Monday, July 18, 2016

Let the Story Read You

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate for Adult Formation
The Seventh Sunday after Pentectost: Year C, Proper 11, July 17, 2016

source: Wikimedia Commons (artist unknown, c.1000)
Three visitors appear from out of the desert, and Abraham drops everything and runs to meet them. Bear with me for a minute while I pose a few questions. Abraham’s effusive welcome is a little surprising. I wonder if his knack for hospitality is one reason God has chosen him? When have I welcomed strangers into my home and fed them well?

Meanwhile, Sarah is in the kitchen dutifully cooking a lot of food for these strangers. Does she question the necessity of this feast? Is it common practice for the husband to stand while his guests sit and eat? As a guest, that would make me nervous. Is it typical for the wife to wait in the tent until the guests have eaten? Are the guests angels? Why are there three? In the original Hebrew, there are all sorts of confusions about singular and plural here, and our English translations sometimes fudge the distinction in order to preserve the narrative. Could the three be God, the Holy Trinity, perceived in some way many centuries early? Or am I reading too much Christianity back into Judaism?

How does Sarah feel to be addressed by name as she listens at the tent flap? In a moment she will laugh at the thought that she could get pregnant at her age. But she is also afraid. I would be too!

This stream of questions is the way I usually begin writing a sermon. I’m not just reading the Bible. I’m letting the Bible read me, letting the story draw questions out of me, putting myself into the story in some way. Do you ever do the same? It doesn’t matter whether the questions have answers. When we approach the Bible, we must engage our imaginations.

Erasmus Quellinus II & Adriaen van Utrecht,
Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary (17th c.)
source: Wikimedia Commons
In today’s gospel, Mary is sitting, not standing, listening to her house guest Jesus. My first thought is that the meal is over, and Martha is in the kitchen, but she isn’t listening at the door. She’s up to her elbows in soap suds, fuming that her lazy sister isn’t helping her do the dishes. Have you ever been Martha?

Meanwhile, Mary is listening with rapt attention to Jesus, her teacher. But I don’t imagine her to be silent. I think she’s listening, incorporating what she hears into her own experience, and then asking questions and giving her own perspective on things. The dirty dishes are the last thing on her mind. This is far more important, and she’ll be happy to do some scrubbing later, even tomorrow morning. No, of course the text doesn’t say this—it’s coming from my imagination. Have you left the dishes until morning because you’d rather chat with your friends? Of course you have. So have I.

You know what, though? This makes Mary too sympathetic a character. I think Martha isn’t washing dishes—she’s preparing the meal. Nobody has eaten yet. A living room full of people has shown up unannounced, and somebody has to feed them.  No wonder Martha is frustrated. And then, when Martha triangulates Jesus into her frustration—“Don’t enable my sister’s laziness! Tell her to help!”—Jesus takes Mary’s side.

Why does Jesus honor Mary’s behavior? Mary seems either oblivious or just downright lazy. Or maybe—maybe! she’s a well-differentiated woman. Let all the male disciples forage through the kitchen themselves. Jesus doesn’t require women to do all the background work; he calls all of us to a life of attention to God. Mary is training her focus. Martha will understand that when she has to, and not one moment sooner.

Mary wants nothing more than to be close to God, and she sees that when she is with Jesus, this happens naturally. What image do you have of the kind of person who is close to God? Someone who is somehow not a sinner? What does this even mean? Someone like the seemingly perfect person in Psalm 15, for instance? Who leads a “blameless life” anyway? But maybe Mary, in her focused attention, has figured out closeness to God. I just bet Martha is the older sister, brought up to be responsible. Meanwhile the younger Mary listens and trusts—like a child. Perhaps she’s practically still a child herself.

Jesus makes several references to children being especially receptive to the Kingdom of God. They receive it naturally because they listen and trust. They have to listen and trust, because they know they are not self-reliant.

It’s when we get older that we fool ourselves into thinking we are self-made people. That’s when God begins to feel authoritative but distant, and Jesus sounds well-intentioned but naïve (“Love your enemies?” What?!), and the Holy Spirit becomes a nice idea, but it’s not like we’re going to become radicals and let all this change our lives. After all, we’re adults, and we’ve got stuff to do.

