Fourth Sunday After Trinity
Lamentations 3:22-33, Psalm 91, Romans 8:18-23, St. Luke 6:36-42
On Her Knees
Mary the Missionary never did fit in. She was shy and socially awkward. She never seemed to know what to say. She stayed to herself a lot. She was the only one on the team who was single.
The other missionaries reached out to her now and then, but of course they were busy with their families and their work and, truth to tell, it got to be a chore to have Mary over for dinner. You had to carry the conversation for the entire evening.
Some of the others even wondered among themselves how she got to the mission field in the first place, what with all the psychological testing candidates had to undergo. But there she was, in the no-fly zone of northern Iraq in the 1990s, with the rest of them.
They had come to minister to the Kurds, who were under the protection of American and British air patrols because Saddam Hussein, their president, wanted to kill them. He had used poison gas to kill thousands in a place called Halabja and it was as grim a certainty as hatred for Jews that, given the chance, he would murder many more.
Mary’s missionary team had a leader who assigned responsibilities to each member. The women on the team did things like teach Kurdish war widows to make patterns and sew children’s clothing for export so they could support their own children and themselves.
There was no shortage of widows. While Saddam was at war with them, the Kurdish tribes were at war with each other.
This was the land the Bible calls Babylon, and in the 3,000 or so years since Old Testament times . . . well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For many, to be a widow was to be an outcast, reduced to prostitution or begging to survive.
But there is this Babylon tucked in between the Tigris and the Euphrates and there is the Babylon of the heart. Because of Mary, the question thrust itself into the missionary team like a hot poker: Was it the Kurds or the Americans living in spiritual Babylon?
To the Kurdish women, these Americans were an exotic species. They came from a magical kingdom where no one hungered and no one thirsted, where no one wrung her hands and wept over how to feed her children.
Or what she might have to do to provide for them. These Americans might as well have floated in on a cloud of pixie dust.
Mary did her job, or so everyone on the team assumed. If they’d been honest, they would have admitted they didn’t really know what Mary did. The hours weren’t regular and no one punched a clock and Mary was almost invisible, anyway. Maybe she had been here yesterday, or this morning, but who could be sure? She was easy to misplace.
After a while, someone did notice that she didn’t seem to be around at all a couple of days a week, but nobody thought too much about it. Along with her other shortcomings, she wasn’t picking up the local Kurdish dialect very quickly and the native women seemed happier when she wasn’t trying shyly to teach them skills using silly gestures. No one really minded that she wasn’t there.
Finally, one of the Kurdish women from the town landed in the hospital – the nearest one was in a city an hour-and-a-half away – and two of the missionary women went over to visit. And there they found Mary.
She was down on her knees, scrubbing toilets.
They asked why she was there, of course, and Mary seemed embarrassed, as though they had caught her playing hooky. She said, well, she had come over several weeks before to visit one of their local women who had been kind to her and she had been appalled by what she saw.
The whole place reeked and the bathrooms were even worse and she just thought that since it seemed the team didn’t really need her she could make herself useful here. For weeks, she had been making the round-trip twice a week on the creaky, stinking bus to mop and scrub and to do anything she could to make it the kind of hospital where a patient might actually get well. Or at least not get sicker.
The two other missionaries were still mulling this information when they entered a ward to visit the Kurdish woman they had come to see. She told them that everyone in the hospital was talking about Mary.
For Kurds, Americans are “kings and queens of the world” – their words, not mine. To see one of them on her knees scrubbing toilets was like watching Saddam, with all his medals pinned to his chest, mucking out stalls.
Some of them regarded Mary with contempt – what sort of fool would stoop so far beneath her station? — but others wondered what could drive a queen to her knees before a filthy toilet in the service of people who were not her own. It seemed a matter worth pondering.
I’ve never met Mary. A missionary from her team told me about her. After that day, her brothers and sisters in Christ did some pondering as well. Was it not she rather than they who embodied the missionary spirit? They asked themselves whether they had packed spiritual Babylon within them for the trip to physical Babylon.
She who had humbled herself in the sight of the Lord, the Lord had exalted in the eyes of her peers.
The prayer book assigns to us today a gospel lesson on Christlikeness. It brings a picture of Mary to my mind. She would not judge those who had judged her so uncharitably. She would forgive those who might have seemed unworthy of her forgiveness.
Our passage in the sixth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel follows one on loving one’s enemies. Our Lord is teaching on the very thing that sets the Christian apart from the world. Humility is the wellhead of divine acceptance and forgiveness.
Our passage begins, “Therefore, be merciful just as your Father also is merciful.” In our collect for today we prayed that God’s mercy would enable us to “pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.”
He who does not forgive knows not how much he has been forgiven – or he has not been forgiven because he has not sought God’s mercy. A forgiving spirit is evidence that one has embraced God’s forgiveness. As Jesus goes on to say in this chapter, “Each tree is known by its own fruit.”
Most of us kings and queens, of course, want to put limits on our mercy, something like the Irish boxer who experienced an awakening and became a preacher. He was hard at work setting up his revival tent in a new town when a couple of local toughs happened upon the scene.
Ignorant of his previous calling, they tossed a few insults his way. When the preacher wouldn’t take the bait, one of them took a swing and caught him on the side of the face. The preacher shook off the blow, turned his head and offered his other cheek. The bad boy obliged.
In a flash, the preacher whipped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and declared, “The Good Lord gave me no further instructions.” And they who had exalted themselves were humbled.
