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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Choosing the Better Part (Luke 10:38-42)

While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest.  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message.  By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal.  So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself?  Tell her to help me.”
The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It won’t be taken away from her.”

Imagine it is a warm summer afternoon.  You have been busy all day doing the usual chores at your house.  The yard is mowed, the laundry is done, and the house is, at least relatively, clean.  You go out to the back deck and sit down with a cold beverage, ready to relax for an hour or so until it’s time to fix dinner for your family.  You have just kicked your shoes off and the dog has just laid down beside your chair when you hear the front doorbell.

Some important person is standing on your doorstep – it’s your imagination, so make it whoever you want.  Some powerful political figure, a celebrity, some VIP – maybe even someone really important, like your pastor!  This person happens to be passing through town and has chosen you and your house as the place and people with whom to have dinner.  Lucky you!  You will have the honor (and it really is an honor) of preparing dinner for this important guest – and the twelve other guys traveling with him.

With this scenario in mind, you may have a slight taste of how Martha felt when Jesus showed up, unannounced, at her home.  May we pray.

Everyone took their seats at the dinner party.  The hostess, ever gracious, turned to her four-year-old son, the youngest person at the table, and said, “Sweetie, would you like to say grace?  Would you like to talk to God before we eat?”  He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and said, “I don’t know what to say.”  She smiled and said, “Just say what you hear Mommy say.”

Heads were bowed and eyes were closed around the table, and he spoke into the silence: “Dear God, why did I invite all these people over for dinner?”

Hospitality – the art of welcoming outsiders and treating them like honored guests – is a consistent theme that has always been important to people of faith.  Hospitality is still an important function in the church today – it is vitally important that we are an invitational and welcoming, more concerned with the needs of outsiders than ourselves, making a place for strangers and newcomers and doing whatever it takes to make them feel at home.

Hospitality matters most when we go out of our way to make another feel welcome.  Here’s an example of something that happened just last week.  We had a couple who came to visit for the first time.  They were arriving in time for the 10:55 service, and met, in the parking lot, another couple who had attended the 9 o’clock service and Sunday School and were on their way to their car.  The new couple asked “Where should we go in?” and rather than just point toward the door, they were escorted, personally, by their new friends to the sanctuary.  That made an impression on the visiting couple, and I won’t be surprised if we see them again soon.

The more we do in the church with a focus on outsiders, trying to see things from their perspective, leads us to be more and more hospitable.  Everything, from our signage directing people around the building to where we park can be seen as important practices of hospitality.  Did you ever think of parking as an act of hospitality?  I do.  On Sunday mornings, I park off-site, over at the Brookhaven School, as an act of hospitality.  I am here early, I could park anywhere I want.   I intentionally park far away and save better spots for someone else, hopefully someone new.  I park off-site as a gesture of hospitality, and every time I take that slightly longer walk in, I am thinking and praying for the person for whom I have just made room.  I invite those of you who believe in the importance of making room for others – particularly those of you who are here a little early and are physically able, to join me: take a spot that’s less convenient for you, but makes room for someone else.

The story of Martha and Mary centers around the practice of hospitality.  When Jesus and his entourage showed up on Martha’s doorstep, she took it all in stride.  Being a good, 1st-Century Jewish woman, she took her hospitality seriously.  She remembered all the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about the importance of welcoming strangers and providing for their needs, how serving them was a way of serving God.  Hospitality was itself an act of worship.

No one was a more gracious practitioner of hospitality than Martha.  She paid exacting attention to every little detail and personally ensured that everything – from the seating arrangement to the flowers to the wine selection was, in two words coined by another Martha, a “good thing.”  But even Martha Stewart had nothing on the Bible’s Martha in terms of throwing the perfect party.  Her dinner parties were legendary, and when it came to entertaining, Martha was all that and a bag of artisan home-baked pita chips, enfused with notes of saffron and lightly-dusted with sea salt.

With someone as important as Jesus in her home, she had the opportunity to throw the dinner party to end all dinner parties, forever sealing her reputation as the hostess with the mostest.  And yet, it was Martha’s commitment to gracious hospitality that sets the table for the rather ungracious encounter that stands at the center of this story.  Martha is frustrated that while she is slaving away in a hot kitchen, getting the dining room set with the good china, and cutting fresh flowers for the centerpiece, her sister Mary is in the living room with Jesus and the menfolk – laughing, listening, and hanging on every word out of Jesus’ mouth.

