Updated: Aug 16, 2019
Today’s first reading from Genesis tells us of a mysterious encounter between Abraham, Sarah, and three men. Although this is an Old Testament scene, some Christians interpret this encounter with these three figures as foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity. In fact, if you read just three more verses into the story, you’ll actually read that the figures are identified as the Lord. It is the Lord who pronounces to Sarah and Abraham that Sarah will, even in her advanced age, bear a child. Although not in today’s reading, just a few more verses indicate that, when Sarah hears this news, she laughs; she can’t believe this. What seems impossible, what seems outrageous, is the way God chooses to operate in the world.
We hear the lesson for today: That God’s ways are ultimately not our ways.
In our second reading today, Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians , speaks of the foolishness of the operations of God. Through Christ, writes St. Paul, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross”. God, St. Paul tells us, has paid the cost of our sin, taking on himself our sin so that we may be “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.”
If our image of God is God as the sort of Divine Accountant, where debits must equal credits--where we have to do good in order to earn our salvation--that’s not the God St. Paul is writing about today. And frankly, it’s an insult to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. With that mindset, one is essentially standing at the foot of the cross, and saying to God, “Thank you, but that’s still not enough.”
One of our historic beliefs as Anglicans found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer denounces the idea that we could somehow replace our sin with good works so as to tip the scales in our favor. This refutation of what is called, “Works of Supererogation” not only awards you 17 points if played successfully in Scrabble, but it is an important part of our Christian faith. We cannot, through the course of our lives, somehow buy our way back into God’s favor.
Even the great saints of old like St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Luke, did not earn their salvation. We do not become saints because we do enough good things to even out the bad things we do. Because even if we were sinless people, that is still the bare minimum God expects of us.
Our sinfulness and the effects of our sin on ourselves and on the world cannot be quantified and somehow undone by our own power. Even if we act in ways we believe to be sinless, what does the author of the First Letter of St. John say, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
If we received the judgement our sin rightly deserved, everyone of us would be hanging on the cross, not Jesus. And yet, here we are.
God has not given us crosses on which to hang and die.
He does, though, give us crosses to bear, but if we pause and reflect, we’ll see the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of small and large graces given to us by God; we can see how much we have to be thankful for. Take a moment today and reflect on what you have to be thankful for in your life.
Perhaps for the clean air.
Perhaps for the fresh water or a hot cup of coffee.
Perhaps for the car that got you here.
Perhaps for a home to go back to.
Perhaps for a parent to call when you need them.
Perhaps legs to stay mobile.
Perhaps lungs that don’t require outside help to breath.
Even in the midst of challenging moments, God is still blessing us with innumerable, undeserving, and (in most cases) unearned gifts.
But why? Why would he do such a thing, to us, sinners we are?
Because if there is one thing we learn from Jesus, it’s that our God is a God who is merciful. A God who whose name is Mercy. As Anglicans we might say our God is a God whose property is always to have mercy.
The reason the saints of God rejoiced on earth is because they recognized that in Jesus, they could approach God, justified through the Cross of his Son and have access to God’s unending and fatherly mercy.
As far and as low as the saints dug themselves into their sins, God was waiting right beside them to offer total mercy and forgiveness.
To put it plainly: The God of Jesus is a God who does not condemn us but shows mercy.
The unqualified, unearned, undeserved, and absolute mercy of God puts on its head all we’ve come to learn about ourselves, about our society, and about how the world works.
Again, God’s ways are not our ways.
In our Gospel today, Jesus challenges the norms of society in this famous interaction with Martha and Mary.
Some perhaps might be quick to judge Martha as a complainer, perhaps like a person we know at home or at the office who is always going on and on about how much they do and how little they are recognized. Perhaps we’ve been this person or are them.
Some might use this story as an opportunity to advance a feminist perspective that frames Mary as bravely taking her place alongside Jesus’ other (male) disciples and Martha as an old reactionary. This is the position the famous Anglican scholar and Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, takes and one which I find myself in agreement.
But, “the better part” to which Jesus is referring in the Gospel isn’t to the teaching Mary is hearing. It’s also not her determination to be a Jewish Rosie the Riveter or to a precursor to the sexual revolution that apparently she knew would happen one thousand, nine hundred and fifty years into the future in a part of the world she didn’t even know existed.