We must not press the point in too literal a direction. God does not command us ordinarily to make punching bags of ourselves. Getting pounded does nothing to sanctify either puncher or punchee. The point is that we are to put the interests of others ahead of our own, even to the point of suffering for them when necessary. That is, lest we forget, the example our Lord left us.
Refraining from judging does not mean we abandon courts of law or our own discernment in the way our brothers and sisters behave. We must praise them — and rebuke them when necessary. It does mean that we exercise restraint in what we think and say about others.
A common error is to observe the actions of others and make assumptions about their motives: He did this so he must have been mad at the world, or acting out his hostility toward someone else, or harboring a grudge against me.
In fact, we don’t know why he did what he did. If we speculate and discuss our conclusions with others, we violate the ninth commandment. We bear false witness. Unless we investigate, we are tossing out guesses, often malicious ones, as to his motive.
We err, too, when we allow our own preferences to dictate our judgment, either of the conduct of others or of acceptable standards. That fact that I do not care for your tats does not mean I should laugh you to scorn. The fact that you do not like a certain hymn does not mean it should not be allowed in our worship.
Another slander in our Internet age is to forward unsubstantiated accusations against those with whose politics we disagree to advance our own prejudices. I cannot count the times I have received a forwarded email only to go to a fact-checker and discover it is either a partial truth or a total fabrication.
We are entitled to our political opinions but not to mischaracterizing or maligning those with whom we disagree.
When we give as our Lord gave, of mercy, forgiveness, blessing, we receive back – pressed down, shaken together and running over into our bosom. The analogy comes from the measuring of grain.
To pack it loosely was to short the buyer. We are to give of these things in such abundance that the recipient must gather his garment into a sort of pouch to catch the overflow.
In some cases, we will meet with contempt and ridicule for our efforts, as did Mary the Missionary. As did Jesus the Christ.
Both student and teacher must practice humility as well. When the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a ditch. Follow a Pharisee and become a Pharisee. For this reason, the student must choose his teacher well.
J.C. Ryle, the 19th-century pastor and scholar, wrote, “The amount of evil unsound religious teaching has brought on the church in every age is incalculable. The loss of souls it has occasioned is fearful to contemplate. A teacher who does not know the way to heaven himself is not likely to lead his hearers to heaven. The person who hears such a preacher runs the fearful risk himself of being lost eternally.”
But the student must take responsibility for himself. Test the teaching. Inform yourself from the Scriptures so that you are competent to do so.
Ryle also wrote, “With the Bible in our hands and the promise of the Holy Spirit to everyone who seeks him, we will have no excuse if we are led astray.”
And when you find the right teacher, submit to him. The disciple is not above his teacher. An arrogant student will be so full of his own opinions that he will shut out those of one who is better trained than he.
Many students have eventually excelled their teachers, of course, but while one sits under the faithful teacher he must accord him the respect due one the Lord has ordained to that role. It was an idea prevalent in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures that the student’s goal was to become like his teacher.
By becoming “perfectly trained,” Jesus undoubtedly means the student must in the end emulate the ultimate Teacher, our Lord Himself. “Be holy as I am holy.”
For his part, the teacher must not allow a log in his own eye to blind him to his shortcomings. His student’s faults may be a mere speck by comparison. John Milton saw the danger. He wrote in “Paradise Lost”: “Neither men nor angels can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible – except to God.”
When he is aggrieved by his own sin, the teacher is fit to guide others.
As we make our way through the gospel lessons in this Trinity season, we should be picking up certain themes. None is more prominent than the juxtaposition of arrogance and humility. We have seen it already in the pairing of the 99 righteous sheep and the one who was lost.
We see the contrast in the Pharisees on the one hand and the poor in spirit on the other. Here, it surfaces in the roles of teacher and student – and either can play the heavy.
Our resistance to the authority God places over us, I submit, provides the best understanding of the deterioration we see around us in 21st-century America. The contemporary theologian Dallas Willard has indicted the church for its failure of discipleship: “Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ . . .”
Put that side-by-side with J. C. Ryle’s assault on false teachers. Now mix in a student who is not submitted to his teacher and a teacher who is not submitted to God. When no one is looking up, no one is becoming “perfectly trained.” The result is a cataclysmic collapse of discipleship.
Our Lord commanded His apostles, and those who follow them, to “go forth and make disciples.” If the church is not engaged in that work, what is her purpose? Worship, yes, but God did not plant us here to serve ourselves.
We could remain here a long time indeed exploring the applications of the denial of God’s order in the civil realm. To take but one example, we are watching our military, our most hierarchical structure, decay like a fish, from the head down.
It has dumped God’s prohibitions against promiscuity and homosexuality and His ordering of male and female. Its power to assert itself, and to defend the rest of us, is seeping away.
In Old Testament times God showed His people that they could not save themselves. The more I observe, the more I become convinced that in these latter days He is showing His people that we cannot govern ourselves. The redeemed of the Lord sit mute as post-Christian America slides ever more rapidly back into paganism.
The world, the flesh and the devil are the enemies of God and His people, and they comprise a formidable array of adversaries. Christlikeness is our only shield. And while we may find it difficult to practice, it is not hard to understand. The gospels show us how our Lord walked upon this earth to leave us an example. When we appear before Him, we will be without excuse.
Mary the Missionary lived that gospel. She was poor in spirit. I wonder if she even entertained the thought that when she went down on her knees she assumed the posture of her Lord – and ours. Amen.