There’s an old song called “Sisters” that my brunette, brown-eyed sister and I sang when we were young, in Memphis, Tennessee, to a room full of veterans, while our grandmother played the piano.
Then, we sang the songs of the Armed Forces: “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun…”. That came to me this week as I watched documentaries on Apollo 11, and when two test pilots – one with a doctorate in astronautics and the inspiration for the hero in Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear— when they step down to the lunar surface, my heart nearly burst with wonder.
On the day it happened, I was studying art and politics in Rome and took a bus to the American Embassy to watch, but the TV was nothing but snow, nobody was tuned in, and I missed seeing everything.
Now, on the module on the moon’s surface, there is a plaque imprinted with the names of the astronauts, in their handwriting, and the date: July 20, 1969, A.D., Anno-Domini, the numbers of years since Jesus was born. The fighter pilot John McGee wrote, “I’ve slipped the surly bonds of earth… (and) put out my hand and touched the face of God.” Then there’s the first video of Earth-rise, Christmas Eve 1968, Seattle astronaut Bill Anders reading, “In the beginning, God created…heaven .. and .. earth.”
But I want to circle back to my sister, because I often have the sense that one of us might as well be on the far side of the moon. These days, she’s a deacon and in a double-wide trailer lives way outside of Liberty, Mississippi, a town of 750. A born extrovert, she is a whiz at whipping up a feast for forty, with flowers and pizzazz. She set up and ran the first food kitchen in Monroe, Louisiana, for people on the street and routinely had a homeless person living in the spare bedroom. Right now, my sister has taken a position that’s opposite mine in a family conflict.
Do you have a sister? Maybe you have a stellar relationship with her, but the pathway that my sister and I walk has been sometimes sprinkled with compassion and generosity, but littered with shame and sorrow, blame and blind spots: what else? Take your pick among the possibilities in any family system. Her extroversion and my introversion in opposition, the sensate and the intuitive: it’s a relationship that’s tricky and convoluted, like most every family relationship.
It’s like this Gospel reading about a pair of sisters, Martha-Mary. They show up once in the Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, Luke—and they are worn out with cliché. One reason is that this story gets tangled up with stories about four other women named Mary: this is not Mary of Magdala, not the wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus, not Mary of Clopas or the mother of James. And if you want to skip ahead 10-15 years to John and see the other reference to Martha-Mary, you can add a brother, and read about his being raised from the dead, and totally confuse today’s story. Today there’s no brother, no Lazarus, no alabaster jar, no oil poured on feet and wiped with long hair.
What do you not know about these sisters? Have they ever been married? Are they married now? Are they widows? What about children? Which sister is older and holds title to the property? How do they support themselves? Did they inherit land with olive trees, or a flock of sheep, or a big-enough vineyard or orchard for support? Is it possible that they operate an inn for travelers, with continual food prep in a job that’s a source of much anxiety and trouble? And do they often irritate each other and find fault?
Here’s what you know. This comes directly after a story of a man who is stripped and beaten and left half-dead and rescued by a good Samaritan. Hold that. Now: two sisters have a house. There is no mention of men in the household: not a husband or father or brother or son. All you know is that one sister welcomes a visitor into the house. She cooks. The other sister sits around listening to the man. The cook complains to the guest, either because she wants help, or because she’d rather be sitting around listening, but she can’t, because somebody has to cook supper. The guest comments that she’s too busy and distracted and defends the sister. And I think: what’s really going on here? What is the point that Luke is making? Take this down another level, to something bigger.
Consider the notion that these two sisters are parts of one integrated person, with all that complexity: both hospitable and spiritually hungry; focused on work, and afraid of missing out;
holding a balance between extroversion and introversion; between reason and emotion; busy with work and starving to know what’s out there, beyond the kitchen. It’s not enough to stay inside or hide away. It’s not enough. There’s that stretch of human imagination, moving on. There’s life out there.
This story is an invitation. Martha-Mary bumps right up against the Good Samaritan, and with these four people, there’s an entire worldview, the building blocks, the DNA of Jesus, the fundamental core of belief, and the kingdom of God is right here. It’s a doorstep, and you’re invited to walk across the threshold in search for connection and balance, to find welcome and comfort and solace and sustenance for your hungry heart.