Guest preacher The Rev. Dr. Lisa Dahill - Luke 10:38-42, Colossians 1:15-28
Have everyone take a pinecone, rock, leaf, some object that attracts you …
So good to be with you! From last Sunday’s Good Samaritan parable, we might deduce that we are to pour out our lives in selfless devotion to the needs of others. Here in the very next verse, Martha is trying to do precisely that. She basically accuses Mary of acting like last week’s priest or Levite, so occupied in religious matters at the feet of Jesus that she fails to notice the glaring duties of care that she ought to be attending to. So why doesn’t Jesus urge Mary to go and do likewise, like Martha – or praise Martha as he does the Samaritan?
Indeed, why doesn’t he? How is there going to be any dinner – let alone care for the poor and sick by the side of the road, or social justice – if everyone just sits around like Mary being religious? Who’s going to organize coffee hour, and does it have to be me every Sunday? If I don’t do X will it simply not happen at all? Overwork is a recipe for burnout, and on a larger scale the patterns of who does what work follow a society’s dynamics of privilege and exploitation – what are the statistics now of how many more hours of housework, childcare, and emotional labor women on average expend per week than men in the U.S.? And in many places the exploitation of women is much worse. So this Gospel has a radical gender edge: Jesus is praising Mary for stepping out of traditional gender patterns and into the role of a disciple, a role typically reserved for men. Martha doesn’t expect any of the disciples to come into the kitchen – only Mary. To sit at the feet of the teacher, as she does, is code for being a disciple. You could say, in fact, that putting this story alongside the Good Samaritan reveals a shocking reversal in both directions: the men (priest, Levite, Samaritan) are commanded to move out of their privilege and into hands-on, bloody, selfless care for others: into the traditional female role of bodily care, no matter the cost (the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from the word for womb, rechem). Jesus commands his male listeners to the Good Samaritan story to, in effect, grow a womb and use it… and in the very next story Mary too is praised for renouncing her gender conditioning. Jesus invites both Mary and Martha to claim their needs for rest and deep listening to the Word of life as the better part, even when that might mean others have to step in and do more of the work. We don’t see what happens next – will Jesus and the disciples and Mary join Martha in the kitchen, so that the listening to Jesus and the cooking and serving and later cleaning can be shared among them all?
That’s one layer, pretty pivotal. These questions are complex for most of us: I need to step up much more on behalf of those who are exploited, close to home or far away, and I need to stop and rest and listen to the Word, to not let distraction and overwork even on good causes overwhelm me. Ultimately commentators hold together the Good Samaritan and the Mary/Martha story: we are meant to be both active and contemplative, and we need a healthy balance of both in our lives and community.
What does it mean to be contemplative? Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him. We can listen to Jesus as the living Word in Scripture or other texts, and listen also through our dreams, our longings, our relationships, our biggest sense of call and vocation in relation to the deepest needs of the world. Those are all worthy of ongoing deepening. But I hear the Word expanding even further today. In the Colossians lesson placed alongside this Gospel, we hear that Jesus Christ is “the firstborn of all creation… in [whom] all things in heaven and on earth are created, things visible and invisible…all things have been created through him and for him, …and in him all things hold together.”
Today’s lesson from Colossians is one of the great Christ hymns of the New Testament, mirroring the prologue to the Gospel of John, which asserts “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… through whom all things were made.” And so I want to propose that a crucial dimension of sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, is attention to this permeation of all creation with the Word of God, the Word who fills the cosmos itself. Today’s lessons stretch us to listen to Jesus with Mary in the biggest sense: this vast evolutionary Word through whom all things came into being, without whom nothing that is can exist. Think of it: every last thing, every tiniest detail of creation and each creature, from these trees and the microbes filling every cubic inch of soil to you in all your particularity – every creature comes into being through this Word by whom the Creator still speaks into life all that is. This is the living Word in the biggest sense and the one we have mostly lost touch with in our alienation from the larger wild communion of beings, our turn toward indoor lives, enclosed in our rooms and cars and technology and screens. I wanted to hold worship outdoors today because I’m trying to reduce COVID risk – but also because today’s lessons beg us outdoors!
