Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sermon Not Being Preached This Week

Well, since this week is Music and Arts Camp at Broadneck, our sermon on Sunday will be offered not by me, but by 30 elementary schoolers. They have spent this week learning what it means to embody God's love for others in the way Jesus embodied God's love as he lived with us. It is going to be an amazing morning as we hear these kids proclaim in word and song this worldwide premier of "Becoming Christmas," a musical drama written by two members of our congregation. I hope as many of you who are able will be with us!

The good and bad news about this is that we won't get to deal with the appointed lectionary texts for this week--including the Gospel text of the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42)--in worship for another three years. It's a brief enough episode that I'll just paste the text here(from the NRSV):

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "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."

The good news about not having to preach on this is that I get to avoid a text that has always rubbed me a bit. I think it has bothered me because of the way I typically hear it presented: that it's a story about choosing one sister's way or the other's. Either you're a Mary or you're a Martha--one who sits at the Lord's feet or one who slaves away in the kitchen, a be-er or a do-er. This bothers me as one who feels like she's not, actually, Mary or Martha. Rather, it's more like Mary and Martha are at war within me. Part of me is compelled to cook as many casseroles as possible, while another part hungers simply for the chance to be as near to Jesus as I can be. Part of me wants to busy myself filling glasses or fetching water or doing something productive to serve Jesus, while another part thirsts just to hear what he is saying. By not having to listen to Mary and Martha's tale this year, each of us participating in the sermon can avoid having to confront the Mary and Martha demons at war within us. We can avoid the guilt trip over how much time we spend doing for God rather than simply being with God, avoid dealing with our anger over how everyone else seems content to sit on their rear ends while we're slaving away, avoid the reminder of how people get mad at us when we choose to abide with Jesus rather than keep up the pace of things that need to be done...the list goes on and on.

But the bad news about not preaching this passage is that I thought about it in a new way this week--from an angle that might actually give me a way to preach the story that I could live with it. It's intriguing to consider the words which begin our pericope (that's a fancy biblical word for "a short episode or story"--save it for your next Scrabble game). The crucial words in the story could very possibly be "now as they went on their way." I am fairly sure I've always heard this story talked about in isolation, as an episode from Jesus' life that is not really connected with anything else going on in Luke's narrative. But Luke, ever the orderly historian, obviously wants us to connect what is happening in this pericope to what has happened just prior.

What has just happened? The things that we've been learning about over the past few weeks in our lessons. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem and laid out some of the cost of following him on this newly-directed journey: having no home, leaving behind family, not looking back. He has commissioned 70 to go into all the villages and towns where he will go carrying nothing with them, relying on random hospitality and carrying nothing but open hands, seeing the Kingdom of God draw near. Then we witness, just prior to this episode, the encounter of Jesus with a lawyer who wants to know how to inherit eternal life--then gets instead a story about what it is to be and have a neighbor. What do these stories that precede Mary and Martha's moment in the sun have in common? Well, they're all about discipleship that looks a little reckless and insane. They're all about our utter dependence on God. They're all about a Gospel that will challenge our habits and practices and standard beliefs and reorient us towards things and ways that are radically unfamiliar.

So how does this shed light on Mary and Martha's dinner party with Jesus? This is the sermon that is not being preached this week. I think, however, that reading about Mary's act of boldness to sit at Jesus' feet as a disciple (a place no woman of repute would EVER be found) and Martha's busy hideout in the kitchen in light of this context might have the power to give the story a slightly different spin. It might become a story that challenges us, again, to let go of the familiar-- the busy kitchen work we hold on to rather than taking the risk of emptying our hands enough to draw near to Jesus . It might become a story that reminds us of how at God's mercy we really are--Jesus could have sent Mary away to help Martha, leaving her humiliated, and no one else would have thought a thing of it...but he let her stay. It might become a story that challenges us to think about the busy things we hide behind and fill our lives with to drown out Jesus' beckoning of us towards the one thing that matters, this Kingdom that is coming near to us.

Thank goodness the kids are preaching this week, so these are questions I get to sit with for another three years before I have to speak about them! May we all find courage to sit with such challenging questions of discipleship just as Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, knowing that in pursuing hard questions we are pursuing the one thing Jesus desires for us.


Susan Foutz said...

Awesome! I love the way this sidesteps the whole issue of "being" a Mary or a Martha and breaks some new ground. It really rings true when you think of how often works start to become more important (or at least more visible) than faith. Our busy-ness could be something we hide behind to keep from being drawn closer OR something that is so all engrossing that we forget to take that deep breath, slow down, and just be.

Jeremy said...

I like this interpretation, too, but I would draw on our contemplative prayer subject two weeks ago. John of the Cross makes this point, too - letting go of your "cross" and picking up the cross of Christ. John doesn't even make it seem that great, stating that we may find the "landscape" arid, austere, and stripped of any recognizable features. How willing/prepared are we to do such a thing? To drop everything we are and seek God? Do we (and can we) even know what that means?

For me, I know it's hard enough to do during our prayer time together and on Sundays. And maybe we need that busy-ness as an occasional bit of landscape to rest on/under.

Since this episode occurs in the midst of Jesus' visit, it could be said that there is a time to drop everything (focus on Jesus while he is with us) and a time to be busy - although Jesus certainly says which is better (without saying that Martha's work itself is wrong, it's important to note).

Anonymous said...

Man of God, may the Lord bless you. I just stumbled on your page and this particular sermon and believe me, I feel blessed. I love the perspective and the core of the message is very clear. We occupy ourselves with trash and leave Jesus struggling for a little space in our lives. What a pity! I pray everyone who reads this will think twice and give Jesus a big room in their hearts.