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Feeling God’s pleasureGenesis 1:24-27,31 & Luke 10:38-42

If you were asked to say – in a word or a short phrase – one thing that really matters to you, one thing you would like to be remembered for, one thing you do that brings God pleasure, what would it be?

Possibly – love for family, doing good, helping others, knowing how best to live my life, acquiring wisdom, dealing with suffering, learning how to be happy, leaving the world a better place than I found it in some small way…or something else?

This week, as I have been thinking again about this passage, the interaction between Martha and Jesus and Mary, these five troubling and tantalizing and tender verses, another conversation has been playing in my head. Alongside, Jesus saying, “Martha, Martha, 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…” I have heard dialogue from a film most of you know well. It is the conversation Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic athlete, international rugby union player and missionary, has with his sister, Jenny, in the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ile5PD34SS0

You might feel this is too tangential, but that conversation opened up for me another way of understanding what is happening in today’s text.

There is genuine concern here from Martha about Mary’s choice of action, just as Jenny has earlier expressed genuine concern about Eric’s passion for running. There is genuine tenderness in the way Jesus responds to Martha – just as Eric responds to his sister. And there is genuine desire and delight in Mary’s decision to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen – just like Eric saying, “When I run, I feel his pleasure…”

It does not make sense to me that this text is simply pitting Martha against Mary, or traditional roles for women against non-traditional, or a life of service and activity for the gospel against a life of prayer and reflection, vita activa against via contemplative, because it begins with a description of authentic discipleship. Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

Martha appears as a woman with surprising agency. She manages a household. And, as is so important for Jesus and his disciples and for the early church, she offers hospitality. She welcomes him into her home – the word used in Greek goes beyond a standard welcome. She offers him a glad and generous welcome.

Mary, however, chooses another way. Verse 39 says: She [Martha] had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. Like her sister, she also expresses surprising agency. Siting at the feet of a teacher was traditionally the place of male disciples – not women.

But Mary’s choice is obviously too radical for Martha. She seeks to rein her in, but what happens in the process is the quality of her expression of discipleship, her hospitality, becomes affected. Our translation says she is ‘distracted by her many tasks’ or in verse 41, ‘worried and distracted by many things’, but in Greek three different words are used to reveal that her hospitality is no longer as glad and as generous as it was.

In Chariots of Fire, Jenny expresses a similar concern about the path Eric is taking. “Your head is so full of running,” she says at one point, “there’s no room for standing still!” She does not seem to fully understand Eric’s belief that God has made him fast, and that to give it up would be to waste the gift he has been given, to hold God in contempt.

We can probably think of other situations where parts of the church have been alarmed or concerned about how others desire to or are exercising their gifts, and where the church has acted to rein people in.

It’s almost forty years old now, but some of you might remember a book by Frank Schaffer, the son of Frances and Edith Schaeffer, called Addicted to Mediocrity which railed against the narrowness of the Evangelical church’s attitude to Christian art; its insistence that art be simple, accessible, evangelical and pietistic, and the rejection of art, and artists, whose work was more challenging or troubling. In Schaeffer’s view this was not only aesthetically uninformed, but manipulative; turning art simply into religious propaganda and negating the creativity of creative individuals.

But if you will forgive another classic film analogy (though it was a book first) there are other – more positive and more life-giving – ways that the church can respond to the expression of people’s gifts. (And I like this example because I think it also redeems Martha and hospitality as an expression of discipleship.) The film is Babette’s Feast!

Those of you who’ve seen it might remember how disturbed and shocked the sisters, Martine and Philippa are, when their housekeeper, Babette, who has won the French national lottery, begins assembling the ingredients for her ‘real French dinner’; exotic fruit and vegetables and game birds, sumptuous wines and cheeses, expensive glassware and crockery, a huge block of ice, a live turtle; and the hours and hours of labour spent on one meal. But rather than stop her, rather than cancel the meal, they agree, in a pact with their pious congregation, to consume the meal, but not to be worked upon by the it’s sinful sensuality. Throughout the night, they adamantly do not speak of the glorious food in front of them, but by the end, this gift, this expression of Babette’s gifts, has worked a transformation. In one description, “Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.”

