this bread and wine made holy, companionship for the journey in this community gathered and strength for the journey in the Spirit who calls us to wholeness as surely as she did Martha and Mary, Lazarus and Luke, and every one of the spiritual ancestors whose stories we celebrate in this family album we inherit and claim as our own. Ya sure you betcha. Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.