St Alban’s July 17, 2022
Year C Proper 11
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
When we look at the condition of our world today, the temptation is just not to look. We are facing one crisis after another, one crisis piled on top of many others. I want to sum up all the problems in a diagnosis known in Old Testament times: Too few people with too few scruples hold too much coercive power over too many areas of our lives. If today we had been celebrating Communion, we would have heard from the prophet Amos, calling out the leaders of Israel who were impatient for worship to end so they might tamper with weights and measures, sell “the sweepings of the wheat,” and otherwise make money from exploiting the poor. Something similar goes on today on a vaster scale. Secular and Faith communities alike see and deplore. We who claim that Jesus holds, or Jesus is, the answer to our present near-apocalyptic chaos, how do we support that claim? I intend to point to our readings in Colossians and in Luke for indications and principles, and to suggest instances, of how a person might reorient oneself and find suitable movements to espouse in working toward a Godly order in these more-than-ordinarily challenging times.
The immediate circumstance in our Gospel reading provides a teapot tempest that gives us a relatively calm view of what one should or shouldn’t do in crisis times. I refer here to the household crisis as perceived by Martha, not to any of the wider upset in Roman occupied Judea. There is a long tradition of comparing the reproved Martha and the approved Mary as representatives of the active and contemplative lives respectively. That is a medieval misreading. Might as well compare breathing out unfavorably to breathing in: it could be argued, but not acted on without disaster. The worse and the better here are the ways the two sisters have chosen to approach Jesus. Martha manipulates, attempting to bend Jesus to her will. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, attempting to become filled with his teaching and presence.
Who among us has not found ourselves in Martha’s position, more and more often recently? When you feel “run off your feet,” do you get short tempered? I have.
Are you quick to name perceived flaws in others? I have been.
Do you resent having others follow their own agendas when you had been counting on them to help you with yours? I have done that.
Martha here has failed to make the better choice, but I do not consider that that makes her a bad person. She is Jesus’ good friend and hostess. She recognizes Jesus’ authority, or she wouldn’t have tried to coopt it. She is knocking herself out to feed and house Jesus and his dusty, road-weary group. She is a good person. But when she starts seeing herself as THE good person on the scene, and a victim at that, she veers off course. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, reminds us that until we get love right, we can get nothing right. Martha’s words to Jesus are difficult to interpret as “getting love right.”
“Lord, do you not care?” This is a form of manipulation which works only on those who do care. Again, Martha knows how extraordinarily Jesus cares, or she would not have used this question to influence him. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Martha has allowed herself to become so harassed that she is leading not with the love which she undoubtedly has for Jesus, for her sister, and I would argue, for herself, but with a defensive strategy that disempowers all three of them, Jesus, who is to take orders, Mary who is to take orders, and Martha herself who hides behind a greater authority. Coercive power drives; the power of love draws.
I hear a lot going on in Jesus’ reply. In “Martha, Martha,” I hear Jesus summoning, drawing, calling the Martha he knows and loves to be present, to pay attention, to accept his love for her and not speak questions about it. “You are worried and distracted by many things;” and in this I hear Jesus saying that he feels her distress and cares that she suffers it, but does not himself distress himself over these matters. “There is need of only one thing.” I am happy with Presiding Bishop Curry’s formulation, get love right and all else falls into place. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” So no, Jesus does not care that Mary has left Martha with all the work, and Martha might better not care about that quite so much either.
If we now shift our attention to the passage from Colossians, it must seem at first that we are zooming out to a very wide angle after a close-up. But let us not lose hold on our sense of immediacy. We are working up to “Christ in you, the hope of Glory”. Nothing can be more immediate or more intimate than the glimpses of eternity visible in the accounts in the book After, and it is that sort of perspective which informs this passage from Colossians. Apart from revelation, it would be hard to come up with such sweeping assertions concerning Jesus. The material universe does not of itself give rise to such claims. What then, if we turn that around and say instead that the material universe makes sense only if viewed through the lens of this revelation?
