Trinity 11: Entertaining Angels Unaware

Dr Clare Amos, who among her other roles coordinates the Diocesan Ministry Scheme, writes on two of this week’s lectionary readings. She particularly focuses in Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16, though also draws attention to the Gospel reading, Luke 14.1, 7-14.

It is one of those pithy biblical sayings which has crept into wide use certainly among English speakers : ‘Entertaining angels unawares’ is a remark that is used by many more than avid readers of the Bible. Indeed, if asked, many regular readers of the Bible would be hard-pressed to immediately locate its origin in these verses from the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 13. It has to be said that the modern NRSV translation, which speaks of entertaining angels ‘without knowing it’ doesn’t have quite the same ring! It is of course referring to the story of Abraham’s hospitality to the three mysterious angels of Genesis 18, a visit which led to him and Sarah receiving in return far far more than they had expected.

It is a mixed bag of instructions and commands that are gathered together in these first 8 verses of this chapter of Hebrews. They are then summarized and undergirded by the striking statement, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13.8). It seems to suggest that giving hospitality isn’t just a sort of incidental niceness to strangers – but takes us to the very heart of the eternal nature of God. Hospitality is also a theme of this week’s lectionary Gospel reading (Luke 14.1, 7-14), and will also be so next week. The Gospel of Luke in particular makes clear how the receiving and the giving of hospitality are fundamental aspects of the earthly ministry of Jesus.

As I write this reflection, I am currently in Rome with the 2019-20 cohort of interns who will be spending time in several chaplaincies in our diocese between now and the end of June 2020 as part of the Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme (MES). They will be learning, working, worshipping and exploring what may be their future vocations in the life of the church. We are having our induction meeting here in Rome – and as with many events in the life of our diocese it would not be possible without generous hospitality offered to us, in this case partly by All Saints, the Anglican church in Rome which is a chaplaincy of our diocese. Later today we will be visiting the Episcopal church in the city, St Paul’s within the Walls, to hear about the ministry to refugees which has been developed by that church. Such hospitality to refugees is a regular part of the work of many chaplaincies in our diocese.

Over the last couple of years the learning and reflection of the MES interns has been focused around a particular ‘theme’ which they have shared something about in a presentation to Diocesan Synod towards the conclusion of their time with us. Last year the theme was ‘pilgrimage’, this year it will be ‘hospitality’. It is an appropriate theme, both in terms of learning about the importance of hospitality in the life and work of many of our chaplaincies, and the hospitality that each of them will receive in the coming months which makes this MES programme possible. In her introductory talk yesterday one of our pastoral mentors reminded us that the writer Henri Nouwen had spoken of ‘listening’ as a deep form of spiritual hospitality: I am sure that our interns will both experience such ‘spiritual hospitality’ on the part of others, and I hope will learn more about practicing it themselves.

Deliberately, one of the motifs which undergird the Diocesan Rule of Life and accompanying prayer which were introduced at this year’s Synod in June, is hospitality. Both Rule and Prayer draw from the story of Jesus’ encounter with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus in emphasizing its importance. The hospitable invitation, ‘’Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over’ (Luke 24.29) has consequences beyond their imagining and their hopes. In some ways that Emmaus encounter feels like a New Testament parallel to the Old Testament story of the angelic visit to Abraham in Genesis 18 to which Hebrews 13.2 refers, and it is interesting that a there is a depiction of the Emmaus story by the Indian Christian artist Jyoti Sahi which  clearly echoes the famous depiction of Abraham’s three visitors offered in the beautiful icon of Andrei Rublev. (Jyoti Sahi’s picture can be found as number 8 in the sequence of his art at https://globalworship.tumblr.com/post/142159343095/emmaus-art-india)

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The Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, Andrei Rublev, 15th century.

Rublev’s icon is also a reminder that as Hebrews 13.8 suggests, such hospitality is not just a one off haphazard event, but that we are receiving, experiencing and perhaps even participating in something that is profoundly part of the nature of God. The short verses below, written many years ago now by my husband Alan Amos, dare to suggest in acts of hospitality we are being invited to ‘mirror’ the divine life revealed in our world.

Three in one, in closest harmony

Circled by love, in tender symmetry

Offering up the Lamb who is to be

Life for the world

 

Angels are they, yet hold in meaning more

Than angels visiting at Sarah’s door:

God’s life itself, ready for us to pour

Grace on this world.

