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14 August – A thought about your funeral

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Pentecost 10
14/8/2022

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Psalm 82
Luke 12:49-56


In a sentence:
For all the good (and bad we do),
God remains hopelessly devoted to us

On Tuesday, I again turned to discover the top item in the day’s news feed, to serve as a launching place for today’s sermon. I found there what I’d heard that earlier morning: that Olivia Newton-John had died overnight. I then realised that a “Greatest Hits” collection of her songs was quietly playing away in the background in the café where I was reading about this. Perhaps a sign from God?

Newton-John was talented and gorgeous, seeming to be the kind of person many would be happy to have as daughter, friend or lover. Rising to prominence as she did in the 60s and 70s, her bright personal style seemed to reflect something of the country’s own developing self-perception, and she made big on the international scene just as Australia itself was becoming increasingly aware of its own international presence and possibilities; “our Olivia” singing and starring was another “goal” kicked for Australia. Later in life, Newton-John’s public struggle with cancer also became representative of similar hardships among her fans.

It is meaningful and right, then, to say that Newton-John was an “Australian icon”. The Greek word eikon is what the New Testament uses to speak of religious idols, and of Jesus as an “image” or icon of God (e.g. Colossians 1.15). An Australian icon is, then, properly an “image” of Australia, encapsulating something of our essence. At least in the first couple of decades of her career, Newton-John seemed to do just that.

When our icons die, we hear what they achieved and what they stood for, principally from those who loved them for it. In this way, we “eulogise” the dead, to borrow another Greek term which means “speaking good of”. We gather to remember, to mourn and to tell stories.

And this brings me to a connection we can draw between the eulogising of Newton-John and the not unreasonably expectation that most of us, too, will one day be eulogised. Because, for the most part, we are icons to those who love us, if on a smaller scale than our celebrities, and the dynamic of story-telling is not different whether we have lived loudly or quietly. What is the “good word” to be heard at our funerals when the time comes?!

Let’s take it as a starting point that a eulogy should tell the truth. What does this mean? Our icons invite us to be wholly affirmative as we tell their story, and there’s been plenty of that this week. It seems bad taste to darken death with accounts of the darker corners in our lives, and we fear being judged for presuming to judge others and tarnishing the image. Of course, we make a judgement already if we choose to speak only the good, laying fig leaves over any regrettable nakedness that might be exposed if we peeked behind.

And yet, we have a problem if we only bury saints who did no wrong and victors who always prevailed, because a funeral gathers a room full of sinners, victims and losers. What we hear about him who died and what made his life worthwhile is also being said about us sitting in the congregation, and it may not fit very well – they are too unlike us in all our good and bad realities. A good funeral service – and the Uniting Church has a pretty good basic funeral service – allows that the saint we gather to remember was also a sinner. We are each icons – images – of more (or less!) than just the best we allow to be seen or acknowledged. If we are saints – and the funeral service also declares this – it is despite the truth about lives as much as because of it.

Within our Uniting Church funeral service are elements which make explicit that even if we gather to bury one of our icons, she is not much different from us. And so we pray,

In strength and in weakness, in achievement and failure, in the brightness of joy and the darkness of despair, we remember her as one of us…

We are also encouraged to pray,

…we confess that we have not always lived as your grateful children; we have not loved as Christ loved us…forgive us if there have been times when we failed her.

Then, scandalously to some ears, we also pray,

Enable us by your grace to forgive anything that was hurtful to us.

These little prayers are not much in the whole sweep of what is said in a funeral, but they mark the vision of human being in the service. We are one of each other: able to hurt and be hurt, and in need of forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as able to be the good which others will one day miss. This is very often difficult to acknowledge around the time of death: that the life our loved ones have lived – even if it has seemed to be a good one – has not been complete or whole, and neither yet is our own.

In our reading from the letter to the Hebrews this morning, there is a strange twist. Great Old Testament icons of the faith are recalled, who variously were

“…stoned to death…were sawn in two…killed by the sword…they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…”.

In this, for the writer, they were terrifyingly exemplary. Yet faith icons though they are, the writer goes on to say that even they “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” Those who seemed to have achieved so much are yet incomplete. They – in some way – need us. The dead depend somehow on the living. Or, more precisely, the truth of the dead depends on the truth of the living.

