Mary, Martha and the Good Samaritan

Luke 10.38-42

38 Now as Jesus and his disciples went on their way,  he entered a certain village,  where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary,  who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;  so she came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care  that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.’ 41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part,  which will not be taken away from her.’

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The story of Mary and Martha is a story for our time.  Martha is highly motivated.  Jesus is coming – the house must be tidy and clean, the silver service has to be buffed up, the butter-roasted guinea fowl needs preparing, a suitable desert wine must be chosen to go with the Chocolate and chilli pudding with coconut sorbet.

Maybe not quite how it was – but you get the idea of a lot of effort going into hosting by Martha, in contrast to Mary sitting down to relax with Jesus.

Our culture values effort hard work above almost all else.  I think we perhaps value that false God of success most of all, but I believe that the harder people work the more valuable they are seen to be.  Martha has a lot to do, she wants to please Jesus by getting all the important jobs done.  Her efforts seem highly commendable.  Most, if not all, of us gathered here this morning would do the same.

Jesus attitude to Mary and Martha must always come as a shock to us busy Christians.  Mary gains her Lord’s approval by just siting and listening.

Although we must not be too hard on poor Martha, we need to see this story in context.  Last week we heard the passage immediately before this one: the story of the Good Samaritan.  In that story the Priest and the Levite are holy and spiritual, but they walk on by on the other side of the road; the Samaritan, who was religiously in error, a heretic in the eyes of Jesus and his disciples, the Samaritan does the right thing before God by caring for the wounded man by the road side.

We need to see the Good Samaritan and this passage as part of the same story, as creating a bigger picture.  Jesus does not say it is all about work, nor does he say it is all about ‘spending time with Jesus’ – its both/and not either/or.

If our spirituality is all about sitting at Jesus feet like Mary, we can become self-indulgent, a faith that is no more than our own therapy.

If our spirituality is all about work like Martha, we end up acting out of a sense of duty – and, like Martha, we end up begrudging our labours.  We have all been helped by people who end up making us feel much worse – often this is because our helper is suffering from Martha-syndrome.

What we do for the church and for God should not come from a sense of duty, but from a sense of love.  If we are working from duty we may need to take a step back and spend some time, like Mary, sitting with Jesus (metaphorically) to try and remember why we are here…

Trying to get the balance as a church and as individuals is not as easy as it sounds.  It requires life-long commitment, self-examination and effort.

As a church we have been doing some self-examination, starting at our Annual Meeting and carrying on through Margaret’s list of priorities that many of you circled.

In order to carry forward these priorities we all need to play a part.  Studies show that between 80 and 90 % of people who come to a service for the first time do so because someone personally invited them.

I think we are not very good at this and we are missing out because as well-meaning liberals we don’t like to ‘evangelise’ we don’t believe that our faith makes us better than anyone else, so we don’t like to be holier-than-thou.

But the simple truth is that unless liberal Christians are prepared to tell people that our faith gives us life / inspiration / strength / joy (whatever it is that our faith gives us) then all the outreach will be left to the crazy fundamentalists.

As a church we are small, and that’s OK – it’s easy to get to know everybody and we don’t get lost in the crowd.  Except… we do a huge amount in our local community with ESOL and the Wash House and Lewcas (and if you don’t know what these are, come along tomorrow night at 7.30 and you can find out!) but we could do so, so much more with a few more people.

What we have here is good.  It’s a good community, doing good things, it is simply selfish not to share it with our neighbours and friends.

In September we will be setting up a group to put our priorities for outreach into action.  We are looking for volunteers…  It’s not simply yet another committee it will not be a ‘talking shop’ but a group of people prepared to roll up their metaphorical sleeves.  For example be on a rota to look after newcomers (and oldcomers) if they are on their own at coffee time after church or help them with the vast piles of hymn books and sheets of paper that are sometimes given out…  Or to look out for people who have stopped attending – not to chase after them, but to make sure they are alright.  Or to produce and deliver a regular newsletter to help our communication… We have had lots more suggestions involving everything from sharing meals to knocking on doors in the Blackheath Hill development, giving our Children birthday cards and baptism anniversary cards…

But for all this to happen we need you.

All this is exciting, and it’s things that we should be doing, its our responsibility as Christians to reach outside our walls…

But we actually have no choice in the matter.  All charities are suffering in the current financial crisis, and the church is no different.  The diocese has to cut clergy jobs, and it is the smallest churches that will have their clergy cut first!

I don’t want to be alarmist, but our future is not guaranteed.

I believe we can double the number attending this church.  We could do that in less than a year if everyone here pulls their weight to the full.

A handful of mostly illiterate disciples turned the world upside down, we could transform ourselves from a small, slightly struggling church into a thriving, bustling church helping our community and providing a place for reflection and faith for everyone.

