Archive for July, 1998
Since prayer is, perhaps above all, about honesty I need to be honest with you this morning. I find myself right now at a low ebb in the tide of my life. It’s all focused on my dissertation writing which seems to be going nowhere. I can’t bring myself to do what I need to do and I’m feeling stupid and lazy and full of shame over it. So I revert to long ago patterns and do what I’ve always done when my personal tide is out: I withdraw, I hide away, and I don’t answer my phone calls in case any encounter might deepen the sense of failure.
Those unanswered phone calls are a perfect metaphor for my prayer right now too. It is as though God keeps leaving messages on my answering machine that I listen to but leave unanswered. It’s not that the messages are threatening—quite the contrary—they are messages of hope and devotion and life that even in my torpor can bring a smile to my face or tears to my eyes. Waking mornings, there are love songs on my lips. Sitting at the computer, a gentle touch on my shoulder offers a presence. Driving, an undeserved turn of sunlight brightens everything. No, the messages are good ones, messages a friend or a lover would leave. Earnest, concerned, faithful. But still I listen and leave it at that. Because maybe to answer is to ask for trouble. Because maybe I’m not too sure, in my deepest heart, that I should let God get my hopes up. Because God might not be all God appears to be.
But isn’t that the question with all prayer. Who is this God who wants to engage us in conversion? And why?
If we knew no other tales than this most ancient one told today of Abraham and Adonai what would we know about God?
We’d know that this God is curiously like a human being but with an awesome power to punish—at least that’s how Abraham treats his mysterious visitor. We’d know from Adonai’s own lips that the cries of the innocent for justice have brought God here on the road to Sodom. Adonai is here to see for himself what his ears have heard. What else do we know? Very little. But after Abraham has finished with God we know a little more. Or we think we do. We discover that God can be swayed by the wheedling of a persistent patriarch. But how much of what we we’ve learned is the image of Abraham’s fear and how much is a glimpse of God’s self? It is, after all, Abraham who brings up the whole business of death, of smiting and sweeping away. If you could just listen to God’s words all you’d hear is the constant promise of life. While Abraham is playing patriarchs with God, God is simple and direct. “Fifty innocent people and Sodom is safe.” “45.” “30.” 20.” “Ten innocent people and Sodom is safe.” Among the posturing and politics, what does God say over and over again: “I will not destroy.” “I will not destroy.”
Now, Abraham is so pleased by his bold haggling with God that he doesn’t notice that how easily the bargain is struck. And, because he believes the worst of God and because he listens with fear, Abraham stops too soon. Why didn’t he go further and try and knock God down to five innocents or one or none at all? If Abraham had been listening to what God actually said he might have asked a different question altogether. What would we have found out about God then?
Jesus is the one who kept on asking. Who didn’t stop short. The one who refused to believe the worst of God. He learned it in his own life but he also learned that each one has to discover that trust for themselves. It cannot be taught because it never ceases to be a question: ‘who is God?”; “would God do this to me?” So Jesus asks the questions: “would you do that to your child?”; “well, is God better or worse than you?”
It is that last question that can get you into trouble. I guess you have to be careful who you ask. But Jesus kept on asking until someone took him seriously and nailed him and his questions to a cross. Would you do that to your child? Would God?
Well it depends on who you think God is. Does God sit there with his celestial remote-control waiting to press the smite button? Or does God sometimes not get what God wants? Does God ask and not receive, seek and not find, knock and have the door slammed shut?
Maybe sometimes God’s calls go unanswered. The messages heard but unheeded. Not out of malice. Not even out of fear. Sometimes the truth is too good to believe. Sometimes the offer of life is too embarrassing.
But, thank God, where I would have given up long ago God is shameless. The calls keep on coming. God still sings songs of love and surprises with a gentle touch and still lights up the sky of life. God still offers and hopes … and waits.
July 27th, 1998
Last week at our Lectors’ meeting this gospel passage stirred up a storm of indignation. Nearly everyone wanted to rush to Martha’s defense. Wanted to defend her against Jesus. Didn’t he now how elder sisters, eldest children in general, are put upon, have always had to be responsible, been forced to take care of things from an early age, have always had to keep an eye on their younger brothers and sisters. It’s not so much the work involved they said as the habit of never being able to rest and let be, never being able to stop and leave something unfinished and sit and enjoy the passage of life like the pampered ones, the irresponsible ones. What the Marthas most objected to, got most upset about, was the frustration. They knew what it was like to rush around the kitchen in a panic of responsibility all the time aching to go and sit and visit with their guest, with all the time a growing irritation at the Marys. Above all they hated feeling that almost-hatred of the sister whose training hadn’t forced her to be where they were now, sweating and fuming and feeling guilty.
So why the hell does Jesus have to rub it all in? Doesn’t he know I know?! Doesn’t he know I want sit and be like Mary? Doesn’t he know I can’t? Not if he wants his dinner, not if he wants to be fed.
The overwhelming temptation as a preacher is to want to defuse that anger and frustration. To want to make it all come clear. To want to defend Jesus, and Mary, and Martha too—So everyone comes out of it well and calm and virtuous. But in it’s own way this story is a parable. It follows straight on from the Good Samaritan and continues its upside down challenge. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Asks the lawyer only to be made to answer his own question: to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. But “who is my neighbour?”, he goes on. And Jesus tells the story where the respectable and god-fearing turn out not to know because they cannot feel compassion, because they put duty and responsibility before simple human need. Where the hero is a traitor, a foreigner, and an outsider. As if the Christians walk on by but the atheist drug-dealer stops to take care of the bleeding victim. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.
And just in case we’ve got the point and taken the challenge Luke tell us about Martha and Mary. Martha who knows the demands of hospitality, knows how to serve, welcomes Jesus into her own house and Mary who neglects her sister and shirks her responsibilities and puts her religious duty before compassion. And Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her. What do you think?
