Today at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist we are confronted with a scandal. In both places the original audiences would have been shocked by what Jesus was saying. They may have been listening as Jesus spoke, thinking yes, yes, I quite see that. Suddenly, they would have been startled by what they heard. Perhaps they turned to their neighbour with a quizzical look. Maybe they asked someone near them to repeat what they thought they had just heard. Perhaps they tried to clean out their ears, thinking they had misheard the Teacher. But if we read the gospels carefully, what we heard this morning is not new. Jesus repeats it over, and over. Indeed, Jesus lives it. We could even say that Jesus dies it.
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.
‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured…’
Galatians 1: 13 – 24
Psalm 139: 1 – 14
Luke 10: 38 – 42
If truth be told, I don’t much like this passage from the Gospel of Luke about Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable. I hear it as the great Martha put down, with Jesus saying, in effect, “Martha, I like your sister Mary better!”And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some people to others, And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some activities, or rather no activity, to others, or rather any activity. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers contemplation to action. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that you can only be in relationship with Jesus when you are sitting at his feet, rather than making him dinner. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that when I get busy, doing any number of things, Jesus likes me less, than when I am quiet, and still. And that makes me really, really uncomfortable, because probably like you, I have a zillion things on my to do list, and even when I am supposed to be, I can’t always be quiet and still.
But is that what is really going on here? Is Jesus really making these invidious distinctions between Martha and Mary? Between busyness and stillness? Between housework and hospitality? Between action and contemplation? That’s what we’ve been told over the years, but is it really the case?
(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
1 Peter 4:7-11
It’s oftentimes quite fascinating to read the scriptures forensically, that is to search the scriptures like a good detective. If what we’re being presented in a scriptural passage is the answer to a question, or a solution to a problem, or the right way to live and act, what’s the presenting issue? Why does this need to be said, whatever we’re being told? So in the First Letter of Peter – our first lesson today – why are we being told what we are being told? If this is the solution, what’s been the problem? What’s the “back story”?
- “Maintain constant love for one another…” (What’s that about? There’s been a breakdown in love. Love has been patchy, inconsistent, unpredictable.)
- “Love covers a multitude of sins…” (“Sins,” plural. The people around you have been disappointing and disingenuous… repeatedly, which has elicited disdain, not love.)
- “Be hospitable to one another…” (To be hospitable is to be welcoming and generous to others… especially those whom you otherwise find irritating and off-putting. Have space in your heart and space in your home for those whom you could easily distance. Be hospitable.)
- Don’t be “complaining.” (The issue here is not about expressing a complaint, a dissatisfaction, a disagreement. No, the problem is not about a complaint. The issue here is about being a complainer. Having a predisposition that someone or something is always wrong and should be different. The issue here is about a state of being: being a complainer.)
- We’re to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (So what’s that about?) Peter writes we are to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serving one another with whatever gift each of you has received…” (So each of us is gifted, but not gifted in the same ways. Our gifts are not our possessions. Our individual gifts have been temporarily entrusted to us. We are to be “stewards” of our gifts, not possessors. If we don’t learn about our temporary stewardship of our gifts earlier in life, we will learn later in life… because our gifts are fleeting. Our gifts diminish and then go away.) We’re to be temporary “stewards” of the gifts we’ve received from God. And we’re to use our God-given gifts not to lord over one another but to “serve” one another.
“Go forth with this message,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Observing Hebrew reticence in speaking the name of God, these disciples are to speak of the longed-for mercy, justice and compassion of God’s already present and gracious reign. In their own persons, the twelve are to do as Jesus has already done: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
In taking up this mission with Jesus, the twelve are called to radical dependence on the provision of God.
Clouds and darkness are round about him, * righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne [on earth as in heaven].
Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous * and give thanks to his holy [, hallowed] Name. –Psalm 97: 2, 12
If your prayer life is anything like my own, you will have found that our praying lives are often littered with ever shifting seasons, fresh insights, old wounds that continue to sting, and ever expanding and contracting horizons of the heart. Perhaps, too, you will have found that even the most familiar phenomena can take on new valences and, to our surprise, unveil themselves in a beautiful complexity to which we had previously been blind. The ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from which our gospel pericope comes this morning, has often been for me a site of this very ‘unraveling of the familiar’—a place where the real limitations of our spiritual vision meet the scandalous, expansive, sometimes terrifying truth at the heart of all things.
For many of us, the words of the Lord’s prayer contain an inestimable, unqualifiable freight. These words—so dear, so familiar, so second-nature—stir the gaze of our hearts toward the One whom Jesus invites us to name “Our Father,” and articulate in six remarkably short petitions some of the deepest content of the “hope that is in us.” And yet, as with anything we live in close proximity to, the very familiarity of these words can sometimes obscure this prayer’s true power to transform us and its radical challenge that seeks to summon us beyond our illusory sense of self-dependence.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
There’s some delightful reading in the 32nd chapter of Ecclesiasticus, one of the books of the Apocrypha, in what we call the Wisdom Literature. It reads a bit like the Miss Manners of the ancient world, with advice about etiquette at dinner parties: if there’s music or entertainment, don’t interrupt by talking; don’t display your cleverness at the wrong time; if you’re young, speak only if obliged, and then only twice; if you’re older, only talk about things you actually know about; leave on time, don’t be the last to leave; and, above all, bless your Maker, who fills you with his good gifts.
Today, Jesus continues somewhat in the vein of the Wisdom Literature with sage advice about wedding banquet etiquette. But Jesus is not just speaking in the vein of the Wisdom Literature: Jesus is Wisdom—Wisdom itself, or, Wisdom himself—well, actually Wisdom herself: Sophia. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke in referring to himself, he says “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Jesus is Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia in Greek. This identification of Christ with Holy Wisdom is especially important in the Churches of the East. You may remember the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
So when Jesus speaks, we can expect to find deeper wisdom, deeper levels of meaning, the inexhaustible, infinite depths of the holy wisdom of God. He calls this teaching a parable, which means it’s about more than dinner parties.
It’s hard to escape our very human concern with matters of rank and status. And, yet, the gospel invites us to another place, another kind of self-awareness: a place of what we might call radical egalitarianism, a state of such deep identification with Christ himself that status and rank no longer matter. We stand before God as equals.
Or sit. I’m tempted to make a wager: the table at the heavenly banquet will be round. Perfectly round. Infinitely round, infinitely commodious, and—somehow–at the same time, infinitely intimate.