Not long ago, Parker and I watched a movie (which is also a book) called The Giver. The Cliff’s notes of it is that it’s a post-apocalyptic story where all memory of human joy, suffering, and pain has been erased in favor of making everyone the same and ensuring peace. There is no memory of inequality and no memory of war, but there is also no memory of things like romance or great joy. Weather has been eliminated by climate control. Everyone has a role to play in the society — birth mothers, nurturing family units, teachers of the youth.
In the story, there is one person in the whole of society who retains the memories of the past — the painful ones and the joyful ones. The memories are kept so that this person can advise the elders of the community to make decisions. That person is chosen in each generation and is called the “receiver of memory.”
The book tells the story of Jonas, a young adult who has been chosen to be the receiver of memory. The old receiver is called the Giver, and it is his job to teach Jonas the memories of humans past. Through technology and some unexplained processes, he helps Jonas to see some of the joyful things that have been forgotten — things like sledding down a hill in the snow (since all weather has been neutralized and it’s always warm and sunny), the thrill of romance, or sailing at sunset. The Giver is careful to keep the more painful memories away from Jonas until the timing is right.
But one day Jonas is accidentally given access to the memory of war. He struggles within the memory to survive, completely unused to the amount of injury, pain, and screaming he hears. In an attempt to survive, he shoots others within the memory. When the Giver regains control and pulls Jonas out of the memory, Jonas stumbles across the room, crying viscerally in disbelief,
“How could people do that?!”
This quote struck me deeply. I have wondered the same things in recent days. Months. Years. My whole life, really. We always think things are getting worse when in reality, even the Bible tells us how people have been cruel to each other since Cain murdered his brother Abel.
And now, the latest crop of suffering sits in front of us: Nice. Baton Rouge. Dallas. Minnesota. Turkey. Other suffering around the world that we can’t even name because it happens all the time and it isn’t in Europe or America. Endless suffering in Iraq and Syria, on the continent of Africa, and in places like North Korea.
Endlessly we ask ourselves Jonas’s question, “How could people do that?!”
Last week I was representing our denomination at the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive theology and music festival in North Carolina. Since we don’t really have internet at the Festival, we learned about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the murders of five police officers piecemeal – some before the festival, others during.
We asked ourselves and each other, “How could this happen?” “
“How could people do that?!”
But I had so much to do.
Like Martha in the Gospel text today, I had busied myself with my many tasks.
Make sure everything was packed. Make sure I had food for our potlucks. Make sure everything was rain-proof — rain was in the forecast for our campground in Hot Springs, NC. Get ready. Busy. Busy.
I felt the pain of yet more shootings, yet more family who in addition to losing their loved one, also had to face the unspeakable horror of having the video of their loved one’s death available to everyone with a smart phone. The images were nearly inescapable.
I was horrified, but I was distracted by my many tasks. There were people to be fed at the Festival, work to be done. And I was already tired. I still am.
While I welcomed these thoughts into my mind: the pain of it all, the complex dynamics at play, the hatred and the fear run wild, families without their loved ones — I was distracted by my many tasks. And deep in my soul, I knew that if I weren’t distracted, I might have been posting on social media about it, which is really just another way of making myself busy, of feeling like I’m doing something, even if it’s spreading my own personal point of view, feeling like I matter, like I should sound off. It’s still about me.
Somehow I feel like Martha could relate.
In our Gospel lesson today, Luke tells us that a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. Not only was that nice of her, it was brave.
This is especially true, considering that this Jesus figure was, by this point, very controversial. He was a controversial rabbi in an occupied land, constantly under threat from the government and the religious authorities and even the individuals he seemed to be constantly upsetting with his offensive parables and his scary healings and exorcisms. Things are bad today, but the things that people did to one another in the ancient world would appall you too. Rome was Israel’s occupier. Romans could kill Jewish troublemakers with no recourse by some of the most painful methods known to humanity — and crucifixion was only one of them.
Jesus was flirting with disaster.
Martha took a risk to herself and her family by taking him in.
And then, she goes and performs the tasks of hospitality that were expected of her, as a woman, by the culture of the day. We all know, some of us all too well, the idea that “somebody needs to do it” — someone has to clean the house, serve dinner, make everyone comfortable. Overwhelmingly throughout human history, these tasks have fallen on the women.
