Sunday, July 21, 2019

Choosing the Better Part

As I am sure we all know, this is the 50th anniversary of Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon. For those of us above a certain age, the story of space exploration and the moon landing is familiar, well remembered for the exciting event it was. I was 21 in 1969 and had spent that summer Sunday afternoon at the beach at Far Rockaway with some friends. But we got on the "A" train and got home just in time to watch the TV coverage of the actual touchdown by the lunar module on the moon's surface. Later that evening we watched as Armstrong took his famous "giant leap for mankind."

It is perhaps hard to explain to a post-modern world, which has lost a sense of excitement or engagement with great public purposes, the excitement that space exploration had for my generation, but exciting it most certainly was - and not just because we were beating the Russians (although that too was very important to us at the time).

A lay elder of a Presbyterian Church in Texas, Astronaut Aldrin had received Holy Communion two Sundays before and then was given some of the Elements to take with him to the moon. After they had landed, and before they stepped out onto the lunar surface, Aldrin read John 15:5 and gave himself Communion. What a fitting a response that was to what the heavens were proclaiming all around him!

Today’s reading from Genesis describes a very different kind of heavenly visit – a visit by God to earth, to Abraham, who provided his visitors with a special meal.

Sometimes referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity,” Andrei Rublev’s famous 15th-century icon portrays Abraham’s three heavenly visitors, a visit subsequently interpreted in Christian tradition as an image of the Trinity. The Son, the Word, who reveals God to the world, appears prominently in the center, pointing out into the world. The Father is seated to one side, looking lovingly at the Son, who in turn looks lovingly at the Father, while the bright-robed Holy Spirit is seated on the other side. The three Persons contemplate each other in mutual love, into which we contemplation and love too are meant to be drawn.

Of course, Abraham himself had no notion of the Trinity. But he recognized God’s word in his heavenly visitors and their message, and he accepted it in faith. In doing so he unified the responses ascribed to Martha and Mary in today’s Gospel.

Poor Martha! Jesus did not dismiss her concerns, but how often have we done so, portraying her as some sort of soulless workaholic. When I was in seminary, those who found their validation primarily through their work were sometimes derided as having a “Martha complex.” On the other hand, seminarians who seemed somewhat less addicted to hard work were derided as “Marys.” So Mary hasn’t fared so well either in the way we typically trivialize this story.

Jesus, of course, valued both Martha and Mary as is evident above all in his conversations with the two sisters at Lazarus’ tomb in John’s Gospel. Presumably Jesus and his disciples expected to be fed and so certainly valued Martha’s solicitous hospitality. As should we! In an apparent reference back to the story of Abraham and his heavenly visitors, the letter to the Hebrews instructs us: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. But, while valuing Martha’s willingness to work hard hosting him and his disciples, Jesus also warned her – and us – to put our priorities in order and not neglect what is most important in life by letting our work, our activity, define us. Individually, Martha and Mary personify the two different ways of responding. Abraham exemplifies their unity in one life lived in fidelity to God’s invitation.

Martha personifies for us the importance and value of what we do, what we actually do in the world, day-by-day, here and now – and how we do it, how we welcome one another in the communities we are a part of and how we reach out to the wider world. It highlights the moral significance of everything we do in our families, at work, at school, at church, in all our relationships as neighbors and citizens and fellow citizens of our endangered planet. In his great environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis addressed what he calls the urgent challenge to protect our common home, and humanity’s ability to work together in building our common home. [Laudato Si’, 13]. That is a call to action, an appeal to Martha at her best – the Martha in each of us.

Mary, meanwhile, reminds us that what we do must be rooted in who we are, in what is at the heart of being a disciple, what gives the fullest meaning to how we welcome and minister to one another in our communities and in the wider world. To quote Laudato Si’ again:  Human beings … are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom ... to respond to [God’s] grace at work deep in our hearts. [Laudato Si’, 205]. That is an appeal to the Mary in each of us.

And Abraham, who ran out from his tent to welcome and serve his visitors and then waited patiently under the tree while they ate, personifies the unity of the two, united in one life lived fully in fidelity to God’s great invitation to each of us to listen to the Lord and accept the mission he gives us..

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 21, 2019.

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