Sermon, 7/17/22: Living with Ambiguity

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6 Pentecost

Psalm 52:1- 9; Amos 8:1 – 12; Colossians 1:15 – 28; Luke 10:38 – 42

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  Luke10:41

This morning I draw your attention to an absolutely wonderful prayer in our Book of Common Prayer (p. 832, #59).  Unless you happen to be, as am I, a “Prayer Book Compulsive” and turn to random pages and begin reading, you are apt to miss the prayer which I have in mind, for it is tucked away toward the end of the Prayer Book and is most often read at the daily Office of Morning Prayer.  Now though, I read the prayer, quite intentionally and quite often, when I feel overwhelmed by the events in our world, at home and abroad.  

Hear the prayer in its simplicity and solemnity:
O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

What this prayer does for me, and so would I hope for us all, is what today’s gospel, by way of a vignette, implores us to do: Stop. Look, and Listen!  Today’s gospel, which remains a point of departure for many who feel drawn to the monastic life, juxtaposing as it does the active and the contemplative life, aids us in dealing with ambiguities.

Some biblical scholars, seeking to understand today’s gospel, have highlighted the overlay of patriarchal assumptions about women that leap out in these few short lines.  A disgruntled sister complains about her sister to a male authority figure.  The male authority figure appears, at least on the surface, to take sides with the sister, against whom a complaint has been lodged.  Moreover, the male authority figure appears not to be aware of the practical side of maintaining a household and entertaining guests.   We moderns would accuse the male authority figure of condescension.

However, one scholar (Fred Craddock) takes another approach, one that speaks to gender transcendence.  In his commentary on Luke in the Interpretation series on Luke’s gospel, Craddock brings to our attention an often overlooked fact that should be given serious consideration:   FACT: Jesus was in the home of not one, but two women, and there is no reference to a discernible male oversight.  For me, this easily ignored fact underscores quietly another important advancement in Jesus’ ministry which St. Paul emphasizes, namely that there is neither male nor female in the Jesus Movement.  Jesus is as serious in his instruction of these two sisters, as he is with his disciples, as well as with any other followers and hangers-on. 

We ourselves do well look at those other few references not only in Luke, but in the other gospel records, regarding encounters between Jesus and women.  When we do, we see that women, as well as men, are co-pilgrims “on the way.”  As does Thomas, a member of the elite circle, challenge the possibility of a resurrected Jesus, so does a woman in his pre-crucifixion/pre-crucifixion ministry challenge Jesus.  When Jesus would ignore or deny her request, she wins her case, when she says,  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the scraps which fall from the master’s table.” (Matt. 15:27)   The laws of nature are observed, i.e., it is a woman who give Jesus his credentials as a human.  However, never forget: It is a woman who heralds his second birth, his resurrection.  It is a woman who discovers an empty tomb.  It is a woman who brings the central tenet of our faith to the attention of the “brave men” who were cowering behind closed and bolted doors.  Thus, I am not tempted just yet to accuse Jesus of ignoring or humiliating Martha.

Perhaps, then, we ought to look again at the central message of this sisterly dispute.  No matter what spin we preachers may wish to put on the Mary – Martha story, the core message, once stripped of the superfluous, is a simple one: Stop, Look, and Listen.  I am reminded of this simple truth by the psalmist who anticipated today’s gospel truth in beautiful poetic form:

“Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?*
and why are you so disquieted within me?  Put your trust in God;*
for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God. (43:5-6)

Today’s gospel suggests the need to step away from our busyness and to take a seat “at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching” as the “one thing needful.”   If there were anyone who could benefit from today’s gospel, we Americans, individually and collectively, would be prime candidates, and from my non-scientific observations, so could the people of every industrialized nation.  You see, whether imposed by us on ourselves or by others in our industrialized culture, we are a tightly scheduled society. 

As a realist and pragmatist, I am highly mindful of the clock.  My intent is not to cast aside the advantages of industrialization, nor to write a ballad, in which I long for “the good old days.”  If we were not scheduled, how else could our transportation systems for example, whether tankers, airlines, buses, trains, or subways, manage to transport millions of people and tons of goods each day, goods needed to sustain life?  We schedule our weekly Sunday liturgy, so that we know and can tell others, when we celebrate and give thanks for the Good News of God in Christ. 

