SERMON FOR 21ST JULY 2013 (8TH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY)
A few days ago, Jason and Celyn and I were sitting in the Primrose Eatery across the road with the Area Dean giving lunch to Cllr Tulip Siddiq, who has a special responsibility in Camden for working with the faith communities. She had just been selected as the Labour party’s prospective parliamentary candidate, and the light of battle was in her eyes. She had apparently told the committee that if selected, the campaign would begin at 9 am the next morning. In fact, she told us, it actually began at 7 am because she was up early on Monday and started work immediately. She said that she and her newly married husband barely saw each other because her life was now so busy. We discussed the hectic pace of life in London, not just for would-be MPs but for nearly everyone, and agreed that most people who choose to live in London seem to thrive on it.
Well, just a few days earlier I was still on my holiday in Kenya, and I have a very different mental picture from my time there. Never in two weeks did I see anyone run or even walk fast – everything seemed to be done at a slow and comfortable pace. And the striking image that will stay with me was the number of people I saw just sitting under a tree or on a railway bank or even in the middle of a field, not in groups talking, not on their mobile phones chatting, not reading a book or doing any kind of handiwork, but just simply sitting. It is a sight that is fairly uncommon on 21st century Britain, but I must have seen literally hundreds of people sitting quietly all alone and apparently, at least from the outside point of view, doing nothing.
Now this isn’t going where you might be thinking. I don’t think that in the episode of Mary and Martha Jesus was telling people to stop having busy lives full of commitments and instead just sit under a tree. It would be useless in any case to make such a suggestion to people who have to earn a living, look after relatives and negotiate all the complex business of everyday life in a digitalized 21st century urban environment.
But the contrast between having a diary packed full and spending time just sitting and doing nothing made me think about what Jesus perhaps IS telling us. In saying that Mary has chosen the better part he is not commending idleness but focused attention. Mary’s action isn’t a sign of laziness or selfishness. It is extremely intentional. For one thing it is an act of rebellion, transgressing all the social rules of her day.
I remember from my time in the Jewish community of Stamford Hill how clearly differentiated the roles of the sexes were. Whenever a famous rabbi came to visit Stamford Hill, as often happened, he held what is called a tisch. This would be a gathering over a meal where all those who wanted to learn from him would sit and hang on his words and ask questions and enter into debate with him. It was, without exception, a men-only event. Women were to learn, as we may remember from one of Paul’s letters, by asking their husbands or fathers at home what had been discussed. You may recall that Paul himself had been a student of the great rabbi Gamaliel and would have attended many such a study session in his time.
So Mary was doing something very definite and meaningful by sitting at Jesus’ feet. She broke the normal rules of feminine behaviour and took upon herself the privileges of a student of the Torah. The cooking and serving were important, because guests were of enormous value in her culture, but she simply couldn’t let slip the opportunity to learn when the Lord was speaking. When Jesus gently chided Martha for fussing about all the domestic chores, he didn’t say they weren’t important too, but that one thing mattered even more. And that was the choice to focus on what he was saying to her. This was an opportunity for every disciple, not just for men who were able to devote most of their waking hours to religious study while women prepared the meals.
We too have the opportunity to choose the better part, to sit at the feet of the Lord. When I was a child I used to puzzle about what people meant when they spoke about listening to God. Because God was invisible, I assumed the communication would be by telephone from heaven, and was disappointed to find this was not the case. But as we mature in our faith we learn that God speaks to us in many ways: the scriptures, discussion with wise friends, and through the times of quiet and thankful reflection when we review our lives as seen through God’s eyes. We learn that attending carefully to our deepest desires and joys is usually a reliable way of being gently guided into the flourishing that God has created us for.
I am probably not the only person here this morning who spends a lot of time feeling guilty for being a Martha. It is so easy, especially when you work from home, to let one task after another overtake whatever plan you had to spend time quietly be open to God. That is why I am so grateful for the discipline of canon law that requires me to turn up at church twice a day and say the office. I am well aware how quickly my prayer time would evaporate if I didn’t have that obligation.
It is much harder to be a faithful and attentive layperson. At my clergy selection conference I was told that God chooses for ordination only those people that can’t be trusted to serve him as lay Christians! No one can claim that it is easy to choose the better part when prayer and Bible reading have to be fit into a schedule that is already crammed to capacity. Making time to sit at the feet of the Lord requires an enormous act of will, a real life-changing choice.
But it is one thing that is really needed. It is the part of the day that will change all the rest of the day. In fact if we make it a habit it will change all the rest of our life. People who make a habit of waiting on God understand the truth of this.
Waiting on God – there is an expression that at least in English has a double meaning, making us think of both Martha and Mary. Martha “waited on God” in the sense of a host offering food to her guest, who happened to be the Lord, just as Abraham and Sarah in the story from Genesis served food and drink to their mysterious visitors. That episode turned out mysteriously to be a divine encounter.
That sense of waiting on God is serving, and it is a privilege to serve. But Mary’s form of waiting on God is different. It is an expectant openness to receive whatever God wants to give. It is active listening. Our prayers are often full of chatter, lists of people and situations to be prayed for, sins to be repented, blessings to be thankful for. There is nothing wrong with any of that and we do need to unburden ourselves to God of whatever is on our mind and heart.
But waiting on God also means allowing the silence to envelop us sometimes. We don’t need words. Just sitting quietly, mindful that God is looking at us with love, is all that is needed. The only thing I can compare it to is the feeling any new parent will know, that deep sense of joy that flows over you when you hold your young child tightly and just delight in the moment. What the Bible tells us, hard as it is to believe, is that God delights in us in just that way.
If we allow ourselves to be held by God, we enter the mystery of divine love, and by entering it, by being open to grace, we actually offer something back to God. When we are willing to receive God’s love, we give God joy. Our relationship with God deepens, and we become more attuned to the love that moves the sun and other stars, as Dante called it. One of the hardest things for Christians to do is to erase the picture of God frowning at us in disapproval and judgment, and see instead the loving face of the God who longs to be in a relationship with us.
Of course that loving gaze will bring to light things that we may have been avoiding and would rather not face, but these new truths will be served gently to us by the one who loves us more than we love our own children. God wants us to flourish, to become all that we can be, to know and receive and return the love that made us. So taking time to sit at the feet of the Lord and just let his gaze rest upon us as we listen would be a very worthwhile project to undertake this summer.