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Carrying Our Cross with Philemon

Blog picA Message for Pentecost 13 on Philemon 1:1-21 and Luke 14:25-33 on September 8, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Anyone who’s been a parent, or loved a child into adulthood, knows the anguish and the anxiety of releasing a child into the world—of sending them across the state or across the country to move into the next phase of their life, be it college or their first job.

I received a letter with this kind of concern from a parent—well, actually, it was a message on Facebook, but in today’s world, that constitutes a letter! A friend wrote and shared that her daughter was driving to Austin for an internship and she could stay at our house on the way. We were delighted, especially since we rely on similar hospitality from other parents for two of our college-age children in Missouri.

It’s a letter that most of us have both written and received—seeking the blessing of someone else’s love for our child and sharing our love for someone else’s family member.

The book of Philemon is also such a letter—a letter written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon. Paul writes as Onesimus’ Father—not his blood relative—but instead, as his father in the body of Christ, his father in faith who brought the Gospel message to Onesimus. Rather than being sent by mail ahead of time, Onesimus carries this letter in his pocket as he travels from Paul, who was imprisoned in a different town.

The circumstances of this letter are different from the one my friend sent, because Onesimus is Philemon’s slave. But at its core, this really was the same letter for it carried in the anxiety and anguish of a parent sending his child into the world. Paul is sending Onesimus back to a difficult situation because Onesimus, who is owned by Philemon, has left him. We are not sure why or how—but Onesimus fled from Philemon to Paul who is the founder of the Christian community that gathers in Philemon’s house.

More than a simple night of lodging, this letter carries in it, life and death for Onesimus. In the first century, a slave who left his master and owner without permission, would have been severely punished or even put to death for his transgression. This is part of our own country’s history country, so we understand all too well, the implications of Onesimus’ situation.

Imagine the fear and trembling with which Onesimus traveled—wondering if this short letter in his pocket is sufficient to persuade Philemon to spare his life and not give him the punishment allowed by law.

In the letter in Onesimus’ pocket, Paul reveals to Philemon that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus Christ, and because of this, he appeals to Philemon to end the owner-slave relationship. Paul encourages Philemon to forego his legal rights as a slave-owner, and instead, to transform their relationship to one of brothers—as equals—in the body of Christ.

This is the hard, spiritual work of walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. Paul beckons Philemon to leave behind social stratifications and class privileges and instead to live by Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

“I am sending you my own child,” says, Paul, “my very heart”—a precious one whom Jesus loves and forgives and saves—he is Jesus’ possession, not yours, Philemon, so change how think about Onesimus, so you can be freed to behave differently toward him—not as one who commands his behavior as an owner, but as one who loves him as a brother in Christ Jesus.”

In the words of Jesus, Paul is asking Philemon to “carry his cross”—to choose suffering for the sake of the sake of the Gospel, to choose sacrifice for the sake of another, to choose loss for the sake of Jesus’s purpose, and God’s claim on all of who we are and all that we “think” we possess. Grace is free but to live in that freedom for Onesimus comes at a cost for Philemon—so “count the cost” of discipleship. To make Onesimus his brother in Christ could mean financial loss, loss of social status, it could make others in the community, including his own family, angry.

Paul says clearly: “Philemon, it’s not enough that you believe in Jesus’ love, forgiveness and power, Jesus asks you to behave with his love, forgiveness and power. Let go of your rights and the anger that goes with them, and change your behavior, transform your relationship with, and reform your treatment of Onesimus.”

This is the best part, Paul adds, “I could command you to do it—for I am in authority over you, but I want you to choose it through the power of Christ who dwells in you. Can you receive this son of mine, my own child, my own heart, into your home and care for him as your own child, your own brother, rather than a slave?”

As in so many other passages, Scripture does not give us the satisfaction of telling us the end of the story. What happened? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus and love him as a brother in Christ? Did the church gathered in his house, join Philemon in receiving Onesimus as a brother, carrying the cross of true Christian community and equality in Christ?

