Homily, “To Be with Jesus”
Ordinary Time, Proper 11, 2019
St. George’s Episcopal Church
Derek M. Larson, TSSF
Our gospel reading today is the beloved story of Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary and after a year of seminary I feel like I have about a thousand ways I could approach the text. With my Pastoral Theology class in mind I might analyze the family system at play between Mary and Martha to discern the most appropriate way to provide pastoral care. Using what I’ve learned in my Liberation Theologies class, I might speak to the socio-political-economic culture of capitalism and its dehumanizing idolization of busyness and productivity. Having taken Liturgical Music 1 (and 2!) I might point out that Mary’s posture of listening to Jesus was not unlike listening to a beautiful piece of music. With Church History 1 (and 2!) in mind, I might speak to the contemplative Benedictine charism of Mary and the active Franciscan charism of Martha. And having taken Mujeristaand Latina Feminist Theologies I might finally call for the end of the debate on a woman’s role in society by pointing to Jesus’ response to Martha and saying, “El lugar de la mujer no está solo en la cocina!” “A woman’s place is not relegated to the kitchen!”
Today, though, I’d like to first point to the more obvious and literal reading of the text which, I think, acts as the heart of all of these approaches. It is better to be with Jesus, than anywhere else. Wherever Jesus is, be there. Be with Jesus. Be with Jesus.
And why should we be with Jesus? Because as our second reading from Colossians today affirms, “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… 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.
So then, to be with Jesus means to be with the very center of the entire universe. To be with Jesus is to be with the power that makes blood pump through our veins and air flow through our lungs. To be with Jesus is to be with the power which causes the trees to reach towards the sun and the wind to blow through its leaves, the power in the rotation of the electron and in the expansion of the universe, to be with the one who holds it all together into one gigantic interwoven, interdependent, co-mingling, everlasting, Trinitarian relationship. To be with Jesus is to be with God.
It is so easy to get caught up in the worries and ambitions of this life. It is so easy to get busy and to seemingly separate ourselves from the liberating and life-giving presence of Jesus, and so today we are here for a reminder to look around to see if Jesus is anywhere to be found. And I think a church is a pretty good place to look around and ask that question. Do we see Jesus here?
But to ask that question–to be where Jesus is, we have to also ask: who is Jesus with? Sometimes when we approach this story we focus so much on the message that calls us to be with Jesus that we forget that revolutionary message of who Jesus is with! In this story, its with two women (a fact that shouldn’t be passed by given the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day). Last week it was with a man beaten along the road and a foreigner who came to his aid. If we pay attention to the testimony of Scripture, its not hard to find where Jesus is: Jesus is with the hurting. Jesus is with the ones the powerful have put down and oppressed. The hungry. The persecuted. Those in need. This is why when Mary visited her cousin and proclaimed the famous words of the Magnificat she sang, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” This is why in Jesus’ very first sermon in Luke 4 he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” Jesus is with the oppressed doing the good gospel work of liberation.
And so if we use this testimony as a measure of where we are in relation to where Jesus is, that’s a challenging message. In Matthew 25 Jesus describes the final judgment of the nations based on how present they had been to the needs of “the least of these” and thus how present they had been to Jesus. And if I may be so bold as to use a haunting contemporary paraphrase of the passage, the Son of Man says, “Depart from me you that are accursed for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me toilet water to drink, I was an immigrant and you deported me, I wore dirty and tattered clothes and you did not give me clothing, I was sick in a detention center and you did not visit me.’ Then they will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or in dirty clothes, or sick in a detention center, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” If we want to be with Jesus, we must be with “the least of these.” Suddenly the simple message to be with Jesus becomes a revolutionary message that not only offers to transform us, but requires it. Be with Jesus.
If my first point today is to be with Jesus, and my second is that Jesus is with the marginalized and oppressed, I’d like to make one more point. This summer I’ve made it my mission to be with Jesus. I’ve tried hard to be present in Atlanta with those who have been particularly pushed to the margins of society. Through a Clinical Pastoral Education program at St. Luke’s, I’ve had the opportunity to work 5 days a week at Emmaus House, an Episcopal poverty rights center in the Peoplestown neighborhood of Atlanta where everyday I am able to connect with folks struggling with hunger, homelessness, and systemic racism. I spent a few days at a conference at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on ending mass incarceration. I worshiped with a Spanish speaking congregation the weekend the deportation raids were threatened. These, for me, have been profoundly transformative experiences and I encourage all of you to seek out similar opportunities to be with Jesus in this way. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer, its that it is entirely possible to engage in helping works of charity without ever seeing–without ever actually being with the person in front of you.
In actuality, Martha was doing all the right things in her encounter with Jesus. She welcomed him into her home and was doing what was necessary to serve and honor his presence. If Mathew 25 asks us to meet the hunger and thirst of Jesus, Martha was literally doing that exact work. She only slightly missed the mark, and she missed it because in all the good work in which she was engaged, she was distracted. Working the front desk at Emmaus House this summer I can’t tell you how many times I neglected to look at someone in the eyes and know their name, even while engaging in the important work of alleviating a physical need. I’ve had to be really intentional about developing goals to see people as the people they are, knowing and using their name, listening to their story, and seeing in their eyes the soul of a person created in the life-giving presence of Jesus. To be present with someone, to REALLY be with someone, means to love them. You can give them all kinds of things, but if you don’t love them, you aren’t really with them! St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says something very similar, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” To really be with others, and thus to be with Jesus, requires us to hold our attention in such a way that we are not distracted by the tasks being done. It requires us to open ourselves to the eternally present love which connects all of us, that is Jesus.
So may we choose to be with Jesus. May we choose to follow him into the hard work of caring for others and working for the liberation of all. And may we not simply do this work distractedly, but in the full awareness, attention, and intention of the permeating, life-giving, liberating presence of love.