Sunday, 21 July 2019

Mary and Martha – a dichotomy or an invitation?

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 21 July 2019. Text: Luke 10:38-42.

This is a well-known passage that has sometimes been badly used to attack women, to present a never-good-enough situation where every option is wrong. So it’s a passage with danger in it. Yet to me it’s also a passage that’s got plenty of hope and encouragement. And first of all I want to say that I think it’s a mistake to treat this story as simply one about the domestic sphere. We’ll touch on that on and off, but ultimately it’s a story about discipleship and what it means to be a disciple, and it’s a story about hospitality, and what it means to offer hospitality. But ultimately I think it’s really important not to see it as putting two different ways of living in conflict with each other. The answer to Martha and Mary is one of both/and, rather than either/or.
Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, Jan Vermeer
By this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has quite an entourage. In the previous chapter, which we read in the lectionary two weeks ago, he sent out seventy disciples to do his work, and then they returned to him. This story only mentions him going alone to Martha’s village, but he could well have had others with him. I think this explains some of Martha’s anxiety, that she was going to have to look after a large number of people.

It’s important to notice that this was Martha’s house that Jesus entered. Not Martha’s husband or brother or father’s house. She was the householder. If you know John’s account of the death of Lazarus, Martha and Mary are described there as his sisters, but here in Luke no such link is made, and this story about Martha and Mary is only found in Luke. These events were taking place in a deeply patriarchical society, but there were women who owned property, and it was often those women who provided great amounts of practical support to Jesus in his ministry. So she was the host both in terms of her work around the house and in terms of the invitation.

There's a crucial word in the Greek where Martha complains about Mary not helping her. It's often translated as service or serving, but the Greek word is diakonia, and it's the root of our English word deacon. That's a specific  ministry in many church traditions. In some of the congregational churches which became URC, the people we now call elders, who run the church both spiritually and practically, were called deacons. The church of England ordains its clergy as deacons before they become priests. And in the church where I grew up, we had both deacons to do practical leadership and elders to do spiritual leadership. But in all these traditions, the role of a deacon is a distinct form of ministry which involves practical service.

So when Martha is rushing around doing things, she's deaconing, she’s doing the work of a deacon, an act of ministry. We often think she’s simply doing domestic chores, preparing food or bringing guests drinks or whatever, and that may well have been part of it, but the text doesn’t actually say this. It’s equally possible she’s doing wider work in supporting these travelling preachers, Jesus and his disciples, of finding them accommodation or working out routes or warning of dangerous places along the way or seeking out money for them. Jesus told his followers not to carry a bag or sandals, and that only worked if there were people like Martha to welcome them and care for their needs.

So it’s little wonder that Martha was distracted by all that she has to do. The Greek word that is translated as distracted is really strong. It means she was close to breaking point, and is the root of our word spasm. Martha was not just some flighty woman having a bit of a moan, as she’s all too frequently been described. Martha was a strong woman carrying out an important ministry, and was driven practically to despair by the amount she had to do. Now maybe she’d taken on too much but maybe it was just the nature of the work. It continues today. I’ve been reading a book [Invisible Women] by the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, and she observes if you look at both paid and unpaid work, including household and caring work as well as formal employment, then women today work longer hours than men in almost every part of the world, and it has significant effect on their physical and mental health.

One more thing to say about Martha’s work. As I’ve said earlier, hospitality really mattered in that society, a message that’s emphasised through the Old Testament, and she was the one that was showing hospitality to others. Indeed, the story of Martha and Mary immediately follows the parable of the Good Samaritan, that tale of a man who helped others, and the closing words from Jesus to that parable are “Go and do likewise”.

This is all really important, because there’s a common reading of the story which is to downplay all this practical work of Martha. The closing phrase that “Mary has chosen the better part” has often been used to suggest that women’s work matters less, and especially that women’s domestic work matters less. I don’t know how many people have read or seen The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood’s dystopia about a fundamentalist totalitarian society that places women into strictly policed roles. The domestic servants in that book are called Marthas, after this story, and in the TV adaptation they’re constantly shown in these very drab olive green dresses, and always working and working. But it’s really unfair to our Martha here, as I’ve shown already, and it’s really unfair to those who do domestic work, and especially women. Because the meals need to be cooked, the disciples need to be fed, the laundry needs to be done.