But there is more to this passage than just this powerful message.

Looking at the Gospels from our early 21st century perspective we loose much of the power of the events and teachings recorded.  Mary sits at Jesus feet – ‘so what?’ we may ask.  For the story to regain its full impact we must imagine the culture in which Jesus lived and moved.  A culture in which Jesus attitude to Mary was revolutionary.

In Jewish culture, the picture of someone sitting at the feet of another and listening would conjure up the image of a student sitting at the feet of a Rabbi to learn the faith.  (In much the same way that people sat in rows of desks listening to someone talk at a chalk-board would conjure to us a image of school or college.)  But the important thing for us to remember is that in Jesus time a woman could never, ever become the pupil of a Rabbi.  The legal status of women in Jesus time was that of property.  Either the property of their parents or relatives, or the property of their husband.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of Laws to protect women, especially when widowed (when women had no one to look after, or own, them they were in real trouble).  The Scriptures have many Laws to protect orphans, strangers, and widows.

The Law may have offered protection, but the bottom line was that women were property.   And it was seen as a waste of time to educate women.  A Rabbi would never take a woman pupil.  So it would have been a strange sight indeed, to have a woman sitting at the feet of a renowned teacher.

We can imagine Martha’s rage.  There is work to be done, and Mary is not only failing to pull her weight, she is behaving extremely foolishly, and by daring to sit like a disciple, she is behaving scandalously.

Martha is rushing around trying to make this visit as great an occasion as possible, and Mary is being outrageous.  She has ideas above her station.

Do we dare to confound expectation and be daring for our faith?

That is our challenge, to transform our lives and our church and our community by being prepared to learn from Jesus and then to act.

Amen.

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The Good Samaritan

Luke 10v25-37 

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

The Story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best-known stories in the world.  It has entered our language: the organisation to help strangers called The Samaritans and we all know what it means to ‘walk on by on the other side of the road.  It’s impact is not just felt in English phrases, in France they have what is called the ‘Good Samaritan Law,’ where you have a legal obligation to help someone if you are able to.

The story of the Good Samaritan is famous, it is so famous, that we are all tempted to relax when hear it, sit back in our pews and say ‘oh yes, I know this one!’  When the story should unsettle and disturb us, strike a note in our heart that makes us want to change the way we live, and the way we think, and the way we relate to others.

This story is given by Jesus to explain the very core of Christianity.  Jesus is asked what does he stand for, what is his teaching all about.  The answer is to love.  Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself.  That is Christianity in a nutshell, everything else is a means to these ends.  To further explain the second of these loves, ‘love of our neighbour’ Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

The question I want us to consider is, who do we identify with in this story?

I’m sorry to say that the most obvious comparison for us is with the Priest and the Levite.  Most trips into central London turn us into the people who pass on by.  Many of us walk on by the homeless beggar asking for change without even recognising their humanity with a simple ‘hello.’  Some of us may want to say that giving to beggars is not a good idea, we can argue the case that we should give to a homeless charity, not to the beggars.  I’m not sure that argument carries much weight, but it is sincerely held by many good people.  What is clear, that if someone asks us for some money, the least we can do is recognise someone is talking to us and say ‘hello.’  I spent a year working with homeless people in central London, and it became clear from talking to people who had spent time on the street that a conversation, a few words of kindness and a smile, was often more welcome than money.   It’s all very well for me to be self-righteous about my principle of always talking to homeless people, but I’ve walked by people slumped unconscious with no better excuse for my inaction than not wanting to be late for the theatre.

But Jesus is clear, to walk on by is a sin.  It is wrong.  It goes against the very heart of Christianity, which commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

We can do wrong, or ‘sin’ in the (often misunderstood) language of the church, not just by the things we do, but by the things we don’t do.

To further complicate our interpretation of this story, and make it even more painful to apply to our lives we need to consider those in need throughout the world.  The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us nothing if it does not teach us that our neighbours are not just people from our own country.  We only have to look at the news to see we have over a billion neighbours who need our help.  We have a billion hungry neighbours.  Every time we squander the gifts we have been given, we are walking on by on the other side of the road.  We need to support charities like Christian Aid, Oxfam, Embrace the Middle East, our own monthly appeal, and we can write to our M.P.s and to the prime minister to keep international aid high on the political agenda… 

And so we move on to the next character in the story.  If we do something to help those in need we may identify with the Samaritan.  He is the one Jesus calls us to be like, he ends the parable saying ‘go thou and do likewise.’

Jews hated the Samaritans, and the Samaritans despised the Jews.  My first draught of this sermon involved retelling the story in modern terms.  The Priest was a Vicar, the Levite, either a lawyer or a policeman.  I struggled with both because in our cynical age we don’t have the respect or awe for any of these professions that there would have been for the priest and Levite in Jesus’ time.  But the hardest thing to find was the equivalent for the Samaritan. 

