The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s183g10  Sunday 16  18/7/2010

‘Mary has chosen ..’   Luke 10.42

What a homely little episode!   We have heard it so often.   How easy it is to point the finger at Martha .. or Mary ..!   We focus on the necessity of hospitality and thereby alienate the mystics, or we focus on the necessity of the theological and thereby naturally alienate the cooks and cleaners amongst us.   For those who have achieved some semblance of balance, we can dismiss this message as being for ‘others’.

More than once I have observed that some people in congregations spend lots of time wanting the minister to get someone else to help them in their ministry, just like Martha petitioned Jesus to get her sister to help her, in our reading for today.  We want others to join us by participating in our activity.   It may be a bible study, a social function, a combined service, whatever.   Of course, it occurs on a bigger scale too, we want the minister to attract other people into our congregation, so that the financial burdened is lessened.   We want ‘our’ ‘anglicanism’ and ‘christianity’ to be successful.   Lots of people following our way makes it seem like we are right, if not that others are wrong ..

We want others to admire our contribution of course, not to make their own.   It might eclipse ours, like Mary’s contribution - her rapt attention - might have eclipsed Martha’s hospitality, or vice versa.   Echoes of ancient Cain and Abel resound for those with ears to hear.

And I note that Martha petitioned Jesus to get Mary to help her, and this makes me wonder why she doesn’t ask Mary for help directly, rather than going through Jesus?   I suspect that there was an implied criticism of Mary, that she should be doing her duty.   The established conventions of the time were that women prepared the meal and only men engaged in conversation.   And so many of the requests that come by ministers have a similar implied criticism.   It is another’s duty to help me - because I’m so important!   The gospel is replaced by law.  

And because gospel is replaced by law, the necessity for people to relate to one another as equals disappears.   Congregations become places where people are told what they should do and what they shouldn’t do, rather than places where love is evident, where people are treated as one would want to be treated oneself.

And clergy have been seen as the chief power-brokers in this situation, and some people, wanting to get their own way (rather than obey the command to love) use the minister as their tool to manipulate others.   Some clergy are complicit in this, of course :-)!    How would the perpetrators of these things like it if they were subtly, or less than subtly, manipulated by another?   But obviously the demands of the gospel do not apply to such spiritually superior people like them????   They only read the bible to find out what other people are doing wrong???

And how often do we want our minister (God’s vicar) to be on our side, to do our will?   And it makes me wonder, on the micro scale, how any vicar would cope if each and every person in a congregation wanted the vicar to be on ‘their’ side.   He or she would be driven to distraction!   And multiplying this millions of times, if everyone treated God this way, he or she would be driven to distraction as well :-)!

Mary has chosen, and her choice might be the right one or the wrong one, but Mary’s right to choose is acknowledged and respected, not challenged.   And everyone has a right to choose, even to their own expression of faith.   There are actually few people who actually choose to hurt or harm others.  And it makes me ponder - how interesting it is how many people do hurt or harm others in the name of some ‘god’ or other, completely oblivious to the fact that they are failing to recognise someone else’s worth by demanding that they do what the ‘spiritually superior’ person wants!

And I wonder if our propensity to use the clergy or God to try to get our own way is an indication of our own lack of self worth?   But before anyone interprets this as a personal criticism, I want to say that I suffer from the same lack of self esteem as anyone else.   Most of us have been brought up in a church that has dealt out self criticism by the bucket load in the name of some god or other.   It is miraculous that anyone escapes the clutches of this and I wouldn’t pretend that I have either.   I remember my first training Rector (last century; and may God rest his soul) commenting that the most miraculous thing was not that ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear (or) the dead are raised’, but that ‘the poor have good news brought to them’.  (Matthew 11.5).

