Archive for July, 2001
Once upon a time—that’s just to let you know that this is one of those homilies—once upon a time, Jesus was sitting there praying, looking out from closed eyes over the sun-scorched hills of his homeland. The guys who followed him from place to place were all there watching him, impatiently, maybe wistfully. They could see the look that came upon his face. They could see … something in his aching body. And they looked at each other and they wanted what he had.
“I wish I could pray,” said Martha.
“I wish I could pray like that,” said her sister.
Peter, ever aware of being in charge, spoke up, “You know, I’ve read all the right books on prayer but I still don’t feel I know how to pray.”
“Not just books either,” added John, “I’ve sat at the feet of some of the best teachers but I still don’t know how to pray the way I’d like.”
“Well, don’t feel bad,” Matthew put in, “books and gurus are fine but even with the best workshops—and I’ve been to them—I still can’t pray properly.”
By now, Jesus was getting distracted by their wrangling so he got up from his prayer to face them. “What is it now?” he asked. Peter spoke up immediately, “Teach us to pray!” “Yes!” “Yes!” the others all echoed his words, “Teach us how to pray!”
“Oh, is that all? Good. Just say this … ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father … or a mother,” he added, catching a look from Martha.
Well, there was silence. There was embarrassment. They could hear themselves breathe. Until, finally Peter said, “Well, Lord, we already know about prayer of petition, of intercession—and I can see that’s important … but what about real prayer?”
“Yes,” John jumped in, “what comes after the kiddy stuff? Teach us that!”
And Matthew, trying to be helpful, prompted Jesus, “You know, Rabbi … meditation, contemplation, using scripture, centring … Teach us how to really pray?”
“Oh,” said Jesus understanding them at last, “you want the advanced prayer methods. Well that’s quite a lot harder to explain.”
Well, their eyes lit up at that. They licked their lips in anticipation. “But are you sure you are ready?”
“Yes, Lord, Yes!”
“OK! Where to begin … Well in 30 years of careful prayer and study I’ve developed the perfect technique. It can be learned if you have enough discipline and stamina—though, I have to warn you, not everyone has the necessary mental clarity and emotional purity to completely master my methodology. Do you still want to try?”
“OK, well sit down and make yourself comfortable. Ready?”
“Close your eyes. Breathe deeply, breathe easily. Be aware. Now say, ‘Look God … these are the things we need … food, forgiveness, and a father.’”
And Jesus turned and went back to his own prayer.
July 29th, 2001
This is a divisive little episode for we who hear it. Who are you rooting for? Let’s have a show of hands on that… Who’s to blame? Who’s the bad guy? Mary who’s sitting there like a lump neglecting her sister … or Martha who’s so full of her hospitality that she can’t be hospitable?
Now the preacher has this deep temptation to smooth things over, to balance out the blame, or find a way for them all to come out looking good, Jesus included with all his snippy rebukes. Look how the gospel brings out the urge to tidy up. It make Martha’s of us all. All the while it is urging that we get out of the kitchen and sit still but we end up trying to make it all fit and getting angry and irritated that Jesus doesn’t make it easy.
I may have lost one of my best friends this week. I said the wrong thing, or didn’t say the right thing when I should but then said it when I shouldn’t. Like Martha I set aside silence, I let out my feelings of irritation at being overlooked and did it just when it would be most annoying and hardest to handle. And the urge in me to go back and unsay “the said” is enormous and seductive, to seek silence now even at the cost of integrity, to tidy up the mess. But I can’t. Unsaying is an art beyond any of us. And the passion for tidiness has always eluded me. But how I want this tidied up, smoothed over, made neat!
The meeting between Abraham and his three strange guests seems very neat. A tale of hospitality. A tale of reward. For all that kneading of flour, slaughtering of steers, milking of goats Sarah will have a child. What we don’t hear today is what comes next. And it’s a serious omission. Sarah laughed. She was listening in and she laughed out loud—“What!? When I’m dried up and he’s past it”—and the mysterious visitors take offense.
The story is about more than entertaining angels unawares. Abraham has been full of his divine promise—remember it: flocks and riches and descendants as many as the stars and a name to be a blessing for all nations—but Sarah has heard none of it. Abraham has kept it to himself—as though it belonged to him—but today we ought to hear the surprise in Sarah’s voice that she too is part of God’s plan. Abraham has been doing whatever he can to get a son and heir for himself, stooping to adultery to win his prize, passing Sarah off as his sister when he thought he could use her body to bargain with kings and landowners along the way, and all the time—even this morning—she’s been hidden away out of sight, like a piece of property too valuable to put on show. It’s no wonder she laughs, blurts out her shock. She names her surprise with her body: “am I going to have some pleasure out of my dead stick of a husband?” Only when she is overheard laughing does she tidy up that thought and more piously wonder about children. But they all tell her not to laugh. She is forbidden to laugh. She is denied her emotions even while the men are discussing what they will do with her body. And here today she is forbidden again—the story we hear is trimmed neatly so we don’t hear her laugh—as though Abraham’s story is the important one and Sarah’s is not. We don’t get to hear her laugh. But her laugh is important. It breaks the silence. It just bursts out. It won’t let Sarah be ignored.
Meanwhile back in Bethany both sisters are being uppity in their own way. Both of them are pushing it, having a single man in their house. In contrast to Sarah, they are all too visible, somehow they have escaped being owned by men, and are owners of their own property so that Martha can offer her own house to Jesus. It is a much less conventional scene than it first appears. Martha is busy with kitchen things but Luke chooses to describe it as ministry—diakonia—deacon-work. And Mary is not just the silent and adoring listener but takes the place, forbidden to a woman, of a disciple sitting at the feet of a teacher asking to be taught.