The only answer we have is the one we ourselves choose. Paul’s letter asks us if we will forego our rights and privileges accorded us by race, income, education or other measures to love others as equal brothers and sisters in the body of Christ our Lord, loving them as we do our very own family. Paul’s letter asks us to extend the radical love of Christ himself in our relationships, communities and churches.

Last Thursday, I was at a meeting at the Richardson School District with their Community Relations office and the non-profit, Unite the Church which is working to build community relationships between faith communities and schools. They are working together to pair every school in the district paired with a house of worship to build relationships, help with needs, support teachers and families, and do whatever is possible to be a connected community that works together to educate our children.

Our new Justice and Advocacy Team is exploring a relationship with the High School since we are right next door—we would look for other church partners as well since it is a big school.

At this meeting, I also learned that the Richardson School District just received 500 new children who were recently released from detention at the border—most of whom are from Honduras. The Dallas School District received 1,000 students.

Our schools need our support in helping these families because each one of these children, like Onesimus, has a letter in their pocket. A letter from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.”

Today is God’s Work, Our Hands Service Sunday. Right after church, you can help the Hunger Helpers pack lunches so that everyone of us has a few meals in our car that we can give with a smile and a prayer to someone who is begging on the corner—because every homeless person has a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.”

Some of us will do God’s Work, Our Hands service at the Richardson Civic Center after church packing meals for Feeding Children Everywhere, and some of those meals will stay right here in our area. That’s because nearly 60% of children in this school district are receiving free and reduced lunches. Richardson High School and other schools are opening food pantries on site. Network of Community Ministries now has a mobile refrigerated food pantry truck going to some of our schools. Every one of those hungry children at school have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.”

Paul makes one final promise in his letter for Onesimus: If Onesimus owes you anything, any money for labor lost, charge it to me. And when I come back to you, I will pay the price of whatever he owes.

Paul himself is walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. I will pay the price myself. Paul is not just counting the cost, he is paying the price. He is the living example of the love of Christ in action—carrying his cross—in his willingness to suffer for the sake of life for others.

We hear in Paul’s own transformed heart, the promise of Jesus Christ to all of us. Paul calls us to join him and Philemon in relinquishing our rights whether of citizenship or church membership, whether of race, education or class, and instead, allow Jesus to transform our lives around his love, which has paid the price for us.

We are the Pauls and the Philemons of the church today, carrying the cross, and embracing everyone as our sister and brother in Christ, for don’t we each have a letter in our pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love her as you would your own child.”

 

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High Maintenance and the Holy Spirit

High Maintenance and the Holy SpiritA sermon for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost on Luke 11:1-13 on July 28, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

This year marks the 30th anniversary if the iconic movie, When Harry Met Sally—the first date movie that my husband, Dan and I saw together, and has been part of our relational dialog ever since.

Perhaps you remember the scene when Harry and Sally are watching the movie Casablanca, each in their own apartment while talking over the phone. Harry identifies two kinds of women, high maintenance and low maintenance with Ingrid Bergman being low maintenance. Of course, Sally asks which kind of woman she is.

“You’re the worst kind,” Harry says, coolly. “You’re high-maintenance, but you think you’re low-maintenance.”
Sally says, “I don’t see that.”
“You don’t see that? Harry replies: “Waiter, I’ll begin with the house salad, but I don’t want the regular dressing, I’ll have the balsamic vinegar and oil, but on the side, and then the salmon with the mustard sauce, but I want the mustard sauce on the side. ON the side is very big with you.
“Well, I just want it the way I want it,” said Sally
“High maintenance,” confirmed Harry.

Dan knew on day one that I was high maintenance. But you know what? So is he.

Of course, the truth is that all of us are high maintenance. We all want it the way we want it. We all want life—not just our food and our salad dressing—but the big stuff too—career, relationships, children, health, finances and all of it---to work out the way we want it, the way we plan for it, the way we imagine it, the way we like it.

Which makes for an interesting conversation when it comes to prayer—the topic of our Gospel reading today.

