16th of the Year, 17 Jul 22
Well, we’re going to have a little interactive beginning to the sermon today. I would like you in a few moments’ time to describe with someone near you in as few words as possible who God is? There are all sorts of words we could use: strong, love, Father, Shepherd, Jesus, Good but what’s the word that instantly springs to mind?
It’s so important for us to ponder who God is as we gather for Mass because it’s Him we have come to meet. We don’t just worship a God who is a long way away in Heaven but keeps an eye on us, such as some other faiths proclaim: we believe, because Jesus has said He will be with us until the end of the age (St Matthew 28:20), and because He is my flesh is true food and my Blood true drink, that the Bread and Wine we offer becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. God is really here: we have come to meet Him no less than those who first met God Incarnate, His Son Jesus Christ, two thousand years ago.
There is a danger we forget how scared this encounter is because we do it so often. It’s important for us all to have a commitment to be at Mass every Sunday as a minimum but the danger with it is that we can be become overly familiar with what we are doing: it gets put in the category of going to the dentist or having a pint with a friend. This is a particular problem for Christians because of God’s humility and sacrificial love for us. We’re not misleading ourselves too far when we think coming to Mass is like going for a drink with a friend because, of course, Jesus calls us “friends,” (St John 15:15). “You’re my friend and you are my brother even though you are a king,” the hymn puts it.
Before Mass I hope we have opportunity to think about who God is. Some of us have slipped back in to bad habits post pandemic with time keeping, more of us were here for the start of Mass which was wonderful to see, but one or two of us have we’ve slipped back. One question to ask in that time of preparation before Mass begins is who am I here to see? The answer is God, the maker of Heaven and earth, who gave me life, who knows me better than I know myself, in whom I put my trust and whose judgement I know will be just when life on earth is over.
Abraham is dubbed by St Paul as our father in faith (Romans 4). He begins his life far from Canaan but receiving the call there he goes (Genesis 12). Soon after his name is changed from Abram to Abraham and he is justified in the eyes of God because of his faith, we find him in our first reading today coming across three men standing near him. What should surprise us is that in the reading we heard he doesn’t greet them by saying, “Hello chaps … Great to see you all … Yo dudes,” or anything else using a plural noun, he says, “My Lord,” singular. Ooooh, this is eerie stuff. Three beings and yet Abraham addresses them as one. The significance of today’s first reading, known the Hospitality at Mamre, is that God encounters God who one and yet brought before Abraham as three people. This is an early prefiguring of the Trinity for we know uniquely as Christians that God is three persons and one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So, Abraham encounters God, and what is his response? Well the author Genesis says, “He ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, and bowed to the ground.” This is the language of worship to be given to God alone, a physical expression of the heart’s adoration. This is why we kneel, this is why we genuflect, this why we make the sign of the Cross, this is why we bow our heads, why priests take their birettas off when the name of Jesus is mentioned because our bodies are to give glory to God when we worship. And after this act of adoration, Abraham wants to serve God and so washes their feet and offers them bread. Abraham’s life is changed: the promise before that he was to be a father of a great nation, which seemed slightly wishful and surely just symbolic, was actually to start becoming a reality. Aged 100 years old and Sarah was 90 years old, their first son, Isaac, is to be born.
For obvious reasons then does the Church place that first reading alongside the account of Mary and Martha welcoming the Lord to their home. They were sisters and they had a brother Lazarus, though he doesn’t feature. In St John’s Gospel, it is Lazarus who is raised from the dead by our Lord, which leads Martha to say, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in to the world,” (St John 11:27). Martha distracted: the word is about being dragged round, we might think of when we say “Oh, I’ve been rushing around doing this or that.” A common misunderstanding of this snapshot of the life of our Lord is that rushing around is bad and sitting doing nothing is good. But that’s not the point.
Martha in her rushing around ends up being dissatisfied with it. We know for St Luke records that she says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” It’s a bit of telling tales, - “Sir, so-and-so did this to me” - which is never a good thing, and she is fed up with doing it all by herself. When we are dissatisfied with our lot in life, with our obligation we inevitably and quite rightly should begin to ponder well is it far that this is expected of me, does it need to be me doing this or can I do it in a better way. Chatting to someone about that often helps shed light on the subject: it may well be not necessary or maybe it could be done better or the response could lead to some support. God so often gives us others and other bits of support to help us carry our cross but we end p doggedly trying to do it ourself.
But, just as Abraham had worshiped God who had revealed Himself as three men at the Oak of Mamre, so Mary choses the excellent way commended to us for sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to Him. The criticism of Martha is not that she’s doing practical things because Jesus knows that practical things are needed but that she is “worrying and fretting about so many things.” The rushing around is not a symptom that she’s got lots to do but that cannot focus on what’s important and goes restlessly from one thing to the next. This is restlessness is a big symptom of not having Jesus, a solid rock, in the right place in our life. St Augustine addressed God in one of his prayers and said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” This is the rest Jesus offers to us when He says, “Come to me, all who are burdened and overwhelmed and I will refresh you,” (St Matthew 11:28).
Complicating life is never a good thing. One of the characteristics of God, which I’ve preached about before and is much forgotten and much underrated I believe, is His simplicity. God is perfect, He doesn’t change, He couldn’t be more perfect than He is and He has always been this perfect. Some people will want to try to catch me on a good day or I might be even more grumpy than normal, inevitably I will have good days and bad days, like we all do. There’s no such change with God. He just is. God is love, St John reminds us (I John 4:8), and this is true in the middle of heatwave or in the cold bleakness of winter, this is true in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning and last thing of night. God is love and He responds to the soul who comes to Him in quiet and simple trust.
Abraham bends low, Mary sits on the floor by the feet of the Lord, that which was considered disreputable in a Jewish context. They know there they will find the answers to their questions, not necessarily the ones they were looking for, but they will know peace. We do likewise at this Mass as we live out our vocation, doing exactly what we are created to do: this is true freedom. We’re free, my friends! We learn from the freedom that God enjoys and His simplicity that it is possible to be all those things that we identified at His characteristics at the start of this sermon and He wonderfully holds is them all perfectly at the same time. May we have that same constancy. Amen.