In the face of ecological crisis, it can be tempting to retreat to Martha’s kitchen and busy ourselves with many other tasks and distractions – and it is both crucial and very hard to attend in creation itself to the face and voice and presence and love of Jesus the image of the unseen God, through whom all things are created and hold together. Earlier generations knew how to “read” this Word of God in the beauty and complexity of creation… they spoke of it as the Book of Nature, in fact, revealing its divine author in the imagination that dreamed up every leaf. Who invented it all but God, after all? What is visible in the contours and textures and beauty and intricacy of creation but the mind and heart that dreamed it all up in the first place? Creation is the most primal revelation or Word of God, audible in bird languages and tree languages and water languages, storm and migration and wild languages that overwhelm us, calm us, bless us. St. Augustine preached,
Some people, in order to discover God, read a book. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above and below, note, read. God whom you want to discover, did not make the letters with ink; [God] put in front of your eyes the very things [God] made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?
Luther too hears the sola Scriptura expanding into all creation, since both Scripture and creation have the same Author and bear the same Word. He writes, “The power of God is present at all places, even in the tiniest leaf. Do you think God is [far away] sleeping on a pillow in heaven? . . . God is wholly present in all creation, in every corner, behind you and before you. God’s entire divine nature is wholly and entirely in all creatures, more deeply, more inwardly, more present than the creature is to itself.… God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
Listening to the Word of God in and as the world is a christological practice just as holy as listening to the Word of God in the Scriptures; For some people, listening to Christ the living Word is easier in creation than in Scripture or in church. And that’s OK: it’s the same Word, alive in and through all that is. Being in creation is being with Christ who permeates it all.
And it goes all the way into the actual matter, the molecules themselves. For the doctrine of the Incarnation teaches us how inseparable the flesh and blood of Jesus and ourselves is from the rest of the biosphere. We know this in Eucharist already: the flesh and blood of Jesus opened on the cross, on the paten, in the chalice, as we let divine flesh and blood come physically inside us Sunday after Sunday, as intimate to us in body and being as Jesus nursing at Mary’s breast was part of her body and blood. But because our bodies are inseparable from the rest of the biosphere, that means the flesh and blood of Jesus also literally permeate the entire creation. The molecules comprising the human body of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century as he sloughed them off throughout his life are long since dispersed throughout the rest of the planet: the literal water molecules that he sweated or drank or bled now move through the Farmington River, through the body of the hummingbird in my garden this morning, through your body and blood. Thus the artificial distinction between human life and the rest of animal or planetary life breaks down. Modern biology teaches what ancient theology pondered: that if we’re going to name some part of creation divine—the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth—then the whole biosphere is divine, because there’s no physical separation between beings; we all eat and drink one another’s body and blood, between and across species and the entire creation, moment by moment, all of it permeated with God incarnate.
So we will take a few moments now, at the close of the sermon, to listen with Mary to this larger living Word, to attend to the wild Word of God: in the pinecone or stone or bark or lichen you’re holding, feather or stick, and in the trees and grass and wind and sky around us…
Hear Luther again: “The power of God is present at all places, even in the tiniest leaf.... God is wholly present in all creation, in every corner, behind you and before you. God’s entire divine nature is wholly and entirely in all creatures, more deeply, more inwardly, more present than the creature is to itself.… God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
How might you grow in listening to Jesus? How can you make Sabbath space for such listening, week after week and day after day? What will it summon from you?
 Augustine of Hippo, Sermones, 68, 6 [= MAI 126, in PLS 2,501-512], cited at https://inters.org/Augustine-Book-of-Nature (accessed October 5, 2021).  Martin Luther, “That the Words, 'This Is My Body,' Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works, volume 37 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 57, 60-61.
The Rev. Dr. Lisa Dahill, 7/17/22