And just to make it harder to choose let me add another layer. Both Martha and Mary are doing brave things. Neither of them behaves the way normal women of their time should. What’s Martha doing having a house of her own anyway? In her society she has to belong to someone, a husband, a relative, a son even. She has no right to have her own household and be bold enough to invite in a single man like Jesus who ought to know better than consort with the likes of her. Luke pushes it further—the word he uses for what she was doing in the kitchen—serving—is the word Luke’s community used for church ministry. Martha is serving as a deacon and, through it, making Jesus welcome at the table. Mary, too, is bold beyond belief. Contrary to all rules of propriety she, uninvited, takes the disciple’s place at the feet of Jesus. We are not talking about a starry-eyed, hanging-on-every-word kind of listening as though this was a romantic comedy but a practical, presumptuous, assumption of responsibility. Instead of being some man’s property Mary sits down where she shouldn’t and says without words, “speak your word to me and I’ll speak it to others.” Martha is bold but Mary is bolder, neither of them fits their time, both of them of them push beyond their allotted place in the scheme of things. And Jesus affirms the boldness: Mary has chosen a dangerous position of privilege and responsibility: let no one take it away from her.
July 20th, 1998
But what is a neighbour? It’s one of those funny words that mark the difference between England and America. For a start, one of us spells it wrong! But the contrast goes deeper: I remember wondering when I came here what neighbourhoods where. In England we just have districts or places but Americans have neighbourhoods. What are they? Places where neighbours dwell. Interesting! … Another American concept is neighbourliness—to be neighbourly. It’s a word I’d only heard on “The Waltons” until coming to the states—even coming to Berkeley.
Remembering the Waltons begins to put it in perspective for me. Neighbourliness and nostalgia go hand in hand. And what a nostalgic moment we live in. If you disbelieve me check the cinema listings—this morning half the big page ads were for remakes or sequels. Nostalgia for childhood: Dr. Doolittle is back and Zorro is carving his initials again. Even Lethal Weapon, now hitting it’s third sequel, is nostalgic for good old-fashioned buddy-hood and family values—amid the car chases and explosions. And, of course, there’s nostalgia for nostalgia as Gone with the Wind is restored to big-screen glory and makes a bid to restore its southern honour in the wake of Titanic’s new box-office record.
And, more seriously, if you want a meditation on neighbourliness and nostalgia you could do very much worse than Peter Weir’s disturbing film The Truman Show. Do you laugh or do you cry? It’s hard to know but harder to be unmoved.
These days neighbourliness is something more to be remembered than experienced. Soft-focus days of simple goodness, when people greeted each other on the street, sat down as a family for Sunday dinner, felt no fear in leaving their doors unlocked, or borrowing a cup of sugar from next door. When young people had respect. When simpler things were cherished. When people were happy even though poor and dark streets were safe to walk.
When? When was this? Before. Before what? Before distrust. Before drugs. Before gangs and cynicism and betrayal. Before the family collapsed. Before the city crumbled. Before the neighbourhood disappeared. Before people stopped being neighbourly. Before neighbours became strangers.
Even the most jaded should long for what has been lost. For the security, for the surety, for the trust, for the peace.
Who do we blame for their passing? I blame the teachers, the priests, the ones who never speak up any more about real values, who never lay down the law, or hold up a standard of right and wrong. No, I blame the parents, who don’t seem to care, who haven’t instilled any discipline, who’ve let their children do just anything. Heck, I blame the neighbours themselves. Look who they are! All the good ones have left and gone and the in-comers are loud and violent. They don’t know how to be civil. Say anything to them and they’d bite your head off. They’re not like us. Lazy they are. They don’t know our ways. They’re probably not capable of learning, being who they are, you know. Have you smelt the food they eat? What we need is …
Well, what do we need? How do we bring back the neighbour? Where is the law and order to bring back the favour of God, Adonai’s delight and the prosperity of our ancestors? Where do we have to go to find it? WE are ready. We’ll do it—even if it seems a harsh and heavy burden—because by God we need something.
But, says Moses, the law you seek—the pattern, the order—isn’t mysterious and remote. It isn’t up in the sky so that you need someone t fetch it. It isn’t across the sea so that someone must carry it to you. No it is already very near to you—it is already on your lips and in your heart. All you have to do … is do it.
But what makes a neighbourhood? Law, values, and nostalgia don’t. The carriers of the law see the problem but live elsewhere. It is the foreigner with his stinking food who sees and draws near, binds the wound as best he can, lifts up the broken in body to care for them and comes back to keep on caring. Stays until the healing is complete.
But why? Why is the enemy the friend? Why do the friends walk on by? We are back to that word again—compassion. That untranslatable word with a meaning somewhere between pity and anger with it’s literal root in spleen. The evil Samaritan is moved to compassion—literally something convulses his bowels, turns his stomach over—and he is stopped in his tracks. Luke uses the word only three times: when Jesus raises to life the widow of Nain’s dead son; when the prodigal Father rushes out to meet his returning son; and here, where the wrong person is moved to do the right thing. Elsewhere in the gospels this stomach-turning anger/pity/compassion always promises a cure, a healing, a settling of demons, and extraordinary act of loving care, an act worthy of God.
The neighbour question—of neighbourhood and neighbourliness—ceases to be about them—the neighbour and their problems—and becomes about me. Am I a neighbour? Am I one wounded by another’s pain, angry at another’s loss, touched by another’s need? Are my innards turned upside down? Is the Law on my lips, and in my heart, and in my guts? Am I as disturbed as God is? Not to punish the bad neighbour but to lay down my life for him.
No one I know says it better than the lesbian poet Adrienne Rich:
July 15th, 1998