A sermon preached by David Barton on Sunday 17th July
The readings: Gen 18:1-10, Col 1:15-28, Luke10:38-42
I am very conscious that as we gather today we are doing so after the terrible tragedy in France, where a public holiday and celebration ended in carnage and horror. Poor, battered France. Our hearts go out to everyone there. So it’s good that this Sunday is a Healing service. During that we can perhaps reach out in our minds to the wounded and the grieving, the traumatised and those in need of healing. And of course added to that it has been one of the most troubled three weeks for our country that many of us can remember, with a future that is full of uncertainly. And of course there is the instability in Turkey.
I think today’s readings are important in this context. They are about the way we are rooted, held in Christ; and about the truth that we live in a world where the presence of God is only just hidden below the surface. But each of these passages needs a bit of unpicking before it’s clear.
For example today’s Gospel. It’s very easy to misunderstand it. I always worry that the radical feminists among you are going to stand up and start to bang the pews in protest when it’s read out! Martha slaving in the kitchen, Mary meekly sitting at Jesus feet! Oh dear! The neat boxes into which women are put by men!
But actually, look closer and its quite a bit different. When you sat at someone’s feet in the ancient world, it was not to sit there dewy eyed and adoring. It’s a technical term: you were learning to be a disciple. In other words learning to be a teacher yourself. Far from Jesus putting women in a box, this is breaking out of the box: Mary learning to be a teacher in a world where it was highly unusual for a woman to be in that role.
And that explains Martha’s reaction. She is head of this household. And she is worried a convention is being broken. Jesus reassures her. He’s here to bring in new possibilities for humanity. And it’s interesting that Teresa of Avila, herself no shrinking violet, when she deals with this passage, chooses Martha rather than Mary as an example for women. She admires the fact that Martha is confident enough in her faith to challenge Jesus when she thinks he is doing something wrong.
So this is a gospel about Jesus empowering people to stand up against the prejudices and attitudes that diminish people and hold them down.
And much the same kind of theme runs through today’s Epistle from Colossians. Paul has been told that a Christian community has come into being at Collosae. It seems that, almost immediately, he writes to greet and encourage them.
When Paul wrote his letters, he was very conscious of writing to a series of small groups of people, dispersed across the Roman Empire, who were vulnerable in many ways. The Roman Peace meant wars were a thing of the past. But that didn’t stop local trouble. Disputes between Christians and the local Jewish communities could flare up without warning. Christians could face accusations of not being loyal citizens of the empire. Local magistrates weren’t always just and impartial, as Paul himself experienced. All of this could severely test a young community.
So he writes to help these new Christians to stand firm in troubled times. He wants them to be rooted, grounded in faith, so that whatever happens around them, they know that they are held securely in God.
And the heart of that security lies in the bond between themselves and Jesus. But look at the picture of Jesus Paul paints: In Jesus all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell…. Paul says. Jesus is the one whose love was poured out on the cross, and whose glory now fills the universe. And it’s this Jesus who is at the heart of everything in the life of a Christian. He is one with his people and they are one with him. Indeed, they live in him and he in them. Paul is pushing his readers – and us – to grasp the immensity and wonder of this belonging. Fix your minds on that, he is saying, and you will discover a rootedness and security, a power and a strength that is beyond you – and yours for the using. A gift, that will hold you firm in troubled times.
I think this says something crucial about the significance of prayer in our lives. And by that I mean personal prayer. It’s very important that we gather here together in prayer and worship Sunday by Sunday. And good to meet in a small group for prayer, as I know a number of you do, regularly. But nothing can be a substitute for the time each one of us, individually, spends each day in prayer. Christian Faith is about relationship. And relationships need time, to discover their depth and mystery. So we need time set aside in the day, when we are not going to be interrupted, 10, 20 minutes, more if you can make it, when we simply allow ourselves to be alone with God. In an increasingly rootless world, this is where we will find our roots.
You will all have your own, well tried ways of doing this. But these readings are such good ones to take home and ponder in times of quiet. That Gospel passage for example. Read it – over the course of a few days. Put yourself in the place of Mary at Jesus’ feet. Just allow the picture to form, with you at its heart. Let it speak to you.
Or the passage from Colossians. The first six verses are almost a poem – a hymn really. Read them slowly through. “In him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell…” Don’t trouble about understanding it. Let God do the work for you. Let your mind just accept the mystery of it. This is the Christ who holds each of us in his arms. Who dwells in you as you dwell in him – and therefore is the source of your life and energy. Just accept that. Allow it to be the truth of your life.
In prayer we deal with mystery. We open our minds to the intangible, the ineffable.
Which is of course what the first reading is about. Abraham meeting the three strangers. It’s one of the most extraordinary passages in the whole of scripture – ancient, mysterious.
What it records is an ordinary day in Abraham’s life. When the three strangers arrive, Abraham does what people always did in the ancient world: he offers hospitality. And when the food is ready, he serves it, and then simply stands there. He says nothing, asks nothing. These people are clearly special. But Abraham does not know exactly who they are or what this is about. So he just stands there.
And then comes the promise: to old Abraham and old Sarah there will be a son. It is unimaginable, inconceivable, beyond the bounds of possibility. But that is what encounters with God always involve: a gift beyond our imagining. That’s why in prayer we have to throw our rational minds to the winds. How could we ever understand God, or what it is that God brings to us? What’s asked of us is to be open to the gifts God gives – which are generous, extraordinary, and never what we could expect.
This is where Christian hope begins. No matter how troubled, God is never absent from the world. So we should never close our minds to optimism and hope. In God there are possibilities we have never dreamed of. And God empowers us to live them out. In troubled times, this is where we need to turn.