The value of contemplation - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The value of contemplation

Luke 10: 38-end

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38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.

40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

The value of contemplation

It's important to spend time with scripture.  Sometimes the insights of the Gospel hit us immediately and very directly but allowing ourselves time to dwell on the word is significant.  If we limit how we listen, how we engage with scripture then we risk viewing it through our own lenses, fashioned over time by our own particular biases.  It's useful then to try to expand our engagement with the scriptures, to be open to it, because it's then that it can be most alive to us.  

Our Gospel reading this morning serves to emphasise the need to dwell on the word, Martha complains that Mary sits listening at Jesus' feet whilst she toils in the kitchen.  Jesus says "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part".  This seems very harsh doesn't it because isn't Martha just looking after her guests? Or is there perhaps the suggestion that Martha goes beyond taking care of her guests, maybe this is excessive? Is there the suggestion perhaps that Martha's busyness is an avoidance strategy protecting her from bigger questions?  The passage speaks to that tension that we can sometime feel between action and contemplation.  It's a tension that I certainly feel.  My public health work often involves analysis of data and evidence but very much directed towards action and its value is measured in terms of its impact on population health and wellbeing.  That can be difficult to measure but the value of ministry, the value of prayer and of contemplation is often far more intangible.  It's easy to be absorbed in action as Martha was.  

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures was taken from Genesis and it told the story of Abraham's efforts to provide refreshment for three visitors, observing traditional customs of hospitality.  It opened with the statement that the Lord appeared to Abraham on the plains of Mamre so we have every expectation as we hear the story that Abraham's behaviour is going to be significant because God has appeared to him in disguise.  It's clear from the story that his hospitality is reckoned to him as righteousness.  So doesn't Jesus teaching in the story of Mary and Martha contradict this?  Was not Martha, like Abraham, merely attentive to her guests?
Well to some extent, yes, she was attentive like Abraham and yes, Jesus' teaching does seem to contradict those traditional expectations of hospitality.  He emphasises listening to the word.  Now, I don't think we can take this as an instruction away from hospitality and social action because we don't have to look far to see Jesus encouraging those, not least in the parable we heard last week of the good Samaritan.  The law was summarised "thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself".  Do this and you shall inherit eternal life.  The lawyer wishing to justify himself asked "but who is my neighbour" and Jesus provided the example of the Samaritan who only sees need and responds to it and instructs "go and do likewise".

Love of God and love of neighbour are like two sides of the same coin.  In Matthew's Gospel Jesus makes clear though that the first and greatest commandment is love of God, the second he says is like it "love your neighbour as yourself".   I think Jesus teaching in today's gospel reflects this priority first and foremost to love of God.  Listening to, and loving, the word of God is foundational if you like, our love of neighbour then springs from it.

The story of Mary and Martha is very relevant to us today.  We are indeed "careful and troubled about many things".  We live in a society where there are so many competing demands on our attention.  It is sometimes said that we live in a state of chronic distraction and it's not uncommon to hear the charge that we have mislaid our moral compass.  Well perhaps the two things are related because resting in God's word, in his peace and love serves to orientate us.  Surely it is never more important to resist distraction and to focus on God's love than in worship - to be fully present in offering ourselves and receiving Christ in word and sacrament.  

Abraham's three divine visitors came to be associated with Trinity by the Byzantine church.  Anton Rublev's famous icon of the hospitality of Abraham presents three angelic figures under the oaks of Mamre.  If you follow their gaze you find yourself moving continually between them and the space between where you glimpse a chalice that beckons you forward.  Those gazes speak of relationship, the chalice of sacrifice, of self giving being at the heart of God and that space that beckons speaks of our calling to share in that relationship.

Our action in the world need to spring from our relationship with Christ.  In the epistle today we heard the very curious reference to that which is incomplete in Christ's sacrifice because we proclaim that Christ's was a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  It is the sacrifice of the body of Christ, the church, which is incomplete; our sharing in Christ's sacrifice which is incomplete.  Through the giving of ourselves we enter into relationship with God and we share in the sacrifice of Christ's body.

Brothers and sisters, let us beware of all that distracts us today.  Let us sit at the Lords feet, hear his word, rest in his love, receive his touch and feel his call in our lives.
To him be all glory, now and to the ages of ages.  Amen.

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