We all know that prayer is not simply about telling God what we want God to do for us, complete with dressing on the side, as if prayer were about getting our life made to order.
But how do we pray when much of life is not what we had hoped or planned, what then? What happens when our “we just want it the way we want it” selves bump up against Jesus’ instructions on prayer?

That’s a good description of this past week for me when I have felt particularly high maintenance—probably both Dan and God would agree. I want life to be the way I want it and it just is not andI kept bumping up against this text.

• For starters, I had the stomach flu—which is so bizarre in the middle of the summer. I certainly did not want something else wrong after just recovering from surgery from last month, so that was not a part of my plan this week.
• My dad has recovered so well from his broken hip, but now has some new upcoming medical tests
• Everyone in my family is on the move, all within five days: our son, Jacob is driving by himself from St Louis to New Mexico this weekend to visit his girlfriend. He’s not the best at responding to text or saying “hey, I arrived safely—so I still do not know where he ended up last night. So I pray and rely on no news is good news.
• Our daughter, Leah, who’s been working in Prosper ISD (Independent School District) over the summer drives back to Missouri, also by herself this week, and then back to college on her own. I love being in Texas, but I hate that I cannot make these trips back and forth to college with her.
• And Daniel is moving from New York to California this Tuesday to join my brother working at his tree company in San Jose. He and his fiancé, Jasmine decided to go to the Courthouse in New York last Friday to get married before he leaves because she is staying behind to finish her master’s degree. They’ll have a bigger celebration later with family, so it was just the two of them, her sister and a friend. I am so glad they did what works for them and their life, but I am sorry I was not there.
• At the end of this week, I am so blessed to have the chance to go to Colombia, South America to attend Spanish immersion school. I am so grateful to the Council for even thinking I can do this, but I am also worried I am not going to remember it. What if my brain is too old or had too much chemo to learn a language? What if I learn it, but have trouble maintaining it? I do not want to be a disappointment. My husband, Dan—Mr. photographic-memory—is there already—he left yesterday. Gratefully, he let me know he arrived safely.

All of you have a complex of issues that weigh on your hearts as well—the stuff of life that you cannot control, that are not of your choosing and perhaps not to your liking. So how does Jesus teaching on prayer come to our aid today?

First, we have a brief version of the Lord’s Prayer, the most important aspect of which is to ground prayer in our relationship with God, our Father. This is less about God as a man with a white beard, or only a male image of God, and more an image of an intimate parent—Abba—daddy, or Imma—mommy. Jesus offers a God of love and trust and closeness—someone a child can run to for provision and protection, which the prayer then underscores by asking for daily bread and being saved from a time of trial.

Then Jesus tells a somewhat an odd parable about a man receiving guests at midnight and not having any food to offer. We have talked before of the social expectation and necessity of showing hospitality to travelers in the first century. This man would be dishonored if he failed to offer hospitality to a guest. The parable makes it sound like the sleeping neighbor—an odd image for God—gets up and gives his friend bread, not because he wants to, but because of his loud persistence.

But a better translation instead of “persistence” would be, “shamelessness.” The man with guests and no bread is waking up the neighborhood to make sure he can honor his guest with appropriate hospitality. Because he is willing to be so shameless in his appeal, the sleeping neighbor restores his honor, and peace to the neighborhood by sharing his bread.

Rather than an image of God who’s door we have to pound with persistence to wake up and hear us with persuasive and loud requests, Jesus’ offers an invitation for us to come into the intimacy of God –our Abba or Imma—daddy or mommy—with bold, audacious, shameless, petitions, at all hours of the night—and the God who hears our cries, honors us with a response, restoring peace and dignity.

God’s response may not always be the response we want, it may not always be in the time we want, it most definitely will not always fit our high maintenance desires or plans, but God has promised an abiding relationship with us. And this God loves us shamelessly like a parent who wants to give us an abiding presence in the Holy Spirit and wants a relationship with us at all times, and not just at the midnight crises—so seek, ask, knock at all times.

