Getting God Right
Ordinary Sunday 16, 17 July, 2016
The Rev'd Canon Professor Scott Cowdell
Research Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University and Canon Theologian of the Canberra-Goulburn Anglican Diocese
Genesis 18: 1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1: 24-28; Luke 10: 38-42
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Thanks once again to Father Hugh for the privilege of being with you at St Peter's, during the international conference on "Violence in the Name of Religion..." that I've been part of organising at the Australian Catholic University. This conference brings together scholars and practitioners from around the world who study the ground-breaking insights on violence, religion and culture of the late French-American Catholic thinker, René Girard. And, as it happened, our conference coincided with the horrific Islamic State-affiliated terrorist attack in Nice—an atrocity that will, for many, reinforce their sense that religion is violent.
So what does today's familiar Gospel story of Martha and Mary of Bethany have to do with violence in the name of religion? I've always heard sermons telling me that this story is about the importance of prayerful attention to Jesus over lives too full of busy activity. And I've heard the old Anglican joke that pious Mary represents the Mothers' Union, "the pray-ers", while her busy sister Martha represents the Ladies' Guild, "the doers." But I fear that that there's more to this passage than just some good advice about work-life balance, or about two different types of religious personality found among Church women.
The clue is in the context of this passage within the Gospel, as is so often the case. The attentive preacher will not have missed that Martha and Mary appear right after Luke's parable of the Good Samaritan. As we know, that's a parable about what the two great commandments mean, to love God and to love your neighbour, and like all the parables it's meant to challenge and disorient our conventional religious thinking. A theological leader of the Girardian movement, Fr James Alison, says that the Samaritan wasn't a go-gooder; rather, it was as if he was dragged backwards into God's compassion for the innocent victim, and because of that he acted accordingly. This shows what it's like to find oneself inside God's compassion, and it's from inside God's compassion that our godly and compassionate actions towards others emerge.
In the story of Martha and Mary, immediately following, we see how all this can be misunderstood and got wrong. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him, which is the right thing to do, while her sister, Martha, tries to draw Jesus into what is no doubt a long running grievance with her sister. "Why do I have to do all the work? Who does she think she is?" But rather than just muttering these familiar sorts of frustration under her breath, Martha tries to triangulate Jesus into her dispute with Mary. So, friends, this story isn't about catering; it isn't about action versus contemplation for that matter. Rather, it's about being open to God, discovering God, versus trying to co-opt God into our existing view of reality, to serve as a prop for our own un-regenerate dysfunction.
What's more, friends, we can be sure that what starts with this gentle example of domestic scapegoating—with Martha trying to line Jesus up on her side against Mary—is something that regularly escalates: from envy and rivalry to mob violence to scapegoating someone in order to de-fuse that violence. Those little triangles we form in the lunch room at work, or in the family, or when clergy forge bonds among themselves by criticising the bishop, are all the thin end of a wedge that opens-up the world to violence and scapegoating. Martha claims to be loving her neighbour, doing all the dinner preparations, but she ends up tyring to enlist Jesus in a diabolical venture. Her version of serving the neighbour is at the expense of dishonouring God. And, in the end, neither of the first two great commandments are fulfilled.
Now, I ask you, isn't this what happens all the time? Just as Martha wants to make Jesus serve her agenda, so people of all stripes use religion to justify their hatreds and exclusions—most recently, that sad and angry 31-year old in Nice who vented his anger by driving a heavy-laden truck and firing his weapon into a peaceful holiday crowd, invoking God as his justification, only to die in his drivers' seat in a hail of police bullets. The message, however, is that Jesus isn't a player in this game, that God isn't a prop for anyone's project of self-justification at the expense of others. Mary chooses the right path, aligning herself with Jesus' agenda, contrary to what her sister Martha does. This is about discovering the real God, and learning to abandon the false one. Just as it's wrong to triangulate and manipulate others in our little intrigues, so it's wrong to make God serve us, rather than us serving God. That's magic, not Christianity.
This disruption of widespread religious thinking is what we also see in our first reading, from Genesis, chosen to accompany today's Gospel. It's a great story, with the best bits of it yet to come. Abraham and Sarah are camping at a holy place, and the sacred appears to them in the form of three travellers. This is a strange, very primitive sounding business, and Abraham is scared of what's happening at the holy place. One thing we know about primal religion is that it's scary. Its gods are dangerous and threatening. Abraham is busy like Martha getting a meal ready, and like her he's no doubt feeling out of sorts. And then something surprising happens. God is revealed not as the scary god of sacrifice but as a gracious God of promise, and blessing, and covenant—Abraham and his old, barren wife are going to have a son, a dynasty.
Normally you'd go to the high place to sacrifice and maybe the old gods would give an infertile couple a baby. And we have a hint of that old story in the way Abraham kills an animal and gives it to the three godlike figures. Yet the new God who is revealed is not scary, not jealous, not angry, but gracious. Abraham is on his way to discovering a different sort of God.
Later, when that miracle baby, Isaac, gets older, Abraham thinks that the old gods require him to sacrifice his son. But again, in that famous, later story, the real God is revealed and the old religion of human sacrifice is set aside. The sacrifice of Isaac is not what God wants. For Abraham, for the Old Testament, for Martha in our Gospel, and for us in our violent and dysfunctional world, the reality of God is gracious and forgiving, not mean and threatening—not a god to be enlisted in our anxious project of preserving our life, but a God who gives life, and who's on our side. Fr James Alison says, in his newest book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, that meeting God is much more like visiting a favourite aunt than going for a job interview. Abraham and Martha are called to discover a new, gracious face of God, and ultimately that face is Jesus Christ.
Now let me turn our attention to how this breakthrough might play out. In our second reading today, from Colossians, the writer tells us how costly but how wonderful life with this newly discovered God turns out to be. All these epistles are celebrating yet struggling with the expansion of Christianity into the non-Jewish world. The promise to Abraham has gone global, gone viral, and Paul with his followers are witnesses to this shocking, wonderful, completely unexpected truth about God. But what for Mary in today's gospel was gentle and peaceful time spent listening to Jesus, for Paul and others has become intense and even dangerous, sharing in Jesus' own sufferings for the sake of this wonderful, countercultural, world-transforming, and hence no-doubt confronting and unpopular message.
The gate-keepers of the old ways, the ones who from that day to this are only interested in God as a character in their drama, as an ally in their struggle, will always resent the Gospel of Jesus Christ—as John's Gospel prologue says, "he came to his own people, and his own people received him not". But the writer of today's epistle is undaunted. He is so at one with Jesus that he sees his own sufferings in the Church's mission as linked to Jesus' sufferings. And this isn't overheated religious fanaticism on his part. Rather, it's the simple faith of Christians in every generation who know that to sit at Jesus' feet like Mary of Bethany, and to follow him like St Paul, is to be drawn into his compassion like the Good Samaritan, and that can be costly.
So there'll be no quiet, untroubled life. And there'll be no more baptising of the status quo. Instead, inside the compassion of God, there is no envy, no rivalry, no violence, no me against you, no us against them, and hence everything that loving our neighbour means will flow naturally and inevitably from our knowing and inhabiting the love of God. And, friends, at the end of the day, who do you think was a more loving person to others: Mary, who sat at Jesus' feet, or her busy, angry, manipulative sister?
The Lord be with you...
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.