But then there’s the outburst. And the very clear rebuke of the text: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things but only one thing is necessary and Mary has chosen it.” So there! And no matter how much you want to agree don’t you feel it’s a bit sharp? Don’t you want to know what’s going on? Don’t you want to smooth those rough edges a bit, tidy them up, make Jesus look less of a bully? I, anyway, found myself getting all busy and anxious trying to make it all alright.
But then it hit me. Look how Jesus shuts Martha up! Sarah mustn’t laugh and Martha must silence her anger. And I got annoyed.
Why does Luke want to shut us up? Isn’t there room for the outburst that tells the truth? And why is only one thing necessary? Why can’t there be two or three or more noble things? Why do the silenced voices never get a hearing?
Sarah’s laugh is important. Martha’s anger is important. Without them the stories we hear are too neat, too tidy, and too comfortable, especially to the ears of men. And even thousands of years of history, countless readings and re-tellings of the stories haven’t erased those awkward outbursts. And if we listened, if we resisted the urge to tidy them up … well God knows what we might learn to do.
July 22nd, 2001
“I saw satan falling from the sky like lightning.” That shadowy figure from the Book of Job and from millenia of myth. The prosecuting attorney, the accuser, the adversary. My spellchecker has been insisting all week that “satan” has a capital “S” while the whole point of Jesus’ strange, ecstatic outburst in the gospel seems to be that satan doesn’t deserve one. Doesn’t deserve a capital S. Doesn’t even deserve a personal pronoun. It—satan—the accuser—has fallen from heaven—fallen like lightning from the sky—and that really matters.
The voice of the accuser is one we all know—here in our heads, in our hearts—keeping us in our place, keeping us under a spell, keeping us out of the battle—and that voice speaks with such quiet authority we never doubt the capital letter—we have been bamboozled to believe satan speaks for God, accuses us in the name of truth and goodness and beauty but, whatever the pretence it might make, the voice of the accuser speaks for no one but itself.
And pretend it does. The world is full of accusing voices, voices that would have us afraid, or bent, or broken—deny our dignity, denigrate our merit, undermine our significance. Voices that claim to know our dirty secrets. And I use “our” broadly—yours and mine, here today, just ordinary Christians just going about our daily labour for daily bread, but, more inclusively, all the ones living as lambs among wolves, and all the ones who have lost the battle with lies—the poor, the sick, the hurt, the oppressed, the despised—every scapegoat of our society.
Every voice that speaks with accusation, every whisper, every insinuation, every final verdict, every sexist jibe, every gay joke, every unequal paycheck, every ad holding up an unattainable ideal, every bully, every accusing voice—don’t they all make the same, silent claim to be holy writ, to divine authority? The satan’s only power is that it puts on a good show of speaking with authority, of being unquestionable, beyond debate. But satan has fallen from the sky and, though the glitter and clamour of the fall might be like lightning to hold our eyes and make us cringe in fear, Jesus himself stands witness—the accuser has been thrown out of heaven and all the pushing and bullying and fear-mongering is only bluster. Whatever satan might have said, might still say, our names are written in heaven, but its is not. There is nothing heavenly, nothing divine, nothing holy about the voice of accusation. Jesus has unmasked it.
And that is what the kingdom is about—unmasking—that is what discipleship and following Jesus is about. Not about the power to go head-to-head with satan, treading spirits underfoot, nor about any kind of comparison, but about unmasking the lie, the lies, that have been told from time immemorial. Lies simple; lies political; subtle lies; holy lies.
Here’s one lie long told: how do you get on in a dog-eat-dog world? Not just live—not just get by—but get on—do what needs to be done? In today’s gospel that question is in its sharpest form—how do you build a church? Who does Jesus entrust the kingdom to?
And the answer seems so frail and yet so demanding. When Jesus sends out the 72 to go before him, to prepare the way for him, he gives them stupid instructions. You or I would know better. Clearly the way to do this is to plan and prepare. To estimate your needs, calculate your expenses, plan a route, book some advance accommodation. Maybe do a seminar on public speaking, the habits of highly effective people, or how to sell. Perhaps plant an ad in the local paper or phone some contacts. Above all I guess you have to know the message you are to spread, make it snappy, cogent, clear.
Jesus has different rules. Rules for lambs among wolves. Don’t travel alone but travel light: no purse, no backpack, no shoes for your feet. Don’t stand and chatter along the way. And when you get there eat what is set before you, offer peace, cure the sick and say simply, “the kingdom of God is here.”
There’s a logic to all that which both attracts and repels me. I can see it. I can see why, if you have to be wolf-bait it makes sense to not have too much meat on your bones. I can see how the way you travel can undermine the message—like the shiny suits and elaborate hairpieces of televangelists—I mean, who hears you when you rise from your comfortable bed to instruct the starving, or who hears you when walk in safety among those struggling to survive.
But it seems such a hard way, that simple way. Such a challenge to my fear. I have listened too well to years of accusation. I do not know how to be simple any more. I do not have the trust. How can I just eat what is set before me when two thirds of the world have little enough on their tables to offer to me?
And even if I braved the journey what peace do I have to give, what healing is in my hands, and where O where is the kingdom of God?!
Satan is very convincing. Better to doubt, to protect, to stay at home. Better that life be complicated and safe than simple and just. Better that I survive than others live. Better not build a church at all than let it change me. I couldn’t possibly … I don’t know how to … I’m not … I don’t deserve …
But satan has lost its capital “S”—never had one. Satan has fallen from the sky and its lies speak for no one but itself.
I could … I do know how … I am … Maybe if we gave Jesus as much inner air-time as we have given the accuser we might be astonished, might be changed, set free, set loose. And the world with us.
July 8th, 2001