What is the truth of the living? The writer goes on: the dead look to us as we look to Jesus, whom the writer calls the “pioneer and perfector” of our faith, the pioneer and perfector of our very lives. With this, the letter reminds us that there is a second story to be considered alongside our own: our story is told within the encapsulating story of Jesus, pioneer and perfector, beginning and end.

And so, a Christian funeral tells these two stories and not just one. There is, of course, our story: what we did and what was done to us. And there is Christ’s story, within which our story is placed. This second story is widely overlooked. Even in Christian funerals, it is often reduced to serve as an extension of our story, becoming a comforting religious bit to help with the mess of hearts and minds death leaves behind.

The overgrown eulogising which dominates in many funerals today is a sign that we don’t know any other story to tell, and so we tell only that of the deceased – as much of it as we dare. And so the death of one who lived life badly, or whose life was cut far too short, leaves us speechless. If they have not yet done anything or did nothing good, what can we say?

To tell just the one story is to misunderstand the funeral as being only about the deceased. Rather, funerals are about the living, not the dead. The second story about Jesus – the pioneer and perfector, the beginning and the end – is told to catch us all up together, the image-icon we gather to remember and us who saw ourselves in the icon we have lost.

We are, of course, entirely dedicated to knowing just how good we are and how good or bad others might be. We make these judgements not only in eulogies but in other assessments of ourselves and others along the way. Yet Christian faith shifts the focus: not only what we do but also what God gives and does: this is the whole of us. There is a pioneer from whom we spring and a perfector who fills us to completion.

Hearing this is not just the work of the funeral. Sunday’s services share in the same logic: a naming that we are less, and more, than we know. If we are doing it properly, Sunday worship should address us in such a way as to want to turn away from self-fascination and self-judgement towards an openness to a life which springs from and is completed by others. Sunday’s word is that we do not start ourselves and we do not finish ourselves: we are pioneered and perfected as much despite what we do as because of it.

There is freedom and peace in this: we are not measured, assessed or tested by God, even if we do this to each other. And we need not do this to ourselves or each other – proving or testing whether we and they are worthy of good words, of rich eulogising. If the wholeness of Jesus himself encapsulates us as pioneer and perfector, we are not under scrutiny: we have been well started and will be well finished. We can, then, be honest about ourselves without fear of judgement.

A life well-lived is one freely received and expressed in this light: now in strength and now in weakness, now in achievement and now in failure, now knowing the brightness of joy and, now, the darkness of despair. Such a good-and-bad life is finally worthy of a good word because it rests in a goodness greater than our own. Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of our lives. This means that, in our best works and in our worst, God’s word to us is, “I’m hopelessly devoted to you”. Every love song is on its way to becoming a psalm.

The good word about God – God’s own eulogy – is the beginning and the end of the good word to be said about us.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 14 August 2022

The worship service for Sunday 14 August 2022 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

7 August – Of hearts and treasures

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Pentecost 9
7/8/2022

Hebrews 11:1-11
Psalm 33
Luke 12:32-40


In a sentence:
People are never (properly) means to ends, but are an end in themselves.

This week a feature story in our newspapers was the apology of the Adelaide Crows football club to Eddie Betts and other players who were made to participate in a team training camp in early 2018. The occasion for the apology was a new autobiography by Betts, in which he describes the physical and psychological duress applied to the players in what was something like a military boot camp intended to turn the team into more effective sportsfield warriors.

Many important but mundane things about the camp could be observed, including the inappropriateness of subjecting what were, in some cases, little more than boys to such treatment, and how personal identity and confidential information were weaponised against individuals, and elements of indigenous culture were misused. The account of the camp is quite ghastly – or at least this seems to be what we are to conclude from the way in which it has been reported. “What were they thinking?” is a reasonable question to put to the club and the camp organisers, and the club’s apology reflects recognition of the problem.

Yet, if the reports do horrify us, they ought not surprise us, for there is nothing new here. By this, I don’t mean that the camp was an instance of similar things that occasionally happen. Rather, the unsurprising thing is the motivation for the camp. The methods used at the camp reflected the pervasive mindset that ends can justify means. In this case, winning was worth the risk to the hearts and minds of those who attended the camp: human beings were to be employed for ends other than those people themselves. De-humanising through abusive language and other psychological and physical methods was intended to re-cast in the players’ minds that their single purpose was winning the competition.