 

Help us then this circle now to join,

Our lives in newborn harmony entwine

In action mirroring the life divine

Revealed in our world.

Trinity 10: Restoring a broader vision

Canon Alexander Gordon, chaplain of Holy Trinity Church Geneva, reflects on this week’s lectionary readings: Isaiah 58.9b-14; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17.

The Sequence for Pentecost Sunday, written by a former reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, in the thirteenth century has the petition in one English translation ‘What is rigid, gently bend, what is frozen, warmly tend, straighten what goes erringly’. Thinking of the plight of the woman in today’s Gospel for the tenth Sunday after Trinity those words came to my mind. It is difficult to imagine the depths of affliction which she must have endured. Aside from the premature aging that this curvature of the spine would bring, there was the sheer inability to delight in her surroundings, or even to see where she was going. No doubt her life would have been punctuated with expressions of apology for bumping into other people who either did not see her or want to see her. All of this contributing to her personal diminishment and spiritual deprivation.

bent woman medium

 This scene, part of the fourth century Sarcohphagus of the Two Brothers in Rome, may depict a beardless Christ healing the bent woman.  [ Christ healing the crippled woman who was bent over, from ‘Art in the Christian Tradition’, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51253, retrieved August 21, 2019. Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.] 

So the liberation which the Lord brings to this afflicted woman is enormous. But of course there is even more going on here than we see at first sight. Her affliction is a symbol for a profound spiritual illness – one concerned with a lack of vision.

The first reading set for this Sunday from Isaiah follows on from some defining of who is truly to be regarded as part of God’s people, and foremost in this is the requirement to keep the Sabbath. That said, there is an opening up of membership of the religious community to a wider group than before – and this section includes the famous verse quoted by Jesus ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples’ (Isaiah 56.7). But the prophet has also been concerned to attack idolatry, which is of course the refusal to see the reality of things – a failure of vision – and he repeats the need for true justice and right behaviour. In our passage, Isaiah describes what might be a true and just keeping of the Sabbath – ‘If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness’.

This is the background to Jesus’ confrontation with the leader of the Synagogue. What constitutes a just and right keeping of the Sabbath? Surely, Jesus argues, the removal of the yoke of affliction from this daughter of Abraham who has suffered eighteen years? But Jesus is also aware of the Mishnah’s commentary on Sabbath regulations which affect the use of animals – they may be untied (even the kind of knot to be used is specified) and taken to water on the Sabbath. Which may be why the leader of the Synagogue keeps addressing the crowd, whom he wants to stir up, rather than Jesus himself, whom he recognises as too much of a force to be reckoned with.

The woman in this Gospel story has much to teach us. Her condition left her unable to see properly – just the ground in front of her. Something that she needs to be liberated from.

In Western society today, we are in a similar kind of danger – the danger of limited vision. Populist politicians discourage us from looking further ahead or deeper into the situations which we face. So climate change becomes fake news. Migrants are a problem to be eliminated. International diplomacy becomes a shouting match conducted by Twitter feed. The European Union becomes a costly bureaucratic nightmare to be dissolved away. The Common Good becomes an extravagant fantasy.

All of this is about a limited field of vision. We need the faith and courage to look further ahead and deeper into the complex realities which our world faces, and to pose the difficult questions which we are not always welcomed.

The cure of our idolatrous short-sight brings us back to worship. In the reading from the letter to the Hebrews, we are reminded of the holiness of God – a holiness which must be respected in reverence and awe in our worship. Our God, the writer tells us, is a ‘consuming fire’. Not a spiritual hot water bottle! As we open our eyes to this God in worship, our vision of the here-and-now is changed and enlarged along with our hearts to embrace in, through and with Christ the work of unbinding. A work of that love which is the fire at the centre of all that is, and which enables all of our being and our doing. We are told that the first thing that the healed woman did was to praise God. Such praise, the first task of Sabbath rest, changes literally everything. It restores delight – in surroundings, in other people, in the absolute love of the God of fire. And with the restoration of delight comes a longer view and deeper vision.

Trinity 9: ‘It is time for the Lord to act’

Revd Roxana Tenea Teleman, assistant curate at Holy Trinity, Nice, with St Hugh, Vence (France), reflects on this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 12.49-56, drawing also on the Epistle for this week, Hebrews 11.29-12.2.

roxana and family ordination

Roxana and her family after her ordination to the diaconate by Bishop Robert Innes on 30 June 2019

My first ‘encounter’ with the Anglican Church, a turning point in my life, happened in Bucharest, just a few months after the fall of Communism in Romania (and in Eastern Europe) – a time of confusion, unrest, deep worries, even angst for some. Emotions ran high, society seemed ablaze, families were worryingly divided. We had been unprepared, the change had taken us by surprise, we had failed to interpret our time.