Martha has come through the room several times and made some suggestion – first subtle and increasingly not-so-subtle – that Mary get off her backside and come help in the kitchen where she belongs.  She has finally hit her breaking point, and comes storming into the room with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand and barks an order at Jesus, telling him to order Mary to do what everyone knows she is supposed to do: go help with the preparations.

But, the surprise is on Martha.  Jesus responds in an unexpected way – as he has a tendency to do – and says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It won’t be taken away from her.”

What has commonly been taught is that Jesus is down on Martha for her work, but commends Mary for being more “spiritual.”  Shame on you if you’re a worker like Martha, blessed are you if you’re spiritual like Mary; Martha = bad, Mary = good.

That’s a very interesting and common interpretation of this story.  It’s also wrong, or it at least misses what Jesus is really after here.  It almost sets up the story like a rigged game show, where contestants chose between two categories: “Are you more like Martha, or more like Mary?”  Everyone knows the answer, it’s Mary, yet contestant after contestant says, “I’m more like Martha.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!  The answer we were looking for was Mary.  Martha is the wrong answer!  Thanks for playing, and better luck next time!”

Rather than beating up on Martha for being the busy, bossy woman who ignored Jesus, while lifting up Mary as the gold standard of pious devotion, it is far better to realize that both the Marthas and the Marys of the world are beloved children of God, and that both have their place in God’s kingdom and their work to do to fulfill it.

Indeed, where would the church be without our Marthas (and Martins, too, just so you realize this sermon is for the guys, too!)?  Where would we be without faithful workers who perform the tasks and function and yes, work, of hospitality and service that are critical to helping the church better reflect the kingdom of God?  Where would we be without those who serve and give sacrificially of their time, talent, and treasure in order to further God’s will around the corner and around the world?

I cannot imagine Jesus, who told us that when we care for the least of these we are caring for him, I cannot imagine Jesus telling Christians who are emptying bed pans in AIDS clinics or baking biscuits for the shelter or working to build and repair homes, schools, hospitals, and clinics – I cannot for one second imagine Jesus saying, “You people are pre-occupied with busy work.  Leave the children, leave the poor, the sick, the lonely behind.  Come, sit and meditate for awhile – don’t you know that’s the better part?”

The life of work and service is not something entirely different from the life of prayer and devotion – rather, they are like two sides of the same coin.  It is not that we choose between a life of prayer and a life of work, for we are called to be people of both work and prayer.  Figuring out what is ultimately important and putting that first – that’s the challenge of the Gospel.  And nothing is more important than receiving the Kingdom of God, wherever you are, when it comes near.  Sometimes when we discern that it is near, the faithful thing is to drop everything and sit still and listen – like Mary.

Other times when we discern its presence, the faithful thing to do is to get busy about some important task – like Martha.  But if we were to ask Jesus which of these two things we need more of – Mary’s prayerful listening or Martha’s determined doing, he would say, “Yes.”

Both listening and doing, loving God through worship and loving others through service, are as vital to the Christian life as inhaling and exhaling are vital to breathing.  The rub comes that when all our activities leave us with no time to be still in the Lord’s presence and hear God’s Word, we are likely to end up anxious and troubled, or as Martha was, distracted by our many tasks.

The problem for Martha in in the story is not that she is a worker, but that she is distracted.  The Greek word there means “pulled in many directions,” and that’s the real issue here.  It’s that she is so busy, so distracted, so frazzled in trying to show good hospitality, that she forgets the most important aspect of hospitality: careful and gracious attention to the guest.  Martha is pulled in many directions with all she wants to accomplish for Jesus that she ends up committing a major party foul, by simultaneously trying to embarrass her sister and pulling Jesus into a family squabble.

Now, I have two older sisters; my mom was one of four sisters; my grandmother is one of seven sisters: I know, from personal experience, that if sisters start to fight, the smartest thing you can do is not get in the middle of it!

Jesus doesn’t really take sides here; he simply expresses his disappointment in Martha for stooping to something so low as airing the family’s dirty table linens in front of company.  It’s as if he’s saying, “Martha, you’re better than this!”

John Calvin, the church reformer, wrote “Work is good, but if we work all the time, work becomes a curse, not a blessing.”  The story of Martha and Mary is a reminder that if our many tasks have left us so frazzled that we lack the love and grace befitting God’s people, then it’s time to let a few things slide off our plate, and sit at the feet of Jesus to listen for awhile.