We trivialise what is at stake here if we judge the methods of the camp by dismissing football as “only a game” – that it was too much given what could be gained. This misses the point because the implication is that, were it not “only a game”, the methods might be justifiable. Here we can broaden what is at play in how we connect means and ends by observing that the camp was run that way because such methods actually work – or, at least, we hold that they do in certain contexts. We are familiar – as individuals, as a society and even as a church – with a justifying of means by ends, even if the means are a great human cost.

The quasi-military nature of the Crows’ training camp is significant here. In war, the hearts and bodies of soldiers are employed as a means to an end – winning the war. As a society, we celebrate the sacrifice these men and women make; that sacrifice is surely great, whether the soldiers make it willingly or unwillingly. But in this, we overlook that the nation also expects this sacrifice – that it effectively sacrifices those hearts and bodies. The human cost of war is the means to the end of winning the war. Not many months back, then Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, warned that Australia needed to shift to a war footing, given growing tensions around the Pacific. At the same time, a recent survey reported the general unwillingness of young Australians to commit themselves to fighting a war. This prompted Prime Minister Morrison to express his disappointment in our younger generations on that issue and to write an opinion piece explaining how the nation’s defence depended upon people willing to enlist. Around all this has been a wider conversation about the reintroduction of national service – although seemingly only for young people. In a war, a nation consumes its young – apparently a justifiable means to the end of national security.

We know, of course, that the cost is horrific even if we are willing to pay it, and so annual remembrance services are sombre affairs. But it is the assumption that the cost of war must be paid which is the heart of the matter – the assumption that the end is important enough to justify means, whether the battlefield is the Adelaide Oval or the South China Sea.

We do distinguish between a footy match and geopolitical conflicts. This is principally in terms of scale: the Grand Final seems pretty trivial in contrast to national security. But we are a little confused here, because both seek to preserve a present or create a future and so both are about ends and means. And in both cases, the human means are clearly distinguishable from the end created, be it the Premiership or unassailed borders. Those human hearts and bodies matter less than the desired end. Footy is “only a game”, and so the methods of the Crows’ training camp seem excessive. Yet we still hold to the sacrificial principle in other seemingly necessary contexts.

We want then, two contradictory truths to be true at the same time: on the one hand, that human hearts and bodies are not means to anyone’s ends and, on the other hand, that sometimes we have to pile up a few bodies to divert history’s juggernauts. This is a kind of hypocrisy – a “sincere” hypocrisy, perhaps, but no less hypocritical. We don’t want to see that sometimes we agree that our hopes for history need to be lubricated by blood.

Now, we’ve not yet come to our gospel text of interest today(!), from which I’ll pull just one line: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. If the treasure is “winning” at any cost, this is where our heart will be found, and not in the well-being of the other hearts which might be crushed in achieving that end. We might lament the great cost but we will nonetheless pay it because we treasure the end more than the human coin to be paid for it.

Yet, Christian faith declares that pain, suffering and death are never means to an end with God. God does not kill or oppress for some higher cause. God can use such suffering in a world which constantly generates it – this is part of the meaning of the church’s talk of incarnation. The cross of Jesus is not God’s plan or work but our own, even if God uses it to reveal grace and hope.

The problem with the Crows’ training camp was not merely that it happened but that it could have been thought to be worth trying in the first place, brutalising human hearts towards some inhuman end: “winning”. God does not treasure the end which can be achieved by what God can do with or to us. Human beings are not means to ends – even God’s own ends. God treasures not the end but us: we are the end and the means, and so we – treasured and nurtured – are paramount in all things.

In our reading from Hebrews this morning, we heard of those whose faith was a desire for “a better country”. This is a country in which hearts don’t so much treasure things but are the treasured thing, a country in which hearts, souls and bodies are ends and means – heart begetting heart. Heart is God’s end, and so also God’s means.

If we are to treasure what God treasures, we do not climb over each other to reach up to heaven. We have no vision of the future which requires that others don’t get there but are merely the means by which we get there. Rather, we reach down and pull the other up a little higher. For we do not climb to heaven but are drawn there. When a heaven like this comes, it captures us all because, drawing each other up, we are holding hands, so that catching one of us catches us all.