This past Thursday morning, I took a walk with all of the concerns I mentioned weighing on my heart—everyone traveling, my dad’s health, learning Spanish, missing out with Leah’s college transition, not able to attend Daniel’s wedding. I would normally go to the fitness center, but having just gotten over the flu, a short walk was all I was going to muster. I was having a conversation with God in my mind about it all—for that is what prayer is for me throughout most of the day—this on-going conversation with God— but I was not really getting any answers. I was just putting it all out there.

I turned around at the corner and headed back toward the house. I just happened to look up, and there in front and above me was an enormous white egret, flying low and coasting gracefully right across my path: “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It almost took my breath away.

That was the answer to my prayers and worries. It could not have been clearer: God will give me the Holy Spirit, and I would receive what I needed—not all I want, perhaps not most of what I want. But yes, I would receive the Holy Spirit.

The next day, Friday, Leah came down to Richardson and we had a late lunch at I Love You a Latte coffee shop up on Campbell Rd.

As we were talking, the emotional impact of all these family transitions started to hit me. The day before they were thoughts and ponderings, but as we sat talking, I started to feel so sad that she was leaving to go back to school. Then our phones beeped, and we received the first picture of Daniel and Jasmine on the courthouse steps after they got married. It was so beautiful, and they looked so happy.

Then, Leah looked at me like, “oh, no, mom’s going to start crying in the coffee shop!” Yup, I did—I was quiet about it—but it was still a shoulder-shaking, messy cry. Leah got up and she stood behind me and put her hands on my shoulders until I was done.

And then she sat down and said, “Don’t worry mom, I’ll have a big wedding and spend and all your money!” And we just cracked up. She told me to clean off my face and then we got up and went to off to our next task, but not before I thought about that white egret.

God promised the Holy Spirit and she showed up in my daughter.

• I needed a moment to feel sad and love to embrace me in it;
• I needed laughter to pull me back into the big picture of life,
• and I needed a push forward—

I received all of what I needed. It wasn’t when or where or how I expected, but it was there—“how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those ask him.”

Prayer is not a formula or a set of magic words, it’s a relationship that an intimate God wants with your high maintenance, messy self in the middle of your complicated life, and God is waiting and hoping you will bring your needs and desires with shameless abandon, all of the time in daily conversation.

You are not always going to get what you want, but no real relationship offers that anyway. You will receive the blessing of God’s constant and abiding presence in the Holy Spirit, which means that you will receive an egret, a butterfly, a pink sunset, or another sign; and you will receive love, laughter, strength, comfort or whatever you need from someone, somehow, somewhere, when you need most.

More than that, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit means that you are a “Leah” and will be a “Leah” for someone else.

So, if you do not know what to pray for, you can always pray for the Holy Spirit and know that you are covered in all you need! 

Image from cazort.net copyrighted by Alex Zorach

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Do All the Good You Can with What You Have

Straighten Up and Do All You Can with What You HaveA shared sermon with the Rev. Dan Anderson-Little for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost on Luke 13:10-17 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas upon our return from studying Spanish and meeting with churches in Colombia, South America.

Linda
So, what’s up with this religious leader in the synagogue? The bent-over woman has been healed and she starts praising God, which is the response every religious leader dreams of! But he’s not very excited—in fact, he’s pretty put off by the whole event. Given the amazing healing this bent-over woman has experienced, his response seems harsh and uncaring.

But the issue with the leader of the synagogue is not that he doesn’t care; the fact of the matter is that he cares a lot. He is responsible for running an entire religious organization— he cares so much about his synagogue that he has adopted certain ways of doing things: he follows procedures, he is mindful of the rules—there is a time and place for everything. No doubt, he has committees, officers and budgets—without all of this, community life at the synagogue would be chaos. We understand how he feels, do we not?

But this leader is burdened by more than the efficient operation of the synagogue. He is also hampered by too many needs and demands, and too little time and too few resources. There are always beggars at the gate, widows in need, travelers seeking food and shelter, people who are crippled, diseased and poor struggling to eat. And in the face of such enormous need, the leader wonders how can one synagogue make a difference in the face of all those who need healing and help? There are only so many resources, so many days in the week, so many programs one synagogue can do.