My text for today is ‘Mary has chosen ..’ and I was reminded again how little choice women were given in those times again recently when we read the passage about the woman who had the seven husbands and after they had all died childless, whose would the woman be in the kingdom of God?   The poor woman probably died of exhaustion, after seven husbands!   (Luke 20.27f)   Actually according to levirate law, the brothers were required to marry the woman, so in fact they had no choice either.   But the woman, handed down to the successive brothers, one after the other, must have felt powerless and rejected by God.   She didn’t have a choice in this life, as to whether she married or married again, nor was she given any choice in the next life either!   The ‘law’ had to proscribe it!

Some people still today want to demand that women continue to have no choice over their reproduction, no choice about staying or leaving an abusive relationship, no choice about career or sacred vocation.   Some good church people condemn millions of others, predominantly women and children to ‘lives’ of poverty, illness and premature death - by arbitrarily condemning even the simplest form of contraception.  

For me, the essence of love is to give someone else choice.   God loves us, by giving us choice, to do as God would want .. or not.   We love someone else by giving them choice, by not demanding our way with or for them.   How much intimacy is destroyed by one or other in a relationship demanding his or her own way?   And if God is love, the essence of God is choice giving.   And if we are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect; to be compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate, then the essence of our religion is choice giving.   Sadly, as I have grown up, the essence of the religion I have been taught is the ways of right and wrong, when there is only one right way, the way of love, which is the way of choice.

In my experience of those with mental illnesses, it is unsurprising that many people feel that they are not given any choice about whether they are depressed or not.   Of course I am not saying that we can simply choose to be happy, or that someone is deficient if they can’t.   But no matter how many drugs we take, if we are convinced that we are condemned to a life of unhappiness, then it certainly makes our happiness harder to achieve.   Similarly, if we spend our lives on our knees, telling God how unworthy we are, as if God demands this of us, as millions of Anglicans have done, Sunday by Sunday, for centuries - it is a bit hard to break the habit.  

God is a god of choice, and God gives us the ability and permission to choose - even to the way we worship.   For some it will be liturgical, for others it will be through social action, for others again it will be through hospitality, for others it will be quietly sitting at the feet of the teacher, taking it in.   The school teacher will worship through his or her devotion to the pupils, the doctor through concern for his or her patients, the business person by delivering that which is promised, the labourer by doing the job.   There is not one way of worshipping God and certainly not all worship happens either on Sunday morning or in a corporate way.   Your way will be different from my way.   Actually for me, the relatively fixed Anglican liturgy means I can get on with my own thoughts and prayers while the service goes on around me.   God has heard the words of the service often enough, and doesn’t get bored, for God is also hearing that which is most important, what is on our hearts and minds.   For me, to have an ever-changing liturgy would distract me from my conversation with God, and would make the celebrant the focus.   I can be the celebrant as well as have my own conversation going at the same time as well!

And I suspect that the same is true for most other people, most other traditions, cultures and styles of worship.   There is a fixed pattern with which the majority of the participants are familiar and they spend their time in their own devotions.   In some ways providing variety in worship is inimical to the real worship that happens regardless of the leader, the language or the liturgy (or lack thereof).    It is not that I am against a variety of worship, but that we acknowledge where real worship takes place, in the secret places of the heart, in each and every worshipper.   Real worship takes place in the Pharisee who prays: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income'; as well as the tax collector who prays: 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  (Luke 18.12,13).

In this building, the most important thing is not the altar, the cross, the tabernacle, the pulpit, the font, the organ, the bible, the liturgy, or the person presiding.   The most important thing in this building is the individuals in the pews.   The most important prayers as the half formed ones that float through our consciousness, be it ever so briefly; not the fine phrases of the prayer book intoned by the cultured voice of the trained speaker.  You and I and all people are the things for whom Jesus died and rose to life, not these other ‘aids’ to worship.   If they are seen as anything more than aids they have become hindrances to the proclamation of this central fact.  

You and I (and all people) are important and loved, and being loved you and I (and all people) are given choices, choices that will always be respected, never denigrated or criticised.

Thanks be to God!

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