I’ve spoken quite a lot in support of Martha, so let’s turn to Mary. She’s also a really interesting figure. Because she was acting in a deeply counter-cultural role here, was really challenging her patriarchal society by engaging so actively with Jesus, in a way that was really uncommon for women. This phrase about sitting at his feet, as illustrated by Vermeer, can perhaps be taken literally, but it’s not just about gazing up at him adoringly. To sit at the feet of a teacher was to listen to them actively, to be their direct student, to absorb not just their words and messages but also their lifestyle, their way of talking and thinking. It was learning through observation, very much like being an apprentice. And of course the name for that kind of student was a disciple. Mary was actively being a disciple of Jesus. And it’s clear she was really listening, really absorbed in Jesus’ teaching.

There’s an interesting observation in one of the commentaries [by Richard Swanson] I read this week. The Jewish tradition of studying Torah is that it’s always carried out in dialogue with others. You need a study buddy. It’s not a matter of reading it and finding the right interpretation by yourself. Everything is open to discussion, debate, and there are no final conclusions. Jewish texts such as the Talmud are full of alternative interpretations and debates between scholars. And we can think of Jesus and Mary in this light, discussing the meaning and implications of a particular text or set of ideas. But then Mary is carrying out a vital service to Jesus, in discussing and debating with him, in enabling him to share and develop his ideas. Mary is showing hospitality to Jesus, in a different way from Martha, but a way that is just as important.

Because I think it’s quite wrong to put Mary and Martha in opposition to each other. Neither is better than the other. Both are necessary ways of being. And both are open to all of us. Jesus is clearly in favour of people showing hospitality, and he’s in favour of all people being able to learn and engage with important subjects. We all need to do both of these. “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” goes the question, and it’s the wrong question. The only good answer is “both of these, at different times of life”. The theologian Richard Rohr talks about the way that at one time in our life, we’re active in the world, rushing around, driven by success; and at other times we’re slower, quieter, more contemplative. He links it to different stages of life, younger and older people, but it’s also possible for us to live in these different ways at any time of our live. In other words, sometimes we’re Martha and sometimes we’re Mary.

And so when Jesus says “Martha, Martha”, he’s not criticising her or condemning her lifestyle or way of acting in the world. He’s offering her an invitation, that she too could exhibit the kind of discipleship that Mary was living, in addition to her own form of discipleship and ministry.

And he offers us the same invitation, the same opportunity to live in a different way. Even if we spend our time rushing around madly distracted by our many tasks, we’re invited to sit at Jesus’ feet and absorb his message. And likewise, if our place is to contemplate and read and discuss and think, then that needs to be tempered by action and caring work for the needs of others. Because it’s not about being either Martha or Mary. It’s about being both. And in that way we’re enabled to live in the fullness that Jesus promised to his disciples, and also to enable others to live in that fullness. Amen.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

New commandment, new creation

Sermon preached at The Headlands United Reformed Church, 19 May 2019. Texts: John 13:31-35, Revelation 21:1-6.

Image: Trinity Toledo Episcopal Church
We’ve heard two passages this morning about things that are new. We have a new heaven and a new earth in the book of Revelation, and a new commandment in the gospel of John. For me, spring often feels like a time of new growth, of new life. And we are still in the season of Easter, and the readings are still on the theme of new life after death. In my view these two different things that are new are very closely linked. So we’ll talk first about the new heaven and new earth, and move on to the new commandment.

First thing to be said about the passage from Revelation, as ever with any reading of that strange book, is that nothing in it should be taken as prediction or at face value. It belongs to the category of apocalyptic literature and like all such work, it’s mostly a deep social commentary upon the world of its time, full of symbolism and strange imagery. It’s a book that’s often seen as rather threatening in mainstream churches, but I spent a month a couple of year ago reading my way through the book before the start of Advent and blogging about it, chapter by chapter, and I ended up with a strong respect for Revelation. 

So what’s this about? It’s not so much about the end-times as about the nature of the kingdom of God. It’s about bringing together heaven and earth into one, and building it on earth. Because although most translations talk about a new heaven and earth, there’s apparently a good case in the Greek for the word ‘new’ to be understood not so much as ‘brand new’ but as ‘renewed’, as recreated. Some special places in the world are sometimes described as thin places, a phrase I first heard to describe the island of Iona. In these places the gap between heaven and earth is said to be less than elsewhere. Well in this new Jerusalem, there is no gap at all between heaven and earth. God has come to live with his people here and now. And I do believe that the author of Revelation means this as a model for the present time, not just for the future, just as Jesus said ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’.

