July 17

Woven Promises

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:38-42

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In the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston, there is a tapestry room. The room is grand with walls displaying enormous tapestries. Many of the tapestries depict images or scenes, one even showing parts of Abraham’s story. These textile artworks are woven together thread by thread to make their images and tell their stories. They may not always have the vibrancy of oil and canvas, but they are commanding. At its essence, a tapestry is a collection of dyed threads. Because the thread is dyed before being woven into the final product, it takes an enormous amount of precision and patience. It takes vision to see the final product and precision to actualize the vision. When connected to the whole, each thread becomes a part of something larger. Colors work together to form beautiful images.

I’m struck by how each individual thread alone is small. Just a piece of thread. A single piece is easily broken or blown away by the wind. These individual threads are vulnerable to tearing. When they are woven together into a tapestry though, the threads become stronger together. The small thread vulnerable to tearing alone is less vulnerable when surrounded by a community of threads woven into each other. On a tapestry, the horizontal threads, the weft threads are woven through the warp threads, that are the vertical ones. Horizontal and vertical, weft and warp, hold each other tightly to prevent the tapestry from coming undone or fraying. They work together to hold one another in place.

When I was young, whenever I had a thread break away from a piece of clothing, my mother would tell me not to pull it. I generally did it anyway but pulling it risks making a minor snag into a big problem. Because of the way cloth is woven together the threads hold the other together but it does not make them invincible. So, pulling on loose threads can risk the safety of nearby threads as well. Tapestries are similar. Despite their strength, when threads fray or get pulled out, sections of the tapestry can be weakened.

Perhaps, the tapestry can serve as a metaphor for community. Ideally, threads work together, holding one another up. Each plays a part, drawing attention to each other. Each thread contributes in its unique way to some image or scene. Each thread matters to the whole but no one thread dominates the others. They are interconnected and interdependent. At the present, our social tapestry is frayed and fraying at a rapid pace. Loose threads are visible, and many have been pulled threatening the whole structure. The more this occurs, the greater the potential for continued degradation and destruction. Loosening threads threaten our social tapestry. We are coming to see what many around the world have experienced for much longer, societies are not always safe or stable. Many of you are already aware of the fraying tapestry. Perhaps, many of you also feel a sense of paralysis over what to do. Let us listen to the Gospel according to Luke for the inspiration of the Spirit who has weathered ages past and will see ages to come. We turn to Luke, not to escape our world and troubling situation but to remember the promise of the Gospel. Let us search for the good news.

Directly following the parable of the Good Samaritan, last week’s Gospel reading which ends with “go and do likewise” is a short scene involving two sisters, Mary and Martha. The text says that Martha invited Jesus to her house. Jesus was presumably traveling with the disciples and others so this may not have been a small invitation. A good-sized entourage was likely with Jesus. There was no texting so maybe Martha knew she would be hosting but perhaps she had no idea. Either way, it seems Martha was busy trying to get everything that involved hosting together. I sympathize with Martha here. Hosting is hard work. Cooking, cleaning, filling drinks, making sure it is not too hot or too cold, hoping the conversation, barely audible from the kitchen is entertaining for everyone present. Hosting is a big responsibility and has social norms and expectations. Hosting can be a high-pressure activity, even if a lot of the pressure is self-imposed.

The social norms and responsibilities were even greater in the 1st century than they are today. In ancient Greek literature, we read about hosting in language reminiscent of the sacred and friendship. We also see examples of the high place of hosting and hospitality in the Hebrew Bible. Acts of hospitality or inhospitality feature prominently in the Genesis patriarch stories and in other places throughout Scripture. Hospitality was more than good manners, it was meeting the needs of guests’, often considered friends when under the roof. Meeting guests’ needs goes above and beyond warm smiles and being polite. It is caring for the person. Amid trying to get everything done and be hospitable, when Martha saw her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet, she questions what was happening. Perhaps, she wants help, perhaps she feels the impropriety of a woman learning at the feet of a man should be questioned. Possibly both.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Martha would like help. Hosting is hard and she might be used to her sister doing the work with her. Interestingly, she turns to Jesus for that help. She questions Jesus about his care over her sister leaving her to do the work, even while it is her house. As host, Martha had the authority to request Mary’s help, but she defers to Jesus, her guest but also the Lord.

Teeming with gender roles and expectations, Jesus’ response, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, defies typical roles. Women were not to learn at the feet of teachers, but Mary sat at Jesus’ feet choosing to defy the social and gender norms in normal circumstances, let alone when hospitality was involved. Expectations were flipped. Even still, it is important not to create a binary system of womanhood from this Lukan text. We should not go around labeling people Mary’s and Martha’s when it seems to me that Luke was pushing back against gender norms and societal expectations not creating a system of labels and boxes. This passage shows that there is more than one way to be but, perhaps we should go even further to remind ourselves that life and situations are complex. We embody a myriad of roles or positions throughout our lives, none of which have to be raised to ontological necessity. Sometimes, we embody the role of host and sometimes we embody the role of learner, and sometimes even both at times. Personhood, identity, and roles are more complex than labels. Labels can be useful, especially as they provide orientation. But it is important to recognize the role of the situation in our actions. We all perform different roles and actions in different situations and contexts. Rather than threatening our core senses of selves, the very situations we find ourselves in are the places where action and being come to fruition.

