Thursday, July 29, 2021

Lessons from Lesser Saints

A sermon for Thursday 29th July 2021

Today we mark what the Lectionary calls the ‘Lesser Festival’ of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  A ‘lesser festival’ is an opportunity to contemplate the lives and the witness of less prominent followers of Jesus, who nevertheless played their own important role in the Kingdom of God.

I find ‘lesser festivals’ quite helpful, personally.  I don’t know about you, but I find that I can sometimes be over-awed by the lives of the greater Saints.  With their miracles and their acts of extreme heroism and commitment, their willingness (often) to die horrible deaths for their faith – they can sometimes leave us ‘normal’ people with a profound sense of failure.  Of course, the tales of the Great Saints are meant to inspire us.  We might not be ready to die in the arena as food for lions, but their example might inspire us to speak up for the Kingdom when we find ourselves in debate about the latest twist of a Government’s policy.

But lesser saints, like Mary, Martha and Lazurus are also meant to inspire us.  Their quieter, less dramatic lives can also serve as sources of wisdom, hope and knowledge – to help us along life’s path.  So what do we know about them?

The gospels describe how Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus gave Jesus hospitality in their home at Bethany outside Jerusalem. Jesus is said to have loved all three. After Lazarus’s death, Jesus wept and was moved by the sisters’ grief: he brought Lazarus back from the dead that the glory of God might be shown. Martha recognized Jesus as the Messiah, while Mary anointed his feet (as we heard in today’s Gospel). 

On another occasion, Jesus commended Mary for her attentiveness to his teaching while Martha served. From this, Mary is an example of the contemplative spiritual life and Martha an example of the active spiritual life.  

We then, are inspired to think about how we practice our own spiritual life.  Are we contemplative, or active?  Or perhaps, with the passing of years, are we moving from one kind of spiritual life into another?  I can certainly identify with that thought.  When I was young, I worked tirelessly for 18 hour days, running hostels for refugees and youth work projects for inner-city kids.  But now, I find, that God is drawing me towards a more reflective, contemplative period of my life.

There are some other observations we might make too.  We might notice, for example, that the three siblings, Mary Martha and Lazurus, lived together.  None of them appeared to be married – which would have been a very unusual circumstance at the time.  We might notice that Jesus, however, embraced this unusual family.  He loved them, and received love from them – despite the way that they lived outside of society’s norms at the time.  

We, then, might be inspired to think about those whom we encounter who live different lives to ours.  How, for example, do we respond to gypsies and travellers?  How do we treat fellow humans who want to live ‘off the grid’?  How do we respond to families that are not ‘nuclear’ in their make-up?

Another noticeable feature is that Jesus’ encounters with Mary, Martha and Lazurus are always in a domestic setting.  He visits them, eats with them, and teaches them in their homes.  

We then, might be inspired to think about the extent to which we also invite Jesus into our homes.  Is he worshipped in our homes?  Or do we only give him a thought when we come to church?  Do we learn from him, through the pages of the Gospels, in our homes?  Or do we only encounter Jesus through the sometimes-fevered meanderings of the preacher?!

There is eternal hope in the story of these three lesser saints, too.  Lazurus was raised from the dead by Jesus – before Jesus himself was resurrected.  Technically, theologians point to a fundamental difference between these two ‘raisings’ from the dead.  Lazurus’ raising was a ‘re-animation’ of his earthly body, and it was temporary.  (He would still go on to die again, later in life, in the normal way).  Jesus, on the other hand, was raised with a new ‘resurrection’ body – an eternal body in which he ascended to the Father, promising to make a place for us in God’s ‘many mansions’.

But Lazurus’ raising offers us the hope that life beyond death is certainly within the gift, capability and power of God.  Lazurus was raised to life not because of anything he did, but only because of Jesus’ love for him.  We, then, can hold on to what the Scriptures call a ‘sure and reasonable’ hope....hope that beyond the sufferings of this world, Jesus waits to raise us to new life too.

So, Mary, Martha and Lazurus may not have been great ‘teachers of the faith’, or martyrs, but from their every-day, ‘lesser’ lives (much like our own, I suspect), there is much from which we can draw hope, inspiration and challenge. 

May you know the power of welcoming Jesus into your home.  May you know, with clarity, the calling on your Spiritual life – whether it is contemplative or active.  May you experience the grace of Jesus, which embraced and loved others who live unusual lives in our society.  And may you nurture and lean expectantly upon the ‘sure and reasonable’ hope of life beyond life on earth.  Amen.

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