theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Monday, March 13, 2006

July 18, 2004 (Pentecost 7C)

[preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Everett, WA]
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42 (primary text)

One of the most emotional sermons for me to preach. Click the time link below to read it.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When I was studying in Berkeley, California this last year, I lived in a house on the same lot with two other houses owned by the seminary. One of my neighbors decided to start holding Taize-style services in his living room every Tuesday evening. Taize is the name of a monastic community in France where many people make pilgrimages every year. At Taize, worship consists of simple chant in dozens of languages, Scripture readings, and silence. Tuesday nights became my time during the week to meditate and have conversations with God. So many times I would share with God all the stressful things going on, the papers I hadn’t finished or the books I hadn’t read. And nearly every time, a voice in my head spoke, saying, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

Frequently when I read this text, I find myself sympathizing with Martha. In my most painfully honest moments, I can imagine a smug Mary smirking at Jesus’ feet, knowing that she made the right choice over her older sister. Let’s just say that old habits between siblings die hard. Scholars disagree about what Jesus’ statement was intended to do; some envision Jesus shouting above the racket of Martha’s chores to get her attention. Others claim that Jesus repeated Martha’s name in order to chastise her. But I see a Martha who can’t sit still, trying to decide which chore to tackle first, tossing an apology to Jesus about how Mary never pulls her weight around the house. I see Jesus gently putting a hand on Martha’s arm, forcing her to stop what she is doing, and speaking words that cause her to take a deep breath and forget everything except the remarkable man in front of her.

We seem to have a lot standing in the way of making the choice that Mary did. We live with information overload, from hundreds of TV channels, to thousands of newspapers and magazines, to the unbridled information of the Internet. We live in a society where work is the measure of worth; the busier you are, the more important you must be. We have inherited a legacy of “Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” Increased media presence means we are constantly confronted with causes we should care about. While we are called to care for people in need, without a central focus, we become torn and unable to give ourselves to care for others. There are indeed many things for us to be worried and distracted by. In our world, even the quest to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet and listen often falls prey to the urge to make the most of our time. Penciling “spiritual enlightenment” into our schedules will not make it happen any easier. Forcing communion with God into a tiny box on our schedule only means we have reduced it to something else to worry about. Being present with Jesus becomes one of the many things that we struggle to make time for.

But, a devil’s advocate might ask, if we don’t try to spend time with God, how will we ever manage to do it? And I think I’d reply, good point. We won’t ever manage to do it. But the question is phrased in the reverse of the way it ought to be. Taking time out of our schedules for church or meditation or prayer is not really a matter of tracking God down and re-introducing ourselves. After a break from church, it might feel like we are getting re-acquainted with Jesus, but I think that is a potentially misleading way to put it. It seems that so often the time that we take to “find” Jesus becomes the time when we realize that he never left our side.

It becomes the time when Jesus touches our arm and stops us from preparing a banquet for him, because we suddenly realize that his words are food that will never pass away or leave us hungry again. Without that food, the banquet we prepare is only a shadow of what God wills for all people. Our own efforts at caring for others are important because they physically share that Word of God with others in a way they can smell, feel, and taste.

It is easy to hear this text and remind ourselves that we must seek a life of balance, a life where work and meditation are parts of one harmonious whole. After all, if we can accomplish this, then we can make ourselves complete and fill in our own missing gaps. We can fill ourselves with spirituality and healing and faith, and at the same time bring home the bacon, clean the house, and contribute to our communities. But if this is the message we take out of this text, then we are neatly sidestepping Jesus himself. Jesus does not tell us to be both Martha and Mary. Neither does he discourage Martha from her gift of hospitality. Instead, Jesus reminds Martha of her anchor, the one thing she was created to be—a child of God.

Remember also that Jesus does not try to make Martha into Mary or Mary into Martha. In John’s gospel, the two play distinct roles; Martha looks Jesus in the eye and boldly says that he is the Son of God, while Mary kneels again at Jesus’ feet and anoints him with expensive oil. Each of these actions is equally a confession of faith. Neither one tries to do everything. Instead, both follow Jesus in ways that do not contradict their own special gifts. Likewise, we cannot be all things to all people, but we can live our own lives to the glory of God. We are called to discern what God has created us to be—individually and communally—and then to reflect on how to live in a way that witnesses to that creative power of God.

The good news in this text is the message that only one thing is required, and it is not something we can earn or deserve. It really is good news that we cannot fill ourselves up with the one thing that we need. Jesus’ words to Martha and to us are not only comforting, but also pleading and urging. They are the words of someone who is filled with sadness that so many things come between us and God. They are the words of a Savior who wants desperately for us to hear the Word of God and be filled by it, sustained by it. Perhaps Mary was not the smug sister who gained approval from Jesus. Instead she could not resist the Word of Life that was before her. She had found the pearl of great price, the reign of God, for which she would give up everything.

Instead of balancing our own act, Jesus here expects us to be unbalanced, with no choice but to be oriented to the life-giving Word of God. He calls us to realize that the many worries and distractions are only illusions compared to the deep reality of God present. As the church father Augustine once wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is why our inability to make ourselves complete is good news; it confirms that we are children of God, created by God and for God. As we were made in God’s image, so we are made to reflect God’s person in word and action. Think of each person as a mirror, with flaws and imperfections, yet positioned to reflect God. What are we if we have nothing to reflect?

When Jesus says directly to Martha that his presence will not be taken away, he is telling her and us that he will always be in front of the mirror, enabling us to reflect him to others. Even when the distractions of today pass like shadows and our efforts to fill ourselves up prove empty, God’s promise to abide with us in Jesus remains. May it always be so, now and forever. Amen.