The Jews and Samaritans really hated each other.  The Jews had been invaded and conquered and invaded and conquered by nation after nation, they had to fight to keep their national and religious identity alive.  The Hebrew Kingdom split into two, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, is the Holy Land as we know it, the land of Jesus.  The Jews of Judah kept their identity and did not intermarry with any of their invaders.  The Samaritans were the Jews of the Northern Kingdom, who had intermarried and taken on many of the customs of their invaders.   The Samaritans were not able to get to the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem to worship, so they set up their own Temple on Mount Gerizim.  Although they worshiped the same God, they frequently fought, and in Jesus day ‘the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.’  The only people they would have hated more than their Pagan Roman oppressors were their neighbours the Samaritans.

I could think of no modern day equivalent for us to the Samaritan.  I thought maybe a Muslim, Muslims get a unfairly bad press in this country, but I don’t think we hate them in the same way that Samaritans were hated.  Asylum Seekers was another idea, but while the press and politicians use asylum seekers as a whipping post, we Christians would, I hope, never fall in line with that nonsense.  Even religious, good people hated the Samaritans, it’s the kind of hatred that comes with fear in times of war and unrest.  We are at peace with no hated enemy.

In the end I think we have to look into ourselves, and think about the people we find difficult, for whatever reason.  Reflect on the people who irritate, or anger or upset us.  And think, these are our neighbour, and these are the people Christ calls us to love.

If we are to be Good Samaritans, as Jesus calls us to be, we mustn’t just help our literal neighbour when they lock themselves out of their car, we are to help the people we find the hardest to bear, and do it with love.

We have looked at how we can identify ourselves with the people who walked by, we can identify ourselves with at least trying to be the Good Samaritan, finally, we should take some time to identify with the wounded man.  Our calling is not only to give, we are not called to simple charity.  We are also called to accept help and love.  We see ourselves as donors, the fortunates who can bestow charity, or bestow the Gospel on others.  But Jesus told this story to poor, common Jewish folk who would be much more ready to identify with the wounded man than anyone else.  We can be spiritually destitute, lying beside life’s road with no sense of meaning, or self-worth.  We could be emotionally beaten-up, robbed of comfort and security.  Until we realise that we need God, and need each other, we can never reach our full potential as Christians and as human beings.  Unless we realise that we need even the hated Samaritan, who will come to our aid if we let him, we will not live the life that God created us to live.

The message of this story is that we al all connected, all dependent on one another.  That’s also the same message as baptism.  When little Tom is baptised later in this service we will all promise that we have a responsibility to him.  And Barry and Nicola, his parents, and Nicholas, James and Fleur, his Godparents, will promise to bring Tom up to know his responsibility to his neighbour.

So let us take our consideration of the story of the Good Samaritan deeper, and reflect on ourselves, as the people who walk by, as the Samaritan, and as the wounded man, and the story, as with all Jesus’ teaching can bring us to life, and life more abundant.

Amen. 

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Death & the Life Eternal

A sermon by Trevor Donnelly

2 Kings 2.1-14; Galatians 5.1-25; Luke 9.51-62

 

 

As most of you know, my father died very recently.  I wondered if I should mention it in my sermon, and risk getting emotional (and we are Anglicans, so that would be terrible!) or should I ignore it and maybe that would be the ‘elephant in the room’ (this is a big building, we could probably fit an elephant in here without too much trouble, in fact an elephant would be less conspicuous than an emotional Vicar!).

     While I was trying to make up my mind I came to Morning Prayer, and had a reading all about toil and death.  I went home and listened to one of my favourite radio programmes, The Infinite Monkey Cage (with Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince who discuss scientific issues of the day) the title of this weeks show “What is death?”  I thought I’d look at the set readings for today for something life-affirming and cheering: our readings begin with the death of Elijah (Margaret talked about this last week) and then the young man who wanted to bury his father! I thought I could look at what was current in the news for sermon inspiration, and found the top story to be Nelson Mandela nearing the end of his long and inspiring life.

     So  my first sermon after some ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of my father, which in turn followed a stretch of compassionate leave earlier in the year after the death of my mother is all about death!

     I am reminded of the words that Oscar Wilde put into the mouth of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent… may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”?

     You are not quite sure if it’s ok to laugh at that!  Well I think it is.  At the end, my father was lying on his bed, not able to talk.  I was on one side of the bed, my brother, Glenn, on the other.  My father tried to say something.

     “Do you want the blanket off?”  I asked.

     He shook his head.

     “Are you too warm?”  Asked my brother.

     He shook his head.

     I tried “Are you too cold?”

     He shook his head.

     Glenn said, “Do you need some pain relief?”

     He shook his head.

     “Do you want the window open?”

