30 Jul Sermon: Trinity 5, Year C
17th July, 2022
In her sermon last week, Leah alluded to the difficulties of approaching well known bible passages, and I have felt something of her pain this week, reflecting on the story of Mary and Martha, the well-known words from Colossians, and the hospitality of Abraham, familiar to many from Rublev’s icon depicting his mysterious visitors.
In looking at these readings, though, I find myself grateful to the compilers of the lectionary for the combination of texts today, because when taken together, they allow us to step back a bit, and take a wider view of what our lives as Christians, as followers of God are all about. These texts invite us to consider something fundamental: how we respond to God in our midst.
Something I read recently reminded me of something I already knew, but needed to hear again: wherever I go, God is always already there. When I sit down to work, or pray, or even just scroll mindlessly on my phone, God is already there. I don’t need to magic God up, or say the right words, or in fact do anything at all. God is here already, before me, after me, around me, within me. The question within then shifts from, “how can I find God?” to, “God is here. Now what?”
Abraham and Sarah give us one response: welcome, and abundant hospitality. Unknown strangers walk past his tent, and Abraham is not looking to pull up the metaphorical drawbridge and protect himself, his family, his goods. He instead runs to greet them, showing great humility even though he is the one on home ground. He shares generously of what he has, alert to the needs of the travellers, without looking for anything in return. He offers us a powerful example of one possible reaction to discovering God in our midst, that of giving freely of ourselves and our goods.
Much of western culture has lost the sense of hospitality as a sacred responsibility: perhaps Benedictine monasteries, and indeed many others, have something to teach here. There is much about the welcome to be shown to guests in the Rule of Benedict, and while Benedict himself is alert to the disruption that guests can bring, he nonetheless commands a full and humble welcome from the community. He invites the porter to give thanks to God with every new person knocking at the door, and to ask that person for a blessing. Perhaps we might update this to also giving thanks every time the phone rings, or pings, or buzzes at us?
Benedict’s reasoning for this generous and humble response is that the guest at the door is to be received as Christ, and in our reading from Colossians we get some sense of the full awesomeness of this. The first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope have been released this past week, and they are truly incredible, showing us our universe in entirely new detail. It’s in this kind of reaction, a genuine ‘wow’, where we meet with Paul as he writes about the Jesus he knows: Jesus as the place the place where all things hold together, the beginning, the firstborn of all creation, the dwelling place of all the fullness of God, the location of our reconciliation. This is the Jesus, says Paul, that has reunited us with God, making us holy and blameless and irreproachable before God. Wow.
And Paul’s reaction here? There are two aspects. The first is simply to worship, to enumerate the ‘wow’ of God and of Jesus, as Paul does in the first part of the extract we heard today. And secondly, to serve God by seeking to make God known, in response to the commission given him by God. There’s a key difference, in my opinion, between the two responses: while some demands of life in God, such as hospitality and worship can rightly be seen as universal, others are given to groups of people, communities, families, congregations, individuals.
Even within the community here, there are some parts of monastic life to which we are all called – the Office, for example – but there are also more individual calls within the group. We’re not all called to be Abbot, or to offer Spiritual Direction, or to grow courgettes, or write icons, or preach. There is no one right way to be a member of this community, or to be a monastic, or to be a vicar, or to be a Christian, or a mother or a father. What we all must seek to carry, though, is “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”.
And this brings us, with Jesus, to the house at Bethany, and to Martha and Mary. I feel for Martha here: I’m not sure quite how well I would have coped as lunch cook yesterday if we’d suddenly had a dozen or more extra for the meal, yet Martha welcomes Jesus and his disciples into her home. This house is often seen as a familiar and welcome resting place for Jesus and his followers, and I get a sense of that closeness in Martha’s somewhat intemperate demand to Jesus – you have to know someone fairly well to risk speaking to them so directly, and with such evident frustration. She’s committed to welcoming Jesus to the best of her ability, and to fulfilling the sacred demands of hospitality, and here is someone who could be helping, and isn’t.
We’re so used to this little tableau – Jesus, with Mary at his feet and Martha at his shoulder, that we miss how radical it is. To sit at someone’s feet in this way is to be a disciple, to show your desire to learn. I can’t imagine many other rabbis of the time permitting a woman to sit at their feet with such openness, yet Jesus says, “she has every right to be here. She too can be a disciple of mine; her place is assured and will be protected”. I imagine Jesus’ reply here as gentle, and loving, with a hint of an invitation to Martha to sit down also; there’s a version of this story in my mind where she does just this, and Jesus then sends Peter and James and John and the rest off to the kitchen to sort out the meal – if only!
As we heard at Office of Readings this morning, in a sermon by Gregory the Great, Jesus is absolutely not condemning Martha for her hospitality, but he is perhaps rather redirecting her, reminding her to keep her heart focussed on God, even while her body is busy. It’s her distractedness that is his concern, not her busyness.
Jesus is calling her, and all of us too, to an ever greater purity of heart, understood here not as avoiding off-colour jokes and the like, but rather as an unswerving focus on God, whether in the midst of the pots and pans or sat at Jesus’ feet – or anywhere else we might be. It’s something we see in the Prologue to the Rule of Benedict, “This, then, is the beginning of my advice: begin everything you attempt with the earnest prayer that it will be brought to perfection”. It might sound simple, but it’s astonishing how quickly we can not forget God exactly, but just, well, get distracted.
Hence the well-known little story, where a visitor asks a monk what they do all day in the monastery. He replies, “we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.” Etcetera. The falling is not the important thing here, but rather the getting up. The more our hearts are turned, and re-turned, over and over and over again, to God who is our source and our goal, the more we approach the purity of heart we are all called to. Our routes to this will be different, because we’re all different: our call may be to the pots and pans, or to teach and preach, or to revel in God’s presence; most likely our lives will involve all of these and much more besides. In all and through all, though, is God. It’s a point that Henri Nouwen makes with his characteristic eloquence in his book “The Living Reminder”:
“When we walk in the Lord’s presence, everything we see, hear, touch or taste reminds us of Him. This is what is meant by a prayerful life. It is not a life in which we say many prayers, but a life in which nothing, absolutely nothing, is done, said or understood independently of Him who is the origin and purpose of our existence.”
Image: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Johannes Vermeer.