Coach Jesus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Josiah Royce
“But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever” (Psalm 25).
Chad Harbach in his novel The Art of Fielding writes about Schwarz a stocky, strong young football and baseball player. He feels determined not to become one of those “ex-jocks” who considered high school and college the best days of their lives.1 For this reason, despite everyone’s expectations, he resists going into coaching.
The author describes his state of mind. “He already knew how to coach. All you had to do was to look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish that someone would tell about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding… People love to suffer as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose your form of suffering… A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.”
The Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) perhaps second most famous sermon was called “The Excellency of Christ.”2 Edwards describes “the admirable conjunction” of opposites in Jesus who is both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God. Christ sits in power at the right hand of the Almighty, above galaxies, at the origin of all things, and yet is so humble that he would be our friend.
Nowhere does Edwards describe Jesus as a coach. But this is one way that the mystical Christ becomes present in our life. Christ offers stories that can become our own, that will change how we experience everything. My life has been transformed by Jesus and continues to be. This story of Martha and Mary has sunk deep into my consciousness and profoundly affects how I understand the world and how I act in it.
Martha invites Jesus over. Mary breaks social taboos by sitting at the feet of Jesus with the male disciples. Martha bitterly insists that Jesus should order Mary to work like her. And Coach Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk. 10).
At various stages I have asked friends what they think of this story and often they have strong feelings. Many times they feel frustrated and take offense at Jesus. They identify with Martha. They point out that someone has to do these tasks. They want her work to be rewarded. The relationship between all siblings is complicated and many of us simply identify more closely with Martha.
Often Bible stories simply do not affirm our sense of fairness.3 Stories like Mary and Martha, the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Day Laborers, Jacob and Essau, Cain and Abel unsettle us. These are stories about people who did not work hard, who should not have been rewarded, but somehow received more than they deserved. In our secular time stories still are what provide orientation in our life. Because we deeply believe in meritocracy, the Bible’s lack of respect for our notions of fairness is hard for us. Being deeply attached to fairness may be for us a sign that we lack faith in God.
In life context is everything. That is true for the Bible also. This morning we have only part of the story. The episode begins when a lawyer comes to Jesus wondering how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks what scripture says and the lawyer correctly answers that there are two great commandments, to love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind. The second commandment is like unto it, love your neighbor as yourself.4
The lawyer asks, “who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan. It illustrates that loving our neighbor means transcending our identity, and reaching across boundaries to care for another person. This story of Martha and Mary on the other hand is an answer to the question of how we love God. For me, after a lifetime of study, each year it becomes less about fairness and more about learning to listen. Paying attention is how we love God. This morning I want to point out three brief implications of this kind of listening from two philosophers and a theologian.
1. Choosing. On October 28, 1945 the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) gave a talk at the Club Maintenant in Paris to a surprisingly large crowd He concluded by telling the story of an ex-student who had come to him for advice during World War II. The young man’s brother had been killed in battle in 1940 fighting the Germans. His father became a collaborator with the Germans and deserted the family. This young man was his mother’s only support and companion.5
The young man really wanted to go across the border through Spain to England where he hoped to fight the Nazis with the Free French forces in exile. In this way he longed to avenge his brother, defy his father and save his country. The only problem was that there would be no one to care for his mother during this time of food shortages and
violent upheaval. How do you decide between contributing to the greater good and caring for your mother?
According to Sartre established authorities like priests and scholars have nothing to offer. Our inner voice is also confused by competing values. We wonder if we are deceiving ourselves. In short, nothing can relieve us of the burden of freedom. Social conventions, our history, psychology and habits are what he calls “the situation” in which we act. But they do not finally determine what we will do. We are free to choose and in that decision we become who we will be. With each decision we create our self.
Although the young man faces a particularly dramatic decision, all of us are in the same situation. We are compelled to invent who we will be. In every instant we are determining what kind of a relationship we will have with God. We can be so busy with our careers and our cell phones that we create a self that is incapable of sitting still and listening to Jesus.
2. Loving. The turn of the twentieth century Harvard philosophy professor Josiah Royce (1855-1916) grew up in Grass Valley California. As a boy he would visit the grave of a gold prospector behind his house and wonder what it would feel like to live and die so anonymously, alone and far from home. He always felt a bit like an outsider.6
Royce’s son Christopher was diagnosed with “acute abulia” a mental illness that we might call depression today and died in his twenties. While his colleagues emphasized experience and individualism Royce talked about community. Royce worried about the way modern life seems to detach and isolate us. He always emphasized the importance of belonging to a greater whole, of our loyalty to, even our love for, this world entrusted to our care.
One of his students William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) with his wife Agnes wrote a book called The Meaning of God in Human Experience. The tile of Chapter 23 is “Prayer and its Answer.”7 They call prayer active, a way of seeking the Divine through worship. The answer comes when we passively and effortlessly receive God. They write, “The best known of all experiences of [this] mystic type is that of discovering the individuality of another person.”8 Mary discovers Jesus in just this way. We too meet Jesus in our deepest connections with other people.
3. Joyfully. The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that our humanity arises out of what he calls being in encounter, from the quality of our relationships with other people. This is always a reciprocal relationship. It involves really sharing ourselves and being genuinely open to someone’s real differences from us.
He describes four elements to this. First, it means really looking another person in the eye in a way that allows our self to be seen. Second, it involves really listening to others and speaking the truth about ourselves. Third, it means being ready to help and to be helped.
But these are not enough. To really be human we need to do these things “gladly.” At our very heart, if we do not do something gladly, it is not who we really are. Our fundamental humanity is not something that we can just choose to put on or take off like a hat.9
If someone said “be joyful!” you might wonder where to start and what to do. We usually regard joy as a passing feeling that just happens to us rather than a habitual disposition that shapes our experience of the world. If you really want to experience joy you need to realize that it comes to us when we cultivate a sense of gratitude and humility.
Joy arises out of a life of prayer. Anne Lammott writes that the most essential prayers fall into three categories that can be each described with a single word. “Help. Thanks. Wow.” In each of these moments turning to God leads us more deeply into an experience of gladness.
In conclusion, like a good coach or better like a true friend, Jesus tells us the story that will transform our lives, so that some good may come of the suffering that is uniquely our own. As I listen at the feet of Christ this week I am learning that we can be free from the past, that with every choice we can draw closer to God and create something beautiful with who we are.
Just as Jesus calls Martha in from her solitary work, he invites us also to step out of the isolating individualism of our culture and to seek that mystic experience of the holiness present in every person. The cares and anxieties that we take on do not have to own us. By living with gratitude, humility and love we can open find abiding joy.
Let us pray:
As Martha served you, Lord, so too may we with faithful hearts and loving care prepare all things for your feast. But grant us more, O Lord, that as we work we may be tuned with Mary’s ear to hear in all we do, the lessons that you teach. Amen (Adapted from Lucy Mason Nuesse).10 1 Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (NY: Back Bay Books, 2011) 149. 2 Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Christ.” http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/edwards/excellency.html 3 7 Pent (7-19-98) 11C. 4 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. 5 Sarah Bakewell, The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (NY: Other Press, 2016) 7-9. 6 John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) 165ff. 7 William Ernest Hocking, The Meaning of God in Human Experience: A Philosophic Study of Religion (New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1912). https://archive.org/stream/meaningofgodinhu027626mbp/meaningofgodinhu027626mbp_djvu.txt 8 Ibid., 175. 9 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2: The Doctrine of Creation tr. H Knight, G.W. Bromiley, J.K.S. Reid, R.H. Fuller (NY: T & T Clark, 1960) 267. 10 Diocesan Altar Guild (6-19-04) 11C.