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If we only have the courage to stop and look and listen...
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 21st July 2019 at 11.15 AM
It may be a result of encroaching deafness, but I increasingly think I hear people call my name. It happens in all sorts of places; on the Tube, in Dean’s Yard, and most unsettlingly when I am home alone (I suspect the cat). I turn around to see who it is, but there is no-one: or rather any number of people who might have been calling another Mark, or having a conversation about something ‘remarkable’, or the cat just clearing her throat.
If we are blessed with a reasonable degree of hearing, then it seems that we are peculiarly attuned to the sound of our name. It seems that we are always, unconsciously, listening out for it – actively waiting to be called – some privileged part of our brain constantly scanning the airwaves for a signal that someone wants us, like Moses at the burning bush, like Abraham on Mount Moriah, like Samuel in the Temple at Shiloh. This sensitivity to our name clearly has advantages for our survival. As children, we need to be quick to hear a vigilant parent, alerting us to danger, preventing us from getting lost, but this isn’t just something for childhood. There is always the danger, at any stage of life, of getting lost, of losing ourselves, and the need to be called back by those who love us, and know us by name.
In the gospel reading today, we have Martha, busy about her house-work, making sure the guests are looked-after, stopping only to remonstrate with the Rabbi in whose thrall her sister, Mary, was rendered neither use nor ornament. ‘Tell her to help me’, she insists, as she, no doubt, bustled on to her next crucial task.
Hospitality is hard work. Even people you know and love, to whom you don’t have to be especially polite, they need their needs to be considered, which requires thoughtful preparation – adequate milk in the fridge, biscuits or seasonal fruits to offer, a quick once-around with the loo-brush, at the very least.
And guests may present themselves at the worst possible time. Poor old Abraham, and indeed poor old Sarah, had three guests descend on them during the heat of the day – the exact moment when you might be hoping for a quick siesta. Instead, Sarah is put to work kneading and baking (the last thing you want to do on a hot day) and even Abraham, we are told, ran – in the heat – to get hold of the calf, to make a tasty meal for his guests.
And their hospitality was rewarded, for they were, indeed, ‘entertaining angels, unaware’ – they received the ultimate divine blessing for a hopeful dynast; the promise of a child, an heir, a future.
It is a useful tale to remember when we are grumbling about the laundry, the catering, the sheer effort that goes into entertaining. St Benedict taught us to receive every visitor as if they were Christ. Every guest is a divine visitor, for they each bear God’s image – however challenging it may be to discern and however appalling their timing might be.
This precious instinct for hospitality, expecting to find the divine in the stranger, is not something I find easy, and seems to be particularly lacking in prominent parts of public discourse, here and in other nations. Stoking-up language of separation – of sending people back – is the very antithesis of this tender and fragile instinct for hospitality. I am no paragon, but I know that every failure of mine to be hospitable is a failure to receive Christ.
As Martha is setting off to her next task, to the kitchen, or the well, or to shoo the cat out of the guest room, as she is going, she hears her name. Not once, but twice.
Martha, Martha! We don’t know the tone of voice he used, but there is certainly some insistence, even urgency, about it. Like a parent warning us away from something that might hurt us, or wanting us to notice something wonderful that we are in danger of missing. I can remember my Dad calling me urgently to come and look at a peregrine hunting over cliffs in Pembrokeshire – an awe-inspiring sight that I might easily have missed.
Martha, Martha! Lost in her busyness, in all the demands upon her, she is in danger of missing something wonderful.
Because the one who is calling her name, the guest in her house, is the image of the invisible God; the firstborn of all creation; the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell: words taken from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, probably quoted from an early Christian hymn.
I’m not sure that Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, would have put it in quite such exalted terms, but she knew that this Rabbi was something special. Perhaps she was inclined to be a bit lazy in comparison with her sister, but she also knew a good thing when she heard it.
Whether you are someone who is energised at the prospect of visitors, or inwardly quails at the effort involved, visitors are always, to some degree, divinely-sent. In every human encounter, but especially where we are giving that special attention which is the heart of good hospitality, there is the possibility that we might glimpse the divine image in them – the mysterious origin and destiny of their existence and ours – what St Paul calls ‘the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.’ Abraham and Sarah saw three men approach, but by the time the three left, Abraham and Sarah knew it was God they had entertained.
It is a common-place, and almost too obvious to say, that we live in a distracted and busy culture. Most of us long for a bit of stillness, a relief from the ever-encroaching demands of work or family; a bit of ’me’ time, as the saying goes. But even when that time comes we find ourselves twitching towards our phones, or the television, or something to busy our minds. Most of us find true contemplation difficult, to say the least – we might even find it frightening. Being busy is a marvellous distraction from the complicated stuff inside us; the unanswerable questions that really frighten us, the stuff we are most likely to project onto the people we find most strange.
So it takes courage, when our name is being called, as it is, constantly; it takes courage to put our distractions to one side and to attend to the mystery of our existence – like Mary at the feet of the Rabbi from Nazareth. For the voice that calls us, insistently, urgently, knows that our busyness and distractedness will not bring us to the fullness of life for which we are made – it will only trap us in unending, increasingly nervous activity – and in this we risk losing our very selves.
So the same voice is insistently and urgently calling us to notice something, like a stooping peregrine, like a man on the moon; something wonderful and awe-inspiring, if we only have the courage to stop and look and listen, through all our fears; to notice the mystery underlying all existence, seen in every human face, if we can be hospitable enough – the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in them, and Christ in you, the hope of glory.