Without a schedule, chaos would ensue.  Consequently, we submit ourselves to timetables.  I can, though, ask that we be mindful of their   effects on the quality of life which we lead and share with others.  I cringed when recently I heard someone say—and I hope, in jest—that he had to arrange his schedule, so as to be able to spend some “quality time” with his children, as if his children were but just another item to be dealt with or scheduled in!  If only we were more frequently to Stop, Look, and Listen, we would, in my estimation, avoid the abuses of power and position, against which the prophet Amos spoke. 

We feel instinctively the value of “returning and rest.”  We intuit the need for wholeness and inner peace which is obviously being squeezed out of our tight schedules.  To that end, we reach out to Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, or Tai Chi, for that rest and quietness, for which the soul and psyche longs.  We reach out for aid in dealing with a frustration that comes from the realization that our inner self is left unsatisfied, that we are not able to produce and invest sufficient energy to complete to our satisfaction those tasks which we have accepted, however they may have arrived at our doorsteps.  We sense that we are not fulfilling our inner spiritual calling as we ought.

Jesus has set before us an important means of returning to our spiritual center. Today’s admonition is but one of many expressions of his way of dealing with ambiguities, i.e. what to do when we are bombarded with demands on many sides.  We recall the beginning of his ministry.  “After preaching, healing the sick, … he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mk 1:35)  And when Simon Peter, like so many well-intentioned of today, runs after Jesus and says, “Everyone is searching for you,”  it is interesting to note that Jesus does not rush to return to the crowd.  Rather, he answered his need to become grounded again.  Jesus withdraws periodically to rest and re-center. 

Church history is rich with examples of individuals who have juggled the relationship between prayer and actions.  However, let us think more contemporaneously.  In our own era, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s was proclaimed by our media as a social movement.  However, I never saw it that way.  To me, the Civil Rights Movement was primarily a religious movement.  That is to say, it was a movement whose foundation was our Book of Records, where the solace and strength found in the words of the prophet Amos and of God’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth were indispensable.  The media never really gave that side of that social movement sufficient coverage.  For me, that movement was none other than a religious movement to address social ills.  The marches were always accompanied by prayers before and after actions, with sessions that sometimes lasted twice as long as the marches themselves.

What was true of the Civil Rights Movement was also true of the actions that contributed to the fall of the wall between the two Germanys. After the fall of the wall, during one of my several visits to Leipzig in former East Germany, the pastor of St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach had been organist and choirmaster, invited me to address his congregation. Although honored, I was puzzled.  I wanted to understand why.  He informed me that my physical presence could serve as a reminder to his own people of God’s unending desire to right the wrongs that began at Creation.  The citizens of Leipzig, like others in the country, said he to me, wanted to throw off the yoke of the despised communist regime, but they lacked the firepower which the state had at its disposal to quell resistance.  They had to find another way to toss off their tyranny.  First small cells, and then later larger groups of individuals met in the churches to pray.  Uplifted by their prayers and emboldened by their always increasing numbers, they began to march.  And after each march, the demonstrators would retreat to the quietness of the church for further prayer.

The pastor, whose daughter and son were at the forefront of these prayer meetings/demonstrations, expressed to me his paternal anxieties and fears.  But it was, said he, his own children who reminded him of an essential of faith, namely the value of “returning and rest,” something that could not be taught.  They recited, according to the pastor, to him the story of Daniel in the lions’ den.  “Returning and rest” reassured them, as so with the marchers in our southland, that the spirit of the living God of creation had not forsaken them.  Their faith helped them to remove mountains, as our gospel lesson of last week reminded us.  Such courage is imparted through the gift of the God’s Spirit.  To hear that voice requires that we become silent, which our Book of Common Prayer captures in the gentle words “returning and rest.”   Both Mary and Martha, and anyone else who may have been at that time in the room, heard that simple, but essential admonition.   “Returning and rest” need to be woven into the fabric of our lives. 

We will never know why Jesus did not tell Mary to go aid her sister, Martha.  There have been put forth many plausible and reasonable explanations.  The one that I offer you today is the one that teaches me, as it apparently taught St. Augustine, who wrote in his Confessions:  “My heart was restless, until it was at rest in thee, O Lord.”  Until and unless we recognize that all that we do and all that we have is of God, until we stop, look, and listen, external matters will continue to make our hearts full of heaviness. Today’s gospel teaches us that that need not be. 

“Put your trust in God,” the psalmist says, “who is the help of my countenance, and my God.”  Jesus calls us first to reflection and then action.  Amen.