Sunday, 17 July 2016

Such devoted sisters

GospelLuke 10:38-42 

Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’

For a Gospel of only four verses, Martha and Mary can certainly create a debate. Enough to be sure that the sermon will not be of a similar length…

The Gospel is known as Martha and Mary, not Martha or Mary, yet the temptation is very much to take sides and certainly the most vocal supporters tend to be  ‘Martha’s. There is often a great pride and justification in this – at least in the Martha we think we are – whilst at the back of our minds wishing that it could be our turn to sit and let someone else take the strain.

There is many a spiritual guru who will coin the term that we should be  ‘human beings not human doings’ and defend hours spent in silence and stillness as opposed to attending to the busy demands of life. And most of us will raise our eyebrows and huff. After all, families and homes don’t look themselves; we don’t get paid for contemplating the universe.

It certainly touches a nerve in parish life too. Prayers are important but the stalls for the summer fair didn’t put themselves up, the flowers arrangements don’t grow out of the stonework, the grass in the churchyard does not limit itself to two and a half inches of growth. I’m sure I could go on.

The Gospel of Luke particularly calls us into service; the sending of the seventy two; the parable of the Good Samaritan – go and do – go and serve. It seems almost  ironic that Jesus speaks in support of Mary. We follow Jesus, because Jesus, so rarely sits still.  But even when he’s still – Jesus teaches.

Mary is a  student sitting at the Rabbi’s feet; engaged in scriptural and spiritual enlightenment.

Whilst women were expected to understand the Torah enough to complete the rite and rituals to fulfil the Law, this was the limit of their necessary education. Mary’s choice is a life changing one. She is no longer the sister/servant sitting at the door welcoming visitors. She is the beloved in the presence of the Beloved. No longer a woman of little value or standing, Mary is a disciple. Even to her own sister, she has lost her name as she focuses on what really matters. She can’t be called away – she can’t move – for now – she is in the good place.

Martha’s resentments are echoed in the story of Abraham and the angels – making the invitation; providing the hospitality at great expense, standing by anxious and fretful, only to see Sarah as  the one who is blessed. Only to see Mary as the one who is blessed.

Like Abraham, Martha is suffering – like Abraham it is not the act of service that is all wrong but the attitude that goes with it.

The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that there are different ways of serving – the obligation to serve the law that justified the priest and the Levite and the obligation – the commandment -  to serve Love.

Martha’s invitation, we must believe, was made with love.  When Jesus entered their lives he brought an open hearted desire of all that God has to offer. An invitation to a relationship of growing intimacy.  An invitation that Mary grabs with both hands and that Martha allows to trail through her fingers.

One of the Salesian sisters that I work with told me – that Jesus comes into our door so that we can enter out through his. So what does this mean?

At some point in our Christian life, no matter who we are , we are offered God’s invitation.  In Baptism we are assured, with an extravagance of signs and symbols, that we are precious children of God. In moments of revelation during our lives we are bathed in the knowing peace that before we are anything else, we are God’s.

They may be in quiet moments of prayer – but they could equally be in the midst of family and work life - preparing a meal, washing the dishes, caring for a patient, helping a child make their first steps, listening to the same old stories of an elderly relative,  driving home after a hard days work, walking the dog, or fixing a washing machine.

As long as, unlike Martha, we haven’t left God somewhere else whilst we are doing it.

Why didn’t Martha invite Jesus into the kitchen?

Because that wasn’t the accepted thing to do?
Because she was the elder, the woman of the house, the host?
Because she was meant to be in control; it was her house, her kitchen, her life?
Because she thought she could do it all by herself?

The world tells us to grow up; to be responsible, to be adult. The world tempts us with achievements to aspire to, ambitions to fulfil. The world tells us we can have it all. It doesn’t tell us how to deal with the fact that we don’t and we can’t. Except to push us a little further.

We believe our lives divided between the spiritual and the mundane. So we become distracted.

We judge ourselves by what we could be doing if only… if only….So we become anxious.

We spiral into a fear of getting it wrong….So we become fretful.