Along with homilician David Schnasa Jacobsen, I see this with the Gospel too. The Gospel is not completely understood as something apart from the situations we find ourselves in but speaks to, from, and with situations. That means that our present situation of a fraying tapestry is not without the Gospel. It pushes us to hold up where we are, context with our faith, text and belief in the hard work of discernment. In this way, the Gospel becomes something more than ancient creeds and words on a page, it incarnates through us into the world. This mode of discerning the Gospel has less surety and more openness which can make it uncomfortable, but it also holds the potential to be revelatory in this day and age.

After the parable of the good Samaritan, where someone typically looked down upon was the paragon in the parable, Jesus once again defies custom. He responds in favor of Mary. “10:41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 10:42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Martha is concerned with hospitality. A good concern. A needed concern. God bless those concerned with hospitality. She wants to care for those who have come under her roof. Martha is actively doing. Like many others who invited Jesus to their house and showed hospitality, Martha does not want to miss the opportunity to show hospitality but unlike many others who order servants to do the hospitable work, Martha seems to be doing it herself. Feeding, washing, and caring are holy work.    Mary wants to learn from Jesus. Both are worthy and often Luke pairs a parable or a narrative with another parable or narrative which inform the other.

Maybe the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with its emphasis on action and the story of Mary and Martha, with its emphasis on listening, form a sort of pair. The Good Samaritan emphasizes action and this narrative listening at the feet of Jesus. Perhaps, each in unique and varying situations are needed. What is “better” for Mary may not have been better for Martha and vice versa. Perhaps, it is the very situation which determines which is “better” to use Jesus’ words. But no matter what, like the weft and warp of a tapestry they mutually inform and hold each other in place. The strength of the tapestry is not the weft or warp alone but their interconnected woven nature. The strength of faith in belief and action is also in their interconnected woven nature. Take away “Go and do likewise” or take away faith at the feet of the Lord and the tapestry falls apart. Each person contributes in their unique manner to the whole in a way that fundamentally matters. Uniqueness and diversity give the tapestry its beauty. Threads woven together, lend the individual strands their strength.

I spent the first summer in seminary working for the seminary grounds crew. There were about 6 of us Master of Divinity students who did everything from mowing to weeding and trash pick-up to planting. We spent one whole month weeding and mulching, weeding and mulching, weeding and mulching. Into the second week of mulching, we confessed that each of us had felt job envy at some point. You see, on the first day of mulching we all selected a part of the overall job. I used a pitchfork to get the mulch off the dump truck and into the wheelbarrows, three people moved the wheelbarrows from the truck to the flower beds, and two people spread the mulch in the flower bed. We all played our part but after a few hours of this day in and day out, it was easier to focus on the ease of other tasks and escalate the hardships of our own. We referred to this feeling as job envy. Envious of the desirable parts of others’ roles while neglecting the desirable parts of your own job. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”

We tried rotating jobs but really came to see that the initial jobs we had all chosen were the ones we wanted to do. So, we stuck with the same jobs and tried to keep the job envy at bay. The six of us all played a part in the overall work. Even while our attitudes toward each other and the work impacted our experience of each other and the work.

Community takes work and a desire or commitment to community. As I read old accounts of Methodist camp meetings and society meetings, lately I have been struck by the communal aspect of discernment. Faith and discerning the promise of the Gospel was not something done in isolation, it was communal by purpose. People gathered to read the ancient text, sing, and share their lives together. It was personal and communal balanced together. People affirmed, challenged, or illuminated in community with one another held together by a common desire to love God and neighbor and interpret the times. What I sense in these old accounts is an understanding that God’s promises to Creation, God’s promises to us are woven together. Because God is not my God alone and because I am not the only person in Creation, discerning the will and promise of God should be communal because the tapestry is strongest when the threads are interconnected. My understanding of God and life are enhanced through engagement with others. Woven promises connect and form strong bonds.

This is a different view of faith and spirituality from the strong “personal relationship with Jesus” language of my youth. I still see some merits in that image and language, but I also think it has its limits. God is not my personal God but God over everything. My view and understanding of God are enhanced by listening to others and engaging others. I think if faith is going to continue to be a voice of goodness and purpose in the world, it will do so through more communitarian ideals. It will do so by returning to a vision of faith discerning in community and with community; rather than, highly individualistic manners. At a time when the social tapestry is frayed and fraying, the church can lend strength to the threads of life. No matter what isolated individualism would have us think, our lives are woven into Creation and into the lives of others. Just as my family, friends, and people I’ve encountered are a part of my memories, I am a part of other’s memories. The social tapestry is complex.

Colossians invites us to be reconciled with Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all Creation. The one present at Creation and who it is through that Creation came to being. “1:17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” To be a part of God’s tapestry is to recognize that Christ is part of what holds the threads of Creation together. Christ’s promises are not ours alone to possess but are directed toward all of Creation. Which calls us toward responsibility. We are not responsible for the whole tapestry but perhaps, with wisdom, guidance, and love we can be threads which strengthen; rather than, fray. Perhaps, we can be threads that help hold the threads around us together in strength and love.

When we care for one another, the tapestry of Creation strengthens. When we listen to those who need to be heard, the tapestry strengthens. When we encourage and promote self-care and mental health, the tapestry strengthens. When we participate in loving communities and churches, the tapestry is strengthened.

Amos knew something of the need for a strong tapestry. In fact, the Amos passage for today begins with fear over a frayed social tapestry. Fear that inequality was irreversible without divine intervention and fear over how God will intervene to end the inequality of the day to right the iniquity of the time. Amos speaks of buying the poor for cheap prices, using weighted scales, and padding grain with useless bit unfit for eating.


-The Rev. Scott Donahues-Martens, PhD Candidate, BU STH

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