You see before you a nerd. Maybe you’ve already figured that out about me, although I assure you I have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to cover up my nerdiness.
I’m not sure when my nerdiness first took hold. I THINK I was an average kid. When I was old enough to have some limited independence, I roller skated up and down the sidewalks with the neighborhood kids, played kick ball in the vacant lot at the end of the block, went on overnights to my girlfriends’ houses, and they mine, all that stuff that makes childhood so wondrous and special.
I suppose my nerdiness first became evident in high school. I was not an athlete, not into cheerleading, or partying and, I was not “With it.” I was not into the Beatles, into makeup, into clothes. What I WAS into was school. I loved school. I loved learning.—I was the kid who stayed behind after class to ask my teachers questions. Always wanted to find out MORE. Predictably, my best friends were nerds, too. Yes, I did go to the Jr. Sr. proms, but also predictably, I went with a fellow nerd. While I was not a football groupie, or a party girl, my classmates elected me to all sorts of class posts—so I was a school Senator, homeroom president, French club president, you get the idea
My father was a nerd. As I have probably already told you, he was a journalist, and he always had a book going—several books going. In scientific circles there persists this vague boundary between nature and nurture. I don’t know if my nerdiness was inherited then, or if I was just following in my father’s footsteps. Probably a combination of both.
My mother did not understand me. Her dream for me was to be that partier--to have LOTS of friends, and not just a chosen few. And she wanted me to be WITH it!. Do you remember Papagallos shoes? They were a flat shoe—and they came in a rainbow of bold colors. When I was in high school apparently they were THE RAGE. I say apparently, because I was oblivious. My mother, bless her soul, thought I should have a pair, and so one day, when I was maybe 15, we drove to a shoe store that sold Papagallos shoes. I had no idea why we were there. We looked over the displays of royal blue, hot pink and emerald green colored flats. My mother must have read my utter boredom. We returned home—shoeless. The next day, at school, I made it a point to look at what my female classmates were wearing on their feet. Surprise, surprise. The most popular girls, that is, the cheerleader types and the partiers, were wearing (pause) Papagallos shoes! Who knew?
One of the most painful memories of my high school years, was when I was say, sixteen. I was in my bedroom, sitting cross-legged on my bed, book in my lap; my bedroom door partially open. My mother peered in, saw me engrossed in a book and she said, frustration and probably a lot of other negative emotions in her voice, “All you ever do is read! You will never amount to anything.”
My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 50 years old. She was diagnosed a month after I graduated from college and she died shortly after. My father had died a few years earlier from a heart attack. That’s young to be on your own. I was spiritually adrift. Confused. No North Star. It could have been a lot worse. I could have become an alcoholic or gotten involved with drugs, I guess. Instead, though, I decided to make my mother proud. After her death I promised myself. “No more books.” That sounds WAY over dramatic, but it was a pledge I made and for me it was a supreme sacrifice. Crazy, right?
About eight years out from my mother’s death, I was living in McLean, Virginia. I was married. My husband and I owned a nice house. I was a stay-at-home mom. Three kids. I was everything my mother would have wanted me to be. I read books, but only children’s books. Goodnight Moon, The Cat and the Hat.
One day I was alone in my car, running errands in town. As I drove past Dolley Madison library I thought about how much I wanted to, oh my goodness, just READ A BOOK. I reminded myself of the promise. And then came this thought, “Your mother is dead. It’s impossible to please a dead person.” How true how true. You can’t please a dead person. Maybe that thought had been lurking in my subconscious for awhile, maybe God had whispered in my ear—I don’t know. Anyway, I pulled my car into the library parking lot, marched inside that library and checked out a stack of books. I haven’t stopped reading since.
I tell you this true personal story, sad and bizarre as it is, because it has everything to do with my interpretation of today’s text. To my way of thinking, Mary is me. She is a nerd. And Martha, if not my mother, is at least someone LIKE my mother—someone who doesn’t understand nerds. And Jesus? Well, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.” Jesus understands. Jesus is on my side. As my daughter says. SWEET.