These issues have caused him to focus on limitations: what his community does not have, what they cannot do, who they cannot help, and on this particular day, what cannot happen on the Sabbath. When he focuses on what he cannot do with what he does not have on a day when nothing is supposed to happen, the ruler can only see what is not possible. And so for 18 years, this bent-over woman has remained…bent over.
Jesus walked into that synagogue that day as much for that ruler as he did for the bent-over woman. She is bent-over physically and desperately needs Jesus healing touch and the freedom that healing brings, especially for the chance to be upright for the first time in 18 years. But the synagogue ruler is bent-over spiritually, paralyzed by a fear that accompanies limitations—the false belief that if we cannot do everything we want, if we can’t address every need that we are aware of, then why bother. His preoccupation with the procedures of his religious community and his fear that what help they can offer is never enough, has caused him to no longer see possibility as Jesus does—that every person is a daughter or son of Abraham—an heir to God’s promise, deserving of healing and wholeness.

Jesus sees the bent-over woman and immediately sees the opportunity for her to be standing straight with a vision much greater than the floor in front of her. Even though it is the day of rest and refraining from work, Jesus calls her to him to give her the healing and hope he envisions for her: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” Healing is not simply an end to illness—it is liberation to a new life—a life lived in God’s embrace! Jesus places his hands on her, touching her with love, offering her mercy, acceptance, and peace. For Jesus, Sabbath is much more than following rules to show how much we love God; rather, Sabbath is living in the freedom and peace of how much God loves us.

Instead of ascribing to limitations, Jesus creates openings; instead of seeing what he doesn’t have, Jesus looks at what God can provide; instead of seeing what cannot happen, Jesus uses his resources to make something new happen.

Dan
As you know, Linda and I were in Colombia over the past few weeks. Colombia is a country a little more than twice the size of Texas. It has 50 million citizens and over the past five decades has endured a civil war and the scourge of narco-trafficking. While it has a reputation of being a violent place, the war is now over, and the drug cartels have lost most of their power. We found a country that is working to be more peaceful and is modernizing at a dizzying rate. Colombia has a growing middle and professional class. It is a fascinating, beautiful country populated by warm and caring people. But like all places, Colombia also has tremendous needs. While the standard of living is increasing, there is still a high rate of poverty, in both the cities and the rural areas. While the war is over, there are still long-standing resentments and challenges as the country comes back together. And recently Colombia has been inundated by refugees from neighboring Venezuela—people who are escaping the collapse of their country’s society and economy.

It would be easy for anyone to imagine that in the face of such need, that churches—especially Protestant churches in a predominantly Catholic country—would just give up. Why bother trying to make a difference when resources are so few and the need is so great? We wouldn’t blame churches in Colombia if they kept their heads down and just took care of what was necessary—if they followed procedures and rules to keep the church going. But that is not what we found in Colombia. What we discovered is that Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Colombia are doing the very thing that Jesus did in this morning’s story. These small, seemingly insignificant congregations don’t just see needs—they see possibilities. The church in Colombia sees daughters and sons of Abraham—heirs to God’s promise, deserving of healing and wholeness. And while the resources of these churches are few, they respond in ways that change lives and bring hope.

One afternoon in Bogota, we met with Lutheran Bishop Atahualpa Hernandez. He told us about some of the outreach that the Lutheran Church of Colombia is doing. Now mind you, this is a denomination of 25 congregations in the whole country! We wondered what difference such a small church could make. Bishop Hernandez told us that in the rural areas where there are Lutheran churches, areas that were hardest hit by the civil war and where is there is a great need to bring people together in hope and trust, the Lutheran Church knows that it is called to be a witness to the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ. They host dialogues, help heal deep spiritual wounds, and show people how to live in peace.

The Presbyterian Church in Colombia is also very small and like the Lutherans, they are having a great impact. Bogota is a city of 8 million people, and in the entire city, there are three Presbyterian churches. All three churches have a particular outreach—one to Venezuelan immigrants, one that promotes peace in the aftermath of the civil war, and the other has a huge outreach to the poor families in their community. These are small congregations that struggle week in and week out to keep the church alive—but that does not limit their vision—rather it increases their reliance on God’s power. And these churches are making a profound difference in Colombia. We want to share a video with you about la Iglesia Presiteriana de Bethania.