Let us then, with those faithful ones in Hebrews, desire such a country as this: a world in which we seek the peace we so earnestly desire by the means of peace – the treasuring of hearts – that it might be peace not just for us but for all.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 7 August 2022

The worship service for Sunday 7 August 2022 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

31 July – Heaven’s work

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Pentecost 8
31/7/2022

Colossians 3:1-10
Psalm 49
Luke 12:13-21


In a sentence:
Heaven is not a place of mere rest but a life in which work and rest are properly related to each other; heaven, then, is a possibility here and now.

Why is it that a great number of us, a great deal of the time, are “ready for a holiday” – ready to leave work, whatever “work” might be for us?

It probably has something to do with the way we work. There’s the distance we might have to travel to work – maybe even moving house, interstate, or even internationally. There are the hours we might have to work. There are the people we have to deal with – whether our colleagues or our employers. Perhaps there’s the sheer difficulty of what we do, or the state of boredom it lulls us into. To acknowledge all this is to say that work can hurt, and so we much prefer to be away from it – relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry, perhaps.

I suspect that most of us have a picture in our heads of heaven being not only a place where birds are twittering incessantly and all our friends and family (or at least the ones we like) are around us, but also being a place where we’re on constant holiday! – kind of a heavenly “idle rich” way of being! This seems to have been the plan of our barn-building friend in Jesus’ parable today – we’ll call him Barney. In the story, God calls Barney a fool. Perhaps it’s part of his foolishness that he thought he’d finally found heaven on earth: the ability to withdraw from the world of work. Heaven is no longer having to work.

Those who know their Old Testament will remember that at the end of the story of Adam, Eve and the apple, God lays curses on the labours of Adam and Eve. The woman’s labour – understood here as giving birth – will become a matter of great pain, and the man’s labour – tilling the soil – would become an ongoing battle with the earth to produce what they needed. The important point is not whether we buy into this particular explanation of why labour is so difficult, or whether we have different types of work today. The important thing is that the work itself is not the punishment. In the Paradise of Eden, Adam and Eve already had work to do – working the soil and raising families – and this was so even before the apple-munching episode. Work is part of the perfect human condition, if such a condition is what life in Eden is supposed to represent. God creates Adam and puts him in the Garden to till it and keep it.

Work, then, is a part of true created human being. If that seems depressing to you, it gets worse if we imagine “getting to” heaven to be like a return to the Paradise of Eden: there’ll be work to do in heaven, too! That is perhaps not the most comforting thing the tired and weary have heard from a pulpit! We usually talk about having to work as if it were a burden rather than because it is part of what God has given us. Our man Barney didn’t “have to” work anymore. He used his possessions to protect himself from the need to work, and perhaps that was part of his problem. Perhaps Barney’s foolishness was not merely that he set himself up for a secure future without thought for others around him, but that he thereby also cut himself off from what he was created for – work. And perhaps most of us are still thinking that we’re with him!

My point here is not that work should be easy, but only that it is, in itself, good. Barney and most of the rest of us get work out of perspective. We get work out of perspective in that we work hard for futures we might not actually have. The terrifying word in Barney’s ears is that “Tonight your very life will be required of you”; essentially, he hears that, for all of his work, he will not enter into any rest. Barney doesn’t get his day off, and it scarcely helps to say that now he “rests in peace”!

What good is retirement if you drop dead the day after you stop work, or the year after? More to the point, what good was your life if your work-life was only oriented towards the “rest-life” in retirement, but all you finally do is leave a barn-sized super-payout to your estate? Our Barney has not been short-changed in death but in life. We can’t rest properly if we don’t work properly. If we work for the wrong reasons – towards the wrong end – we will rest for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way. Rest becomes escape from work, and work becomes the possibility of rest. In this way, we divide ourselves into being just one part of the whole God has made us to be; we might recall here the division we saw between work and rest in Martha and Mary a couple of weeks ago.

Perhaps Barney said to himself, “I’ve earned my retirement,” with a strong emphasis on the “earned”. The problem here is that God gives us rest – as symbolized by the Sabbath – for nothing, quite unearned. God actually commands, Observe the Sabbath: stop working once in a while, for Christ’s sake (literally, for Christ’s sake! God asks us to do everything for the sake of Christ!). If we go to work with the idea of earning our break or retirement, who do we imagine is the task-master we will off, and who will owe us our rest at holiday time, or when we turn 55 or 60 or 65? It is not the God who commands that we rest. Who, then, have we been serving, if we’ve been lucky enough to have work to do?

