Is there enough love to go around?
This week if you, like me, were watching the live feed from General Synod, you know that we witnessed some very moving and also some very hurtful exchanges in the Anglican Church of Canada … and now this morning’s Gospel seems also to offer a mixture of hope and frustration. This question came to me, in connection with both: “Is there enough love to go around?”
Love isn’t like food or money. When you have more, I don’t have less. But it’s very human to think that way, so it’s tempting think that God’s love can be earned or deserved—or even to think that we can get more of God’s love if we have higher standards or are superior in some way to others. Let’s be honest—we can all fall into that trap, even if we have completely different ideas about who we are superior to. It’s all too easy to act as though, like any earthly commodity… our parents’ attention, perhaps, or lemon meringue pie … God’s love can run out completely, or be doled out… fairly or unfairly… to some people more than to others. All too easy to get anxious about our share.
I want to avoid this mistake in talking about Martha and Mary this morning. It sets them up as competitors, when the fact is they were both loved and both disciples and Jesus took the time to turn up at their house, so we need to pay attention to what we can learn about their different ways of serving.
Amy Hamilton did a research paper on this very text in Luke, and shared her thoughts with me. (Mind you, how I use these ideas, and any errors I commit whether through negligence or enthusiasm, will be mine.) What I learned helps resist the temptation to play these two women off against each other.
For one thing, the text itself shows evidence of being heavily edited by different hands before it came to us today. Even assuming this was for good reasons, we know some parts were lost or changed. This means we can’t say conclusively what actually went on. These women might have had a more prominent role amongst the disciples than the written record shows.
Even in the text we have now, Mary is pictured sitting at Jesus feet listening to him… which is what male disciples did… receiving his oral teaching. And Jesus praises her for this. As for Martha, the Greek word used for her work …service…is diakonia… this same word is the root of our word Deacon… and we also know from a different episode about these same two sisters in John’s gospel that it was Martha who came forward to greet Jesus after Lazarus died. Sandra Schneiders (1) writes that this was the formal role of the leader of the community. So these women were more than incidental in Jesus’ circle. In fact, so important that their names and something of their personalities have survived the editing process.
Martha’s predicament, then, is not that she has chosen the active life only to be told, when she complains, that it is inferior. Jesus is not scolding her in this sense. The problem is that like so many active church people today… are so many of us are women, aren’t they… she has allowed herself to lose the balance needed, That’s probably why she has become so exasperated. Just as Jesus does with his other disciples, he takes her seriously, listening as well as teaching.
I thought when I had worked through to this conclusion by Friday morning, that I had enough to say. I was ready to finish up by saying that YES, There IS enough love to go around… and reminding those tempted to be judging, that love casts out fear.
But does it? In real life?
On Friday, of my friends said, “This is a hard week to preach. Did you see the news this morning about Nice? Bad things do happen, and fear has its place.”
So I tried working on this. I am not a fearless person (and anybody who knows me knows I can get entirely distracted with too many good deeds). What is fear about, and what helps us go forward? Here’s what I came up with:
1. Yes, Jesus loved everybody.
Even the Pharisees. This did not stop him being hard on them… because they idolized the Law itself. They used it to distance themselves from people who were, shall we say, threatening to them. Including Jesus. Because Jesus was most certainly DIFFERENT than anyone they had ever dealt with.
2. It’s normal to be afraid of what threatens us.
The part of our brain that was shaped to protect us from real harm also reacts REAL fast… faster than the thinking part of the brain. Probably faster than the love impulse, too. Anything that doesn’t fit a familiar, known pattern might be dangerous, and if we have been hurt in the past we react FASTER because that reaction might just keep us alive. Might save us. The problem is, not everything unusual in our environment, not every new person or situation we encounter is actually dangerous. What if it’s a blessing? And how do we hold on until we find out? We are CALLED to discernment as a life long process — but this is slow and we can’t even start unless we’re in a calm space.
3. What do we do in the meantime? Fear stimulates action, but we have choices about how to act.
When 9/11 happened… and you probably still remember where you were that day… the fall term had just started at McGill University and the Student Union had already organized their annual activities fair. All the different organizations had information tables to introduce students to the extracurricular groups and interests. The Yellow Door—a Christian coffee house and ministry near campus, which runs a food bank and organizes volunteers to visit the elderly, had its regular table. But to their surprise, on 9/11 they signed up more than twice as many volunteers as any year before or since. These students weren’t waiting to hear a sermon. They could have been glued to television. But they turned instinctively to each other and looked for a way to do some local act to help someone else.
I’d call this the Martha impulse. Service, standing in the place of love. And the Mary impulse is equally valuable. Because another antidote to fear is CURIOSITY. I don’t mean like inviting your friends to gossip about each other, not that kind of prurient curiosity, but… Openness. This might be modern, secular language for a contemplative attitude. A Learning attitude… an attitude that might make understanding, respect, even reverence possible. Fundamentally, an attitude of hospitality to the unexpected.
That is how Abram and Sarah, a wandering couple without any children, responded to the strangers who, in turn, transformed their life and, according to this ancient story, made it possible for them to be the ancestors of the three religions we know today as the People of the Book.
Because the same God who created everything really does show up in person, and it’s always a surprise.
Now this is a stretch for highly educated people who understand that the Bible was written down by humans thousands of years ago and know that humans have learned lots more since then. How do we recapture a personal relationship with the unknowable God?
Our tradition tells us this relationship is real, and is God’s gift to each one of us. Certainly the Psalmist and the many millions of people who have prayed the psalms through the ages are steeped in this tradition. We do not believe it is for special people or mystics. This relationship is for everyone. One of the ways go get back it, to hear God’s voice up close and personal, is to receive the scripture using Ignatian meditation or Lectio Divina … to let our mind relax and our heart respond, let ourselves be curious and contemplative with the Word of God and allow it to speak fresh to us.
And as I was thinking about the way God comes to surprise us, I remembered a modern story, told by the Linn brothers who are active in the healing ministry.
A woman has become more and more involved in her church. Very involved. Eventually she comes and asks the prayer team to pray with her husband because he never goes to church or to prayer meetings. All he wants to do is sit and watch football on TV. Now, the prayer team senses that the one that really needs the healing prayer is the wife. And as they pray together, suddenly, the wife bursts out laughing. She says that in her prayer she vividly saw Jesus come in to her home, through the kitchen door and into the living room, and then ask her where her husband was. When she tells him he is in the basement watching television, Jesus goes downstairs. He doesn’t come back. She hears laughter. When she goes downstairs herself, there’s Jesus … sitting on the couch next to her husband, watching the football game. (2)
God doesn’t follow our rules, even the rules we think God made for us.
Because God most certainly shares our life and wants to share with us—more than we can possibly know. And God will surprise us.
God doesn’t wait until we’re sure we are deserving… or ready… any more than Abram and Sarah were ready with food and drink, or Martha was ready to do everything all by herself, or Mary was ready to know everything Jesus was talking about. God comes to us exactly where we are. God comes the instant we are capable of opening the door.
That’s the one thing that’s needful.
Thanks be to God.
1. Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Crossroad, 2003
2. Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Dennis Linn. Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction. Paulist Press, 1994. The story paraphrased here appears on p. 1.