This is the church with the outreach to children and families. I had the opportunity to preach at the Betania church in Spanish three weeks ago, and Linda and I returned another day to see their outreach program. The video is in Spanish, but there are subtitles. It moves along pretty quickly so you may not catch everything that is said. I will give a short summary of the video at the end and Linda will post it at the St. Luke’s Facebook page so you can go back and view it later. The power of this video is that it shows what can happen when a small group of people with limited resources can do when they view the world as Jesus does and when they rely on God’s power to change the world.

Watch Video

Linda
Jesus calls us to follow him in looking at the possibilities of what God can do with what we have.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said it this way:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

On the cross, Jesus has freed us from all that bends us over and limits our vision of what is possible. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can join our sisters and brothers of Colombia in participating with Jesus in the amazing work God can do with all the people and all the resources we have right here, right now.

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A New Look at Martha and Mary

A New Look at Mary and MarthaA message given for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost on Luke 10:38-42 on July 21, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I apologize for the late postings--I have had computer trouble.

Women do not get a whole lot of PR in the Bible, so you would think I would be excited to have a Bible passage all about women—you would think. But there are a lot of issues with this passage making it a difficult one, especially for women.

What a bummer that one of the few passages where a woman actually speaks, she is complaining about another woman, her own sister, no less—really Luke? This is the one conversation that women had with Jesus that you felt compelled to record? Women were part of Jesus’ discipleship group doing important work, albeit in the background, like making sure they were fed, clothed, and had water. But no doubt they also prayed and listened and questioned Jesus as well, and of all the conversations that happened with women, this was the best Luke could do?
This passage also seems to set up dualism as if discipleship is a binary system—Mary’s good, Martha’s bad, listening to Jesus is good, service is bad, Mary’s silence is good, Martha’s assertiveness is bad, prayer is good, busy-ness is bad. But is that where this story is really going? Is this conversation really about a hierarchy of gifts and styles of discipleship?

I want us to turn this story around. Instead of dismissing Martha, let us see what she is doing right. The most significant aspect about Martha in this passage is that she is portrayed as the head of the household—not her brother Lazarus as in the Gospel of John.

Jesus and his disciples entered the village and verse 38 says, “Martha welcomed him into her home.” It doesn’t say, “Martha and Mary welcomed him”—it says, “Martha.” Martha’s the one in charge here, and she is offering this sacred gift of hospitality—a place to stay, to wash up, to rest, to be fed, cared for, and nourished. Hospitality was a crucial social obligation in the first century because without it, travelers would go hungry, and come to harm with now here to stay.

You know immediately when you are the home of someone who has the gift of hospitality. My mom had this gift—and she had a way of making everyone feel special. She thought of everything: decorations with a coordinating centerpiece and napkins, a detailed menu, delicious food, several sets of dishes so she could pick just the right one, guest towels in the bathroom, candles everywhere, my sisters and I learned to ‘serve a plate from the left and take it away from the right.’ From the moment you walked in the door for a dinner party, you knew my mom had the gift of hospitality.

I bet the same was true for Martha. I know she had water to wash the feet of Jesus and the disciples when the arrived, she had clean, folded towels at the ready, and then she escorted them to the sitting area. She had already collected water early that morning, had a fire already stoked, and had probably already ground the flour for bread. But she still had a lot of work to do.
Guess who did not have the gift of hospitality? Mary. I bet Mary loved learning and reading, ideas and stories, going to Temple and prayer. If she could have had a bat mitzvah (which did not start for girls in the Jewish tradition until 1922), she would have knocked it out of the park, but setting the table and kneading the bread? How tedious. And who cares if the silverware is lined up just so or if the towels are clean or folded, or if the bread is a little burnt? She just wants to get through dinner and get back to more interesting things like the ideas of this new rabbi, Jesus. Maybe after supper, he would have time to read the new prayer she wrote.