If God is present among us in this new Jerusalem, then all the bad things of the world will be at an end. Because the other thing about Revelation is that it was written at a time of great persecution, and written to people who knew all about death and mourning and pain. This is why the words are of such comfort, and why they’re often read today at funerals and have been set to beautiful music. My favourite setting is by Karl Jenkins, in his mass for peace in times of war, The Armed Man. As an idea it’s also the basis of CS Lewis’ vision of the eternal future in his final book in the Narnia series, where after the end of the world of Narnia he talks of the ‘real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here’. The new earth is the same as the current earth, only more real and better than the current earth.

But if it’s true that this is an image of the kingdom of God now rather than just in the future, if it fits with the words of the Lord’s Prayer that “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”, then how is this to happen? Well, I think for that we need to look to our other text for today. And as a link I want to share with you a hymn from the Iona Community, written by John Bell, which reads:
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
Beginning with you and starting today.
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
My promise is true, for I am Christ the way.
So let’s turn to the new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples. It’s the same word for new in the Greek as the new heaven & new earth, so there’s a clear link there, along with the same sense of renewal. It’s a strange thing to call new in some ways, the idea of loving one another. If we just see that in terms of love within the group of believers, just as love for fellow Christians, then that’s not new at all. The idea of loving one’s neighbour is in the book of Deuteronomy, and it was described by Jesus as summing up the whole of the law, along with loving God. But when asked who he meant by neighbour, he offered the amazing parable of the Good Samaritan, full of images of outsiders and crossing of boundaries. And throughout his ministry he warns that simply loving those who love us is insufficient, and that we must love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us, even seventy-seven times. So already in the gospels we see Jesus presenting love for others as being something expansive and costly.

Yet in this passage we see a still more costly love being presented as a model. Context is always important in understanding scripture, and although the lectionary presents this as the gospel reading four Sundays after Easter, it occurs in the narrative at the Last Supper. Shortly before this passage, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, giving them his model of leadership and love through sacrifice – what is sometimes called servant leadership; and he explicitly says that the disciples should wash each other’s feet. Then we have Jesus’ prediction that one of the disciples will betray him, and he makes it clear through his actions that he’s talking about Judas Iscariot, who leaves the room. There’s a quality like a film script to all this, and the passage we heard begins with the words “when we had gone out”, meaning Judas on his way to betray Jesus. And immediately after the passage we heard, the camera turns to Peter, who is usual impetuous way says he’ll lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus says that in fact he’ll deny even knowing Jesus before the next morning.

I say all this because it all goes to show what Jesus means when he says “that you love one another as I have loved you”. This is the love Jesus has shown to his disciples. It’s one of sacrifice, one of putting them first before himself, one of encouragement and care. It’s an self-denying love, not expecting something back and not holding anything back. Now that kind of love is hard. When others hate you, love them. When others call you names, love them. When others deny that you can be a Christian because you don’t conform to their narrow pattern of Christianity, love them. Jesus doesn’t say anything about liking these people, but he does say a lot about loving them. And the context matters because he’s saying it midway between betrayal by one disciple and being cut off by another disciple.

Indeed the context matters so much that we named the entire day after this saying. Because in Latin, ‘new commandment’ is ‘mandatum novum’, and from that word mandatum, we get our name Maundy Thursday for the day before Jesus died, the day that he washed feet, the day that he gave this commandment. The new commandment is the most important thing that happened on that day. In essence, it’s Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples.

Jesus also links this commandment to this rather complex saying about the son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) being glorified, and God being glorified in him. Now that word glorified, and glory more generally, is not really one that we see used in modern English outside of a church context. It’s around in lots of church language, plenty of times in the Bible and in hymns and prayers, but hardly ever outside of the church. The word in Greek, doxa, also means thought or appearance, but came to be used as a Greek version of a Hebrew word kavod, which refers to the presence of God but also to a sense of honour or respect. So perhaps we might say that God has been given honour by Jesus’ actions, that by the way Jesus behaves and lives, God’s presence has been felt and greater honour has been given to God. Some of this will come in the manner of Jesus’ death, but the sense of glorification must been seen first of all through the life of Jesus, and through the way he has been interacting with others in the self-giving love we have already seen.

This self-giving love from Jesus, in both his life and his death, fit alongside a Jewish idea of commandment always being linked to covenant relationships. The Ten Commandments were given at Sinai after a covenant was reached between Moses and God. And these covenants required a guarantee, often to do with sacrifice and blood – and the twin forms of self-giving love from Jesus form precisely this kind of guarantee. So we see love and sacrifice linked in the backdrop and support for this new commandment.

