The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
Being at St John’s for three weeks, I’ve been fortunate to meet many of you. I sense a certain interest in knowing where I fit in. Am I another Brutus, or Margaret, or Steve, or Sally, or Pippa. Will I be the ‘spiritual one’, or the ‘one who does kids stuff’, or the ... well the list could go on for a long time. Perhaps after today’s Gospel the question should be: is he a ‘doing’ person or a ‘being’ person.
I always want to come to the defence of Martha. She invites Jesus in, even though she has lots to do. She cleans the house. She makes the tea. She is doing what Jesus will want, making him comfortable. Giving him food, after all Jesus told his followers to eat whatever they were given, because the laborers need to be fed. We read that only two weeks ago. This is what he would want, He expects his followers to serve one another, so she’s doing the right thing.
Not only that, but one gets the feeling Martha is always the one who’s doing things. We can hear the tension in her voice, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” She is the one who always does the right thing. She is always the one serving and helping.
If she didn’t, nobody would do it.
There were seven years between my brother and I. Though our ages might suggest we wouldn’t be compared, we of course were. It’s natural that we compare people, family or not. It’s how we try to normalise our expectations. The difficulty is that we are trying to understand great complexity, with a simple comparison between two people.
In our family I was considered the more empathetic, but the more lazy, and less scientific. But outside of my immediate family, many of those comparisons are reversed. Steve points out that I’m the scientist in the team, the others having studied the humanities. But we are all far more complex than any of this. We are also more dynamic, growing and responding to changes in our context. It can be easy, once an image of somebody is created, for the person to begin to fulfill that image. We do the same thing to groupings within society. We can assume certain ethnic groups or faiths are prone to laziness, or to violence, or to antisocial behaviour.
A muslim school friend of mine recently wrote about the pressure she felt under when wearing the Hijab.
That if she ever had a bad day or over-reacted to something somebody said.
That all she would end up doing is confirming their prejudices.
The way people treated her was aggressive and over time that aggression would affect the way she responded.
In the first three weeks of wearing a collar I have felt only a small part of this pressure.
To live up to the expectations of a meek and mild priest.
Not easy when it’s been so hot, and not necessarily honest to who I am.
Not fitting in with people’s assumptions, not being what people expect of us, can lead to people not really knowing what to do with us. As a scientist, having a faith in God can seem eccentric, if not a little bit mad.
As if you’re being asked: ‘How good a scientist can you really be?’
In Colossians we are reminded, Christ mediates in creation and in reconciliation.
Christ is there at the beginning, making us in God’s image, and again at the cross, to restore us to God, so that we can become more Christlike.
Christ in this sense is the proto-human. First-born from death. Not just human and divine, but perfectly human and perfectly divine. And in this perfection the fullness of God dwells. We cannot talk about Christ in his fullness in comparison to anybody else.
To be fully human is not to be a caricature.
To be fully who we are meant to be, to be in the image of Christ, we need to have a full character. That is why defining somebody by their culture, their skin, their faith, is so dangerous, because we dehumanise them, we make them into a parody of who they really are.
Martha may have felt trapped, like so many who feel they need to be the servant, that they need to sort everything out. Particularly at Christmas, or a family birthday, or when a guest comes to stay, to deliver the party everybody expects. To fulfill their role as the host. Martha assumes she knows what Jesus wants. She is providing it based on what she thinks he needs. And based on what she feels is expected of her. Jesus challenges these assumptions. He breaks the moulds, He allows Martha to reach beyond her caricature. To listen like Mary is.
That isn’t to say there is no need to serve, but at this point Martha needs to be more than she imagines herself to be.
Jesus has turned towards Jerusalem and the cross, what she needs to do is spend time with him, what she needs to do is spend time with God. To do so helps her and us to discover the fullness of our humanity. That is what we do when we come together and wait on God in this place, when we listen to God and share bread and wine. For Martha, to break out of the caricature of the servant sister allows her to be more fully human, more Christ-like. Being the Martha of today’s Gospel is easy.
It’s easy to become the caricature, but we must not allow ourselves to lose our humanity.
Being without doing and doing without being are incomplete ways of living.
We need to spend time at Christ’s feet listening, but we also need to do the washing up, we do need to respond to what Christ is saying. That is why we don’t spend the whole week sitting here.
In Genesis, Abraham has also taken matters into his own hands. Knowing God expects him to have many descendants, he’s had Ishmael by his wife’s slave girl, failing to follow the law in order to do what is expected of him. But, instead of God assuming that Abraham will always fail, that he will never listen. that Abraham is another example of people thinking they know best, God appears as three people, creating an opportunity. Abraham and Sara obey the rules of hospitality. They are given the chance to step out of their caricature and to be redeemed, to be reconciled through eating with and spending time with God. Having been given the chance,Abraham and Sara take it, and go on to be the patriarch and matriarch of Israel.
Giving people a chance to be more than who we think they are isn’t easy, but it is a fundamental way of encouraging people. Giving people a chance to imagine themselves in a new way, giving them a chance to be more fully themselves. In moving beyond the caricature, beyond the expectations they have been limited to, people can flourish. Similarly, an organisation’s identity, if it is negative, can be extremely difficult to overcome. But a positive identity, one accepted by the members, can be unstoppable.
The media over the last week has been asking about the legacy of the Olympics, one year on. We were out of the country - in India - so missed it. All except a picture of Boris Johnson hanging from a zipwire, which made the international press. When we returned it was like we arrived to a different country. The assumption that the Olympics would be one disaster after another had been quashed and not just a little. There was a positive identity, which had overcome the old one.
For Paul, Christ’s reconciliation of humanity results in us being known not as Sinners but as Saints. We are no longer known by our failings, but by our potential. How do you think it would work if we started treating people not based on their faults or based on our assumptions of what they should be but rather based on what they have the potential to be. How would a justice system work on that model, or a welfare system for that matter. Rather than identifying some people as scroungers, as if that was all they could live up to. if we identified them as a part of the greater community, potential contributors to the common good.
So when we look at each other and at ourselves, don’t limit your vision to see what you expect. Open your eyes to see Christ. To see the fullness of God in yourselves and one another.