The Webb space telescope has begun to inundate us with images that bring home to us a universe even more grand and overwhelming than we could see before, with the Hubble telescope, and what we could see before was already beyond us. It brings us visual evidence consistent with the “Big Bang,” which we ‘people of the book’ identify with “Let there be light.” Our passage from Colossians states that if we want to understand the purpose of that moment of creation and its subsequent course, and if we want to bring the Creator himself within reach of our contemplation, Jesus the Christ is our chance. The conclusion I draw from this is that even in the midst of that unimaginable display of power at the beginning of the universe, we were loved, again beyond our imagining. The power expressed in the creation of everything that is has to be felt as a threat by a creature as fragile as we are. “In the world you will have tribulation but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.” Love has countered fear for us, if we will accept it and return love for love, in a range of ways summed up in the General Thanksgiving we will all say as we conclude this service:
We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life
(the fact that we exist, have continued to this moment, and have as much as we do have to lose all speak of love poured out on us)
But above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our lord Jesus Christ
For the means of grace and for the hope of glory.
What is this hope of glory? Let me suggest that it is our life in eternity in the presence of God. Let me tackle a vexed question here: priority is not the same as a fight to the death. God is more important than mankind, but since God loves mankind, that should not be making them adversaries. The life to come is more important, eternity is more important, than time and space and this life, but since it would seem that this life exists for the sake of the life to come, we still need to give this world our best shot, in the confidence that what others dismiss as pie in the sky when you die in reality goes way beyond the tribulations of this world. This is where we find ourselves. Let us choose, when we must lose ourselves, to do so in the direction of God, who returns us to ourselves whole, rather than in the direction of the things of this world, which have no power to preserve either themselves or us.
Giving up our selves to your service, . . .walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.
My friends, beloved of God, it is a long walk. In this walk with all its terrors and distractions one thing is needed. Jesus does not name the one thing. I suspect it has almost as many names as God, and for the same reason. The one thing could be to follow the summary of the law. I have in the past tried out that it might be to listen to Jesus. Now we are looking at getting love right. Indeed, I claim that all these describe one thing, not a static thing but a walk, a path, a way, a process. While I have not looked into anything that Presiding Bishop Curry may have said to expand this concept, I still want to make so bold as to tell you what I understand by the phrase. First of all, getting love right is not one and done, but a lifelong challenge. There can be no recipe, because of the endless variations of individuals, unique people and circumstances. Laws cannot be written to cover it. At the same time,, getting love right will always entail loving God first, and our neighbor and ourselves for God’s sake, because God loves us,(and there is only us; there is no them) and because we are part of God’s project, the “Dream of God.”
Getting love right requires successive approximations, trial and error, and thus forgiveness. There is a reason why the General Confession can confidently expect us to say, week after week,”We have not loved you with our whole heart, or our neighbor as ourselves,” Accepting Colossians’ definition that Jesus is the purpose, the goal and the end point of the creation, we have not arrived, we do not get to rest on our laurels, until we are fully and immovably “in Christ,” not something I expect of us in this life. Mary was going as directly as possible in the right direction, as she chose, as she was drawn, as she was called. Had Martha been leading with love, she might have seen the love in Mary’s choice without envying her or misreading love as an attempt to avoid work.
When we look at the condition of our world today, we can be thankful that we have some leaders we can look to who are not using coercive power, and by whose teaching and example we can refuse to be coerced against our conscience. We can follow our calling.. We can follow what draws us in the various resistance and restoration movements asking for our help. We can follow the counsel of Martin Luther King Jr. when he recommends asking first not what might happen to me if I help, but what will happen to them if I don’t help. We can follow Presiding Bishop Curry, who has renewed the Episcopal Church under the banner of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. We have a diocesan bishop we are prepared to follow because we are drawn. And above all we have Jesus, in whom the whole fullness of God is pleased to dwell, who can call us as he did Mary or recall us as he did Martha as we do our best to follow the way that leads to “getting love right.”
And now unto God, creator, redeemer and strengthener, we ascribe as is most justly due, all might,
majesty, worship and praise, from this time and for ever more.