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An intervention in Bethany

by davesandel on July 29th, 2022

Friday, July 29, 2022

Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus

            (click here to listen to or read today’s scriptures)

An intervention in Bethany

The guy on the street, carrying his sign “25 cents is more than enough,” caught my eye. Like me on our hot Texas record-breaking stifling afternoon, he was trying to be civil. His smile got crossed up between his cheeks. His eyes struggled to stay open. I was driving, but I struggled too, just to stay awake. He thanked me for my $5 bill.

Peter Mommsen wrote about his father and his book is beautifully titled Homage to a Broken Man. He ran risks by adding a generalizing adjective of any kind to this story of a single, unique, exceptional and irreplaceable person. Eugene Peterson wrote the introduction and spoke to this problem.

The culture in which we are immersed is constantly at work eroding the uniqueness of named persons by giving them labels: ectomorph, unsaved, anorexic, bipolar, single parent, diabetic, left-brained. The labels are marginally useful for understanding some aspect of the human condition, but the moment they are used to identify a person, they obscure the very thing I am most interested in: the unprecedented, unrepeatable soul addressed by God.

Every time someone is addressed by name and realizes that in the encounter they are being treated as one-of-a-kind – not as a customer, not as a patient, not as a voter, not as a sinner – the gospel is served. Saving love is always personally specific, never merely generic. Christ’s mercy is always customized to an individual, never swallowed up in an abstraction.

Ignatius taught his students to put themselves into a story, be one or two or three people in a bible narrative, and talk. Speak to each other. Speak to yourself. Speak to God. I’m … what did Peterson call me? “An unprecedented, unrepeatable soul addressed by God.” And so is my friend with the sign. Ignatius would have us get to know ourselves and each other in a conversation, in a story. We have much to learn from each other.

And so, more to the point today, do Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus. Far from being saints at this stage in their history, they were deeply committed friends, able to speak to each other about much more than the sunny side of life.

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Jesus looked Martha in the eye and said, not for the first time:

I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this, Martha?

I can just see her eyes, her smile caught and crooked between her cheeks, trying to be civil.

Oh yes, Lord.

And then she went to find Mary. “Jesus is here and asking for you.”

Earlier Jesus had spoken to Martha, at an earlier sweeter time when they shared a summer day and knew as yet no loss. Martha was complaining a bit.

Lord do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.

But Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

And once again, I imagine Martha turning her eyes away and asking herself, “What has gotten into this friend of ours?”

So in modern psychological terms, Jesus and the sisters of Lazarus need an intervention.

I don’t know many men or women who are not tied up in knots by their spiritual and practical selves. Mary wants to spend her time at Jesus’ feet, washing them in perfume and listening to every word. Martha is busy fixing their meal, the meal for all of Jesus’ troupe of disciples and hangers-on. But I’m both Mary and I’m Martha, and I just cannot settle for one role or the other.

Martha has chosen the good part, Jesus implies, and Mary has chosen the better part. Good … better … best. Is there a third, “best” part? How can we cook the meal and worship, scrub the floor and pour perfume over Jesus’ feet? I want to do both. And I really want to do both at the pretty much the same time.

Any ideas? Maybe I could read a book. But really, better to imagine and invite an intervention. I can sit down at a table with Jesus, Mary, Martha and even Lazarus and close the door. Get some coffee and tea. Start with a prayer. We each get some time to speak and ask questions and listen. There’s no hurry.

I think I can learn a lot from them.

(Jeremiah 26, Psalm 69, John 8, John 11)

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