Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 8 Sunday 17 July 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning,
What sort of a Christian are you? It’s an unfair question, but one we do ask ourselves. How are we doing? So the Gospel, the good news about God and the coming of His Kingdom, becomes, instead, a self-criticism session. This is our obsession with ourselves. But we get no answer to our question, for every day we find ourselves somewhere between sin and sanctity, moving from one to the other, never remaining long at either extreme, never really sure.
Today we meet Martha and Mary, both women in Jesus’s circle of friends. We are neither of them. But in their story, we can see our attempts to be disciples. There’s a tension between the two women, which is a tension we know within ourselves. That household at Bethany shows persons at different stages of the spiritual journey. It shows stages we go through, but which we never really outgrow. Martha is each of us at the beginning of a spiritual life, with the best intentions to serve God, just as she, Martha, is doing her best to serve in the kitchen. On a conscious level she is converted, she has invited Jesus into her home and her life, she’s working flat out, but she is not converted on the unconscious level of her motivation – and the unconscious keeps breaking through. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me. Where did that come from? The thing to remember about Martha in the story is not that she was wrong, but that she was right. Martha is always right. We are always right. You cannot answer back to Martha because she’s right; why should she slave in the kitchen by herself missing what Jesus, her guest, is saying? Martha is someone who will always find important and necessary jobs for herself and everyone to do, and they will be jobs which need doing. Many clergy have a Martha complex. The sadness about Martha, and this is a sadness which can so easily creep into our lives, is not that she has to work without help in the kitchen, but that she has lost all perspective. Martha is lost. So her work, instead of bringing her close to God, just makes her angry with her sister, envious of her, and leads to her isolation.
We can often notice our isolation and correct it. But if we take self-righteousness to its extremes, we encounter the wickedness and the distortion of religion which presents itself in the massacre at Nice and the other atrocities of our times. If it’s what God wants his followers to do, it even becomes right to murder the innocent for religion’s sake. That attitude is more widespread today than we could possibly imagine. There is a reason why such a massacre of the innocents is uniquely painful to us as Christians; it takes us to the vulnerable heart of our religion. The Gospels and the story of the Cross are all about facing up to corrupted religion, seeing humanity disfigured, and the story of Jesus reveals how we, with God’s help, must confront such evil.
Back to Martha for a moment. She has Jesus in her house, and all she knows is a sense of grievance. She has lost perspective, she is distracted by many things, and so she has missed the one thing necessary, which is love. And none of us can blame her. We all know what it’s like in that state of isolation, because we’ve been there too. This is what sin is. Sin isn’t shocking behaviour; sin is our refusal to participate in God’s life, it is when we spoil love, it is when we stay stuck in self.
That turmoil will cease when we stop being always right and start to listen, so that our lives literally fall into place as Mary sat and listened to Jesus. The disciple – and this is a story about discipleship – learns to listen, like Mary, and to trust the voice. Jesus does not choose between Martha and Mary – that’s the sort of game we play but God never does – he does not make a choice between doing and being, between action and prayer. What Jesus does, and what our tradition demands we try to do, is look at these two aspects of our lives, Martha and Mary, so that we see who we are; we start, maybe for the first time, to discover our calling as disciples, as we are, not as we might want to be.
Then something wonderful can happen. The two strands in our lives, Martha and Mary, come together. You are one person, not two. Martha and Mary are sisters. They love each other. Both of them, together, that is each of us, with our compulsions and damaged thinking and with our grace-filled moments and the inner peace we once knew, each of us has a destiny to be swept into a consciousness far greater than ourselves, and all we do is allow this to happen, that is what is meant in this Gospel by listening to Jesus, choosing the better part. God is waiting for you to listen to him.
The God who waits for you, the God you are waiting for all your life, is the Love that will not let you go, ever. This is the Love which was brutally wounded and crucified once more on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, but which will rise again. This is the Love which spoke to Martha, bringing her round. It is the Love to which Mary listened intently. We have Jesus himself in our house, like Martha and Mary, and that means, wherever we are, there’s a God to be listened to, a God ready to console us, however distracted, however much, as the Authorised Version puts it so memorably, we are “cumbered about with much serving”.