Now that’s a whole lot of theology. It’s quite dense stuff. But if we want to be part of bringing about a new heaven and a new earth, we have to start by loving one another, in the self-giving way that Jesus demonstrated, the kind of love I described earlier in the lives of Jean Valjean and Rachel Held Evans. And I believe strongly that this kind of love is intended as the precursor of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth. There’s no way that it can be confined to love between Christians, or within a particular church or denomination. It must stretch to love for the whole world. Yet love within churches and within the Christian family is surely the start. Jesus says that the world will see that we’re his disciples through our love for each other.

It’s therefore not just a tragedy but a direct disobedience of the one we call Lord and Messiah that the church has proved really really awful at loving each other over the centuries of Christianity. Heresy trials, schisms, excommunication of Christian by Christian, the inquisition, the crusades. The list goes on and on, century after century. It goes on today, to our shame. There are those who profess to follow Christ who refuse to call another their brother or sister because that person is gay, or because they believe something different about the nature of God, or because they have different politics. It’s a disgrace. If Jesus should have taught us anything, it’s to love those around us. The theologian Tom Wright puts it like this:
As we read verse 35 we are bound to cringe with shame at the way in which professing Christians have treated each other down the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon of our own various cultures. We have hit each other over the head with it, burnt each other at the stake with it. We have defined the ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only ‘love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are’.” (John for Everyone Part 2, p.56)
But let’s return to the positive. Jesus presents us with a mighty challenge, to love one another according to his self-giving example. But he promises such a rich outcome from this love, that who would not want to follow it? Jesus calls us to love as he has loved, and this new commandment will lead us to the model of the new heaven and the new earth, and love will come over all the earth, and God will come to make his home among mortals, and death and mourning will be no more. Amen.


Sunday, 17 March 2019

The fox and the hen – a sermon about the journey to resurrection

Sermon given at Creaton United Reformed Church, 17 March 2019. Text: Luke 13:31-35. See also earlier address about Abram and covenant.

We’re all about the animals in this passage. St Patrick is said to have chased the snakes out of Ireland (he didn't), but here we have a fox and a hen appearing. They make a nice contrast, and we’ll come back to them later.

Image: Endless Road by Margret Hofheinz-Doring,
via Vanderbilt University
So Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The gospel of Luke has a lot to say about journeys, and especially the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. We first hear about him ‘setting his face to Jerusalem’ in chapter 9, and the account of Palm Sunday is in chapter 19. In other words it takes 10 chapters, out of a book with 24 chapters, for him to reach Jerusalem after he starts on his way there. And he’s still got a long way to go, here in chapter 13. There’s an admirable sense of determination here. Jesus is absolutely sure he’s got to be there, to accomplish his task. And yet also lots of things happen on the journey. Much of Jesus’ ministry, his teaching and his miracles, his encounters with crowds and with individuals, happens on the road to Jerusalem. He’s on the journey, but part of that journey is what he does on the way.

Why Jerusalem? Why does it matter so much? That might sound a strange question, but why was his work not happening in Galilee? Or further afield, in one of the Roman garrison towns such as Caesarea Philippi, or even in Rome itself? That might sound an odd question, but the answer sheds important light on Jesus and his mission. He was going to Jerusalem because he was a Jew, and because to the Jewish people, Jerusalem was the most important place in the world. It was the place where God and humanity communicated. It was the place of worldly power and authority, but it mattered much more as being the place of spiritual authority. Everything that mattered happened in Jerusalem. It’s not literally true when Jesus says that all the prophets were killed in Jerusalem – Jeremiah died in Egypt and Ezekiel died in the land of the Chaldeans, to name two, but it expresses the truth that Jerusalem was absolutely central to Jewish life.

We do well to remember this, in our fevered atmosphere of us-and-them, of Leavers and Remainers, of Jews and Muslims, of Protestant and Catholic. There’s no us-and-them between Jesus and the Jews, and when we find Jewish leaders persecuting Jesus that doesn’t reflect some kind of separation, and should never ever have been a justification for the church’s poisonous brand of antisemitism that has marred our faith for centuries and killed so many. The Jews are not the enemy here. Likewise, the gospels are full of invective against Pharisees, but that’s mostly because Jesus was so close to the ideas of the Pharisees so it was one of those wars of small differences, like the Judean People’s Front against the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. There were differences of emphasis, but Jesus is forever hanging out with Pharisees, often arguing with them, but eating and spending time with them. And importantly we see Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod’s out to get him. So the Pharisees aren’t the enemy either.