We share Barney’s desire to relax, eat, drink and be merry! But such things are properly a part of life and not a stage in life. If they were only a stage of life, and even the best stage, then the rest of life is just a warm up to what we might not actually get to.

“Tonight your very life will be required of you” are words we’ll all hear one day, so to speak. Perhaps the difference for a Christian ought to be that such words don’t catch us by surprise or disappoint us because we haven’t actually started living yet.

By God’s grace, may we not be caught by surprise but be found to have lived a life of work and rest, labour and love, and be found to have been satisfied with that.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 31 July 2022

The worship service for Sunday 31 July 2022 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

24 July – Jesus, our prayer

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Pentecost 7
24/7/2022

Psalm 85
Luke 11:1-13


In a sentence:
Fundamental to the Lord’s Prayer is not the word but that it is prayed in and through Jesus: Jesus himself is our prayer

Do we not know the Lord’s prayer very, very well?

And yet that very familiarity itself can be a problem. Having received so comprehensively this teaching on prayer, we might miss the force of the request the disciples put to Jesus: Lord, teach us to pray. For this is a surprising – even startling – request. The disciples are people of a worshipping community. Since they were children, they were taught to pray – how to stand or to sit, what to do with their hands, what words to say, when to say them.

And yet they ask Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” And so Jesus gives them what we now have as “the Lord’s Prayer”. Does this mean that we, now having these words, know how to pray? Are the words of the Lord’s Prayer the answer to any question we might have about prayer? Most likely, all of us have had the experience of saying the Lord’s Prayer and yet getting to the end “automatically”, without having done anything other than parroting, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”. Just saying the right words isn’t what it means to know how to pray. If this were so, prayer would be nothing different from a magic spell – the right words said with the right intonation in the right place at the right time. (“Open Sesame” gets you into the robbers’ cave regardless of how “sincerely” or “meaningfully” you say it!). Whatever prayer is, it is not this!

And so it appears that, even though we have Jesus’ response to his disciples’ request, we are ourselves not yet able to pray; the words are not enough. Having been taught to put our hands together, bow our heads and close our eyes – and even say the Lord’s Prayer – we are not necessarily able to pray. Prayer – at least Christian prayer – is not set patterns, words, or actions, although it does involve all these things.

That being said, the temptation is now strong to rush in with the solution that it’s not the words that matter but our sincerity, our intention, our earnestness, our focus. This seems necessary because we now imagine that effectiveness in holy things is always about us and what we do. “If only I believe hard enough, pray hard enough, empty myself enough, or…” … whatever. But in response to the disciples’ request, Jesus does not say – “All that matters is that you really mean it, and then you’ll be OK”. What Jesus gives the disciples looks more like a formula or a rule for prayer, as if that were a sufficient response to the request.

It seems, then, that the Lord’s Prayer is both just what we need – for Jesus gave it to us in answer to the “how to pray” request – and still not enough, for God is not impressed by our simply knowing the right words and getting our religious practice and prayer right (cf. Psalm 51.16; Isaiah 1.11).

How can this be so? How can the Lord’s Prayer be both enough, and yet not enough?

We tell ourselves – or tell our children – that prayer is “simply talking to God”? How we talk, however, depends upon which God (god) we are talking to, and it’s here that the nature of the Lord’s Prayer as Christian prayer becomes clear. Approaching prayer as if what matters is getting the words or that attitude right is to operate with just another form of what we know as “justification by works”. St Paul contrasts justification by works of the law with justification by grace through faith. Not the work we do but the work which Jesus has done, which we might receive as our own through faith – this is what sets us right before God.

The gospel presents Jesus as the means by which we stand right before God. If we seek to pray “right” before God, it is again through Jesus that this is possible. But this is not because Jesus gives us the words to pray, so that we are now “independent” pray‑ers. We’ve already seen that the words don’t do it. To pray “right” before God through Jesus is to let Jesus himself be our prayer. Prayer may well be “talking to God”, but it also has to do with God’s talking to us. And the simplest and clearest thing God has said to us is “Jesus of Nazareth” – God’s “word” made flesh. To pray is to speak back to God what he has spoken to us; and when God speaks Jesus happens.

(We might note in passing that this has importance for what we do when we come together for worship. We gather not to generate emotion or sincerity or even right doctrine, but to hear and to speak to God of the one God has already sent – Jesus himself – and to be be made that one in the process: we receive what we are, to become what we receive: the Body of Christ).