But when I read the text this week, I felt something else at play in Martha’s behavior. While gender roles are certainly at play here, to focus solely on gender, I think, is to somewhat miss the point of the story. Martha was more than just a woman expected to perform tasks. Judging only in terms of Martha’s words, she seems incredibly anxious to me. Often, we have put her anxiety off only on hospitality, again, reducing her to “just a woman”: she’s stressed, we think, because after all, someone has to make dinner.
But I want to offer the possibility that maybe Martha had concerns beyond dinner.
Yes, someone has to perform these tasks, and it makes her anxious that her sister isn’t helping. But Martha isn’t only a woman, you know.
How often do we all do exactly what Martha does here?
How often do our anxieties about other things manifest in busy-ness? How often do we yell at those we live with for not performing doing chores that need doing when in reality, we’re stressed about other things?
Truth be told, Martha has a lot to worry about beyond her chores. She has bravely welcomed this famous, controversial preacher named Jesus into her home: now what? What if a violent mob comes looking for him? What if the Romans do? What if the crowds longing to hear him crowd in around their home and someone panics? Jesus is a controversial figure in the midst of an already volatile life in the first century Holy Land. Martha is, no doubt, anxious about more than just supper.
And so she dives into her many tasks, I think, in an attempt to distract herself, snarking at Mary for not helping out.
Many of us do this, too, in various ways, in response to tragedy and violence. We can pretend like it isn’t happening, ignore it altogether, focus on what needs to be done in our daily lives. Or we can zoom in to the worst possibilities. We can oversimplify. We can spread rumors that we haven’t researched and post untrue things on social media, portraying the violence of the past two weeks as other than what it is: an incredibly complex culture problem where people have been murdered, over and over again, and lived in fear for a long time. Where religion is twisted into violence. Where authority is abused. Where people are constantly murdered in cycles of vengeance.
No matter our busied, harried responses, we distract ourselves from Jonas’s question in The Giver: “How could people do that?!” We are distracting ourselves from the pain of being human, of living in a world wracked with conflict and pain.
But Jesus, and Mary, offer us another alternative: we can face it — not by talking, but by listening.
Talking is easy, but listening is harder.
Consenting to spreading the worst of exceptional rhetoric is easy. You can easily find someone on the internet whom you disagree with who has said something outrageous, and you can post it all around. You can argue endlessly online. Or you can ignore everything altogether and going about your daily lives because none of this violence affects us personally — here, in small town white America. Like me and like Martha, you can acknowledge the controversy and the scariness and the pain and even invite Jesus to dinner but duck out to distract yourself, to escape your worry, griping at anyone who doesn’t help.
Listening is harder than all of these things. And yet Mary is told that she has chosen the right thing.
In our Old Testament reading today, Abraham is sitting in his tent entrance in the heat and he looks up and sees three guys standing there. At first it’s unclear if he really sees them or if he’s just feeling hazy in the heat (we can all relate these days). But turns out they’re real and he jumps up and offers them lavish hospitality from himself and Sarah without stopping to ask who they were, what neighborhood they were from, what race or religion they were, or how they voted in the last clan election. When they leave, they offer a blessing: Sarah, once barren, will have a son. The family will have a future.
Over and over, the Bible encourages us to be open in the midst of a terrifying world. It urges us to stop distracting ourselves or fighting for a moment and just listen. To stop in the midst of a hot day and show kindness to strangers. Even in the midst of violence and chaos and risk.
“How could people do that?!”
They are human. We are human. And we all have a tendency to shut our ears and try to do something — something idle, something trivial, or something terrible. What we don’t do well is to sit and listen.
But the invitation is always there. Jesus begs us, in the midst of chaos, to stop what we’re doing, drop our many tasks, and sit at his feet to listen. To listen as the Holy Spirit whispers, “Do unto others as they would do unto you. What you have done to the least and most hated of my family members, you have done to me.” and ultimately, “Stop fighting, my beloved. Rest now.”
I do not have the answers to the world’s problems. What I do know is that we all think they can be solved through doing and not through listening. And we are wrong.
So let us listen, to Jesus and to one another. Let us accept Jesus’ invitation to just be. To sit with the broken. To protect the vulnerable. To just be: to be beloved, secure, knowing that no human hatred will separate us from the love of God. And then let us be sent out, not to do, but to listen.
In The Giver, Jonas ultimately discovers that while human pain, cruelty, and suffering are part of living a full life, so is joy, so is love, so is connection with another human being. When we numb ourselves from one set of emotions, we numb all of them. But when we open ourselves to one, we open ourselves to it all.
So let us be like Mary. Let us stop, sit at the feet of the one who loves, and just be. Amen.
(Streaming on Netflix)