So we stand in the doorway and bemoan that Jesus does not care and that he is clearly too busy with the ‘holy’ people to have time for people like us.

If this is being a Martha, then something is very, very wrong.

Fortunately, as the psalms and lamentations reassure us, even this is relationship. Even our fretful complaints and demands are enough for Jesus to reach us through the smallest crack of our heart’s door.

And guide us to our Good Place – where the Commandments are reversed – and we rest in the knowing that God loves us with all God’s might and strength.  And that God loves us just as much as any of our neighbours.

This is the Martha and the Mary coming together in Christ. The contemplative in action; the freedom of service; the ministry of peace.

In Eucharist, Jesus offers the invitation. He doesn’t mind if you are distracted, if it is too hot to concentrate, if it’s too noisy to pray, if there are other things on your mind. As long as you are here.

For all of us who live with a sense of needing to be useful; of wanting to be worthy, I would make an appeal. Give Martha permission to sit with Mary - at the foot of the table, at the feet of Jesus.

Let the world wait. 

Be here – where Jesus is – let him fill you with all that is good. Let him feed you for the journey and welcome him as he walks with you in all that you do.

May you be the wholeness of Mary and Martha.

May you be blessed and be a blessing to others.


Saturday, 9 July 2016

Go and do the same

GospelLuke 10:25-37 

There was a lawyer who, to disconcert Jesus, stood up and said to him, ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? What do you read there?’ He replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’ ‘You have answered right,’ said Jesus ‘do this and life is yours.’
  But the man was anxious to justify himself and said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of brigands; they took all he had, beat him and then made off, leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan traveller who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him on to his own mount, carried him to the inn and looked after him. Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said “and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have.” Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands‘ hands?’ ‘The one who took pity on him’ he replied. Jesus said to him, ‘Go, and do the same yourself.

The lawyer and the surrounding people knew the story of the Good Samaritan. It was a common teaching tale, told to make fun of the priests and the lawyers. A way to poke a sideways dig at the pomp and ceremony of the hierarchy with the oneupmanship of the commoner. Because the story usually ended with the hero being one of them; an ordinary Jew. 

Jesus must see them waiting with baited breath for the third traveller; ready with the cheers and bluster that the story allowed them. However, Jesus is a master storyteller and not so predictable; an ordinary Jew is not enough of a surprise. After all, an ordinary Jew had an agenda all of their own; it was a way for the 'have nots' to criticise the status quo; the them and us - whilst creating a 'status quo' all of their own.

It's an easy game to criticise 'them' - we do it ourselves with the politicians and  media stars.  We find ways of judging the Other and  the Stranger. 

A Samaritan isn't just a stranger; they are the worst kind of stranger; the disowned family. Once they were children of Abraham, now they are  alien, enemies. And yet, look at what this black sheep of the family did.

So the lawyer has the good grace to admit to the truth. The people around are challenged, and hopefully changed. 

And so the story plays out today, and we watch our own priestly clan leave the lost, abused and forsaken by the wayside - naming them disobedient, unforgiveable and abominations. 

In a time of the Church's desire to regress, regroup and restore, look who is becoming the 'stranger'; the Samaritan on the highway - a 80 year old, South American chemist 'turned' priest - turned Pope. 

Jesus is the master storyteller and the Holy Spirit breathes a twist into every plot - the semi-retired diplomat, John XXIII or the fisherman with a foot in his mouth, Peter.

Francis' actions have been an uncomfortable example to many. From washing the feet of the unclean to embracing those treated as lepers; nurturing the young offender including women and Muslims; welcoming the unwed mother and her child - and the disabled child. Being a neighbour to the next person he meets, no matter what the seeming divide. And consistently inviting us to do the same.

There are many who wonder if there is nothing he wouldn't do - no expense he wouldn't spare -  in the name of Jesus. And perhaps there isn't - so what does that mean? And what does that mean to the likes of us as the choice to look one way or the other gets closer and closer?

The story of the Good Samaritan irritated a lot people. People who were happy that their limitations were protected by a self-centred identity of who they were. 