Frankly, that’s what church is supposed to be: a time to stop amid all our important doing and listen to Jesus, a time to put away our to-do list and hear the one thing needed: that we are God’s children; we are defined, ultimately, by God’s mercy, grace, and love.

If you are a Mary, that’s great.  If you are a Martha, that’s great, too.  It’s who God created you to be, so you go ahead and own it!  Being a Martha is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it’s nothing to apologize for.  It’s OK to be a do-er, but it’s not OK to do so much that you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing, or that you do it without grace, or that you miss Jesus in all the doing.

I hear Jesus’ words to workaholic Martha not as a rebuke, but as a reminder that our identity and worth are not found on a to-do list.  We are valued and loved not because of what we do, but because of who we are: beloved and even treasured for all time, created in God’s image, receivers of God’s grace – there is nothing we can do that would earn God’s love, and nothing we can do to lose it. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What Do You Want to Be Called? (Luke 13:10-17)

Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight.  When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.”  He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted.  Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
The Lord replied, “Hypocrites!  Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink?  Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”  When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.

A time of transition comes with many questions – How will things be different?  And, how will things remain the same?, but there is one consistent question many of you have asked of me that really cuts to the heart of the matter: “What should we call you?”

I have been called many things in 33 years on this planet, some of which can be repeated in public!  By now, many of you have wisely discerned that “A.J.” is not the name my parents chose for me.  People have often tried to guess what my initials stand for.  Though I was born in Oklahoma, I grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, a good Italian-Roman Catholic community where the most common guess was that it stood for Anthony Joseph.  Since I moved to North Carolina 11 years ago, the most common guess has been for Andrew Jackson.

I blame my parents for the confusion.  At my birth, they agreed that my name would be Andrew Jeremy Thomas, but a disagreement soon ensued as to what I should be called.  Mom wanted to call me Andrew, and Dad wanted to call me Andy.  After a few days, they agreed to call me Jeremy, and my family still calls me by my middle name.  So where did I pick up A.J.?

I began kindergarten at Hyde Park School, and this may surprise you, but I was somewhat shy and retiring as I began my education.  The official name on the roster was “Andrew,” and I didn’t speak up and tell them they called me “Jeremy” at home.  By first grade, I had learned to speak up for myself and told them I went by Jeremy.  When 2nd grade arrived, the school’s gym teacher said, “Well first it was Andrew, then it was Jeremy; what’s it gonna be this year – A.J.?”

So, what should you call me?  Well, if you call me Andrew, I will assume you’re either from the government or a telemarketer.  If you call me Jeremy, I’ll assume you’re a member of my immediate family.  If you call me Andrew Jeremy, I will assume that I’m in trouble.  So please, avoid those.  If you’re comfortable being on very familiar terms with your pastor, you can just call me “A.J.”  You can also call me “Pastor A.J.” or “Pastor Thomas” or even just “Pastor.”

Names are important, because what we call someone is a pretty clear indication of what we think about them.  You see, a name is not just a name.  A name is an identity, often laden with layers and layers of meaning.

So it is for a woman we meet though today’s Scripture reading from the 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  She has come to meet Jesus as he is teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath day.  We only know her as “the broken woman.”  Depending on what translation you’re using today, it may call her “the crooked woman,” or “the bent woman,” but I want you to notice that we never get her name.  Even on the sacred pages of Scripture, she is only known by a painful and cruel label.

Imagine with me, for a moment, what life must have been like for this woman.  Eighteen years ago, a chronic back pain developed.  It got worse and worse; each day of her life was a little more painful than the last one.  As the pain got worse, it became disfiguring – hunching her frame, dragging her down.

She was bent over – had been bent over – for years, staring at the ground, her back terribly contorted, and dragged downward by all those years of pain.  It hurt too much to look up anymore; and the world became increasingly smaller around her.  One by one, friends and family members faded out of the background.  The pain wasn’t just physical.  It cut to every other area of her life, as well.  Defeated by pain that was both physical and social, how long had it been since she had looked anyone in the eye?  How long since someone had cared enough about her to look her in the eye?  It hurt too much to even think about looking up, and by now her eyes were always downcast.  For this broken and bent woman, whose gaze was permanently upon the dirt being trampled by everyone’s feet, most days, that’s exactly how she felt.

The physical pain was bad enough, but even worse was the stigma of the cruel label the world had slapped upon her aching back.

When I moved to the South, I discovered this unwritten rule, a perception that you can say whatever you want about someone so long as you follow it up with, “Bless their heart.”  If you’re like me, you have heard all sorts of ugly things said about someone else followed up with, “Bless their heart,” like that somehow makes it okay!

