This is my sermon from this evening at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle.
The Lectionary Texts for the day (Track 2) can be found here. The stories I reference are the Genesis story of three visitors to Abraham and Sarah and the gospel story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha (I strongly recommend reading the stories at the link above in order for the sermon to make sense.
Today’s gospel text does not immediately inspire me. I need to be honest about this. Weeks ago, when I first read the lectionary texts for today, I grew frustrated. I may or may not have emailed Mother Sara (which is to say, I definitely did), whining about the Old Testament texts, wondering if I might substitute these “track two” readings with the more directly prophetic “track one” readings that we won’t see until we read this gospel again in three years.
And If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard readings of today’s gospel that villainize Martha for working instead of sitting demurely with Jesus. You might have heard more redemptive readings of the text, focused on telling you that Mary’s actions and Jesus’ invitation to Martha are humanizing ways of overturning a cultural situation that said women existed to serve, rather than be equals or be taught by a Rabbi.
And all of this is well and good, but I cannot avoid the fact that I am reading this text in the context of a majority white, progressive congregation of people who are swimming in the grief, frustration, and sadness we feel when we look around at the violence, shootings, terror, and fear in our world. And most of us only know these terrors secondarily. Most of us, but not all.
We see news of Black men criminalized and killed by police for being Black men. We see terrorists attacking the holy sites of our Muslim neighbors while they’ve been celebrating the fast of Ramadan. We remember that we are just past a month since the shooting of the Latinx LGBTQ community at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a year since the death of Sandra Bland, two years since the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his murder of Travon Martin. We hear and don’t hear of the violence against Native people, immigrants, women, and transgender people.
And we are supposed to do what with this text? Stop working and sit quietly with Jesus? Are we supposed to say to our siblings on every side that they can just walk away from the work of survival in a system of oppression and simply trust Jesus to make it all better? Because it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
And another thing. I don’t like how the Hebrew Bible reading for today cuts off in the middle of a verse, and in the middle of the story. It seems too gentle. Too clean. Too very Euro-Anglican demure. This passage from Genesis can actually help us read this gospel text if we let it exist in the entirety of it’s messy completeness. Picking up where the passage left off, it reads:
Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
And in this movement of the story, we are given a gift. We see that if Sarah is anything like Martha–the one subjected to the servitude of what her society has said about people of her gender–she is also like us, acquainted with personal sorrow and the resignation that some situations seem impossible to change.
And in this moment, she laughs. And it doesn’t seem to be the laugh of mockery that some folks read into this passage. Instead, it seems to be a laugh of shock. The laughter that brims with tears, because it borders on waking up hope in the parts of our hearts that we have sealed off to protect from being torn open over, and over, and over again.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
Will anything ever come from the labor for survival and justice? Because it doesn’t seem like that’s possible.
At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.
We are so far past the time that such hope was due. What of all of the children who have been murdered?
But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh.” for she was afraid.
God, I do not know how to hope, because I am afraid.
He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
And it is these words that we hope. Words that name the pregnant possibility of hope in the raw, human pain of being alive and surviving trauma in a system that destroys children and crushes hope. Hear that there is tearful laughter to be had, for those unable to work an ending to these systems of oppression.
And it is with these words that I re-read Jesus’ response to Martha–not as a condemnation of her labor—she is working at tasks of hospitality, welcoming Jesus into her home. Instead, Jesus says, Martha. Martha. He says her name. It is a tender reminder of her own humanity. Martha. You are worried and distracted by many things.
Another way of rendering these Greek words would be to say, you are deeply troubled by the things that you care about and you are terrified; stricken with panic. In this reading, I see Martha, like Sarah, and like many in our own time–not worried by household tasks–but weighed down by the labor of trying to offer hospitality and kindness while suffering under terror and grief.
And in this moment, Jesus sees her humanity. Like the visitor who says to Sarah, with a wry smile, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” Jesus says, Martha. Martha. Like the mothers and siblings and children and fathers and communities of color that keep begging for us to say their names. There is only one thing that Jesus needs of her–for her to know that she is seen.
It does not mean the work goes away. It does not mean we stop engaging the work to end violence–the work that causes us to be deeply troubled; the work that seems to have no end and seems to drain away our hope for ourselves or for the next generation.
But in this work, there is one thing that is needed: To see and be seen.
To see each others’ faces. To say one another’s names, offering back the mirror of hope.
Oh yes, you did laugh. Oh yes, I do know your face. Oh yes, your name will be spoken. Oh yes, I can see the fragile, absurd, laughing-through-tears hope that stubbornly persists despite lifetimes of reasons to believe that it shouldn’t. Oh yes, you are afraid, but you did laugh, all the same.
And this laughter is the sign that our grief and our hope are bound together. We grieve the loss of what we desire. Our hope and longing are shaped by the holes carved out in us by sorrow. We grieve because we see violence and oppression defacing people around us. And we cry-laugh our broke-down longing for justice.
Yesterday I watched footage of 15 year-old, Cameron Sterling, grieving his father’s murder at the long arm of our collective violence against Black and Brown bodies. And with his face in front of me, I heard his young voice begging that we come together, see one another, and end our violence. There is only one thing that is needed.
And so, I find myself wondering where I am in this story. Where has my own pain and labor and suffering led me to lose hope? And I wonder whose faces; whose humanity I am called to remember both by speaking their names and by joining with them in their work and in their tearful laughter?
I invite your own reflections on these texts, my words, and intersections of human grief and hope in your world today.