When it’s over, the sisters assume Babette will leave them, but she explains that that one meal took all her winnings, and she does not want to go anywhere. Martine says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life”, and Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.” Philippa adds: “But this is not the end, Babette. In paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be,” and embraces her: “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”

Choosing the better part. Feeling God’s pleasure. Enchanting the angels.

It seems to me that this passage is saying; yes, Mary’s unorthodox gift must be affirmed. She has chosen the better part. And, yes, Martha’s gift, too, must not be negated; hospitality given in the right spirit, given with pleasure gives God pleasure, too. But also that each of us, all of us, have gifts and passions and desires that God has given us and longs for us to give back in the ongoing co-creation, the ongoing redemption of our world. That we are, as Genesis chapter 1 tells us, most God-like when we are being creative; when we are delighting the angels!

But there are two things that we need to keep in mind.

Firstly, that expressing our gifts may require us to exercise the singlemindedness, the sacrifice, that is hinted at in this passage; that we, too, may need to choose a better part, and forego the other parts.

I went to Brisbane for a few days this week (to join the girls who were there for the Australian Youth Ultimate Championships – along with Kyler and Saskia) and we visited the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art where there is a Margaret Olley exhibition: Margaret Olley: A Generous Life. And I was struck, as we went through, by one of the information boards, that said something like, ‘Margaret Olley had never married or had children because she could not imagine not giving every moment to painting.’ And yet, as the exhibition title indicates, this did not make her life mean and small, but it was truly a generous life, from her lush and gorgeous canvases, to the time she gave to other artists or the incredible amount she donated to expand, to fill out, the collections of our public galleries.

We may need to exercise singlemindedness to give our gift more fully.

But secondly, and this must be held in tension with what I have just said, it is not possible for us to live our lives dedicated solely to just one thing. We must all mix prayer with action and service, and action and service with prayer; as well as with a host of other more practical things that are necessary for life.

I don’t know if this will surprise or disappoint you, but the wonderful line, “God made me fast…when I run I feel his pleasure,” came – not from the mouth of Eric Liddell, but from the mind of the scriptwriter, Colin Welland. But in that speech – “I believe that God made me for a purpose; for China, but he also made me fast…” Welland makes the profound point that Liddell found that his gifts could overlay, could enhance and compliment, each other.

If you know anything of his life after the film he continued, even during his time as a missionary in China, to compete sporadically, having wins over the French and Japanese Olympic teams in the 200 and 400 metres at the South Manchurian Railway celebrations in 1928 and the 1930 North China Championships. In his work he taught students several different sports and he helped build the Minyuan Stadium in Taianjin which he suggested being copied exactly from the Chelsea football ground, his favourite tunning venue. It may interest you to know that because of his birth and death in China, some of that country’s Olympic literature lists Liddell as China’s first Olympic champion.

He was eventually interned by the invading Japanese with other foreigners at the Weihsien Internment Camp, and there another internee, Langdon Gilkey, who survived the camp and later became a theologian in the US, recorded: “It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known…. Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of [the] penned-up youths. [Even in this situation, in this place] he was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm.”

Liddell died in the camp from an inoperable brain tumour, his death hastened by malnutrition and overwork.

One final anecdote:  In the 1945 report of his death, The Guardian wrote “He is remembered among lovers of athletics as probably the ugliest runner who ever won an Olympic championship. When he appeared in the heats of the 400m at Paris in 1924, his huge sprawling stride, his head thrown back and his arms clawing the air, moved the Americans and other sophisticated experts to ribald laughter.” Rival Harold Abrahams, whose story is also told in Chariots of Fire, said in response to criticism of Liddell’s style: “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”

And so I return to the question I asked at the beginning, however unorthodox, however ungainly, whatever the cost, however you overlay your gift with what you do day to day, what is the thing that really matters to you, what is the thing you would like to be remembered for, what is the thing you do, that when you do it, you feel God’s pleasure?

I might give you a moment to think and to pray as we listen to this.