Michaelmas Term, 2016
23rd October, Claire Todd
‘If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise, what it is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?’ so says the Mad Hatter from that famous classical story, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
We live in a mad world. We live in a world which has become increasingly individualistic, hi-tech, and faster-paced, at least generally in our western world. Nothing new there, except that my children, along with countless others, have never known any other sort of world. But the world hasn’t always been like this, and in some parts of the world it still isn’t. We all too easily forget that what we do reflects on others, whether that is our family, our friendship circle, our colleagues, our nation even. Each one of us, as well as being an individual, is also part of a community. We tend to think of ourselves as independent, self-sufficient, afraid of being needy, striving to be successful in every possible way. And all in the name of what? An evolving humanity which is heading towards ultimate perfection, including the values and priorities we’re encouraged to adopt, whether by the media, advertising, or big companies, who are after all only out to make a profit and not to make your life perfect if you have possession of their latest product, as they would have you believe. And this is where the crux lies.
To live in a world which seeks to draw every last drop of energy, every last drop of work, every last bit of money out of you, and for what? Where is this world really heading?
Society has seen a big increase in people engaging in well-being activities such as yoga and mindfulness to combat stress, along with a spiritual searching independent of any faith or religion. So there is a need to be answered, a thirst to be quenched, which isn’t to be found in any modern day inventions. Is it really progress, or do we just delude ourselves? Is everything really as it seems?
One of my favourite children’s books is Mr Topsy Turvy. In this book Mr Topsy Turvey as the name suggests sees everything as the opposite, and so often when I read the Bible Mr Topsy Turvey comes to mind. Time and again God turns everything on its head. Challenges our status quo. Shows us that there is a different way to live, different priorities and values to adopt. And that is what God did in sending His son Jesus. Through God’s grace, all of a sudden that what is, is not, and that which wasn’t, is. And grace demands a response, it’s difficult to ignore.
One man that encountered God’s grace and responded to it in quite a dramatic way was John Newton, who lived in the 18thC. He was the son of an English shipmaster and would serve on ships, learning what it took to be an officer. But he was very badly behaved, mocked authority and lacked discipline, getting in with the wrong sort of people. His behaviour eventually led to him being flogged and demoted and in his early twenties he ended up in Africa and became a shipmaster in the slave trade. He had no regard for religion and even mocked it, until one fateful night when his ship ran into difficulties on rough seas. He spent the night bailing the water out to keep the ship from sinking but it seemed to be a lost cause. Eventually he was on the verge of giving up, and fell to the deck, pleading something like ‘If this won’t do, then Lord have mercy on us all’. Of course he didn’t deserve God’s mercy or grace, and yet God gave it. Those on board survived and John ended up responding to the grace of God which he had once scorned. Remarkably, he became a clergyman and a composer, writing songs such as ‘Amazing Grace’ that we sang a couple of weeks ago. And he also went on to influence William Wilberforce, who led the movement to end the slave trade. God works in amazing ways.
In this passage about Martha and Mary we encounter just one instance of how Jesus turns things on their heads. At first sight it seems as if Martha is a bit rattled that Mary gets to chill out whilst she is busy doing all of the work. It’s true that this passage over time has been used to encourage people to stop filling their lives with business and never-ending tasks and take time to just be with God, to listen and hear. We don’t exactly know what it was that he was saying that was so intriguing that Mary sat enthralled at his feet, and there are a variety of perspectives on what this passage is really all about. Some scholars have likened it to the active versus the contemplative life, with Jesus suggesting to Martha that she is so busy that she is missing what is really important, that of attending to the Kingdom of God.
There are other theologians and biblical scholars who state that it defies the conventions and social rules of the day, as for a woman to be sitting at the feet of a man in this way, and who was not her husband was totally counter-cultural. And it was scandalous. The way Jewish society organised itself included what took place within specific spaces, even in the home, which were divided up and men would meet in a particular room, whilst other rooms, such as the kitchen and other unseen places, were classed as the domain of the women and children. But Jesus doesn’t feel uncomfortable with Mary’s actions, he doesn’t chastise her, chase her out or seem filled with disgust; rather he totally affirms the position she has taken, which is akin to that of the place of a student learning from a rabbi. In his response to Martha he is ratifying Mary’s place as a future teacher and preacher of the Kingdom of God. Entirely going against what is acceptable behaviour from a woman.
But let’s not make the mistake of thinking this is about women’s rights, its much much more than that; it’s about the abundant and overflowing love of God which speaks to everyone, and calls everyone into relationship with him. It’s about a God who loves each of us unconditionally, and desires a response to that love, freely given. God’s grace is in his devotion to each of us. When we let God in, his grace changes us, shapes us, leads us to a life that is altered forever.
Our natural human inclinations are to seek after comfort, stability, and security in the form of wealth, possessions, status, of being established in our careers and communities. But Jesus shows us time and again that the mind of God is a complete reversal of human values and pretensions; not that we shouldn’t enjoy these comforts and securities, because we are perhaps better able to help others through having some of these things ourselves. But rather that we shouldn’t put undue emphasis and value on them. Because in the end, as so many people across the world unfortunately experience through the collapse of big corporations and companies, through the effects of these early days of Brexit, and through the effects of natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, and worse; these worldly things, though important in many respects, are in the end folly. They’re not what they are, and they are what they’re not. When we look at the atrocities that are still happening in places like Syria, and other war-torn areas around the world, let alone the level of violence and crime in this country, along with the homeless and those who find the necessity to make use of the foodbanks in a rich country like ours, it really brings it home to you what our priorities should really and truly be.
It’s not easy to live with at odds with social and cultural norms, or what we have come to regard as norms. And yet God calls Christians to do exactly that. To not only look within ourselves to find that place of mercy and grace, but to be outward-looking, seeking it in others. If the statistics are true, then there are more people than ever before craving meaningful relationships, and seeking some sort of community which will offer them an unconditional welcome. God only ever wants the best for us, and His love has nothing to do with our human worth, or what we think defines us, or who we or others think we are. God loves us unconditionally.
True and real grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve, and doesn’t give us what we do deserve.