Sermon for Sunday, July 17th, 2016 || Proper 11, Year C || Genesis 18: 1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1: 15-28; Luke 10: 38-42 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
This morning’s gospel is one of those overly familiar gospels that are hard to hear with fresh ears under the best of circumstances, but even more so at a time when the first century feels insanely irrelevant to the pressing urgency of what’s going on around us. I hope this morning to bridge that gap, because I suspect this gospel is a lot more relevant than we might imagine—or like.
Luke describes how Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying,” while Martha, “distracted by her many tasks,” complained about her sister being a slacker.
Too often, we read in this gospel an invitation to consider which woman we most resemble: Martha, who actively ministers to Jesus, or Mary, who simply sits quietly and listens to his Word. Which is better, we wonder, an active life of service or a quiet life of prayer?
But that’s really not the point of this story. Yes, Jesus tells Martha that Mary has “chosen the better part,” by sitting and listening, but only after gently chiding her for being “worried and distracted by too many things.”
The point is that Martha is too scattered to listen to Jesus. Too worried and distracted to hear the word of God. The question this story really invites us to consider is whether and when we are like the overly-worried and distracted Martha—which I dare say most of us are, most of the time—and if we might, more often, be like Mary, who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”
This question feels all the more urgent to me now, as our entire world seems to have gone completely crazy and things seem to just keep getting worse. You bet we’re worried and distracted! We’re worried, distracted, heart-broken and angry. We despair of the foothold that hatred and violence are gaining almost daily, everywhere we look.
After the events of the last two weeks, it’s no wonder that so many of the conversations I’ve been having, and so much of the social media traffic I’ve been reading, reflect the very real pain of committed Christians despairing of God’s absence, and even ordained religious leaders confessing their deep-felt doubts about the Good News they took vows to proclaim.
It’s really bad out there.
And I guess what I’m wondering is if this increasingly unpredictable and seemingly irrepressible onslaught of horror is so overwhelming that we’re unable to embrace the one thing that can actually counter it: Listening to, and doing, God’s word.
Now, hear me out, because I am not suggesting an overly-simplistic, religious-pabulum sort of response to the very real presence of evil in our world. Nor would I ever take away from anyone their need to grieve deeply, lament loudly,or shake their angry fists at God at times like this. I know how healing those things can be.
But what I’m wondering in light of today’s gospel, is whether like Martha we’re so distracted by the problem that we’re missing its solution? What I’m wondering is what we might hear if, like Mary, we were to stop what we are doing and listen to Jesus?
What gospel word might Jesus have offered to Martha that day, that she was too anxious and agitated to hear? What gospel word might Jesus have for us today?
Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to Mary and the others gathered in Martha’s house. And as far as we know, Jesus didn’t have a stump speech. But if we listen to all that he’s said and taught thus far in Luke’s gospel alone, we can make a pretty educated guess about what Jesus might have been teaching his listeners then, and what he has to teach us now.
But let me warn you, it’s not easy listening. It is anything but pabulum.
Jesus talks a lot in Luke about picking up our cross daily to follow him. He talks a lot about denying ourselves for the sake of others and for the sake of the gospel. He talks a lot about listening, but even more he talks about doing. And what he talks about doing is nothing short of scandalous:
“I say to you that listen: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…”
I told you it was scandalous.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same… But love your enemies… your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
It’s beyond scandalous, really—it’s flat-out outrageous, that the One we follow instructs us to love, not hate, those who destroy innocent lives, those who promote hatred and violence, those who thrive on discord and division, even those who wish us dead. Yes. It is outrageous.
But not only is Jesus unapologetic on the subject, he is uncompromising in his demand that we listen to him, and act accordingly.
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’” he asks, “and do not do what I tell you?” His family, Jesus says, “are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” In the parable of the sower, the seed that lands in the good soil, Jesus tells us,“are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” “Blessed,” Jesus says again later, “are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
And just in case we still don’t get it, Jesus tells this story: “I will show you,” he says, “what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
The flood waters are rising, my friends. So what is left for us to do but to come to him, hear his words, and act on them?
Every great religion of the world, every wisdom tradition known to man, even every good fantasy story or fairy-tale ever written teaches exactly the same thing: That love and only love is powerful enough to conquer hate. Jesus died proving it, but prove it he did when he rose on Easter morning more alive than he’d ever been before.
Love. Radical, revolutionary, totally outrageous and scandalous love. Love that is incredibly difficult and challenging —but not impossible—to find the will for. Risky, dangerous love, that just may be the cross we have to pick up daily, for the sake of this broken world. Love that is, as far as I can tell, our only hope.
As Bishop Alan wrote in his pastoral letter to all of us last week, “The Cross of Christ bears witness that hatred and brutality are to be met with neither fight nor flight, but with a compassionate clarity of purpose that demands only love, and effects only reconciliation.”
May it be so. May it be soon. May it be us. Amen.