No, the better part Mary has chosen is simply the way of Jesus--following and choosing to gaze and learn from Christ rather than someone or something else. She plants herself squarely at the feet of Jesus and chooses him to be her rule and guide.
Whereas Martha follows the customs and expectations of hospitality in 1st Century Palestine, Mary notices something different.
To clarify, the Gospel writer doesn’t make Martha out to be an evil person. Jesus doesn’t call Martha out for her wrong doing, but instead, almost tries to comfort her, “Martha, Martha,” he says to her, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” One can imagine Martha being taught how to be hospitable from her mother and grandmother and them being taught by their mothers and so on. Even today in the Middle East, good hospitality says just as much about the person hosting as it does about the person visiting. Martha is simply living out what society has dictated she ought to do in her situation.
But Mary? Mary sets aside traditional rules of hospitality (not because those rules are wrong, not because the rules are evil, not because the rules no longer represent our present-day theology) but Mary realizes it is Christ who is the measure of all things.
Christ has chosen to dwell with us as we are, not who we are not, and not who society expects us to be.
This is the same Christ who, despite his miraculous birth had no crib to lay his head.
The same Christ who, though adored by kings, submitted himself to a life of manual labor and poverty.
The same Christ who, though all things were created through him and for him, surrounded himself with your average, sometimes incompetent disciples.
This is the same Christ who, though worshipped by the choirs of celestial angels, chose a humiliating and torturous death.
If you can see the absurdity in the choices made by God to bring about the redemption of the human race, then you can understand from where Martha’s frustration is arising.
Through the foolishness of our salvation’s story, we are free and justified forever. “Can it really be that easy?” we may ask ourselves. “Can we really be forgiven that easily? What’s the catch?”
No catch. No condemnation. Only forgiveness.
When some people think of God, they may have this image of a god more like the God of the Pharisees rather than the God of Jesus Christ. This false god is one who demands absolute purity, absolute cleanliness, with strict and arduous living.
Those with what we might call a Pharasetic attitude worship at the altar of an angry god, not the God of understanding,
the god of impatience, not the God of Peace,
the god of narcissism, not the God of Humility,
the god of short-sightedness, not the God of the Ages,
and a god of exclusion, not the God of Love.
It would be better perhaps to exist forever in nothingness than dwell in the presence of the god of the Pharisees--whose love is conditional and fickle and who created humanity sick and demands it be well.
This is simply not the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This is not the God at whose feet Mary sat.
To choose God’s side means challenging our conceptions and ideas of right and wrong, just and unjust. To choose the better part like Mary means viewing our lives as a series of thousands upon thousands of unearned, undeserved gifts. We did nothing to be born. We did nothing to earn our salvation. The only reason we are even able to draw breath is because everything around us is gift freely given by God.
To choose God’s way is not to choose stupidity. To live the better part does not mean to wish for a fictional, fairy-tale land where people are nice to each other and everyone is okay if you’re okay. To choose the way revealed to us by God in Jesus Christ means to sit at his feet and learn. To choose God’s way means to be his disciple even if doing so proves to be the less popular path. Sometimes it means taking the more difficult path or the less socially acceptable path. But if we really want to follow Christ, to work towards the fullness of our created selves, then the cost of discipleship will result in a yoke Christ says is easy and whose burden is light.
My brothers and sisters, to build that society--that Society of Jesus, that Kingdom of God--requires all of us. We must support each other towards that end. We must seek to understand and love our neighbor, to be there for each other when our faith in God is severely tested. When those tough times come, as they inevitably will, in the end, all we have is each other.
As a congregation, you’ve chosen to walk this journey of life with each other. Each of you have been brought here for a reason, for a purpose, to become the saints you are meant to be. On your website, you say you believe that every individual is a child of God with a unique identity and a singular experience deserving of respect. As a congregation, ask yourselves, how are you helping each other to become the saints God wants you to be? Do you see the face of God when you look into neighbor? For some of you: do you see the face of God when you look in the mirror? Are you helping each other choose the better part?
July 21 2019
Brother James Nathaniel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.