Share God’s love and justice/Soul Feast – Amos 5:18-24 & Luke 10:38-42
As a tool for understanding the world around us, human beings are drawn to dichotomies– dividing things into two different or opposing parts; good and evil, the body and the soul, civilised and uncivilised, South Canberra and North Canberra, heaven and hell, male and female, dog lovers and cat lovers, chocolate, strawberry…you say eether and I say eyether, you say neether and I say nyther!
And for centuries people within the church have divided parts of the Christian life in the same way – separating the spiritual life from the active life, contemplation from discipleship, belief from action, faith from works, evangelism from social justice etc etc, and sought to scale them or place them in a hierarchy, attributing more weight to one or the other.
Our reading from Luke this morning has traditionally been associated with valuing the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life, over the vita activa, the active life.
In it Jesus and his disciples are on their way and they come to a village where Martha offers them hospitality. We should note that hospitality – Martin preached on this last week – already highly valued in the ancient world, become a defining characteristic of the Christian community. Martha is behaving as a genuine disciple of Jesus. her sister, Mary, however, chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, also the behaviour of a disciple.
You can see in this detail from a painting by Tinteretto (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacopo_Tintoretto_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_WGA22615.jpg)
how Mary is portrayed as the ideal disciple, her face luminous, her attention so focused on Jesus that she doesn’t even hear her sister. Often in paintings around this period she is also holding a Bible or book of prayers on her lap, communing with God through this medium as well.) But Martha is very stressed (the words used for her emotions are a little stronger in Greek than the NRSV’s ‘you are worried and distracted by many things’) and insists that Jesus tell Mary to help her.
There is an artistic tradition which portrays Martha surrounded by multifarious foods she is preparing, damning her by association, perhaps, with the material world, with fleshiness, with luxury, perhaps even with gluttony.
You can see that here in this painting by Erasmus Quellinus II (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erasmus_Quellinus_II,_Adriaen_van_Utrecht_-_Jesus_in_the_house_of_Martha_and_Mary.jpg) in the seventeenth century. (Note Mary with her Bible on her lap!)
And even more so in this panting by Vincenzo Campi! (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincenzo_Campi_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Mary_and_Martha_-_WGA03831.jpg) Mary and Jesus have almost entirely disappeared into the background. Is this portrayal an indictment of the artist, of what truly engages him, or of us as the viewers?
But Jesus does not send Mary away. Instead he affrims her choice to take the posture of a disciple – one that had been reserved for men! And he appears to the text to value her choice, to sit and listen, over the choice of her sister, to offer hospitality. Verse 42: “Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.” The contemplative life trumps the active life – or does it?
Because then we turn to our reading from Amos. Here God’s response to the contemplative life, the worship life of Israel, is far from affirming, “I hate, I despise, I take no delight in – literally the smell is disgusting – of your worship gatherings. I can’t touch your offerings. I can’t even look at them. Take away the ‘noise’ of your singing!” As commentator Terrence Fretheim puts it, “God holds his nose, shuts his eyes, and plugs his ears!” And what does God desire here of God’s people? “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” The active life it seems is the one closer to God’s heart.
Or are we also in danger of becoming worried and distracted by too many things? By too much dichotomy? By you liking this and the other…while I go for this and that?
Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary, says of our Luke passage, “the danger of this story is its invitation…to pit one expression of belief, of discipleship, of service, of vocation, against the other. We are exceedingly skilled in such comparison. Yet, when we make these kinds of moves and assumptions, we rarely stop to think about what we then assume about Jesus. To favour Mary is to say Jesus discounts service. Which, if you read the Gospel of Luke, makes no sense at all. And makes Jesus make no sense at all. To favour Martha would be to say service is all that matters. Clearly, both matter…”
Traditional interpretations might say that Jesus values one part of the Christian life over another, but perhaps he is calling us back from a fractured understanding of discipleship, one that segregates different parts and its roles, one that assigns different parts and roles, to a more unified wholistic understanding. Because Lewis is right. You cannot take the view that Jesus did not value the active life when this passage immediately follows from the Good Samaritan, that most famous story of how contemplation, love for God, is expressed in action, love for our neighbour, and when, in a few more chapters, at the last supper, Jesus will say to his disciples, “I have come among you as one who serves.”
And you cannot take the view that worship did not matter to the Old Testament prophets. None of their objections were about Israel’s worship style or practices per se. What they were descrying was the separation of orthodoxy (right belief) from orthopraxy (right action). Isaiah complaining about religious practices that found no resonance in people’s treatment of their employees, their personal behaviour or care for those in need. Joel calling on the people to rend their hearts not their garments. Micah reminding us of the integrated spiritual life; doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. They were not arguing that the active life was preeminent, but that worship and life must be one piece, not separated or compartmentalised.
