The Inner Life, the Outer Life

On July 21, 2016 by Jennifer Creswell

Rev. Jennifer Creswell

Abraham is sitting outside of his tent. It’s the desert. It’s the middle of the day. It’s hot. And he sees three strangers walking by. Rather than watch them pass, Abraham gets up and runs toward them, asking them, please, to come and eat with his family. He washes their feet. A servant kills and cooks a calf. Sarah bakes bread. This story is related a few ways. Sometimes they are strangers, sometimes they are angels. In iconography, these three figures are often portrayed sitting around a table, eating—the Holy Trinity. What interests me today is that Abraham was eager to show hospitality to these strangers. Maybe he recognized something of the divinity in them. He was compelled to run toward them and invite them to his home. He didn’t know them. They were strangers.

I’ve been hearing more news of the shootings in Dallas throughout the week and I was floored when I heard that some of the five officers who were killed had thrown their bodies over protesters when the bullets started to fly. These were police officers charged with working a peaceful protest against police violence, of all things. By the account of the mayor of Dallas, these officers were “happy and proud” to serve on the night they were killed. The mayor of Dallas also said the officers had become “martyrs to the cause of Black Lives Matter.” Like Abraham, the police officers on duty that night ran to throw themselves in the service of strangers. Maybe they recognized something of the divinity in them. Maybe they were just doing their job. Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. These officers lay down their lives for strangers.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus does an interesting thing. He takes a third way. Mary and Martha, two sisters, are having Jesus over for a meal. Martha was the one who issued the invitation, and Martha is the one in the kitchen getting things ready. But she’s not happy; she’s resentful of her sister for sitting out in the living room talking with Jesus. And since Jesus is all about justice, and since Martha knows she’s the virtuous one here, Martha is not embarrassed to ask Jesus to get on her side and tell her sister to help her in the kitchen. She should be embarrassed. I know this because I am Martha. And I have embarrassed myself with similar requests. But sometimes being the good girl is not the best way. Jesus, he’s smart. He doesn’t allow himself to get pulled into the argument. If all parents could learn his technique! He doesn’t do what Martha asks, even though that would seem to be fair. He doesn’t ignore the request and wait for the sisters to stop squabbling, either. He affirms the dignity of both women. He takes a third way. He tells Martha that she, like Mary, deserves not to be distracted and worried. She deserves to rest and learn and renew herself in a spirit-filled conversation. Mary deserves that, also. Now, these are women. In so many scripture stories—and indeed as was the custom of the time—women are the ones in the kitchen while the men sit around having the important conversations. The men are the ones who get to hang out with Jesus. The men learn from him. He is the rabbi. Here, Jesus recognizes women as worthy conversation partners for him.

Jesus is pretty consistent with this kind of behavior throughout the gospels. He calls out the people who are supposed to matter less, and he affirms their dignity.

As a counter to Black Lives Matter, I’ve heard a lot of “all lives matter.” And I am 100% behind that. All lives do matter. That is what our faith tells us. That is what we affirm in the baptismal covenant. That is what we pray every Sunday in the prayers of the people and that is what we work for when we help find people housing and when we drive someone to the doctor and when we march in the Pride parade and when we teach the next generation and when we prepare a meal for someone. As Christians, we believe that all lives matter because all lives are created in the image of a wondrous and beautiful God.

And we believe this. But much as we believe it to be true, and want it to be true, it is not true in the world in which we live. All lives do not matter the same. There wouldn’t be a Black Lives Matter movement if they did.

This was true in Jesus’ time and it is true today. Jesus kept calling out the people who didn’t matter, and affirming their worth and their dignity. He didn’t do it in a way that shamed the dominant group; he did it by showing kindness, interest, and blessing to outsiders and minorities. He acted as though Samaritan lives mattered. As though women’s lives mattered. As though adulterers’ lives mattered. Children’s lives mattered. Gentile lives mattered. Jewish lives mattered. Lepers’ lives mattered. And by doing this he kept calling his people back to that extremely difficult truth: all lives matter.

Part of the work of being Christian is the inner work of prayer and holy listening, of confession and forgiveness. Part of the work, Jesus shows us in his own life, is getting good with God.

Part of the work of being Christian is the outer work of mercy and kindness, of pursuing justice and confronting evil. Part of the work, Jesus shows us in his own life, is making God’s kingdom happen here on earth.

Jesus talks a heck of a lot about the kingdom of God. He says the kingdom of God is like…a mustard seed, a lost coin, a pearl of great price, etc. etc. The kingdom of God is God’s vision of a just, loving, equitable, shame-less, joy-filled world. And it’s the reason God has given us hands and voices and the ability to compose music and talk someone off a ledge and pay a decent wage. The kingdom of God is something we create—together with God. But it’s not enough for us just to tend to our own souls. That’s not the Christian life. We can’t be right with God if we are not working to make things right for our brothers and sisters.

And things are not right! As Christians, we need to stop being afraid to call out evil where we see it in the world. These are complex times, and the issues are fraught with mutual responsibility and multiple oppressive forces, and at some point it’s going to hurt to name the evil because we will see some of that evil reflected in our own lives and desires. But we need to name what is not right so we can claim God’s vision instead. It is not right that parents have to have “the talk” with their brown and black babies. It is not right that blacks are 13% of the US population and 40% of the incarcerated population. It is not right that in areas all over our country unarmed black people are being killed by the police officers who are charged with protecting them. It is not right that my friend, a young Episcopal priest—and one of the Church’s finest–, gets pulled over regularly for driving her Prius and asked for her ID. Because she’s black. Has that ever happened to you? It has never once happened to me.

As Christians, we cannot be content with a world in which these things are true. Our salvation is all tied up in the salvation of our fellow humans and so sitting it out because we have the luxury not to get involved is not an option. And as Christians, this is exactly the work our God has prepared us to do. Because we love God and God shows up to us in amazing ways in prayer and worship, we are equipped for and charged with the work of making “thy kingdom come.” Our inner life enables our outer life. And in the work of creating the kingdom, God challenges and blesses our theology, showing us how God works as savior, comforter, agitator, and healer. Our outer life enriches our inner life. One without the other is empty. Jesus alludes to this in his conversation with Mary and Martha. Martha is doing the work of the outer life—preparing a meal for people she loves. Jesus calls her to remember the inner life—her soul’s need for refreshment and repair. Abraham is doing the work of the outer life—preparing a meal for strangers. He was prepared for this moment because of a rich inner life that allowed him to welcome, not fear, that which he didn’t know.

Some of us appear to have a choice. If you, like me, are white, cisgender, in a heterosexual relationship, we don’t have to see the evil in the world if we don’t want to. We can feed our inner life without attending to our outer life. Some people don’t have a choice. Their inner life and outer life are all mixed up in each other because their bodies, their identities, their personhoods are where evil plays out. And so, if we are Christians, if we do love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t have a choice. John O’Keefe, a blogger at Patheos, who is white, writes, “For many years I lived under the impression that living with dignity was the right each of us are born with, and that there was nothing wrong with the systems we lived under; after all, they worked for me. It took me years to realize that being treated with dignity was not a given; many are not. So, what does that mean? At best, all I can do is hear their voices, realize I have the power to change, and seek to be the change.” Amen.

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