Canon R. Carter Echols
Having just heard wonderful stories of hospitality from both Genesis and Luke, I want to add my voice to that of Canon Thomas and offer a special welcome to those of you who are visiting, especially those who have come for Louisiana State Day.
Like Martha of the Gospel, we spent many hours preparing for this time. Our musicians and readers practiced and the worship office staff, the flower guild, the vergers and the National Cathedral Association coordinated hundreds of details. And like Mary, we sat at Jesus’ feet and reflected on the lessons for this day and now we come together as disciples to hear God’s word for us.
You see, today’s Gospel from Luke is not about action versus contemplation. It is about action and reflection. Martha and her sister Mary, women with very different personalities, both exemplify faithful responses to the Gospel.
As we just heard, Jesus affirmed Mary sitting at his feet, even though that was a position in society reserved for men—for male students of male teachers. Women of Jesus’ time were to remain at home rather than follow teachers around the countryside, and women were not allowed to touch the Torah. But just as Jesus lifted up so many other women, in today’s Gospel Jesus celebrated Mary’s discipleship, her role as his student. Mary, Jesus said, had chosen “the thing that will last” (Luke 10:42).
Unfortunately, in that same moment, Martha had lost her sense of simple discipleship. She was distracted by too many things—perhaps too many dishes—perhaps by so many guests—Jesus traveled with quite an entourage! We don’t know. We do know that Martha was having a rough moment—a grumpy moment—probably a self-righteous moment.
We also know that Martha and Mary appear again in the Gospel according to John displaying the same activist and contemplative personalities. When Jesus was coming to their house after their brother Lazarus had died, it was Martha who rushed to meet him and said that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus had been there. She also pointed out that Jesus could do something about it if he wanted to. Mary stayed at home.
And as Jesus and Martha walked together to the house, Jesus revealed himself to Martha and Martha proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ. In the synoptic Gospels it is Peter who uniquely makes this proclamation. In John’s Gospel it is Martha. So Jesus clearly loved and held a special place for Martha as well as for Mary.
It is also important to note that this story of the two sisters, which affirms sitting at the feet of the Lord, immediately follows the story of the Good Samaritan…a story that defines neighborliness as taking action.
Unfortunately, in the church, as in the world, we make arbitrary divisions between the “do-ers” and “be-ers.”
As the Cathedral’s Missioner, the person charged with coordinating our outreach, our “activist” ministries, I am delighted to be preaching on this text, which affirms the importance of reflection.
Because despite our love of dualisms, of simple either/ors, and rights and wrongs, few of us are simply activists or contemplatives. Within the life of faith, our reflection informs our action, which then informs our reflection and so forth. Liberation theologians refer to this as “theological praxis.”
People who are students of a different sort of Kingdom are most likely to be able to bring it about in this world.
Perhaps that is why studies have shown that children who are churched in poor, inner-city neighborhoods are far more likely to escape poverty, crime and unemployment. John DiIulio, a criminal justice scholar from Princeton, argues that churches are critical to solving societal problems because “they alone are capable of addressing both the material and the spiritual dimensions of the problem.”
Meanwhile, through a new provision of the welfare reform legislation called “Charitable Choice,” congregations and religious organizations can now seek federal funding for their social programs.
But church sponsorship alone guarantees nothing.
As modern-day disciples we are called to participate in God’s wonderful work. But unless we are also students of God’s story, we run a number of risks in that endeavor. For example, we must remain clear about God’s sovereignty. Otherwise, our work with people who are poorer or more disenfranchised than are we can become distorted by our desire to be in control or to be a god in someone else’s life rather than our charge to be faithful agents of the one true God.
Similarly, people who forget God’s story create solutions for this world that are unnecessarily limited and may even be oppressive. They develop programs and policies based on their fear that resources will run out: there won’t be enough food, foster parents or jobs. People of faith remember that the God of loaves and fishes and manna in the wilderness offers abundance if we can only find it.
Reflection informs action, which informs reflection.
In the national Episcopal Church, this principal is manifest through Jubilee Ministry.
Our friends from Louisiana will be interested to know that New Orleans holds a special place in the hearts of many of us who participate in social ministries for the national Episcopal Church. In 1982, after three years of study and prayer, the general convention of the Episcopal Church met in New Orleans and at that meeting established a new national “ministry of joint discipleship with poor and oppressed people.” Bishop John Walker of this diocese served on the committee that outlined the biblical mandate and recommended the program that now includes a network of hundreds of Jubilee centers nationwide. In August, members of the Jubilee family will return to New Orleans to remember the original vision, to reflect on our actions, to pray and to begin imagining our future.
Here in Washington, D.C., the non-denominational Church of the Savior has sprouted incredible ministries of service from mission groups that have grappled with the Gospel story and have asked themselves what God wanted them to do. And down in Louisiana, a group called STICC (St. Thomas Irish Channel Consortium) empowers residents of public housing, most of whom are African American. STICC requires that any service provider that wants to “help” must also participate in seminars on undoing racism.
Reflection informing action informing reflection.
In that same spirit, this Cathedral is developing a whole new program area. We are creating social ministry education programs.
Ministry in the world dwells at the heart of our faith and over the years, we have been engaged in a variety of outreach ministries. We are building on those ministries—supporting tutors who help people learn to read, feeding people on the streets through a local nonprofit, collecting canned goods and school supplies and monies in our poor box. And we will continue to raise awareness of needs in our community and in the world.
But in addition, we are supplementing the Cathedral’s preaching and teaching ministries with new social justice pilgrimages—times that use the fabric and history of this building and of our faith to teach about God’s kingdom and our responsibility to be its agents. We are also hosting overnights and events for young people that help them think about who God is calling them to be. And we are exploring ways to use our website as a teaching tool for people interested in being God’s agents in the world.
So where do you find yourself this morning in the cycle of reflection and action?
Perhaps you are like a woman I know named “Susan.”
”Susan” came regularly to a church-run food pantry and usually seemed a bit disheveled and, like Martha in the Gospel, distracted by many things. She never seemed focused and always seemed perplexed about why her life didn’t get any better. After many months, in a moment of total frustration, my colleague Cindy said to “Susan,” “You just need to get down on your knees and pray to your maker.”
“Susan” left and we didn’t see her for months. But when she returned, “Susan” looked more together than we had ever seen her. She had taken some important next steps in her life and she said to Cindy, “You were right.” Time with God produced a new beginning for “Susan.”
Or maybe this morning you simply need a little nudge or a little time in prayer.
In his classic With Open Hands, Henri Nouwen says, “You are a Christian only when you believe that you have a role to play in the realization of [God’s] new kingdom” (p. 126). “[A] man who prays is never satisfied with the world of here and now, he is constantly striving to realize the new world, the first rays of which he has already seen” (p. 144).
And that is why we are here today—to sit at the feet of Jesus—to share in his hospitality—and to prepare ourselves to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”