As Marjorie Thompson says in Soul Feast…
The best of our faith heritage has never severed the inner from the outer or the individual from community….The Christian spiritual life, modelled in Jesus…. represents a complete unity of spiritual and physical life….Sanctification/growth in holiness…is not some ephemeral, antiseptic state separated from family, work, or life as a public citizen. It is absolutely practical and concrete…. If the Word I hear on Sunday mornings or during my private prayer has no bearing on the way I relate to family, friend, and foe or how I make decisions, spend my resources, and cast my vote, then my faith is fantasy.
Or as C. S Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,
Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.
Or to quote another great writer,
In our awareness of these affirmations about the presence of Christ, we must be careful not to play one over against the other. I know of people who have discovered Christ in a worship service, in a lecture room, and in a refugee camp. Christian discipleship needs intellectual, biblical and theological information. It cannot do without the inspiration of worship. It also needs the engagement of praxis.
So how do we as Christians and as a Christian community avoid things coming to a pretty pass, to our life and witness growing flat? Do we, as the Gershwin brothers would suggest, need to abandon our preferred mode and adopt the other? Give up pajahmas and wear pajamas? Adopt a life of action over a life of contemplation? Order oysters and cancel the ersters? Emphasise contemplation over action?
There is some value in experimenting – exploring different modes of Christian discipleship as we are going to be doing during this Soul Feast series – strengthening those spiritual muscles which for us might be weaker than others. And as Thorwald also says in Resurrection, Discipleship and Justice, it is “possible that different groups within the church pursue different emphases… worship, preaching, evangelism, mission, the struggle for justice…. [but] a healthy Christian life and a mature Christian community include[s] all of those aspects.”
We need to value all the parts of the Christian life and we need to value each other. For it is when we bring worship and justice together, the contemplative life and the active life together, that that life-giving stream will run most freely run through our lives, that God’s empowering love will break into our world, that the kingdom of God will be seen and felt and heard and known and tasted.
Bishop Michael Curry tells a story – yes, he is the one who preach that sermon – of the power of doing worship and justice together…
It’s a story set in the 1940s when, in the US, the Jim Crow laws segregating white and black were still very much in play…when Rosa Parks, he says, had not yet stood up for Jesus by sitting down on that bus in Montgomery and Martin Luther King Jr. was still in seminary.
And a young African-American women and her fiancé went to an Episcopal/Anglican church one Sunday morning. They were the only people of colour there. The woman had become an Episcopalians after reading C.S. Lewis’s mere Christianity, finding the logic of his faith profoundly compelling. Her fiancé was then studying to become ordained as a Baptist preacher.
But there they were on America’s segregated Sabbath, the only couple of colour at an Episcopal church service of Holy Communion according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
When the time came for communion, the woman, who was confirmed went up to receive. The man, who had never been in an Episcopal church, and who had only vaguely heard of Episcopalians, stayed in his seat. As he watched how communion was done, he realised [a] that everyone was drinking real wine – [b] out of the same cup….And he looked around the room, [and back] at his fiancé [and he thought], “This ought to be interesting.”
The priest came by uttering these words as each person received the consecrated bread, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”
That part was easy. But then it was time for the cup – would the priest really give his fiancé communion from the common cup? Would the next person at the rail drink from that cup, after she did? Would others on down the line drink…from the same cup?
The priest came by…. “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life…” The person right before her drank, “Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee.” Then she drank. “…and be thankful.”…
This was the moment her fiancé was waiting for. Would the next person after her drink from that cup? He watched. The next person drank. “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee…” And on down the line it went, people drinking from the common cup after his fiancé, like this was the most normal think in the world.
The man – sadly for us Baptists perhaps – left the Baptists for the Episcopal church after that. “Any church,” [he said] “in which people of different races drink out of the same cup knows something about the gospel that I want to part of.”
That couple later married and had two children, one of whom is the Rev Michael Curry!
And what he says is, the Spirit of God calls us to do the work of worship and justice together, to live the contemplative life and the active life together, because done together, they feed and empower each other and they feed and empower us.
For, oh, if we separate the parts, then we must part.
And oh, if we ever part, then that will break God’s heart!
Led by the Spirit of God, our third church goal says, we will share God’s love and justice through our words and actions. Love and justice. Words and actions. Contemplation and discipleship. Faith and works. Evangelism and social justice.
There is one last painting of Jesus and Martha and Mary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_(Vermeer)) I want to show you. In this one, yes, Martha is still voicing her grievances to Jesus, but the atmosphere is not strained. The reverse, in fact. This is a family discussion at its best, with each person respectfully expressing what they feel. Each person bringing their gifts and personalities, their love and their work together, each person being valued, and each expression of faith being valued. This is the kingdom of God of love and justice.