We could, perhaps, blame the decades of imposed ‘peace’, ‘unity’, uniformity, and one-track thinking that gave us a false sense of security, and lulled our (political) conscience into slumber, anaesthetised our capacity to discern, and nearly extinguished our fire of dreaming of freedom.

Thirty years later, divisiveness seems to have become a leitmotiv in Romania, in the whole of Europe, actually: social unrest, unprecedented political divisions, with feisty debates, with traditionally major parties being dealt strong blows, and unexpected election results, an unwillingness to negotiate or just to listen. We were still unprepared for these, and we are still puzzled. We were well equipped, though, with tools and research teams meant to probe beneath the surface of events, to recognise what is really going on, and what is likely to happen.

‘Why do you not know how to interpret the present time (καιρός, kairos)?’, Jesus Christ asks the crowds. Why do we fail, again and again, to read the signs of the times?

It is, perhaps, because we are so preoccupied with chronos, the continuous linear measurable time, which encapsulates our earthly lives, that we do not recognise the time (kairos) of our Visitation from God (Luke 19.44), when he is acting in our life, in the world?

Or, let us face it, we might be afraid to acknowledge the divine kairos: we are warned that God’s intervention in our human time is disruptive, that it can bring about division and lay bare our soul, with its abyss of fears, inconsistencies and contradictions, before our own eyes and “to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4.13).

More division? What an unsettling thought! We would so much prefer to avoid conflict and division at all costs, at least, in our families and our churches – these are, surely, the most painful instances of disharmony. Parents and church leaders have the experience and the wisdom that allows them to identify what might disrupt the good (and smooth) conduct of family or church life and peace, don’t they? Should they not build in a firewall to prevent division seeping in? Yet, this fear of disturbances, and of challenges, fear that the shallow peace of suppressed conflicts, questions and choices, of complacency might be disrupted, the ‘fear of fear’, might become the ‘fear of belonging to Another, […] to God’ (T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets), who is intent on leading us through mountains and valleys, when we would rather choose a flat landscape.

Christ, the ‘perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12.2), wants to kindle a fire of purification and refinement, the fire of God’s active presence in the world, that can effect changes by igniting our resistance, the fire of judgement that consumes all unrighteousness, idolatry and injustice.

The Church has been entrusted with Christ’s message of release and transformation, which is bound to be divisive – why do we try to ‘tame’ it? There is no mildness or promise of instant gratification and happiness in it (as ‘Good News’, which very often is used for ‘Gospel’ nowadays, may sound), but the announcement of powerful, life-changing events, of the ‘consuming fire”’ (Hebrews 12.29) of God’s Visitation.

In some Eastern Churches, before the Divine Liturgy begins, it is the deacon’s task to remind the priest that ‘It is time (kairos) for the Lord to act’ (Psalm 119.126). The liturgy, even if, etymologically, it means ‘the action of the people’, is, indeed, the place where God makes irruption into our churches, into our life, with the fire of his Word, that is ‘living and acting, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow’ (Hebrews 4.12), with the gift of His peace ‘which passes all understanding’ (Philippians 4.7) and with the radical inclusiveness of the invitation to his table. With this renewed awareness of and opening to God’s presence with us, we could ‘run with perseverance the race that is set before us’ (Hebrews 12.1).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trinity 8: Glad to be Unhappy

Revd Richard Bromley, Mission Director of ICS (Intercontinental Church Society), explores this week’s lectionary epistle, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16.

To get the best from this lectionary reflection you might want to follow this link, to Watersky by Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy and allow it to play as you read. 

On a visit to Amsterdam, my daughter and I went to the Van Gogh museum to see a new exhibition.  Of course, the centre piece was his ‘Starry Night’, painted in the asylum in St Remy in 1889.  Van Gogh wrote at that time that he often felt the night to be ‘more richly coloured than the day’.  Unable to go outside at night he painted the Starry Night from memory.  We had to buy a print that now takes pride of place on the wall of my lounge.

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Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night

The writer of Hebrews, having written of Christ and his work has moved to our response and now, reaching his peak in chapter 11, pronounces: ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’.  He goes on to develop what this faith looks and feels like.