The prayer of the church, then, is not the mere words of the Lord’s prayer but Jesus himself. It is in this sense that we can say that God knows what we need before we pray – not because God “knows everything”, but because what we need is what Jesus had and is. We need to know ourselves and to know God as Jesus did. We need to be supported and to have the freedom Jesus had. We need to be loved and to love as he did. Jesus – crucified and risen – is the prayer of the church; if we utter only “Jesus is the Christ”, then we have prayed as we should.

“When you pray”, Jesus said, “say, our Father in heaven…” – and just so we should pray. Yet in that prayer we ask, Father,

your kingdom – Jesus Christ – come;

your will – lives such as Jesus’ own – be done;

give us this day what Jesus trusted you for;

give us, and make of us, the forgiveness which is Jesus-the-Christ;

rescue us in the end from evil – as you raised the Christ from the death of the crucified.

In all things – not least the decisions we might make today about our future together – we say, Lord, “Let us see, become and testify to Jesus”. To pray is as difficult – and as easy – as it is to believe ourselves to be made whole in him. If we can rest in the grace of God which is Jesus Christ, if Jesus is Lord, then we have prayer “covered”, and the only “angle” on life we need.

And so we may trust that whoever asks will be given what they ask, whoever seeks will find, whoever knocks will have the door opened, for our Father in heaven is faithful, and gives the Spirit to all who ask, that God’s people may know themselves in and as the Body of Christ. When this happens, the work of prayer, and life, has been done.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 24 July 2022

The worship service for Sunday 24 July 2022 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

17 July – The one thing needful

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Pentecost 6
17/7/2022

Colossians 1:15-23
Psalm 15
Luke 10:38-42


In a sentence:
The one thing we need to “do” is trust that, in Christ, we are already “right before God”, and then to live as in the world as if this were the case.

The ancient versions of our biblical text sometimes show great variation at particular points in the text. One reason for this is that what was probably the original text was just too hard for the old copyists to believe that it was correct. The text offended the copyists, so they changed it to make it more palatable or sensible. When it looks like this might have happened, modern biblical critics ask, What is the most challenging version of these variations – the hardest to swallow. This reflects the assumption that a copyist was more likely to change a passage to make it easier than to make it harder.

Our gospel reading today is one of these disputed texts. The difficult thing is the thoroughgoing unreasonableness of Jesus’ response to Martha’s complaint. Jesus says that sister Mary has hit upon the “one thing needful”, and so seems to say that her sitting at Jesus’ feet in devoted listening to him is more important than Martha’s concern to prepare their meal. The copyists knew that we have to eat and that it’s righteous to be a good host to guests, so they wondered in what sense attending to Jesus’ teaching could be “the better part” over Martha’s attention to the necessities of nature and society. Surely, as the variant texts propose, there are a “few” things that matter and not only one.

On hearing the story, it is almost impossible not to think in either-or fashion, and we almost always do. It seems we have to choose between work and prayer. This corresponds to other dualisms in our heads – doing versus hearing, nature versus spirit, science versus faith, worship versus mission. Some modern readings wonder what Luke (and Jesus) are doing with gender roles, adding a male versus female dualism to the mix.

Faced with this perception of what is at stake, there are a couple of options before us – probably another dualism itself! We can choose between the options, or we can seek a kind of compromise. The choice is generally simply too hard: how can we properly be “only” spiritual or only worldly, only Martha or only Mary? We can’t, but still Jesus’ words jar harshly against one of these apparent options: she has chosen the better part. A compromise is a balancing act and seems to work: we know ourselves to be both matter and spirit, knowing and believing. And so we seek a balance: now a bit of body, now a bit of spirit; now I believe and trust, now I reason and know. And yet this doesn’t work, either. The problem with a balanced approach to holding opposites together is that your balance looks imbalanced to me, and my balance is an imbalance to you. This is Martha’s accusation about Mary: Lord, confirm that I have got the balance right by telling Mary that she has got it wrong.

The problem with Martha’s call for balance is that there is no reliably defendable unpacking of all our either-or moral polarities. Polarities are either-or by definition: black cannot be balanced with white if we define black simply as not-white. If worship is not-service, faith is not-reason and private is not-public, then there is no true reconciliation possible in these life options but only “balance”. We can’t agree on the balance, so we shift the problem of how to live together before God a little to the polarised left or right until our anxieties move and we shift the other way again.