So who is the enemy? That would be Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruler of Galilee under the Romans, killer of John the Baptist and eventually of Jesus. Herod Antipas ruled for 41 years, and while he wasn’t the worst of the Romans’ client kings, like all rulers of the day he was dedicated to power, violence, hierarchy and exclusion. And by contrast, Jesus was dedicated to the opposite of these – to living with the outcasts and marginalised, to preaching hope to the downtrodden, to proclaiming the kingdom where power would be turned on its head. He had a job to do, he said – to cast out demons and perform cures. He knew Herod was the opposite of this worldview, had the opposite mission to him in the world.

And thus the fox reference. In the Greek world, foxes were cunning and quite impressive – think of Aesop’s fables. But in the Jewish world, they were a destructive pest, and their cunning was one of evil rather than something to be impressed by. They got in the way, and they were horrible. But they also weren’t the worst of enemies that could be found in the animal kingdom. It’s not like Jesus called Herod after the kinds of animals that threatened people and sheep in Israel – say a lion, or a wild beast, or even an eagle like the Roman one. So there’s a double insult here – Jesus is being quite dismissive of Herod, at the same time as he’s saying he’s untrustworthy. He’s a nasty piece of work, but he’s also not up to much. I’ve been thinking about Harry Potter analogies here – the cunning and nasty bit sounds a bit like Jesus is saying Herod should be in Slytherin, except it would be a version of Slytherin that was simultaneously nasty and a bit rubbish.

Jesus, of course, has a nice farmyard contrast to the fox. He wants to nurture the people of Jerusalem like a hen protects its chicks under its wings. I love this image, because it’s so loving and caring. It reminds me of the Celtic blessing that ends ‘until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand’. God will hold us all in the palm of God’s hand, and will care for us under her wings. It’s also a feminine image that stands in contrast to all those God-the-father images. Many of us know perfectly well that God has no gender, yet the scriptures are saturated with masculine imagery, and sometimes they’re not good enough to capture the full nature of God. If we can only think of God as a father, and our father was abusive or controlling or absent, how can we love God? If we only have images such as Lord God of Hosts, at the front of armies, how can we react if our lives have been blighted by war? God goes beyond gender, but our images don’t. At best we might have a sense of the holy spirit as female, but even that gets resisted by some people. And yes, Jesus as a human being was male, but a man who can’t embrace feminine imagery for themselves is emotionally impoverished. So I really like this image of Jesus the mother hen.
Image: Circle of Hope
But of course Jesus notes that ultimately he was expecting to be rejected by people in Jerusalem. Because he’s realistic about what he’s facing. He knows that whether or not people saying “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, as of course happened on Palm Sunday, his ideas are too radical to be accepted. He knows that what he preaches, the way he lives, goes against the ideas that the powerful in his world will accept.

Jesus knows that when he finally gets to Jerusalem, he’ll face struggle and death. And he’s willing to embrace it, but I don’t think that’s the point of his journey. Because in this reading we hear twice about Jesus finishing his work on the third day. Not the day of the cross, but of the empty tomb. Not the crucifixion, but the resurrection.

And here’s the good news about this passage. We heard in the first reading that God formed a covenant which, if broken, required the death of God. Well we know that covenant was broken many times. We know that relationships between humanity and God broke down, and have broken down. But they broke down precisely because of the violence and oppression which Herod Antipas and the Roman Empire stood for. And they weren’t going to be cured by a continuation of the same thing again.

So for Jesus to die wasn’t enough. That wouldn’t solve anything. The cross by itself, that instrument of torture and Roman power, solved nothing. But what came next was the third day. The day when God took the power of violence and turned it on its head, when the nurturing God remade not just the covenant with Abraham but every covenant, and every idea of every covenant. On Easter Sunday, God changed the rules themselves. He brought up the powerless, and sent the rich away empty.

Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem wasn’t to go and get himself killed. He went with a much more important mission – to change the nature of the world, to set aside the power of empire and to bring forward the new reign of God on earth.

So as we prepare in the coming month to journey towards Easter, we must remember that when we stand for equality and justice, and stand against authority and power, we are on the side of Jesus. When we approach defeat by the powers of the world, we are in the same position as Jesus. And we can be assured that, like Jesus found, love and hope will prevail even in the deepest darkness. Amen.