     “Are you thirsty?”

     Then I noticed the corners of my father’s mouth start to lift, and his shoulders start to shake.

     “Hang on,” I said, “are you laughing at us?”

     And he was!  Even at the end, in the frustrations of not being able to communicate there was laughter.  There were tears too at times – but laughter to the end.

     When we turn to our readings today we find a distinct lack of humour or gentleness.  A man wants to follow Jesus, but first wants to bury his father.  Jesus says ‘let the dead bury the dead.’  As someone who has just taken several weeks off to bury his father, Jesus words seem unbearably harsh.

     Scholars debate this story – it seems too cruel to be literal.  Jesus was all about teaching love – it does not seem very loving to leave a dead relative unburied in order to go off on a teaching trip.  Indeed the 10 Commandments insist on honouring your father and mother.  Was Jesus using hyperbole, exaggerating his demands to make a point?

     Or was, as some have suggested, the father not dead yet (some have even suggested that his father was perfectly well) and the young man putting ordinary family commitments ahead of following Jesus…  ‘One day,’ said the young man, ‘when my father is not around to be shocked, I will follow you.’

     Jesus was clear that the demands of the life of faith should be central to our lives, and if our families try to prevent us from expressing our faith we may need to choose faith over family ties.  But I simply cannot believe Jesus would be that harsh to a grieving man.

     From my recent experiences in Belfast I have encountered a lot of religious comfort.  None of the chaplains who visited the hospice or the minister who took the funeral quoted this story.  What I did hear, however, were much more traditional religious beliefs than I am used to.  I have talked to Presbyterian chaplains and the Baptist minister who conducted my father’s funeral.  All spoke with great certainty about heaven.  To them faith was primarily about finding a way to survive death.  This certainty and version of faith is something I cannot share.

     I’m a liberal, and I find it hard to believe in miracles, and surely the greatest of all miracles is surviving death.  I find it hard to accept the idea of life-after-death.

      Perhaps my problem is that I have a bit of an obsession with science.  I find it hard to believe things that cannot be scientifically proven, or at least scientifically investigated.

     Heaven seems too-good-to-be-true.  We want to believe that we will see our loved ones again, so we chose to believe it, not because it is true, or even likely, but because the alternative is too gloomy and depressing.

     How can heaven fit into a reductionist, scientific world-view?  Some people find comfort in Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Einstein, in a letter to a bereaved friend, wrote: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”  Einstein tried to comfort his grieving friend with the belief that being separated from someone by time was really like being separated from them by distance.  The past still exists, and so our dead loved ones still exist; it’s just that we, poor linear creatures of time, cannot step back in time to visit them.

     (This was a serious attempt at comfort, he was not trying to be humorous.)

     Einstein does not propose ‘heaven’ just that the past is not lost.

     Can other scientists offer us any hope?  I have said that an afterlife seems very unlikely, but one thing that science tell us, especially quantum science, is that the extremely unlikely can also be true.

     John Polkinghorne is both a theologian and a scientist and has had many different thoughts on life after death, including the only explanation that could satisfy my rationalist tendancies.  As a scientist Polkinghorne explained that our thoughts are basically ‘software’ in the ‘hardware of our brain.’  So basically our brain is like a computer and ‘who we are,’ our ‘soul,’ is a bit like Microsoft Office.  It’s not quite the same as a computer because the way we think forms neural connections and how we run the software helps shape the hardware (but, in computing terms, an emulator could overcome this).

     Polkinhourne suggested that if God knows us in our entirety then every neuron could exist in God’s memory, and have continued life in God’s memory after we die.  God’s memory would be a virtual world – indistinguishable from a physical world.  Maybe this world is simply God’s imagination, if you are God there is no telling what your mind can do…!

     It’s a neat idea, but I can’t say it answers all my questions or is fully satisfying.  The truth is that I don’t know what happens after we die.

     The Bible is vague about the afterlife, it speaks in poetry and metaphor.  Sometimes it speaks of ‘the grave’ is a land of shadows beneath the earth; sometimes you can reach heaven by flying off in a chariot or building a huge tower…

     The best and truest answers to all our questions about eternal life is found in the reading I have not mentioned yet.  In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians he describes the ultimate goal and reward of the life of faith:

     The fruit of the Spirit “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     Our faith is not about what happens after we die.  Jesus clearly believed in life after death, but that was a tiny part of his teaching, which was almost all about how we life this life, the one life that we can be certain of.

     And when we die?  Who knows?  We will be in the hands of God, and there is no better place to be. 

     I want to see my parents again, but the better way to honour them is to try and keep alive the best of their values in my own life: faith, kindness, humour (humour even in the face of death).

     Or as St. Paul puts it, let our life and our faith be about “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     I close with a prayer:  O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, the evening comes, the busy world lies hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.  Amen.