Homily: Renaming Our Experiences (with audio)

Homily by Matthew Dallman
Given at St Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois
On Proper 9, Year C: Genesis 18:1-10a | Psalm 15 | Colossians 1:21-29 | Luke 10:38-42

St Luke’s narrative of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem continues, just as our journey — the journey of the Body of Christ — continues to the new Jerusalem, whereby the journey that begins in this life to grow into the likeness of Christ finds completion, fulfillment, and perfecting in the life to come. And so Christ’s journey in Scripture is our journey now. Amid the hostile lands of Samaria, he enters a village — that is to say, Jesus and the disciples, numbering 70 if not more — and this group is received. They are received by Martha and welcomed into her house, and there in her house is Martha’s sister, Mary.

(As a point of clarification, this is the only moment in Luke’s Gospel that Martha appears. And although we might be tempted to hear the names “Martha and Mary” and associate them with the sisters of Lazarus who is raised by the dead in the Gospel of St John — Mary being Mary Magdalene — biblical scholars suggest this is a less-than-justifiable connection to make. The Mary here is probably not meant to be interpreted as Saint Mary Magdalene, and at least in this gospel, Mary and her sister Martha do not have a brother named Lazarus.) This need not be a problem, for not associating between the Gospels of Luke and John allows us to focus more freely on this story, and how this story helps us understand our journey into deeper likeness of Christ.

As I said, Christ and his movement were received by Martha and Mary. This strikes an immediate resonance with perhaps the most quoted instruction from the Rule of St Benedict. In chapter 53 of his Rule, St Benedict writes, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.”

Now St Benedict wrote for communities of residential monks and nuns. And although the Book of Common Prayer is a thoroughly Benedictine approach to liturgical and sacramental spirituality, one being as comprehensive as the other, and although the Prayer Book is in fact a rule, or regula, in spiritual and ascetical continuity with Benedict’s Rule, we still must reinterpret Benedict’s instruction — first because of its basis in scripture such as in our Gospel reading today, but also because we are not residential monks and nuns living in semi-enclosed community, but, with the exception of our rector, non-residential Christians. All of us have chosen to be here and to live by the Prayer Book and not the Rule of St Benedict strictly. We should acknowledge the difference between the Rule of St Benedict and the Prayer Book, but we should also acknowledge the profound consonance between the two. We do this when we reinterpret his instruction to “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.”

We note, too, that our Old Testament reading from Genesis echoes this theme of receiving. Abraham and Sarah receive The Lord. The pericope begins with Abraham, in sacred space of the oaks of Mamre, lifting up his eyes and beholding three men. He and Sarah do provide excellent hospitality, according to the standard of their age — all their attention was centered on their guests. By the end of the pericope, the “they” of the three men become “the Lord” in singular. How that happens is a mystery for us to savor.

But it does appear that when we practice thorough-going hospitality, the presence of the Lord becomes more deeply felt — here, through the presence of God’s providence, revealing that Sarah will indeed bear a child in the spring when the Lord’s presence returns. This recalls, too, words from our baptismal covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”. To practice hospitality is to seek and to serve Christ in all people. Hospitality is a baptismal responsibility.

In this light we could return to St Luke’s account of the presence of the Lord amid Martha and Mary, and ask, how did they receive Christ’s presence? What does their “seeking and serving” look like? The answer is somewhat obvious: Martha became, we should say, understandably preoccupied by the concerns and obligations of hosting this gathering; Mary, on the other hand, sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. The indication is that Mary’s choice is the closer one to the will of God.

But I would propose that a better question is, how does meditating on this moment impinge upon our prayer life? How does meditating on this moment invite us to deepen how we receive Christ? This is how we are invited to read all of Scripture — as baptized members within the fellowship of the living Church, to allow scripture to feed, inspire, and articulate our experience — poetically, adventurously, contemplatively, looking for its life rather than a mere message that proves something — a teaching and leading into all truth. Through Scripture, too, is how Christ’s presence comes into our own.

And so our Lord invites us to ask, when have you felt his presence? How have you felt moments of openness, even profound openness? A sensing of something of an expansiveness? Or even a deep beauty to the moment, however it has manifested? Truth be told, your sensing may also have come amid a very low moment in your life, when you may have been, you might say, pummeled by reality. Such a moment — whether a peak moment or a valley moment or an everyday moment — it may have been in childhood, it may have come in adult life — we are invited to name these moments as the presence of God. We are invited to find in these moments, to discern in them, what St Paul calls the “glory” of their mystery, this mystery that Christ is in you, in us, and that we are in Him. Naming is central to our journey.

If we choose not to attempt to name these moments, then in fact we are not practicing hospitality to his presence, we are not receiving the Lord’s presence as it came to us. It is OK — it must be OK — if at the time of this visitation, we did not understand that presence to be God. We are in good company there, because neither Abraham nor Sarah understood the three men to be divine. And Martha, although she seemed to perceive the Lord’s presence a bit more, did not really demonstrate any holy fear of God — in fact, she directly accused her sister to Him, and even ordered Christ to do something — both of which are “no-nos” because they don’t recognize God’s true nature. And neither should we accuse Martha, for that is to do to her what Jesus reproved Martha for doing to her sister. Note, Mary’s portion is the good one also because she does no accusing.

No, God invites us to look back at our life’s experiences, and, as it were, “re-name them”. This is the process of discernment, and it is through discerning — prayerful inquiring — that we grow in likeness of Christ by his grace. Renaming through prayerful inquiry is central to the Christian life.

Shortly we will all come to the altar, to the Lord’s table, where the presences of Christ — in all of creation, in our gathering as the People of God in this sacred space, in the words of scripture proclaimed today, in the person of the priest — these presences are gathered up, focused, concentrated in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, where bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, his true and mystical presence. We do this week by week, often day by day. This experience is named “Christ”, because all of our experiences in creation can be named “Christ.”