29 July 2010

Feast of St Martha

Today's Gospel is powerful and something we can all empathize with. The challenge of so many of the stories we have heard over the last two weeks has been to recognize and claim what is right in front of us. We have heard Jesus remind his disciples and others that what they have here and now is greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, greater than the Temple even. In other words, it is greater than Judaism itself --- gift of God though that is. And we have heard parables that affirm there is a treasure hidden right in front of us in the midst of ordinary life --- a treasure we could stumble over while walking through a field, a pearl of inestimable value we have only to look to find in the middle of the market and surrounded by lesser pearls. In so many ways we have been encouraged to find the Kingdom of heaven (God himself) right in front of us and incarnate in Christ. Today the Gospel also suggests why this is so important.

The story is composed of a series of exchanges between Martha and Jesus. Martha's brother and Jesus' good friend Lazarus has died while Jesus was several days away, and Martha struggles to come to terms both with his death and with the revelation of God's love that is right in front of her. Equally importantly, this is the story of Jesus' struggle to get Martha to see and find true comfort and hope in this --- in Jesus himself and all he represents. As Jesus and his disciples approach, Martha --- irrepressible and the epitome of action, as always it seems --- runs to meet him, a rather respectful rebuke ready: "If only you had been here, my brother would not have died!" She follows this with a somewhat obscure affirmation, "But even now I know that whatever you ask of God he will do for you." What she hopes for here is unclear --- probably she doesn't know herself, but she does recognize Jesus as a special man of God and wonderworker --- affirmations which all fall easily within the religion and culture she knows so well. It does seem though, that she is not anticipating the resuscitation of her brother. Jesus counters with a statement of certain hope: "Your brother will rise," and before he even finishes it seems Martha breaks in with a recitation of Jewish future hope: "Yes, of course --- the resurrection on the last day." But she has not really heard what Jesus is saying right here and now.

Throughout these exchanges Martha does what we all do in times of threat and grief as we struggle to come to terms with what is happening and to grow in faith in God and his Christ. At first she turns to what might have been: "If only. . ." she remonstrates. We have all done it: "If only I had gone to a different school"; "if only I had married "Tommy" when I had the chance"; "if only I had left the house 10 minutes earlier, I would have never been in that accident." "If only I had become a nun I would never have missed my REAL vocation!" etc. We do it with God too: "If only he had heard (or answered) my prayer! "If only he had intervened and saved her" etc etc. It is a normal response to grief and loss, but it avoids living fully the present moment and it falls far short of faith in the present and risen Christ.

Next Martha turns to the future looking for comfort and hope. Again as we all do, she takes refuge in traditional beliefs, in this case a future resurrection of all of creation. Unfortunately this does not seem all that comforting for her, perhaps because, as is often true for so many of us, it is not anchored in present reality or certainty. It is something Martha has been told to believe (or told is reasonable to believe), and perhaps, it may not yet be completely convincing. (How true is something similar for us as we profess the articles of our Creeds, for instance? We believe these things as best we can; we may "translate them" for ourselves as we profess them and suppress doubt or questions in the process; we may derive some comfort from these beliefs, but to what extent do we really hope in them because we know their inbreaking here in front of us?) Martha, in completely recognizable fashion has turned to nostalgia for what might have been and to wishfulness for what might one day be, but both seem to fall short of genuine hope, and because of this neither are ultimately comforting in her grief and loss. How well we know her predicament!

But Jesus wants to comfort Martha. He is seeking to give her real hope which, as more than mere wishfulness, is rooted in certainty and anchored in present reality --- whether or not Lazarus is resuscitated. And so, gently he brings her attention back to what is certain and standing right in front of her: "Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. . ." Greater than any wonder worker, greater than Solomon or his Temple, born from Judaism and greater than anything Judaism itself can offer: "Martha, 'I am the resurrection and the life. . .'" right here, right now. And then he asks the critical question, "Martha, can you trust that? Can you entrust yourself to me and to all I am? 'Do you believe' --- today, right now, Martha?" And Martha responds, "Yes, Lord, I have come to believe (have faith) that you are the Christ (or, I have come to trust in you who are the Christ), the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world, " --- the fullest expression of faith thus far in the Gospel of John.

The challenge to us is the same as it was for Martha and the same as the readings have affirmed throughout the last weeks: to look to the Lord who is present right in front of us, who dwells with us in the midst of everyday life and accompanies us in all of life's moments and moods --- to find and claim the pearl of great price, the embodiment of the Kingdom of God who comforts, nourishes, and challenges us in Word and Sacrament; the one who brings life out of death and meaning out of absurdity every moment of our lives, who consoles and empowers with his Spirit and grounds authentic hope in certainty. Can we entrust ourselves to him? Can we build our lives around and on a relationship with him? Today. Right now. Will we?