As the woman in our Scripture entered the synagogue to hear Jesus that day, a few folks may have whispered to their neighbor, “Here comes that bent-over woman, bless her heart,” but my guess is that most of the people there tried not to notice her.  As she came in a few minutes late, no one was waiting for her.  No one was saving a seat for her.  No one said, “Oh, here comes Mary or Martha or Elizabeth or Ruth or Rachel,” or whatever her long-forgotten name actually was, because no one cared.

Except for Jesus.  He was somewhere between points two and three in his sermon when she made her humble entrance and tried to blend in with the furniture at the back of the room.  She wasn’t trying to be noticed, she wasn’t trying to make a scene, Lord knows she didn’t want to be the center of attention that day, but when he saw her, Jesus was filled with compassion for this woman in pain.  Jesus stopped mid-sentence and looked at her, and all of a sudden every eye in the place was upon her.  She looked up for the first time in years and her eyes locked with the smiling eyes of Jesus, who motioned her to come forward.  Jesus laid his hands on her, and she immediately straightened, and she and everyone there that day knew that she was healed.

Now, Jesus has just healed on the Sabbath, and the synagogue leaders don’t like it one bit.  “Flag on the play, Jesus – you can’t perform work on the Sabbath!  I don’t know who you think you are, but we have rules around here, Jesus, and you just broke them!”

This encounter with the religious leaders sets the stage for the second miracle in this story.  Did you know there are two miracles here?  The first and obvious one is when Jesus physically heals the woman’s aching back.  The second miracle is easy to miss, but friends, it is even more important than the first!

Here it is: Jesus calls the woman, “Daughter of Abraham.”  One who, for 18 years, has been known as “the bent woman,” she whose body and spirit have been dragged down by physical and social pain, is called “Daughter of Abraham.”  I am convinced, even if her back hadn’t been healed, when Jesus called her by this new name she would have stood straight and tall, because Jesus has just announced to everyone that she matters in the eyes of God.

So, good-bye, cruel and painful labels! Adios, confining and restrictive names!  None of those define her anymore.  Her life has been re-named as part of God’s great redemption story, and now what was obvious to Jesus is known by others – that she is one of God’s beloved children, she is part of the family of God.

Friends, so it is for us this day.  I don’t know what labels or names may have been put on you throughout your life, who put them there, or how painful they might have been.  What I do know is that those names do not define you.  You’re one of God’s beloved children – that’s who you are!  If you remember nothing else from today’s message, remember this: you are part of the family of God!

I may be new here, but I’ve already done a lot of listening and observing about who this congregation is, about what makes Morehead United Methodist Church unique.  The word that keeps coming up is “family,” and if our church is going to be described as anything, “family” is a great way to go.  There are some churches that describe themselves as a “family,” and they mean it more literally, in that everyone is related somehow to everyone else.  That’s not the kind of family we’re going for in this church!

Let me put it this way.  I have a theory that everyone has weird cousins, a theory not entirely contradicted by the realization that I am also somebody’s cousin!  But, when you’re part of a family, that weirdness is accepted and even embraced.  And so, as a healthy church family, we will love you and accept you no matter what.  We will genuinely love you, we will stick together through thick and thin.  We will embrace the things that make us unique, we will look past differences to find common ground.  We will always have a place for you at the family table of grace.

Most importantly, as members of the family of God, we will look for the family resemblance in each other; we will make every effort to see the image of God within every person and treat each other accordingly.  I would love to see us continue to develop and expand the name we’ve made for ourselves, and since Olive Garden changed their slogan in October, maybe we’ll just use their old one: “When you’re here, you’re family.”

Friends, as your new pastor, my vision for our church is not off in a radical new direction, but one that builds on the best of who you already are: a family.  Not one related by blood or marriage, but a family joined together by grace, and growing – in God’s love.  That’s who I believe God has called us to be as a church: a family joined by grace, growing in God’s love.

And you heard me correctly; I believe this family called Morehead United Methodist Church is called to be a growing family.  We have been deeply blessed by the touch of Jesus in our lives, and by being part of this particular church family.  Amen?  We’re called to bless others as we have been blessed.

A woman’s back was healed by Jesus, and she discovered herself a beloved child of God.  It’s what she always wanted to be called.

All around us are people who need the transforming touch of Jesus in their lives, and are waiting to be welcomed into the family of God.  Let’s bring them home.