Martha and Mary have different spiritual gifts and different ways of serving. And they are both essential if Jesus’ gospel movement is going to thrive. It needed men and women who attended to spiritual issues and those who attended to temporal needs. The gospel movement needed both Marthas and Marys then, and it needs both Marthas and Marys now.

Then what is going on in this story if it is not to elevate Mary’s style of discipleship over Martha’s? The answer lies, not in Martha’s actions (which were essential—if she had not put out a spread, Mary would never have had the chance to listen to Jesus and everyone would have gone hungry)—rather the issue of this story lies in Martha’s attitude. Martha is mad because she feels burdened and unappreciated. Perhaps Martha decided that if she had a little more help with the preparations, she too, would have a chance to listen to Jesus’ new ideas.

We don’t always behave our best when we think our sister, brother, neighbor or fellow church member is being selfish instead of noticing when we so obviously could use help. So, Martha triangles Jesus and asks him to whip Mary into shape. I think there are two deeper messages behind Jesus’s comment about Martha being “worried and distracted by many things.”

First, Jesus real point is that Martha’s public resentment and frustration diminishes her own beautiful gift of hospitality which she is working so hard to share. How many times do we work hard to offer what we are good at in our homes, with our family, at work, or in church—and then our own resentment or anger at others gets in the way of people receiving what we are offering? If we can see ourselves in Martha, whether we are male or female, then Jesus invites us into better self-care, and the practice of asking for the help we need before resentment and anger set in.

How different this story would have been if Martha could have pulled Mary aside, and said, “it really is wonderful to hear all Jesus has to say. I would love to hear it, too. It would mean so much if you could help me for 15 minutes and then while the bread bakes, I would have a chance to sit down with you and listen too.”

Second, Martha wants Mary to have the same spiritual gift as she does, rather than accepting Mary for who she is and the spiritual gift she brings. Jesus says, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” and Martha’s thinking to herself, “yes, I am, I would like Mary to take up some of this worry and distraction! I would like Mary to do more of what I do! People are so annoying! It’s like they have a mind of their own. It’s like God made them unique, like their own person who is different from me with a different way of being and of serving—it’s so frustrating!” Jesus says to Martha, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be take away from her.”

There is need of only one thing: be who YOU are, serve with YOUR gift—that’s what Mary is doing—stop telling Mary what her important work is, what her way of serving is, what her experience is. You, do YOU, Martha. And let Mary, be Mary.”

Luke included this difficult passage because he already experienced in the early church how challenging it can be to joyfully serve out of our own gift without resentment and control, while serving side by side with someone else offering a completely different gift or way of being. Our Colossians passage says that through Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha frees us from this comparison and control, and Jesus’ victory over death gives us peace over the fear that the gift we have to offer is better or is not enough in comparison to the person next to us. We are all reconciled to Christ and all the riches of God’s love are already ours no matter what our gifts are, freeing us to be ourselves and to serve with joy, and with love, and with self-care.

This church is blessed with a whole lot of Marthas and Marys and we need everyone for this ministry flourish. We have people who offer prayers, run the altar guild, teach, take care of the property, lead on Council, who are redesigning the website, offer music, are chairing new ministry teams, and the list goes on and on. The Christian Church would not have made it to 2019 without a whole lot of Marthas doing a whole lot of work and whole lot of Marys listening to Jesus and praying. It is false dichotomy to split the two because discipleship means we actively participate in the kingdom work AND we pray and deepen our relationship with Jesus. Both are necessary and our service lead us back to self-care and prayer and our prayer leads us back to service we are physically able to do, and back and forth again and again.

We are a community of gifts and the more we each joyfully serve with what God has given us, the more we can joyfully welcome others with new gifts to serve alongside us. Like Martha and Mary, you have a gift that matters to Jesus, that matters to us and that makes a difference in this church. Through Jesus we are freed to serve joyfully, accepting ourselves and each other’s talents with the same hospitable welcome that Christ gives to all of us.

 Image: He Qi

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