Sam Magill is a coach and poet. He has served on the Bishop’s Committee at St. Hilda St. Patrick and has chaired the stewardship committee. This sermon was preached as a response to the texts for the Fifth Sunday in Lent based on the manuscript below.
Last week, Joseph shared a spectacular summary of the story of the prodigal son by reading about Little Bunny and his loving mother. Little Bunny was a rebellious child.. His mother was skillful and loving, staying just close enough to contain his wandering until he decided to come home. He was rewarded with a favorite food – a carrot. The parent – child relationship so well illustrated in the story mirrors the love of the father toward the wayward and repentant son in the story about the Prodigal Son. And, perhaps, mirrors our longing for the ultimate parent in God.
So very much of our theology, liturgy and practices are founded on a loving parent God who sticks with us even as we rebel. Who doesn’t want a parent to tuck us in at night, softly close the door and guard us in our sleep? Our father in heaven. Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us to day our daily bread… Forgive us when we stray. Because you are in charge. The good, nourishing, guiding parent.
However, parent – child theology is dangerous territory. But much of our theology, especially the theology of white American Christians is based on different ego state – that of the critical parent who evokes the submissive child. While there are certainly times we need to be rebuked, it is easily overdone in the wrong hands. In Robert P. Jones difficult book, White Too Long, we explore how this kind of thinking has been applied to put people in their places and to justify harsh treatment of people we deem to be of lesser status. or selectively quoting from the Bible as in the highly redacted Slave Bible.
I must admit that I have long struggled with the language of Kingdoms and Lords. Replacing one power structure – a world dominated by division and harm and selfishness – with another power structure – God’s reign, the return of Jesus – It is so easy to hear this as a parent lording over submissive children; a king dominating his subjects; a man dominating his wife and children. A master owning his slaves =In some way, we hope for and believe in, a parent God who will wipe away the bad people and protect his chosen people. A bad hierarchy swapped for a good hierarchy?
Friends, we have much work to do. We pray after the Eucharist each week by thanking God for feeding us in the holy mysteries and then ask God to send us out to do the work HE has given us to do. This is not the prayer of children. It is an adult prayer said on our way out into the world.
Robert Jones, at the end Chapter Three in White Too Long, calls us to deeply examine our understanding of the Bible, our theology and our very humanity – all in relationship to the entire diverse and inclusive creation. This will take courage and a shift from a theology of dominance to a theology of love.
Today’s readings, in Philippians and in John, provide a way forward if we examine them with fresh eyes. Martha is in the kitchen preparing dinner. Mary sitting at Jesus feet adoring him. As is so often the case, the person serving us is overlooked, ignored, dismissed as somehow missing the main and highly valued event.
I think back to the Black woman, Gladys Gamble, who cleaned my family home when I was a child. Gladys was always treated kindly. Why, we even gave her the coffee can at the back of the stove which we filled with bacon fat each morning. Her love of me, a young white kid, was as profound as any mother. I still feel it. But there’s no doubt in my mind that she was kept in her place, welcomed, but in her role, her station, her separateness. While I was invited to her home and sat with her husband, Mr. Gable, was never invited to my house.
In the Gospel according to John, we encounter Jesus and his friends at the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. In John, the focus is on an exchange between the Judas and Jesus after Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. In Luke, at the same dinner, Jesus rebukes Martha for worrying about preparing the meal, while Mary sits at HIS feet listening.
Was Jesus really saying the Mary’s devotion was better than Martha’s. Not in a theology of love.
I have often felt that Martha gets shortchanged here. She is the one acting in a service capacity. As happens often, the servers are brushed aside, ignored, or rebuked for providing the essential ingredients for the event. In a theology of love, service takes on enormous importance.
Mary and Martha both offered tenderness to Jesus. Each of them loved HIM – but in different love languages. In different love languages. In any ongoing community, we need both of them. Elsewhere in Scripture, we are told that each person is called to particular ministries. I say, we are each called to live out our love in our own way. One person may sing in the choir, one person might clean the rain gutters, one person might get here early and prepare coffee, one person might place socks in the sock box and so on and on. One person prepares the table; one person voices the consecration of the Eucharist and serves that Holy meal. Everyone speaking their own love language. All are essential.