Who do you think you are?


Sunday, 3 July 2016

Times of Crisis

GospelLuke 10:1-12,17-20 

The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him, in pairs, to all the towns and places he himself was to visit. He said to them, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest. Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road.
  ‘Whatever house you go into, let your first words be, “Peace to this house!” And if a man of peace lives there, your peace will go and rest on him; if not, it will come back to you. Stay in the same house, taking what food and drink they have to offer, for the labourer deserves his wages; do not move from house to house.
  ‘Whenever you go into a town where they make you welcome, eat what is set before you. Cure those in it who are sick, and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not make you welcome, go out into its streets and say, “We wipe off the very dust of your town that clings to our feet, and leave it with you. Yet be sure of this: the kingdom of God is very near.” I tell you, on that day it will not go as hard with Sodom as with that town.’
  The seventy-two came back rejoicing. ‘Lord,’ they said ‘even the devils submit to us when we use your name.’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Yes, I have given you power to tread underfoot serpents and scorpions and the whole strength of the enemy; nothing shall ever hurt you. Yet do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you; rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.’

When I speak to people about Vatican II there are still many who are surprised by the responsibility and dignity given to the laity in the expression and formation of faith. The Council document, Lumen Gentium, was extraordinarily clear in the right and privilege of those outside ‘religious’ life to follow ministries of their own within the fellowship of the Family of God. Pope Francis reminds us, in his weekly sermons,  that we are still the Light that Jesus intended us to be. 

The fact is that this document was produced over 50 years ago and yet this message of having personal, spiritual involvement and influence in our faith has seemed to have passed by both the laity and the Church who is responsible for teaching it. I attended a recent conference about the refugee and asylum seeker issues in our own area and was not surprised, though dismayed, to find that most of the clergy and the lay people were of the age who were inspired by the original 'sending' of those documents. Their will and their desire were as strong as ever. Their concern, quite literally, that they were a 'dying' breed; that the message needed another generation to carry it.  

For any Christian, it is not 50 years since we heard this message; but two thousand years; since this sending out of the seventy-two. Who are these seventy- two meant to represent? These disciples with no names; no gender; no country; no status, are ‘the rest’.  They are us, however we are,  and we are the way that the Word of God goes out to the world.

Going back to the significance of numbers in Scripture, among other inspired references, the number 72 refers to 'many in totality' so seventy two nations, and seventy two Hebrew names for God. The Lord sends God out in all His many guises; as father, mother, lion, brother, wind, fire. As many personalities and characters that the seventy-two possess; God is in them; just as God is in us in our uniqueness, our gifts and our talents.

Jesus, being no fan of the Law, does not limit the seventy-two; the rules are few and very clear.

Don’t surround yourself with stuff, making yourself look more than you are, creating a self-image that is not about God’s work but your own standing.

Bring peace, first and foremost. We are not here to put ourselves in the position of judge and jury. We are not here to add to conflict or distress. If peace is not possible then be prepared to walk away, in prayer.

Be grateful; we may want more that we have been given but it may be all that there is… accept hospitality with thanks and grace.

Care for others; the Word of God heals, forgives, reconciles. Even when the world might condemn or ignore, our duty is to bring the Kingdom closer, to make it real, living in Love not judgement.

And if you feel that you have done all you can and you are still refused or rejected, then walk away. No-one can be forced to believe – no-one. Your insistence may be the worse thing you can do; if you have shown your love by your actions and they are not welcomed, leave them to God.

Every one of those anonymous seventy-two had something; a gift, a talent that they took out into the towns and that brought them back rejoicing. It is no different with us. Our mission, our duty is to bring peace, to build the Kingdom of God with whoever we are – just as a city needs all its different tradespeople and craftsmen – be all you can be.

And lastly, remember who you are working for - not yourself – but for love. This is not the place for ego or recognition.

If the world never knows your name, but people are changed, healed, reconciled because of who you are - then that is enough. Who can deny, more than anything, that this what the world needs now. You are what the world needs now.