A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 21 July 2019
In Canterbury, where I served before coming here, I was responsible, among other things, for the Diocesan training of curates, newly-ordained clergy. One of the areas on which I found myself teaching was balance in the ministerial life: on the relationship between on the one hand, being a priest; and on the other; doing priestly things. I always started the session with a study of Scripture, and the Scripture with which I always started was the passage from Luke that we have just heard – the story of Mary and Martha.
The debate was invariably fierce. Activist curates would favour Martha and claim that priesthood meant relentless doing: preaching, visiting, baptizing, burying. Contemplative curates would favour Mary and claim that priesthood meant relentless being: praying, attending, gazing, waiting.
On one memorable occasion a curate became super-indignant on Martha’s behalf, insisting that she alone had offered our Lord hospitality. And another curate responded with equally stratospheric indignation. Mary too had offered hospitality, she maintained. But it was a hospitality of listening. Later that evening we all received an email from her husband, also a priest. “She says she’s offering me a hospitality of listening” he wrote. “She’s presented me with a cream cracker for dinner”. Had my teaching session unveiled the mystical heart of the Biblical text? Had it exposed the gritty reality of ordained life? Or had it merely shed some rather revealing light on the inner workings of one curate’s family? Too much information, as they say.
Families are embarrassing. I know that. Mine tell me so frequently. My Grandma’s older sister was known as Auntie Gee. She was what novelists call a formidable person. On one occasion my mother remembers being ordered to lie on the floor of the front bedroom in the middle of the afternoon. Auntie Gee had been spotted in the neighbourhood, and Grandma was anxious not to see her. The easiest thing was to lie down, keep quiet, and pretend that they were out. Families are extraordinary, and Mary and Martha are a family.
That being so, I wonder if the approach that I took in those teaching sessions was wrongheaded. Perhaps I was wrong to get the curates to pore over the text so earnestly, looking for profound guidance for the spiritual life (although, in my own defence, that’s what Biblical commentators have been doing so far as this passage is concerned ever since Biblical commentators have been in business).
What if instead we imagine the story as an episode of a television sitcom? There’s a dangerous risk of extreme crassness, I know, but bear with me. The honoured guest arrives and is shown to the front room. One sister jumps up to make the tea. The other sits dreamily at his feet. The first clatters the tray. The other sits. She makes a sharp aside. The other sits. She bangs the cupboard doors. The other sits. She drops the kettle, smashes the crockery, and hurls the biscuits out of the window. Still the other sits. And – this is the crucial mystery – where is the brother? We know that Martha and Mary have one. Lazarus. But he makes no appearance in this story. Presumably he’s having a cigarette in his man-shed, or has gone to the pub, or is busy with some DIY. He’s really not helping. Imagine it like that, and the story of Martha and Mary is a story of family life. It’s a story that most of us can recognize.
Churches are sometimes compared to families, a comparison which is sometimes made with objectionable smugness. But it’s only objectionable when it carries with it the assumption that family life is a sort-of everlasting golden picnic on a sunny day, and that church life is therefore the same. Hmmm…Look at Grandma and Auntie Gee. Look at Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Now look at the letter to the Colossians. The opening verses that we heard contain what most Biblical commentators (them again I’m afraid) agree is a hymn to Christ. We glimpse it in the words “He is the image of the invisible God…through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”. You can hear the lyric quality, even in translation, even two thousand years later. It was probably a hymn that the Christians in Colossae used in their worship. But we only glimpse it because in including it in his letter Paul has deconstructed it and re-written it. He suspects that its elegant form will be a distraction. He believes that it is theologically lightweight. So he has taken it apart and written in some additions: “…the head of the church…the blood of the cross”, additions of which he approves. When the church family is at its youngest and we might think its purest its members are behaving like…well, like family members. There’s always someone who knows best. The church family is not so very different from any other family.
And here’s the thing. Fundamentally, what the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus has to teach us is not that we are more like one of them than another, or whatever. It’s that in Christ all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, and that in Christ God chooses to be their guest. He chooses to be a guest of a family like yours and like mine, a family with all its strangeness and madness. In Christ God chooses to be served by Martha; in Christ God chooses to be listened to by Mary; in Christ God chooses (who knows?) to be completely ignored by Lazarus - a compliment which he later repays by raising him from the dead. In Christ God chooses to be head of a church which like every human family is beset even in St Paul’s era by competition, one-upmanship and the cleverer-than-thou syndrome that Grandma knew all too well.
What was true of Bethany is also true of Salisbury. God chooses this family, this branch of the family. In fact, God has chosen to accept the hospitality of this branch of the family on this site for nearly 800 years. God is our guest this morning. Think about that. We sing to God; we listen for God; we exchange the peace with God; we share coffee with God; and in our singing and listening and exchanging and sharing we are reconciled to God.
As sometimes happens in every family, we‘re saying goodbye to some members today: to Alex, to whose music God chooses to listen; to Hugh, in whose magnificent voice God has heard his praises sung for a quarter of a century; to Ian, who has shared with God the care of his people here; to Janet, who has protected and nurtured our choristers; and to Archie, Annenora, Benjamin, Ottie, Sammy, Tammy, Thomas, Sophie, Zerlina and Anna, who have led God’s people in worshipping God.
But we only think we’re saying goodbye. This family is like the Hotel California – you can check out but you can never leave. Because whether you’re beginning retirement, or going to Chester Cathedral; whether you’re crossing the Atlantic, or starting at a new school; whether you’ve worshipped here for five years or for fifty years; wherever you are you will find God waiting for you, waiting on you, and reconciling you to Godself.
I don’t know if there are cream crackers in heaven. But if there are then they will only be a part of the homecoming banquet that in Christ God is preparing for his unruly, untidy, unwieldy, beloved family. Amen.