I mean, just this week I was busy co-leading the music station at Vacation Bible School, and taking care of my daughter, and setting up a vet appointment, and going to the gym, and getting an oil change, and planning adult formation events for fall, and inviting conversation about racism on Facebook, and collecting Pokéballs on the front steps of St. Paul’s. Write a sermon? Hah! That means listening before talking. And I don’t have time to listen. I only have time to talk.

Singing together
 Meanwhile, all week, God was assailing me with opportunities to listen, most of them coming from the children at Vacation Bible School. We weren’t planning to teach the five-year-olds the Zulu lyrics to “Walking in the Light of God,” but there was little Lydia singing with perfect pitch and rhythm: “Siyahamb’e ku khan yeni kwen kos!” Then there was Allie, holding a drumstick like a baton to conduct a group of young percussionists and inspiring others to follow her. There was Declan’s declaration about VBS—“I don’t like it; I love it!” —which we promptly turned into a song. All week long, children were sitting at our feet, and we tried to show Jesus to them through stories and songs and crafts and science experiments and games and food and opportunities for service.

On Thursday I said to one group of grade-school musicians, “Today’s theme is ‘God calms.’ I think God calms us through music. And I have a story to tell you about that.”

A boy jumped in: “I’ve heard this story before!”

I smiled and said, “Oh, I really doubt that!” And I went on: “One winter’s evening I was driving home, and a huge ice storm hit. My car was sliding all over the road …”

The boy piped up again, “And you sang this song over and over again to help you get home. And now you want to teach us that song.”

“Oh!” I said. “Yes, that’s exactly the story. Did I tell the story last year when I taught this same song?”

Several kids smiled and nodded. Well! Would you look at that. They were listening. They remembered my story from a whole year ago, which is a significant percentage of their lives. And several kids from the next group remembered the story as well!

At noon the same day, there was a girl whose parent was a little late picking her up, something that inevitably happened to a few kids every day this week. Most of the other kids had left, not all, but this girl was sitting by herself, so I sat next to her. She told me she was feeling very anxious about not having been picked up yet. She thanked me for the song, which she had been singing to herself over and over until I came and sat with her. I told her that I was certain one of her parents was on the way. I also asked, “Do you see how many adults there are here who care about you?” “Quite a few,” she admitted. And right about then, her mom showed up—only about seven minutes late. But now this girl knows that God calms us with music, and she is reminded that she’s part of a big family here at St. Paul’s.

Storytelling in the nave
Say what you like about children never listening. They are the best listeners we have. We can’t always tell because they multi-task so well. And they won’t always do what we wish they would do, but doing and listening are very different things. They do, indeed, listen and incorporate what they hear into their life experience. When they’re in Godly Play, they listen and incorporate. And when they’re in the pews, even on days when they seem like a vibrating bundle of energy disturbing your personal quiet space in a room of 300 people … they are listening and incorporating even then. Are you?

During Vacation Bible School, this room was the storytelling place. That’s what we do here: we tell stories. We don’t read stories to ourselves. We hear them out loud, the way they were meant to be received. So don’t read the story. Let the story read you.

More storytelling in the nave
Make connections. Sarah and Martha both prepared feasts, maybe 2000 years apart from each other. We’re about to do something similar 2000 years after that. It’s not a lot of food, but it’s enough to help us conceive of this much larger family of ours. It’s a feast of bread and wine and blessing. The blessing comes through us all being gathered together and listening attentively to God. There’s a longstanding tradition of the priest giving a blessing at the end of the service, but it’s not necessary, because we have already been blessed through Holy Communion. When we gather here, we are preparing to receive a feast. We are making time to listen and receive.

Martha didn’t understand that listening is its own kind of hard work. When we’re really listening, we’re not just passively receiving, but struggling to incorporate new ideas and experiences, including experiences that are not our own and never can be. Stories come to us not only through the Bible, but through other people in our lives, and through the news, and everything we hear, from every source, is filtered through somebody else’s narrative. It’s up to us to decide how to fit it into our own narrative. What do we hear? How will we allow it to change us? Christ is at work in the hard work of our listening. Prayer means listening before speaking, and this will change us.

There’s an old joke about a priest who is nothing like me, but whom I admire greatly. She is asked by a parishioner, “How often do you pray?” The priest replies, “One solid hour every morning.”

Shocked, the parishioner continues, “But what about those days when you have way too much to do to spend a whole hour in prayer?”

“Ah,” replies the priest. “On those mornings, I pray for two hours.”

Let the story read you. Listen and pray. Amen.

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