A sermon given at the 8am BCP Eucharist and 10.30am Sung Eucharist on Sunday 17 July, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson.
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
In the National Gallery in London hangs a painting entitled Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The painting is by the 17th Century Spanish artist Velazquez. In the foreground of the painting is a young woman who is cooking, a mortar and pestle in her hands, a plate of fish and a plate of eggs on the table beside her. An old woman stands next to her. The old woman is pointing away from the table, away from the young woman’s work, to a scene in the room beyond which can be seen through a serving hatch. That scene is the one we heard tell of in our gospel story. Jesus is seated with Mary at his feet. Martha is standing behind Mary. They are deep in conversation.
Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. Her sister named Mary, sits at the Lord’s feet listening to what he is saying. Martha is distracted by her many tasks; so she comes to Jesus asking, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ Jesus answers her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
The painting is inviting us to allow the scripture story to shed light on the real life story. To shed light on the life of a young woman whose life is one of service.
This is what we do with scripture – and the painting inspires us to do it. To place the words of scripture alongside the story of our life. To wonder what it is God would have us know from this interaction.
It is easy to think that Jesus is suggesting that the life of listening, the life of contemplation is superior to the life of work. But just before this passage in Luke Chapter 10, in the passage we heard read last Sunday, we see a lawyer ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, what action he must take, and we find ourselves keeping watch with a man who has been beaten and robbed and left at the side of the road. We see Jesus honour the outsider, the Samaritan, who takes care of him. Clearly work, action, is not a matter of disapproval for Jesus. So, what does he mean by these words to the two sisters?
One writer suggests that it is not helpful to put the sisters up against one another. On the contrary, we might consider that the sisters might be thought of as two persons who make up aspects of a whole person. This story might encourage us to explore the possibility of a more integrated life, a life where reflection and work are woven together. Martha’s issue is not her busyness but her worry. The reflective life that we see enacted in Mary might ground Martha’s work in meaning and so in a sense of peace.
The painting encourages this reflection. The life of work in the world, of living in family and community, of caring and cooking and cleaning, of work at home and work beyond the home, of relationships with family, friends and strangers … that all this is grounded in the story of God and there finds its meaning. This reflection is the better part, or what is apparently better translated the good part. Not in opposition to activity, but in grounded activity in the presence and love of God.
Another of our readings from scripture this morning plays a vital role as a ground of reflection. A ground in which our tendency to worry might find healing. The writer of the Letter to the people of Colossae places in his first chapter a hymn sung in the liturgies of the early church. That scholars tell us this about the passage we heard read this morning matters. For early liturgy means theology that is deeply important. When I imagine the writer of the letter to the Colossians putting his thoughts on paper, I often wonder what we would write if we were in his shoes. I imagine that we might be writing a letter to a friend, or to our community, hoping that we might help them know of the nature of our faith and what our faith means to us. I imagine that we might quote a hymn we love, or a creed, or a prayer we hold dear. This is what the writer of the Letter to the Colossians was doing.
So, these words matter. And in these words, we might find healing.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The words “all things” occur five times. One theologian wrote beautifully, ta panta (which is “all things” in Greek) ta panta rings like a bell through the Colossians Hymn. These words ring like a bell reminding us that all things in creation, not only each one us, each human being, but each blade of grass, each bird, each place on our planet, every aspect of creation, is created in Christ and loved and brought to life in Christ and redeemed in Christ.
The young woman grinding garlic to make sauce for the fish she is cooking, wondering about the meaning of it all …is created in Christ, redeemed in Christ.
Some art scholars have a different idea about the Painting by Velazquez. About the scene from the gospel of Jesus and Martha and Mary that was believed to be seen through a serving hatch. Some art scholars believe that the scene is a painting within the painting. And others believe that this scripture scene might be in the servant girl’s imagination. Scripture is placed alongside ordinary life, infusing it with meaning. The servant girl might remember Jesus’ words and wonder how she might reflect on her life of hard work in the way that Mary does, might reflect on her life in such a way that the struggle of it is found to be made whole in the loving gaze of Jesus.
We struggle too, in our time and place. The pandemic that we hoped might be ebbing away seems to be on the rise. We are so grateful for the vaccines and the treatments, but our world is woven with a disease that has made it a very different place and this grieves us. Members of our community are deeply connected to the people of Sri Lanka and they watch profoundly worried, feeling almost helpless at the events taking place there. And, we are so far into the war in Ukraine that the horror of the cruelty of makes us wonder if a single building will be left standing in that country that once harvested so much bread. Sitting at Jesus feet, as we are in our cathedral, what do we find in his words to us that help us know.
The writer to the people of Colossae rang a bell to help those reading his letter know. The bell rang out the words, ta panta, “all things”.
All things are created in Christ, all things redeemed. Every meal prepared, every vaccine administered, every kindness offered, every tear shed, every wound healed, every building destroyed, every species made extinct, every ecosystem loving restored. And all things that we hold dear.
All things are created in Christ, all things redeemed.