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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 16, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
July 18, 2010

Amos 8:1-12; Luke 10:38-42

One thing necessary’

As I hear the Gospel for today I am drawn to one little phrase attributed to Martha who complains that her little sister, Mary, has left her “all alone”. All alone to do the household tasks (perhaps the customary womanly duties). Martha (“anxious and upset”) resents that little Mary (the marginalised figure in the story) has chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. Mary, in other words, has adopted the position of a contemplative, if not argumentative, disciple. I am drawn to that little phrase, “all alone”, because it says so much about Martha’s experience – anxious and upset, busy, task-oriented, self-righteous … and lonely. Martha denies herself opportunities for relationship. And if the Gospel were summarised in a word – in the Word – then the word would be “relationship” – the one thing necessary.

I’ve just spent a week with my niece and nephew, Georgia, 8, and Dylan, 8, in Melbourne, and it has been a wonderful and very precious time. It’s also been a testing time. There was much to organise – train tickets, hotel accommodation, daily activities – and even though I deliberately avoided getting caught up in organisation I was still caught out. I fussed about healthy foods. I got impatient with childish exuberance and disobedience. And the underlying lesson for me was the ultimate importance of trust – Georgia and Dylan might not remember what they saw at the Science Works exhibit, or the Aquarium, on the train or the tram or the ferry, but they will remember whether or not they felt safe, happy, cared for. The time we spend with each other has impact, it leaves impressions. Was I there for them? Was I there with them? I can say that when they took my iPhone (an object of distraction) to write me a “thank you” text – I was made to promise I wouldn’t ever delete it – I was very relieved and very happy.

The importance of trust, intimacy, relationship. All Christian teaching, we might say, is concerned to enable and deepen relationships, and makes no sense without reference to relationships of real substance and quality.

Our doctrine of God as Trinity teaches divine relationship – creating, redeeming and sustaining life. Our doctrine of creation teaches the inter-relationship of all creatures. Our doctrine of humanity teaches that we are made in the image of God and thus made for relationship. Our doctrine of salvation is about a love that overcomes estrangement and reconnects victims and perpetrators of violence in a Spirit of daring honesty and forgiveness. Not surprisingly, forgiveness lies at the very heart of our religion, for we who are called to be intimately related – to spend time on and with each (very different) other – are the very ones who fail and frustrate and disappoint each other (to put it mildly), again and again. Forgiveness is the one thing necessary while ever relationship is the one thing necessary. Christianity, we hardly need reminding, delights in unconventional mathematics!

I could go on, but I’ll limit my comments to this. Our doctrine of the Church professes a sacramental community of diverse believers in Jesus as God’s Beloved, passionate for justice and peace in the world, even unto death. We are believers and we are passionate activists, and the two are entwined in a Holy Spirit – the sacred and the secular, contemplation and action, cult and justice (as the prophet Amos thundered), faith and good works. And yet faith has, always, a certain priority, for without faith we are soon self-righteous, anxious and upset (to put it mildly). We are soon “all alone” in the world. We are too much a part of the problem and called again to choose the “better part” – called to love, to trust, to intimacy, to friendship, to relationship.

It occurs to me that when I am deeply happy I know myself to have been drawn into relationship – and not always in terms of social activity. I can experience an easing of anxiety and a movement away from feeling “all alone” when I encounter another in song, in drama or film or art. I really like the painting by Caravaggio entitled ‘Martha and Mary’ (1571). It hardly seems religious at all, and takes as its theme Martha’s reproaching Mary for her vanity. We see the jar of perfume, the comb, the looking glass. It’s an astute comment, via today’s Gospel reading, on contemplation as vanity, on religion as self-indulgence. Is it so?, we are led to ask. Is religion merely a private affair? An escapist fantasy? A self-deception? A vanity? Or do we experience a genuine easing of anxiety, an authentic movement away from feeling “all alone” whenever we encounter another in holy scripture, in ritual, in prayer?

On the train to Melbourne I read a few chapters of a book on the life of Simone Weil, the French “mystic-philosopher”, and in particular about Weil’s political thought on violence, war and injustice. The book treats Weil’s thought on the possibility of grace as the countervailing power (or force) that may efficaciously oppose oppressive (brute) force. The author quotes from a letter of Weil’s addressed to a friend in 1942. “I felt, without being in any way prepared – never having read the mystics – a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being. This presence, inaccessible to the senses and the imagination, was analogous to the love that flows through the tender smile of a beloved. Since that instant the name of God and of Christ have been interwoven irresistibly with my thoughts” (Simone Weil to Joe Bousquet, May 12, 1942).

A (short) lifetime (1909-1943) of passionate thought and activism forged in the fires of contemplation. A dynamic public life sustained by an inner life of prayer. An austere and single person (and a person who chose not to be baptised, that she might better represent all those defiled and exiled by the Church) and yet one aware she was not “all alone”. She was never “all alone”.

I hope this isn’t too wild a leap, but I’m led to consider the so-called “veil debate” in Europe over recent months. France’s lower house has passed a law banning the wearing of the full Islamic veil – covering the face – in public places. Our own politicians have joined in of late, disparaging the burqa or niqab as oppressive to women. Madeleine Bunting of The Guardian acknowledges that there are instances of patriarchy where some women might be encouraged or even forced to wear a full veil by their husbands or fathers, but argues that generalisations don’t fit. “Increasingly, young women are choosing to wear the full veil, seeing it as a powerful statement of identity.”

She continues: “It is not too hard to understand that some women – a small minority – might find the pervasive sexualisation of Western culture offensive, and might want to signal by their clothing their disengagement. They don’t want their face surveyed by that Western glance that sizes up and categorises – to be dismissed or desired. Yet this is a choice that largely male politicians in France have chosen to remove …” (Madeleine Bunting, ‘A veiled threat to women’s freedom’, The Guardian).

In other words, the Islamic veil can be an expression of inner freedom and confidence – an expression of faith in the one thing necessary: relationship. In this case, relationship with God and others as opposed to brute secularisation, as opposed to objectification. And the veil can signify, to the horror of those who would force people to be “free”, that inner and public life are entwined in a Holy Spirit.

I offer that for further contemplation. Let’s remember to include in our prayerful silence today those whose faith traditions differ from our own. And then let us complete the homily together. You are invited to come to the altar-table and to place a flower in the “inner” or “outer” spaces of the cloth around the Christ Candle. Why are you led/drawn to such a space/place today?

… Amen.