By faith we have confidence in his invisible hand at work (11.3), all is not chaos, however the news reads, family life feels or the latest development on Brexit looks.

By faith we obey the call to go, even though we realise later we did not really know where we were going or what it would be like when we got there.  If we had known, we may not have left.  But this is what it means to be a pilgrim (11.4).

By faith we make our homes in other lands, realising this world is not our home.  We find ourselves integrating into and forming community, making friends, working, playing and serving.  We seek the good for our host countries, they become ‘our home’ because God has brought us here (11.9).

The Daily Telegraph’s Helen Brown commenting on Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ explains how the painting ‘maintains an electric tension between ecstasy and melancholy’.  It is wonderful, but at the same time is dreadful.  Don McLean wrote of the painting ‘It makes you glad to be unhappy,’

This time of year, in chaplaincy life there is a sense of the ecstasy and melancholy.  It is the summer holidays, we go places, see family and have time to pick up a book or paint a picture.  It is also the time some of our friends have packed their bags and returned home or to their next assignment, being less confident where home really is.  We are aware of people returning for family, for work, or for financial reasons.  We know people moving on as the journey leads them somewhere else.  We know people delighted to leave, others with a torn heart.

In Cyprus, where we lived for a time, we marked this time of year with our church young people.  On the last evening they were all to be together we took them to the beach in Larnaca, we played games and laughed in the evening sun.  As the sun went down and the stars came out, we sat in a line with our feet in the sea, lapping at our toes.  I read them today’s lectionary reading from Hebrews 11, emphasising v 12 and 13, ‘And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.  All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

God had brought us together and then scattered us.  It is a painful experience, especially for the Chaplain, who ‘starts again’ every year in a way not normal in an English parish.  But these stars are sent out, we as chaplains and chaplaincies rarely get to see the impact we have had.  The faith which we have created and the space to grow and develop in, the changes that are wrought in people’s lives in their time with us.

Occasionally a well-known person (Archbishop Justin) appears who was nurtured in one of our chaplaincies, but there are, like the stars in the sky, people who have been impacted, developed, grown in faith in chaplaincies who we will never really know about it until we get to that better country spoken of in verse 16, where God greets us in the place he has prepared for us.

 

Trinity 7 : The Would-be Rich Fool


Hector Davie draws on all three lectionary readings (Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14; 2.18-23; Colossians 3.1-11;  Luke 12.13-21) for this week’s blog.

Every year the newspapers here report the results of the various quality-of-life polls, and the Swiss scan them with enthusiasm. Have we been beaten by the Norwegians? Whatever are the Irish and the Icelanders doing there in the top ten? If we are not up near the top of the chart, the pollsters must surely be measuring the wrong things.

There is a strongly-held belief that material wealth is the main basis for a high standard of living, and the differences in wealth between countries, even within Europe, give rise to the idea that some nations are more developed than others. This is not a Christian view. We are not here for the money. It is easier, says Jesus, for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven. Even if Chesterton’s comment is true, that ‘modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle (and) biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel’, serving Mammon doesn’t mix with serving God.511px-Dortmund,_Bonifatius-Kirche,_Eingang_West

Sculpture of the camel going through the eye of a needle in St Boniface Church, Dortmund.(Mathias Bigge [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D)

Indeed the Gospel may well be far more radical than we are willing to accept. Perhaps we should take our cue from the lilies of the field, cancel our insurance policies, cash in our pension funds and give the proceeds to the poor? Or is this just an example of Semitic thought, of seeing things in terms of black and white? Is the real message perhaps the same as that of the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.’?

The Reformers held equally radical views about wealth, but tempered them with their own thoughts about work. With the right ethic, as Max Weber famously pointed out, work can easily generate wealth and it is interesting that the three cities most associated with Swiss wealth are Zurich, Basle and Geneva – the cities of Zwingli, Erasmus and Calvin.

Our Gospel reading today, however, is not about work or wages. The voice from the crowd has not been working. The money in question comes from an inheritance. The brother refuses to share it. Surely that can’t be right. As with any domestic dispute, it was the done thing to go and ask the rabbi, and it was expected that the rabbi would decide the claim.

But Jesus, as often, does not give a direct answer. Instead, he tells a parable about a rich man and his crops – his life savings. The rich man’s response to wealth is simple: build a bigger barn and sit back, eat, drink and have fun. We’ve heard the story before (not least from Ecclesiastes!) Ecclesiastes does not condemn the merry-making – it is merely rather pointless, like most worldly things. The prophet who condemns it is Isaiah, and in quite a different context.

