As we find ourselves in the third week of our Long-Range Strategic Planning preaching series here at St. James, and under the theme, “A Future Rooted in God’s Promise”, our Gospel text draws us into the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary.
While today’s text doesn’t give us the name of the “certain village” that Jesus enters, we know from our other biblical references to Martha and Mary that they live in the town of Bethany. Thus our scene for this morning is set.
So as Jesus enters into Bethany, we follow suit, and enter into a story modeling two very different understandings of what it looks like to follow Jesus. Upon his arrival, Martha welcomes him into her home and then proceeds to complete her many household tasks, doing all she can to prepare her home for the one she calls Lord. At the same time, her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, as described by Luke, “listening to all he had to say”.
We’re told, that as Martha continues to work, her frustration with her sister’s apparent laziness builds, and when she simply cannot take it anymore, she pleads with Jesus to tell her sister to help her. And Jesus’ response??? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Depending upon our own experience, we often approach today’s text by diminishing one or the other of the characters of Martha or Mary. If we are the worker, we look to Mary as being lazy. If we are the reflective listener, more prayerful/spiritual type, we look to Martha as missing what’s truly important. As Lutherans, we could argue theologically on the side of Mary, whom Jesus supports at the end of today’s pericope. That it isn’t about what we do, but rather our faith in Jesus as Lord, that is most important. As St. Paul and Luther later reflected, in arguably our core Lutheran theological belief, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, not your own doing; it is a gift from God – not the result of works.”
But what if it’s not one or the other of these two women to which we should look as a model for following Jesus, but to both of them? In his commentary on today’s Gospel reading, New Testament scholar, John T. Carroll writes, “where hospitality is offered by two women, Jesus balances the call to compassionate action with affirmation of hearing the word…” The call to compassionate action balanced with the hearing of the word. Not Martha or Mary, as a model for discipleship, but rather both of them together as one. Carroll goes on to explain further by writing, that “the distinct roles of the two sisters seem almost a caricature, dividing labors that belong together in discipleship: receiving the Lord’s teaching and serving… hearing and doing.”
In his sermon from last week, for the second week of our Long-Range Strategic Planning preaching series, under the theme “We are a Pilgrim People”, Pastor Mike described, “that the one essential characteristic of the Christian life is movement impelled by the call of God.” Now… I don’t know about you, but for me, discerning the “will of God” from the “will of Andrew”, isn’t always an easy thing to do…
But maybe, just maybe, today’s text gives us some direction. And maybe John Carroll’s perspective gives us some solid ground to stand on… That moving forward in life impelled by the call of God is achieved through the balance of compassionate action with the hearing of the word. What a wonderful description for us as Church, as followers of Christ, in the midst of a Long-Range Strategic Planning process. Movement impelled by the call of God, rooted in the balance of compassionate action and the hearing of God’s Word.
The truth is, however, that expressing this and living it are two completely different things. And there’s a good chance we’ve all felt like Martha a time or two in our lives, where it feels as if we carry the burdens of life all on our own, begging for someone to help and to listen.
So what’s all this got to do with Long-Range planning here at St. James? And more specifically, what’s all this got to do with our theme for today, A Future Rooted in God’s Promise? This past Sunday, in my exhaustion from getting back from Reach Work Camp with over 20 middle schoolers just the day before, I sat with one of our adult Sunday school classes in order to talk about my understandings about St. James and my experiences thus far in being here with all of you for almost a year.
The first two questions I was asked… Ya ready??? 1) Are you happy here at St. James, and would you tell us if you weren’t? And 2) In the year that you’ve been here, what is the biggest weakness that you’ve seen within our congregation? Hhhmmm… No pressure, right?
Well, first, as I responded last week, yes I’m happy here at St. James. And yes I would be honest if I wasn’t! And second, as far as the biggest weakness that I have seen… should we be able to merge the characteristics of Martha and Mary into one caricature as Carroll suggests, it could become our greatest strength.
We are a diverse congregation here at St. James… politically, socially, academically, and certainly in our individual life experiences… And while this has allowed us to do some great things here in the past, it has, like the world outside of these walls models, at times, divided us as well and caused us to loose sight of our common identity in Christ.
In regards to this condition in the life of the church, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” “They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and they judge another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church.”
In the Greek, as Jesus describes Martha’s “worries”, he does so in the imperfect tense, expressing an action that is ongoing. That Martha’s worries are not simply in the moment, but rather are continuous. That she was constantly consumed by a state of worry.
As I read the news and go through my weekly pastor duties, it so often feels like this imperfect tense of worrying describes the current state of our world. Back in June, over the weekend of our Synod Assembly, I had some time to talk with my Pastor dad about the current drug epidemic that I’ve discussed in some of my more recent sermons. His response, was that it feels like to him, that our world is in the midst of an anxiety attack. That things have gotten so bad, that there is little to no hope for a better future, that our world is stuck in a state of anxiety… or as Martha, in a constant state of worry.
We could say, that the goal of our Long-Range Strategic Planning process here at St. James, is to look at where we have been and where we currently are as a congregation, in order to shine some light on where we are going in the days ahead. As Pastor Mike proclaimed last week, “Movement impelled by the will of God…”
And while we are in the midst of an official planning process, the truth is, it’s something we should always being doing not just as an institution of Church, but also for ourselves in our own lives, as we (as St. Paul writes) walk as yet by faith…
Today’s text calls us to balance compassionate action alongside of discerning God’s Word in every step of our journey… or as our Mission Statement here at St. James proclaims “responding to God’s abundant grace by being hearers, proclaimers and doers of the Word.”
In the end, in response to Martha’s request to Jesus, hoping that he will tell Mary to get up off her you know what and do some work, Jesus proclaims exactly the opposite. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In our actions we will fail again and again. We will make God’s path for us about our own wants and about we believe is right. We will place our focus on countless things other than God, at times, maybe more so than not, lifting these things above God all together.
We don’t know what the future will bring for us as individuals, or as a family of faith, but what we do know, is that regardless of what the future may bring, regardless of the roadblocks we may meet and the challenges we will undoubtedly face, when our chests get tight from the anxiety of the world around us and when we feel as if we can’t continue to go on in a world filled with so little hope and so much division… we can trust that we move on to a future rooted in God’s promise because of all that God has already done in the past.
For just as Martha’s worries came in the form of an ongoing state, in the Greek, Mary’s listening also comes in the form of an imperfect. Listening in an ongoing state… And in order to listen someone must be speaking… For Mary it was Jesus, and thanks be to God through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to speak to us today. This is the good news. That Jesus is still speaking. Reminding us of his promise made true in his sacrifice on the cross, and guiding our steps as we make our way through this world and on into the next. That regardless of what this world brings our way, God is with us, and holds us together as one, as the Body of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.