We do not have the opportunity to prepare a meal for Jesus or to literally wash his feet and dry them with our hair – hugely intimate acts – but wait a minute……I am convinced we still have the opportunity to encounter the universal Christ, the holy spirit. Paul didn’t have dinner with Jesus, but was confronted – mano a mano, if you will, by the Risen Christ. What if we see Paul’s conversion as a discovery of his love language?
I typically find Paul just a bit too much. I even find him to be self-serving – describing what he will gain because of faith in Christ. But if I read this passage as another love language, I can smile and let Paul be Paul. Let Martha be Martha. Let Mary be Mary.
Look at what it took for Paul to get to this place. He has been in an elite world, He has been in a privileged class, He has been mean and horrible to people beneath him. He has persecuted those who have gone before him in their faith journeys and encounters with Jesus. Yet, as we know, he had an encounter that changed his life. An encounter that changed his life. He is now loving – in his own , to me awkward, language. His love language.
So, perhaps the two readings are about what happens in our individual encounters with the living Christ. Each story I hear about these very real encounters moves me more toward a theology of Love. This is the key message I hope I am sharing with you. ……….
I want to share a profound moment from my life and then end with a poem. In 2004 I volunteered for two long trips and meetings related to The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. I went first to Kenya, later to Spain. In the lobby of the Nairobi Holiday Inn, I met a man dressed in long robes, many bead necklesses. He invited me to sit down and talk. Over the following days, we had other encounters and I learned that he was a very big wig among the Hindu community – Sri Sri Swami Shudenanda was his name. He lived in Calcutta among the pour and worked with Mother Teresa.
Later that year at Mount Serrat, Spain, we met again. As we were finishing a meal in the dining hall, I found the courage to approach him. I remember it was as if we were the only two people in the world. I held my hands in front of me and said, “Before we leave, I must say something.” I still see his dark eyes and gentle smile taking me in. “Each time we meet and stand like this, my heart breaks wide open.” Now my eyes are filled with tears.
Now some what like Paul, I have been privileged all my life. Born in a fine hospital in Berkeley, California, to well educated parents, white, male, circumcised before leaving the hospital…….I became well educated and have spent most of my life in the Episcopal Church. If you are reading White Too Long, you know that our branch of Christianity has been one frequented by the elite. So I fit right in: white, male, educated and let’s add, straight or cisgen. And old guy who is comfortable enough with his income.
But something happened in the moment at Mount Serrat. As Swami Shudenanda reached out and took my hands in his, I felt a degree of connection and love that surpassed any previous understanding. He said, “That that is so, has nothing to do with me, but the one who sent me.” No ego. No theological analysis. I firmly believe I encountered the living Christ, embodied a brown skinned Hindu man from India.
Maybe that’s what happened to Paul. Maybe that’s what happened repeatedly when Marth welcomed Jesus into her home and fed Him. Maybe that’s what Mary experienced that allowed her to perform such an intimate act ..
Whether we come from privilege or not, regardless of our personal history and make up, there will be a moment when we come face to face with God – not in some imagined good kingdom or a perfect family with a loving parent – but right here in this life. Are we ready? Are we willing to move beyond our self-protective theological habits? Are we willing to step up to move from Little Bunny to adults responding to the work we have been given to do.
Each encounter will be different, because God sees us as individuals with different skin color, preferences, shapes, languages. Collectively, the love languages might be like this:
The voice of God
We have no need to fear
all the voices of humanity.
In combination the melodies and
cadences blend, rising and
falling deep and light blending
I am sure into something like
the song of angels.
There is one song with different voices,
each one a note:
”A” is rich only in its difference
from other notes and only together
are they music.
We are so richly blessed by and for each other.
Light cannot know light without the dark
No two people are perfectly alike?
our differences make us what we are?
each fitting into the puzzle called humanity.
The moment full contact with others comes, Full contact with the Christ –
we can never go back to being separate.
When the many become one song,
we are touched by our one human heart and
there is no recovery.
Listen to the song
perhaps together we are the voice of God!
As Lent draws to a close, let’s be prepared for the encounter….Let’s find our respective, grown up love languages in our relationship with the risen and forever living Christ.