The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

How to enter into today’s readings? The psalm’s an entry point: it’s a rare day when some news story doesn’t have us more or less echoing the psalm’s opening: “You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness / against the godly all day long? / You plot ruin; / your tongue is like a sharpened razor, / O worker of deception.” And it’s easy to echo the psalm’s wish (“Oh, that God would demolish you utterly…”).

There’s much of value in that psalm, but it shares with other psalms a weakness that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn identified in the Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

It took some time, but the Old Testament writers figured this out as well. As a corrective to psalms like today’s psalm, Psalm 143 has: “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, / for no one living is righteous before you.”

But where does that leave us, still living in the world portrayed by the psalmist, in which evil is often loved more than good, lying more that speaking the truth, or the world portrayed by the prophet in which the poor and needy are usually not on a level playing field, doing the work that no one else wants to do? How do we deal with this world? “Oh, that God would demolish you utterly…” In a democracy that translates into some combination of (1) how to get more votes than you and (2) how to make it difficult for you to vote. Is that what we’re stuck with?

The recipients of Paul’s letter were no strangers to this world, and how to respond to it is the question that runs through the letter. The letter isn’t easy reading, regularly using vocabulary that’s unfamiliar. “Rulers and authorities” we can guess at, but in today’s reading we meet thrones, dominions, rulers and powers, and in next week’s reading we encounter the “elemental spirits of the universe.” Twenty centuries distant, the details escape us, but in broad outline it’s reasonably clear. The vocabulary reflects what we might call their current political science: the world is driven by innumerable agents straddling the spiritual/material divide, and before whom the individual is pretty much helpless. Paul’s opponents are arguing that while Jesus deals with some issues, other issues, not so much. We need to map out this world, figure out who’s who, and get some of these agents/angels—preferably with brass knuckles—as our patrons.

Nonsense, Paul thunders. First, God has responded to prayers like our psalm in a very unexpected way: “and through him [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” This is not about God blessing the status quo, getting us all singing Kumbaya together. As we’ll hear in next week’s reading “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]” (2:15).

Second, it’s not simply that Jesus is the one who reconciles. Jesus is the one through whom everything hangs together in the first place: “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Not an easy sell, then or now: This One on the cross: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer?

Third, Paul’s own experience (“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”) makes it clear that the cross is not confined to Jesus’ past, but is integral to how God is continuing to heal the world through Jesus’ disciples.

So the Colossians, buried with Jesus by baptism into death, so that they might walk in newness of life (cf. Rom. 6:4), have a choice. Framing the question in our terms, Jesus the answer to their spiritual needs, but only marginally relevant to their world’s economic, political, social challenges or Jesus as the cornerstone of a new world that God’s birthing in their midst? And that’s the question for us: Jesus as the solution to my “spiritual” needs, or Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world?

Our imaginations need some work. Which brings us to our Gospel, to Martha and Mary, no strangers to the world of the prophets and psalms. Our short Gospel holds up Mary’s response as worth noticing—and emulating. Mary: “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”

It’s a surprising story, because Luke puts it right after Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. With Jesus’ “Go and do likewise” ringing in our ears, doesn’t Martha have a slam-dunk case? She’s the one responding to her perception of her guests’ needs.

We could wonder about Martha’s perceptions, about the sometimes large gap between what’s actually needed, and what custom/role definition/”what will people say” dictate. But I’d guess that Luke’s focus is more on the importance of hearing the word as emphasized elsewhere in the Gospel, e.g., “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21; cf. 11:28).

Mary, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” I wonder: do we ever reach the point at which we’ve heard all we need to hear? It’s easy to assume that (though we’d never say it), and our practices don’t help us here. We’re used to referring to ourselves as Christians or Episcopalians, which can imply a settled identity. We have various curricula for Confirmation, but learning after that tends to be treated as optional. What if we paid more attention to that prayer at Baptism: “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works”? That prayer implies ongoing learning, continuing to listen to Jesus.

A few Sundays ago in a different context I recalled Stephen Covey on listening. “’Seek first to understand’ involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.”[1] Listening with the intent to reply—speaking from personal experience it’s easy for that to kick in particularly when it’s Jesus speaking.

We could still be in the early stages of discovering what listening to Jesus might unlock. Two examples before I close.

Lynn White Jr., a professor of medieval history, gave a lot of attention to the technological developments in that period in Europe, e.g., the windmill. He writes: “The chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies [those folk at the bottom that Amos talked about] but primary on non-human power.” The Greeks and Romans had the science, but why bother with so many slaves available? The monks had been listening to Jesus, or, as White puts it, “The labor-saving power-machines of the later Middle Ages were produced by the implicit theological assumption of the infinite worth of even the most degraded human personality, by an instinctive repugnance towards subjecting any man to a monotonous drudgery which seems less than human in that it requires the exercise neither of intelligence nor of choice.”[2]

A second example. Einstein said something like “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” But too often “the same thinking” is the order of the day, and we’re told that it’s either this or that. Then along comes Jesus, who regularly come at problems diagonally:

“Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” And Jesus starts doodling on the ground—resulting in all the accusers making a hasty exit.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” And Jesus asks whose head is on the coin, how the inscription reads.

“And who is my neighbor?” Well, we heard Jesus’ non-answer to that question last Sunday!

At the simplest level, whether in an election year or not, we need Jesus’ diagonal thinking. We need Jesus to get us out of our mental ruts. At the less simple levels, we need the life of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in us and for that we’ll come to the altar in a few minutes.

Jesus, through whom all things were created, in whom all things hold together: what might listening more closely to Jesus today produce? Sounds like that’s worth finding out.

[1] Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

[2] “Technology and invention in the Middle Ages,” reprinted in Medieval Religion and Technology.

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