In Isaiah 22, Jerusalem is under siege, perhaps by Sennacherib, but after Judah is defeated the siege is lifted. The prophet calls for sackcloth and ashes, But the inhabitants use the opportunity to fortify the city wall, and then give themselves over to joy and festivity, eating and drinking. How mixed-up can their priorities be! They rejoice at their good fortune; but they neglect the God who guides their destiny.

This is the nub of Jesus’ reply. Why does the disgruntled figure from the crowd want the share of the inheritance? If you or I had Jesus in person in our midst – and we do – what would we do? Listen to his teaching? Seek his healing touch? Or pester him to take sides in a family dispute? The New Testament is full of advice on how to deal with disputes, but the underlying message is that disputes have no place in the powerful love of the redeemed community

So, as today’s epistle bids us, let us set our minds on things that are above, not on the earth. Not in the expectation that God will bless us materially, as God blessed Solomon in 1 Kings 3.13, or that we can lead a toil-free lily-like existence, for God does not work that way. Yet even if we repeatedly forget God, there is one reading today, from Hosea 11, that reminds us of anther truth – no matter how far we stray, now matter how far we neglect the things that are above, God never ceases loving us.

Many years ago, Hector Davie took advantage of the Church of England’s willingness ‘to pay to train a layman.’ He is a member of the congregation of St Ursula’s Church in Berne and tries to contribute regularly to communication within the parish and beyond.

Trinity 6: Prayer in a Europe of many languages

This week’s lectionary reflection is written by Dr Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship and administrator of this blog.

One of the ‘traditions’ at the World Council of Churches, where I worked for seven years, is that whenever the Lord’s Prayer is said, whether in the offices in Geneva or in a meeting in another part of the world, people are asked to say the prayer in their own language. It is a tradition that I have grown to appreciate very much. It requires sensitivity on the part of the leader of worship – once having started off the prayer they need to drop their voices. It also often requires sensitivity on the part of the congregation, because it many contexts it would be very easy for English speakers to dominate, and to drown out the rest of the worshippers. But done well – as it generally is in World Council of Churches circles – it is a powerful and moving affirmation of the quest for unity in diversity, the spirit which undergirds the ecumenical movement.

I believe that this practice also happens at a number of the chaplaincies in our Diocese in Europe, in which, even if English is the ‘common tongue’ of worship, there are many members of our congregations whose mother language is different. It does potentially say something important about the relationship of our churches and chaplaincies as both ‘guests and hosts’ in the contexts in which we minister. When we took the group of our diocesan 2018-2019 ministry experience scheme interns to the Holy Land last November one site that they all seemed especially to enjoy visiting was the Church of the Pater Noster, the church on the Mount of Olives where the Lord’s Prayer is displayed in well over a hundred different languages. One of our group who himself came originally from Cornwall was very impressed to discover a plaque with the Prayer written in Cornish!

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Some of the versions of the Lord’s Prayer on display at the Church of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem.

The Lord’s Prayer – in the shorter version that it is found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 11.2-4) is the core of the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday. The Gospel then continues (verses 5-13) to tease out the meaning of prayer from this initial starting point, and it is significant that it ends – as it has also effectively begun – with a reference to God as our heavenly Father.

For one thing that is fundamental about the Lord’s Prayer is its starting point. It does not begin with confession of our sins, or indeed with prayers of intercession and need for ourselves or others. Rather it starts with the affirmation that God is our Father – and offers praise to God’s name. So it is a prayer grounded in thanksgiving for and assurance of our existing relationship with God, rather than a prayer that seeks to create such a relationship. That is a vital principle for Christian prayer. The classic book that has most influenced my own understanding of prayer – J Neville Ward, The Use of Praying, makes the point eloquently that prayer needs to begin with thanksgiving and praise – and the other dimensions of prayer flow out of that. That is also the modern Anglican understanding of the Eucharist (a word which itself means ‘thanksgiving’). The ‘Gloria’ is now set as the first element of the service (not the last – which is where Cranmer placed it). We are all – in our unity and our diversity – beloved children of God and that needs to be the primary principle undergirding our relationship with God – and with each other.