When I was new to preaching, this is one of the first scripture readings I preached from. But sadly, I didn’t share my backstory. I just said something to the effect, that those of us who read and study God’s word are on the right path—those who get caught up in busy-ness, who DON’T take time out to read and study, are not living lives that are pleasing to God.
My goodness, did my sermon cause a stir. People either loved that sermon, or they hated it. One person in the congregation gave me multiple kudos and asked for copies of the sermon to give to his friends. Another, wrote me an extremely heated e-mail. He insisted that reading and studying, sitting and listening, were NOT the better part. I pretty much told him to take up his argument with Jesus. It was Jesus, not me, after all, who said, “Mary has chosen the better part.”
Looking back now, congregation members, those who shared with me their thoughts about that sermon anyway, were probably divided along lines established in high school. You remember—in high school, in the cafeteria, there were nerd tables and jock tables, and at least one long haired, hippie table—well, apparently those divisions, as those self-images, were still with them, as also with me; It probably takes a long time to recover from our high school years. Or, do we ever?
Now that I am older though, and now that I am giving this passage another look, I don’t think that this reading is really about nerds—vs. the rest of humanity. Nor do I think it is, as some other clergy types claim, a reading meant to inspire women to eschew traditional female roles.
Looking at this scripture with fresh eyes, I think that back eighteen years ago when I first preached on this text, I fell into a trap. Jesus is so good at that, isn’t he? In his preaching, in his teaching—he sets traps for us, that force us to come to terms with the log in our own eye. I think now that in identifying with Mary, I actually betrayed my own Martha-ness. What is it that Jesus objected to? Was it that Martha was busy, or was it that Martha was judging her sister unfairly—wanting Mary to be something she was not? Just as my mother wanted me to be something I was not?
In setting up this duality in my own mind-- nerds vs. non-nerds, I was playing judge. This side of wisdom, I believe that Mary chose the better way not because she sat at Jesus’ feet listening, but because she didn’t judge. She just did what she, Mary, was called to do—to be what she was called to be.
I thought it might be fun to do a rewrite of the ending to the story we have before us today in scripture. Let us imagine that while Mary and brother Lazarus, and probably some other men, are listening to Jesus, Martha busies herself in the kitchen. She is THE supreme hostess—taking care of every little thing—she assures for example, that the table centerpiece is just the right height so that her guests can see each other across the table; and she even frosts the beer mugs because she believes that is the way that beer is supposed to be served. She roasts a fine leg of lamb. Why does she go to so much trouble? Because she knows that Jesus is the one—Jesus is the Messiah, and nothing is too good for the Messiah. When everything is ready, she calls her guests to the table. Jesus thanks her for her fine hospitality and for the glorious spread. She smiles broadly. Her heart is virtually singing. I mean, she has served Jesus, and Jesus is pleased. What can be better than that? Later, after Jesus has left, Martha prods Mary—“What did Jesus say? Will you tell me? What did you find so compelling?'
Similarly, a better way would have been for my mother to have peered into my bedroom that fateful, personally painful evening and asked, “What are you reading? I want to know.” And a better way for me to have responded to that angry church member, those many years ago, was to simply ask, “And what is it that this text is saying to YOU.”
This sermon, has been eighteen years in the making. Eighteen years later, I think there are three take aways from a serious reading and studying of this text: One: we bring to our Biblical texts different life stories. We ignore or fail to honor the life stories of others to our peril, creating rifts in our communities, and in our families, rather than bonds of love.
Two: We have different gifts, different passions, different life circumstances. And all of those differences can, if we are doing church right, come together and create a perfect whole, a vibrant community of faith.
Three and most importantly: this text is about mutual respect and compassion. Shame on me, for not recognizing that sooner. Amen