Who we are and what we do – and the rightness of our identity and choices – is defined solely in terms only of the world itself. Prayer is defined not in relation to God but over against work; mission is defined not in relation to God but in relation to worship – our worship work, our mission work. We have faith here but reason there; we trust here but know there. And then we debate which is the more important, or which applies where, how the money should be spent, whose efforts better reflect the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God being somewhere outside of what we do and are.

None of this can be resolved on its own terms and so, with the ancient copyists, we have to alter the text, knowing that we’re mucking around with it and knowing also that it doesn’t make the problem go away. It just makes Jesus seem more reasonable – and so more like us as we seek to be reasonable and balanced. There is, however, nothing very balanced about Jesus, from the perspective of polarised lives like ours.

What could save us from this deathly existence? What could save us from the consignment to mere choice between options on our part, and then from the need to justify to ourselves, to each other and to God our choice for more of this and less of that?

What could save us here? The answer is scandalous. What will save us is the recognition it does not matter what we do.

This can’t be true, of course. And yet, from a Christian sense of God and the human being, it is. It does not matter whether you are working in the kitchen or sitting at Jesus’ feet. It matters that you do and be something; this is called being alive. And what you do will properly span the spectrum between the poles of our dualisms; it will be private or public, faith or reason, and so on. But no choice here is, in itself, more godly than the rest. Christain faith holds that our lives are already hidden with Christ in God, and do not become so through the things we are or do. This faith holds that it is Christ-in-us who does the praying and the working – such that holiness precedes what we do and is not applied afterwards. To say that there is no condemnation in Christ is to say that doing and being “right” has already been covered.

Jesus’ comment to Martha, then, is not that she too should be sitting at his feet, but that she should not allow herself to be distracted “by many things” from her particular responsibility at that time. Martha’s problem is not that she is in the kitchen – where for the moment she must be – but that she wants to be sitting at Jesus’ feet. Distraction is the inability to be where we are. Now is the time for rest, but we are distracted by the things we think need doing, and so neither rest nor work properly. Now is the time for faith, but we want to analyse, understand and calculate, so we finally neither trust nor know. Now is the time for worship, but we cannot get the world’s needs out of our heads; now is the time for “mission” and service, but we’re not sure we’re doing the right thing. Distraction has to do with anxiety – am I OK? Is this right, or that? Am I properly here, or there? Martha is distracted by many things – not least that Mary is not in the kitchen and that she, Martha, is not with Jesus.

And distraction has to do with judgement – first judgement of ourselves and then often of others and God. There seems to be another version of this story in John’s gospel (John 12.1-8) – familiar to many of us but not often connected to today’s version. In John, we are again at Martha and Mary’s house and hear again that “Martha served”. Mary is not “merely” sitting and listening to Jesus but takes a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages and pours it out as an anointing on his feet. In response, it is not Martha who complains to Jesus but Judas: Could this valuable thing not have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor? Is not our serving mission more important than worship? Is this not wholly (unholy) out of balance? Jesus’ response is no less appalling than in today’s (Luke’s) version: “Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”; there will always be mouths to feed but not always me to hear. Mary has done the right.

The strange word of Jesus is that it is OK for Mary to be with him, for now, without distraction. And that it is OK for Martha, for now, to be in the kitchen.

It is OK – or, in Christian-speak, it is righteous – to be where we are and to rest in that place, for now. It is OK not to be all things to all people, and even more OK not to be all things to God. It is OK not to know, or not to have done. It is OK to be a discrete, finite, mortal creature, the purpose of whose being is not to do and be all things but to do and to be according to the time and space given to us. Sometimes this will mean doing the dishes – and perhaps more often than we might think. Sometimes it will mean closing the door and our eyes and spending time with God – and perhaps more often than we might think.

The “one thing needful” – and the most difficult of all things – is to rest in the freedom and peace that God has already accepted us as we are, and will accept us as we become a different and new thing tomorrow. This is God in and for the world.

And this is what makes possible that we might be in and for God, and in and for ourselves: sometimes looking like we are working and sometimes looking like we are praying but, in all things, always thriving and alive in God.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 17 July 2022

The worship service for Sunday 17 July 2022 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

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