Jesus & Mary of Bethany
March 10, 2019 (Lent 1)
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Luke 10:38-42
Jesus enters a certain village, is invited into a home and there, as was his custom, begins to teach. Jesus would be sitting on a chair or a bench. His audience would have been sitting around him, also on benches or even on the floor. Peter, John and James would have been there, along with other disciples, prospective disciples, curious hangers on, individuals seeking healing and friends of his hosts. And then there was Mary.
As we make our Lenten journey our focus will be on relationships. During our prayer time following the sermon we’ll focus on strengthening the relationships among each other. Our scripture readings will highlight certain relationships in scripture. During the sermons we’ll attempt to discern some wisdom for our modern relationships from these ancient ones. Today we look at the unique, scandalous even, relationship between Jesus and Mary of Bethany.
No, they weren’t having an affair or secretly married. Those, in fact, would have been less scandalous than what actually happened. A gender survey of those likely sitting around Jesus reveals the problem. Peter – man. James – man. John – man. The person sitting next to John – man. And next to him – man, man, man, man – and Mary. Proper women didn’t sit at the feet of male teachers. Proper male teachers didn’t let women scandalize them by sitting at their feet. Proper women didn’t associate with men who were neither father nor brother nor husband. Martha, Mary’s sister, wasn’t just concerned with needing more help in the kitchen. She was embarrassed by her sister’s untoward behavior.
We’re a long way removed from the Middle East of Jesus’ day, but we still put people in a box. Some of you have met Jess. She’s half of the two person crew whose been working on the basement. I first met her a while ago, in the coffee shop, having coffee with her grandfather, my friend Jim Couchenauer. There, in our brief conversation, I made a mental picture of who she was – one not including working in our church basement scraping floor tiles and removing light fixtures. Social worker, pre-med, teacher – yes. Construction – no. Even though I knew both her father and grandfather were in the business.
In talking around with others who had met both Cody and Jess, I learned I wasn’t alone in this disconnect. A few assumed they were married. (They aren’t.) Or in a relationship. (They aren’t.) Or related. (They aren’t.) They’re simply two people who work for the same employer who’ve been assigned the same job.
At the coffee shop I’d talked with Jess for five minutes and put her in a box. We do that. It helps us make sense of the world and organize the many people we met. It helps us remain comfortable by not allowing people to challenge our preconceived notions and stereotypes. We even put ourselves in boxes, assuming roles and characteristics designed to meet society’s expectations, even though they limit who we are.
We all do that. Jesus doesn’t.
Jesus promotes a fisherman to be the head of his church. He sits and talks at a well with a Samaritan women, living in an improper relationship, and then accepts an invitation to stay at her house. He lets the children come to him. He stays at the house of an unclean leper before going to the temple – the place where one must be the most pure. His disciples, by all account, included men and women – who lived together, traveled together, studied together, worshiped together – even though they were neither married nor related. Chief among the women was Mary of Bethany.
Over time Jesus would establish a very deep and powerful relationship with Mary. When Mary’s brother Lazarus dies – the Lazarus Jesus raises from the dead – Jesus betrays no emotion until he sees Mary, at which point he breaks down in tears. On another occasion Jesus is having dinner at Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ house. Its just before Palm Sunday, a few days before Jesus will be arrested, crucified. Again Martha is serving. Again Mary is not. During the dinner Mary anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair, scandalizing the male disciples.
Over and over again the apostle Paul – the great missionary with so much blood on his hands he himself is never completely accepted by the “old guard” – would tell his churches how each individual was endowed with spiritual gifts which enabled them to fulfill their divine calling. He would also tell them their identity as children of God accepted by the grace of Jesus Christ undid all the boxes we normally put people in. In the early church slaves became preachers, with their masters sitting at their feet. Women became prophets, leading men in prayer. The young were seen to be wise, with the old yearning for their deep knowledge. As the Spirit flowed, she busted apart the boxes, broke down the human created barriers. God doesn’t do boxes – we do.
True relationships start when we move beyond boxes and actually take the time to get to know our friends, our neighbors, even our children and spouses, on their terms, not on ours. True relationships start when we celebrate each other’s god given gifts, even when they don’t fit our expectations or society’s norms. True relationships start when we embrace in each person that which God created them to be, called them to be, even when that makes us – or others – uncomfortable.
Jesus invites Mary to sit at his feet, for she was his disciple. What Martha thought didn’t matter. What the men sitting beside her thought didn’t matter. What the “establishment” thought didn’t matter. She belonged at Jesus feet – discussing the Torah and Jesus’ teachings, preparing for her role in ministering to Jesus on the cross, ministering to him at the tomb, witnessing to the resurrection and building Christ’s church as an evangelist of the gospel.