It is often and truly said that the Gospel of Luke gives a particular importance to prayer and its essential role in the life and ministry of Jesus. So the point – here – when Jesus teaches his disciples to emulate him in prayer seems to be of particular importance. It is noteworthy that it comes immediately after two important passages (which have provided the lectionary Gospel readings for the previous two weeks). The first of these is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37) and the second is Jesus’ supper at Bethany with Martha and Mary when Jesus’ commended Mary for her listening to him (Luke 10.38-42). It is possible to see these two passages as expressing the dual focus of Jesus’ ministry – both the need for practical compassion and action for others, and the need for quiet listening to the word of God. Can we suggest that placing the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer at this point is therefore intended to reinforce the wisdom that prayer and action belong together – and action, whether on behalf of ourselves or others needs to be rooted in prayer and our family relationship to God?

It is also interesting to explore both how the different petitions of the Lord’s Prayer seem to be exemplified in the later teaching of Jesus in this Gospel (especially chapters 15-17), and then are hinted at during the passion of Jesus as portrayed by Luke. Remembering TS Eliot’s line about ‘where prayer has been valid’, we can say that in the Gospel of Luke lives out and validates his own prayer through his life and his sacrificial death.

Trinity 5: The Two Sisters

Revd Helen Marshall, Chaplain of St Ursula, Bern, Switzerland, explores this week’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 10.38-42.

Mary or Martha: which sister do you most identify with?

Whenever I have used this passage in a group discussion almost everyone identifies with Martha; indeed, some people feel very indignant on her behalf. We may instinctively associate ourselves with Martha because we are busy people. We, like her, often have so many things to do. We can be worried and distracted, pulled in several different directions at the same time. This may be particularly true for many of us within the Diocese in Europe. Many people in our Chaplaincies have highly demanding and stressful jobs, and they are involved in running activities in our churches too. There can also be additional pressures for those living away from their home country.

Busyness itself can often be seen as a ‘virtue’ in our wider culture, both inside and outside the church. Certainly whenever a group of clergy get together, it’s never more than a few minutes before someone says how busy they are. Then there often a follows an unconscious competition as to who is the most busy and stressed. We all do it – me included. It is as if the busyness itself proves we are doing something worthwhile.

Jesus’ dialogue with Martha should make us pause.

Martha is distracted by her many tasks and she is also resentful that she is left to do all the work in the kitchen alone, while Mary sits down at Jesus’ feet to spend time in his presence and listen to his teaching. Martha calls on Jesus to take her side. Can’t he see that it’s not fair? But Jesus’ reply to Martha is a gentle rebuke ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.’ I always like to think this is also an invitation; Martha too can leave her many tasks and sit at Jesus feet with Mary.

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Christ in the house of Martha and Mary: Johannes Vermeer

Jesus implies that what is needed at this particular moment is that Martha spends time with him, rather than making him a gourmet meal. Rather than busying herself doing something ‘for’ him, she is invited to sit down and receive ‘from’ him like Mary. I don’t think that Jesus is saying that Martha should never work in the kitchen or be busy serving others. After all, Jesus himself was a man of action, he was constantly giving himself to serve others. But he was also a man of prayer. He certainly didn’t spend time being busy for the sake of being busy; all he did and said came out of his loving dependence on his Father. His ‘doing’ came out of his ‘being’, his deep rootedness in God.

We cannot be like Martha all the time. We need to build ‘Mary’ moments into our lives; times when we can sit still at Jesus’ feet, listening and meditating on Scripture and simply being in his presence in silence. This is where we receive the life giving energy, the resources of grace we need for all we do.

In our Chaplaincy in Bern, we have recently started a regular lectio divina group. (Lectio divina – sacred reading – is an ancient Benedictine practice of meditating on Scripture.) A short passage of Scripture is read slowly several times, and we ponder it in silence, noticing a word or phrase which particularly strikes us. At the end, we have the opportunity to share briefly together what we have received. It is a rich and nourishing time.

It is good for us to reflect on the balance of our lives. Is all our busy activity strictly necessary? Are we so busy doing things ‘for’ God, that we never make time to receive ‘from’ him? Even in the midst of stressful and demanding jobs, it may be possible to create some little spaces in our lives to offer to God, simply to be with him. We may then find that these times are oases of grace which provide life and nourishment and a new focus in what we do. They are the ‘one thing necessary.’

The aim in the end is to integrate the Mary and Martha within us; to keep the simple attentiveness of Mary even when we are doing practical tasks, or serving others. To live as Jesus lived, to allow all we are and do to come out of what we have first received in grace from God.