Fever and Frenzy Fall to Grace
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
In our gospel we encounter a word that seems to fit our lives today. It is used only once in the entire New Testament. The word is perispaomai. It literally means ‘to be pulled from all directions’. Poor Martha is anxious and distracted by her many tasks while her sister Mary sits and learns at Jesus’ feet.
I quickly become perispaomai as I flip between Facebook, Twitter, newspapers, email, and the reply I’m thumb-typing to two separate text messages momentarily disappears because I have an incoming phone call. We can be perispaomai at work chasing clients and project deadlines. We can be perispaomai at home when balancing chores and childcare while worrying about when the next rent check is due. Perispaomai is an onomatopoeia –a word that sounds like what it means. Martha is perispaomai while stewing and steaming at her sister Mary at the same time she is rushing around attending to hosting Jesus and his merry band of followers. But when she tries to triangle Jesus in to telling her sister to get off her rear end and help, he rebuffs her.
The tyranny of the urgent is a timeless human problem. By attending only to whatever is most pressing long term goals and avowed ideals are nibbled to pieces by the squeaky wheels that demand our attention. Our gospel today can teach how us to slay the dragon of false urgency with silence. We need time to listen. There must be time in each day and every week to sit at Jesus’ feet. We need time to pray, sing, or meditate upon God, otherwise our work, our homes, our lives will be pulled from all directions.
Last week, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. We learned that a disciple of Jesus must continually do works of love of neighbor. This Sunday, we learn from the example of our good sisters Mary and Martha (both of whom are founding members of Christ’s church), a disciple of Jesus must also continually sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.
We can become perispaomai while coping with daily life. If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we receive the imperfection that is everywhere, especially in ourselves. We learn about the humbling, healing power of grace that emerges from our imperfections while we sit at Jesus’ feet
Church and society can become perispaomai—frantic and ineffectual chronically chasing down its worries and anxieties too. Today’s gospel offers an insightful counterpoint to many popular counter-terrorism efforts.
How we react to terrorism and mass violence has become a measure of who we are, as individuals and as a society. ‘Each new attack, each new convulsion of fear, horror, grief and anger is a progressively greater test of enlightened civilization’s commitment to its core values. Regardless of who strikes the blow, whatever its malevolent purpose or toll, the response cannot be to abandon the respect for human rights, equality, reason and tolerance that is the aspiration of all democratic cultures. Though it has become almost a cliché to argue that the goal of terrorists is to bring their victims down to their moral level, it is also a truth, and it must be reaffirmed after every attack. The best defense against terrorists is to cleave steadfastly to the core values of love and freedom that inspire and unite us.’ (NYT Editorial Board 7/15/16)
As Christians, we must return to our place at Jesus’ feet again and again for our confidence and hope to be restored—and our mission to once again become clear. Prayer and mission go together. Each emerges and is strengthened from the other. Our religion cannot be merely a private matter between God and ourselves. Religion cannot stop with a personal relationship with Jesus. For our faith to be complete God’s grace intends to make each of us a combination of Mary and Martha; or (as the tenth chapter in Luke’s gospel would have it) a combination of Mary and the Good Samaritan.
Our fierce and loving Catholic sister and prophet Dorothy Day once put it this way: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” If we think we can say our private prayers and still genuflect before the self-perpetuating, unjust systems of this world, our conversion will not go very deep or last very long. There is no one more radical than a real person of prayer because they are not beholden to any ideology or economic system; their identity and motivation is found only in God, not in the pay-offs of “mammon.” Both our church and our government is threatened by true mystics. Such enlightened people can’t be bought off or manipulated, because their rewards are always elsewhere. (Richard Rohr, Richard Rohr, Necessary Falling Apart, 7/8/16)
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we catch a vision of God at work in the world through Christ, in Christ and with Christ that is both anciently unchanging, and as momentarily effervescent as a lightning bug: God is in all things, and all things are in God. Christ, who is dynamically present in all things, is the principle of creativity and reconciliation alike. God’s vision opens us to re-imagine the whole world. God’s grace refreshes understanding of our most intimate fears and aspirations. Encounter with God points us in the direction of our life’s work. (Bruce Epperly, Lectionary Commentary, 7/22/07). Rather than be pulled from all directions, the fever and frenzy of our lives can be healed as we begin to be pulled toward God and forward by grace alone.
These two things go together: If you want to know God, then love your neighbor. If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on a pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all.
Devotion to God and service to neighbor form the double helix of this tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the skeletal structure upon which the whole chapter hangs and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today. Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace. It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as your neighbor. Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace. It is never far from you, but is always only as far away as your own heart in which all the fullness of God happily dwells. Go in peace. Serve the Lord.