The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 18:1-10a – Psalm 15 – Colossians 1:15-28 – Luke 10:38-42
‘Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’
It’s good to be back after a few weeks away. As some of you will know, I was on pilgrimage to the Scottish island of Iona with a small group from the Cathedral.
Apart from some travel woes and lost luggage for two members of our group, it was – as pilgrimages normally turn out to be – a great time of spiritual resourcing, blending in the beauty of the wild Scottish landscape with the rich Christian heritage that is palpable on this tiny island, burial site of the Scottish kings, and launchpad for the evangelisation of Scotland for St Columba who had left Ireland under a cloud.
Pilgrimage to holy sites has been part of the Christian tradition and human spiritual quest for millennia, and is an opportunity to reconnect with some aspects of our faith by travelling out of our regular place of being, to which we eventually return refreshed and renewed.
Some of the spiritual values of pilgrimage are of course found at the destination. Iona is described as a thin place, a place where the divine feels very close and where the human experience of God is palpable – as witnessed not only by its religious buildings, but by nature around us.
But as for all pilgrimages, there is also much value from the journeying there and the intentions we bring with us, and the journeying back and making sense of new insights and experience and how they might fit into our ongoing journey of life.
Going on pilgrimage is not simply to go out of the world for a week of silence and contemplation. Of course, there is some of that, perhaps especially in the beautiful Abbey. But the experience involves the sharing of journey, the sharing of food, the sharing of common tasks, the sharing of personal stories of faith and doubt – perhaps taking risks with strangers who quickly become friends.
Insights and divine encounters may come from a particularly significant liturgy or prayer service in the abbey. But insights also come from walking as a group around the island, beavering away in the kitchen, or even cleaning bathrooms.
The greatest gift of a pilgrimage is that we circumscribe time in our life when we are specifically aware of God’s presence with us – in all that we do – and attuned to what God may call us to be. God the Holy Spirit speaks to us wherever we are, whatever we are doing, if only we will open our ears and listen, if only we will allow connections to be made.
In the time of Abraham, faith was all around and the presence of God taken for granted.
When three unexpected strangers materialise out of thin air, there is no hesitation for Abraham – he immediately recognises in all three his Lord, his God, in what may be an earliest description or intuition about the Trinity – a visit immortalised in the famous icon of the Hospitality of Abraham by Russian icon painter Rublev.
And we may note that it is perhaps one of the few – if only – place where the Lord is ascribed the they/them pronouns.
When these unexpected visitors turn up, Abraham is resting in the heat of the day, and so he has both time to hear them and eyes to recognise them for who they are.
And his first instinct, according to his cultural tradition, is to immediately offer them hospitality – welcoming them as honoured guest into his home with offers of food and rest from their journey, setting the whole household in motion.
This reminds us that welcoming the stranger is one way of encountering the divine into your life and brings both blessings but also a call to action.
Action here in providing a good welcome – but also longer term in a destiny changed with the unexpected promise of a miraculous child who will change Abraham’s life as well as the course of history for the people of God.
There is conundrum of our gospel reading too. The story of Mary and Martha is well known, but it never ceases to raise questions – never mind incomprehension, envy or feelings of injustice.
And certainly, we all tend to immediately try and compare ourselves to the two protagonists to decide whether we are a Mary or a Martha. Are we the distracted type that misses the opportunity to spend time with God, or do we get a pat on the back for focusing on the right priorities. Do we make the right choice in our lives or not.
Jesus visits his friends Martha and Mary. Like Abraham, Martha welcomes in him, and busies herself to provide the required hospitality – preparing food and drink for all to share. Her sister Mary meanwhile is sitting with Jesus, basking in his every words.
Unsurprisingly, Martha is rather cross to be left doing everything – and she complains to Jesus. His reply:
‘Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’
Intuitively, we know that the issue is not quite as simple as it is described: to provide hospitality requires people to work at it, as we know all too well as we look for volunteers to help us do just that here at Christ Church Cathedral. But of course, as ever, Jesus does also have a point.
On the one hand, his comment may be a helpful reminder that over fussing may make us miss the moment.
After all, it is not every day that you encounter the Christ, and being able to recognise and focus on the importance of that encounter is key lest you should miss it.
On the other hand though, it does feel rather disrespectful on all those who make it possible for this divine encounter to take place – Martha beavering away to provide what her culture requires, and hordes of volunteer working week after week to sustain the life of Christian communities.
For the group just back from Iona, the experience of living together in community for a week reminded us of the importance of set times for the different activities of the day. Time for attending to the basic needs of life in cooking and eating and sleeping. Time for development and enjoyment, in discussion, group activities, personal reflection. And set times of prayer in the Abbey church to provide specific opportunities to attend to God, like Abraham encountering his Lord, like Mary listening to Jesus.
We are all both Marys and Marthas and our life’s work – and I include myself in this – is to seek to maintain balance to make space for ourselves as well as for God, that we may fully grow into what God calls us to be.
The monastics of old have given us much wisdom in structuring our days, and we can learn from them and apply that wisdom in our lives, therefore attending to our bodily and spiritual needs as well as those of the community in the knowledge of the presence of Christ.
Because in the end, all that we do is an opportunity to meet God if we can maintain attentiveness and openness.
In so doing, we do indeed choose the better part, living lives that are purposeful and mindful of our baptismal promises and that contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom, lives that radiate the love of Christ to all we encounter and that finds the time to attend to strangers.
Lives that are also full of Christian hope even in the midst of the many difficulties of the world and despite it.
St Paul writes that whatever we were – with all our shortcomings and faults – has been reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but he enjoins us to ‘remain steadfast in the faith and without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that we heard and which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.’
It is this Christian hope that sustains us in the journey of life, in the knowledge that even in the greatest of darkness. God is with us, and the light of God continues to shine through.