Sermon for Trinity 5 High Mass Sunday 21 July 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Last week we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of hospitality without frontiers, which is Jesus’ answer to the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He told that parable ‘on the road to Jerusalem’. Then, today, we hear of him stopping at a house while on that journey and we are invited to consider the manner of hospitality accorded to him by two friends who are also sisters, Martha and Mary. We’ve had this encounter placed in a further context for us by today’s first reading from Genesis, in which Abraham and Sarah receive an angel or angels at Mamre and offer him or them hospitality, only to discover that this is a divine visitation.
Today’s gospel is often straight-jacketed into an opposition between action and contemplation – Mary, who sits and listens, has chosen ‘the better part’ says Jesus. But the questioner who prompted the earlier parable of the Good Samaritan is told ‘Go and do likewise’: be actively hospitable. Which is right?
Whenever I hear these stories I am reminded of my first assistant priest in Sydney, Fr Gordon Holroyd SSM, who was a monk in his late middle age. He had stayed on as assistant after acting as Rector in the vacancy. I already knew him: he had been our spiritual director at St Stephen’s House. Fr Gordon was everyone’s mental image of Friar Tuck, with the addition of enormous NHS spectacles which magnified his eyes to double size and a stomach that needed no magnification. He had a large collection of pub glasses bearing the legend ‘Gordon’s Gin’. A slow-speaking but quick-witted Yorkshireman, Gordon’s sermons invariably began ‘let me tell you a story’. Disconcertingly, the story was often the same one you’d heard last time, allegedly adapted to the day’s Gospel. I have mentioned him from this pulpit before, but it was 5 years ago for Michaelmas Evensong, so following his lead I’m going to recycle – him.
Three of Gordon’s stories stand out in my memory.
One is of the Yorkshire monumental mason, asked by a grieving husband to carve on his deceased wife’s headstone the legend ‘She were thine’. Inspecting the finished work the widower sees the words ‘She were thin’ and indignantly says to the mason, ‘you’ve left off the ‘e’, Returning the following week he is presented with a headstone which reads ‘Eee she were thin!’ I have no idea what that was supposed to illustrate. Multiculturalism, perhaps.
The second, equally adaptable, was, Gordon felt, sufficiently risqué to run past me before preaching it at midnight Mass in 1996 (tho’ it too, inevitably, resurfaced later). It’s a story which, again, you may know, about Mae West. Mae West invites a journalist to ‘come up and see her’, not ‘some time’, but on a specific occasion. On entering the room the journalist’s gaze is fixated by a rope of pearls on which you could hang a suspension bridge. He exclaims ‘My goodness, Miss West, what wonderful pearls’; Mae West replies, ‘My goodness had nothing to do with it.’ That was, of course, an apt parable of the incarnation for us.
But his favourite and oft repeated story was of being tricked into entertaining a filthy and ungracious tramp by one of the brethren who claimed there was an angel at the door. Remonstrating with his tormentor later he received a lapidary answer: ‘Hebrews 13.2’, which is
Do not neglect to show hospitality, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’
Jesus taught that we receive him in the weak, the poor, and the afflicted and also in his messengers, his angels. We will be judged, he says, according to what we have done or failed to do with respect to those who need our welcome and assistance. We can exclude no one, since the neighbour is anyone present to us.
So, as we hear the story of Martha and Mary, we should be careful how we interpret it. As early as the third century the first great lay theologian, Origen, saw this passage as extolling the necessary balance of action and contemplation. But it has often been seen as recommending contemplation over action, perhaps because, as John Pridmore writes,
Today we are all activists, even if we have no idea what we are doing….
It is significant that today we have far more problems with the story of Martha and Mary than the story which immediately precedes it, … the parable of the Good Samaritan. The punchline of the parable is ‘Go and do’. Whether or not we obey that injunction, its bracing tone is congenial to the hyperactive temper of contemporary church life. We applaud the church where ‘there is a lot going on’. The church next door, where the only sign of life is a tiny congregation saying its prayers, will not fare well at the dread day of the archdeacon’s visitation.
Jesus says to Martha that ‘Mary has chosen the better part’. But that is part of a conversation in which Martha is whining competitively to him about her irritatingly pious sister and needs gentle correction. Martha is, in this encounter, like the elder brother in the parable which we call ‘the prodigal son’: good and diligent and equally beloved, but never feeling sufficiently affirmed. She wants to say ‘it isn’t fair’. But Jesus says, more than once, that the kingdom is not always fair as we understand fairness (think of the workers given the same wage at the 11th hour). We should not get caught up in that modern analysis of the story, weighing up consistency and justice but failing to notice what is happening. What is happening is hospitality, but in two different ways: serving and listening.
Gordon Holroyd, by the time I knew him in Sydney, had shed many of his youthful enthusiasms for the religious life and the technical rights and wrongs of how to perform the Christian faith. ‘Let me tell you a story’ was, for him, about hospitality, about making you feel comfortable, loved and at home with the gospel. If you already knew the story it didn’t matter; you’d enjoy the sonorous Yorkshireman’s retelling of it. You’d maybe even join in the punchline. Because you felt at home.
Gordon drove many people mad. I don’t exaggerate. He could lose a vital piece of paper, forget a date, double-book a service and run into your car all in one afternoon. Then he’d smile and say how sorry he was and tell you he’d do better next time, and by the way, he was cooking that evening and wouldn’t you like a gin (Gordon’s, of course) while he got on with it. If people went to him with a problem, small or great, he’d listen, give them a big hug and tell them it would get better if they’d just have a gin while he cooked them a vast and rather wonderful meal. And while he did that, could he just tell you a story….
Gordon did not set the ecclesiastical world on fire. He bumbled his way lovingly through a number of parishes and posts, here and in Australia, often seeming to snatch disaster from the jaws of success. He fell ill and died rather uncomfortably: a botched operation left him debilitated and a few years later he died, still only in his late sixties, in a nursing home in Scarborough having had a final ministry as an assistant priest in Harrogate. At his wonderful Requiem Mass in St Wilfrid’s Harrogate, much was said about his stories and his legendary hospitality. Gordon wasn’t a success, even in church terms, but he understood that generosity is at the heart of the Gospel.
Whenever I am irritated by someone using the scriptures to be narrow, exclusive or condemnatory, I am reminded of him reading the second lesson at evening prayer one hot Sydney afternoon, from Matthew 22. It is the story of those tiresome Sadducees trying to catch Jesus out about the resurrection with their silly hypothetical question about the woman who has been married by seven brothers in turn, according to the Jewish law, as each has died. If there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be?
Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. You are completely wrong!’
Gordon banged the Bible shut and pronounced, ‘that’s the best verse in the bible!’