The reading today from the Gospel of Luke describes Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, who are hosting Jesus for some sort of dinner party in their home. We see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to the Lord, neglecting the responsibilities of domestic life and hosting an important guest, while her sister Martha is distracted doing all the work in the kitchen, setting the table and making sure everything is just right. And then a well-known conversation takes place in which Martha comes out into the living room and with a tremendous eye roll and huff says to Jesus, “Mary is having me do all the work. Please tell her to help me!” We can hear and imagine her saying; “Lord, you see all of these people who aren’t getting the job done (implying that I am getting the job done)? Would you please straighten them out? Would you please have my husband help more with the children? Would you please tell my friend or my parents to get off my back? Would you please tell her to finally get her act together?”
The resentment and division between these sisters, fueled by self-righteousness, is what jumps off the page at me today, and whether you have siblings or not, the sense of feeling bitter or better than someone close to you, or feeling the absence of forgiveness and the presence of conflict, these are all things that we can all relate to. And it may seem like Jesus takes Mary’s side, but if we pay close attention we’ll see that he in fact simply tells them both the very same thing. His message is the same for both of them and it’s the same for all of us. He tells them, ”there is need of only one thing.” I think this is the key to the entire passage, maybe even all of scripture itself. All that is needed is for us to sit and listen and receive the Gospel. All that is needed is the Gospel itself—the unconditional love of God for you and for me, and the power of forgiveness that it breathes into our lives and our relationships.
For as long as I can remember, the British Open has been one of my all-time favorite sporting events to watch. I remember waking up as early as 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning in middle school to watch the golfers playing in the cold wind and the rain on those beautiful golf courses in Scotland and England. And then I would go outside into the July, Virginia heat and hit balls in the front yard, imagining that this pine tree was the 18th hole at St Andrews, and that bush was the tricky par-3 at Royal Troon. I still love watching this tournament, and the final round is actually going on as we speak, but this year is different. Many are saying that this is the biggest sporting event by far ever held in this part of Europe because this year the British Open is being held in Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years—a place that was one of the most violent and divided places in the world over the second half of the 20th century.
Simply referred to as “The Troubles”, the fighting between the Catholics seeking independence and Protestants loyal to English rule in the north of Ireland has been boiling over for years. Between 1968-1998, some 4,000 citizens of Northern Ireland were killed over neighborhood disputes. And despite the Good Friday peace Agreement that was signed in 1998, Northern Ireland remains segregated and divided as ever. To say that Northern Ireland is a post-conflict society, is as foolish as saying that we live in a post-racist society, or that anyone lives in a post-sin society. Tribalism and division of all kinds are rampant in today’s world, we know this all too well in Charlottesville, and this can make the concept of forgiveness seem irrelevant, unjust and frightening.
The true prospect of peace and reconciliation can cause a crisis of identity for people like you and me who seem stuck and even addicted to our disagreements. The prominent British Rabbi Jonathan Sachs says that “when we’re fighting, we know who we’re not. We might not know who we are, but we certainly know who we’re not. And we’re not the other crowd. I’m not you, thank God I’m not you.”
When we fight and argue in Ireland, America or around our own kitchen tables, we double down on the walls that divide us. We grit our teeth and declare that “I have nothing to learn from you. I don’t need anything from you, I don’t want anything from you.” But in doing so, in cutting ourselves off from our brothers and sisters and neighbors, we get bitter and jaded as our addiction to ourselves and our own self-righteousness inevitably fades and fizzles into lowliness and anger. And what does our anger do, but flame the fires of division within us. So how do we break this cycle? How do we find the power to forgive within ourselves when we’re full of such vehemence and hostility? When reconciliation with our enemies sounds like the last thing we want—to be associated with him or with her? Well just as Jesus told Martha, only one thing is needed, and you’re not going to find it within yourself.
Last year two priests, one Catholic and one Protestant formed what many see as a controversial friendship in Northern Ireland, and they’ve written a book together about the power of forgiveness in the midst of division called “Forgiveness Remembers”. The title of their book comes from their emphasis on the power of true and honest forgiveness that doesn’t forgive and forget (which is an impossible cliché—how could we possibly forget our murdered loved ones), but instead forgives unconditionally despite the lingering presence of pain and sadness.
They mention a story that began in 1972, when a 10-year-old Catholic boy named Richard Moore was blinded by a rubber bullet when a British soldier named Charles Innes fired into a crowd. A few years ago the two men met for the first time. Richard, the blind man now in his 50’s described their meeting like this: “I didn’t know anything about him,” he says. “It was like a military wall had blinded me… but, when you began to get down beneath that and see a person, a human being, a man, a decision, you start to ask: How is he? How does he feel? Where is he?… I think there were times in my life when I wondered if he understood the hurt that he caused – particularly when I found out his name and began to find out more about him. As you can imagine, it was awkward for the first ten minutes or so. He was meeting a blind person whom he blinded. I was meeting the guy who blinded me. And so it was a kind of fingers and thumbs situation for maybe 20 minutes. What I said to him – and I can say this almost verbatim because I thought it out in my head so many times – was: ‘Charles, I’m not here today to talk about May 4, 1972 endlessly; I’m not here to be confrontational; I’m not here to make you feel guilty; I’m not here to make you accountable to me; I’m here to let you know that I forgive you and I’ve always forgiven you.’”
Scripture tells us that “all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Not because we all think the same things. Not because we all look alike, or vote the same or drive the same cars or like the same things. We’re not all one because we have progressed beyond division and taken down the walls that keep us from being with each other and caring for one another. All are one in Christ because of Christ. All are one in Christ because all have been forgiven and all have been absolved and freed from the ultimate divisions of sin and death. All are one in Christ because of the Cross of Christ. We love because we have first been loved. We forgive beyond any capacity that we ever thought was possible because Christ has done the impossible for each and every one of us—while we were still sinners, still broken, still broken, still hurt and bitter and angry, while we were people like you and me, Christ died for us. Christ reconciled the world to himself through the free gift of his grace, and that grace is present for you today, and it alone has the power to transform your relationships and your life. The best part of this gift is that it’s free, that you don’t have to be like Martha, you don’t even have to be like Mary, you just have to be yourself, because whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready for it or not—Christ died for you. Only one thing is needed, and it has already been done.