Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mary and Martha in Cleveland: A Sermon

This blog has been very quiet of late, as I have been busy and have little say at present to the few people who kindly stop in here.  However, I preached this sermon on Sunday, 17 July, when I filled in for the rector at St. Margaret's of Scotland in Barrie, Ontario, and it seems worth offering, given what's happening at in Cleveland.  MP+

Texts for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost:  Amos 8:1-12 or Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28 and Luke 10:38-42

"Now as they were on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (Luke 10:38)


Imagine being part of a church in downtown Cleveland, Ohio this weekend.   There’s this guy coming to town, Donald Trump, you may have heard of him, he’s a bit of a controversial character.   Trump will be in town for the Republican National Convention, along with thousands of delegates, journalists, police and, because it’s the USA and Americans get excited about politics, there will be tens of thousands of protestors  Can you imagine the traffic problems, the crowds, and even the threat of violence, especially after the shootings in Dallas recently?  .   If I went to a downtown church there, I would be tempted to skip this Sunday.

Street scene in Cleveland

I was quite inspired to read about one downtown Cleveland congregation that is definitely staying open this weekend.   St. Paul’s Community Church is part of the United Church of Christ, with a strong tradition of outreach to the homeless and poor.  The people of St. Paul’s have decided that they will take in protestors looking for a place to rest and sleep.  It doesn’t matter if people or pro or anti-Trump, they will all be welcomed if they put down their signs while they stay. 

The pastor there, Doug Horner, told the New York Times that “It’s a main Judeo-Christian-Muslim tenet that whenever there are strangers in your community you welcome them.  You put your differences aside and you welcome them. If they are hungry, feed them. If they need clothing, you give them clothing. If they need shelter, you give them some place to stay.”

Most of us, I am sure, know something about what it takes to be church.   We know that hospitality has a cost attached.   Whether it’s taking in protestors, feeding the homeless, participating in a school lunch program or just the usual Sunday coffee hour, it takes time, effort, and money to welcome and care for others.   It can be hard to do these things when money is tight, time is short, and helping hands are tired.  Nevertheless, we do these things because we are called to do them.  Pastor Horner in Cleveland talked about the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tenet of hospitality, which sounds impressive and high-fallutin’.   For us as Christians, it means that we show love and hospitality, even at a cost to ourselves, because we learned these things from Jesus.

Maybe you were in church last Sunday and heard the parable of the GoodSamaritan from Luke 10.   In that story, Jesus teaches that love of God means love of neighbour, and our neighbour is whoever we meet who has need of our help.   The parable is very clear about the cost of love.  Besides his time and effort, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper hard cash to look after the robbed and beaten man, and in a lovely and concrete detail, he tells the innkeeper that “when I come back,  I will repay you whatever more you spend” .

Come this Sunday, we’re still in Luke 10.  In fact, the story of Martha and Mary comes immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan.   Perhaps Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet with the other disciples, is listening to him tell the story of the Samaritan.  After all, I am sure that Jesus, like all good teachers, reused his lessons.   So, while Mary is sitting there listening to Jesus talking about the love that doesn’t count the cost, there is her sister Martha, busy with all the tasks and pressures of hospitality, and Martha is totally counting the cost.  Frustrated and resentful, Martha asks Jesus to send Mary into the kitchen to help her, but instead, Jesus seems, ever so gently, to chastise 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” (Luke 10:41).   In other words, Martha, chill out.  You should be cool, like Mary.

Most preachers like to stress how unusual it is for Mary to be sitting at Jesus feet in the first place.  They like to note that discipleship was a male domain, and domestic chores were reserved for women.  Bishop NT Wright notes that Mary has broken a major taboo because she has “shamelessly gone across the short but steep gulf that separates male from female space” (Wright, For All God's Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church, 86).   In seeming to defend Mary’s right to sit and listen, Jesus shows the same respect and equal treatment to women that he does elsewhere in the gospels.   As a result, many sermons seem to suggest that we should be more like Mary, an eager disciple of Jesus, and less like busy and resentful Martha.

The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores what Jesus has to say about how hospitality is part of discipleship.   As we saw, the parable of the Good Samaritan is all about selfless hospitality.   At the beginning of Luke 10, Jesus sends his disciples, plus seventy others, out onto the roads and tells them to count on the hospitality of others.   Later in Luke 10 these extra seventy disciples return to Jesus and tell him how they got on.  For all we know, some of these seventy are still with Jesus when he gets to Martha’s house at the end of Luke 10, because all Luke tells us is that “as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (Lk 10:38).   As far as I’m concerned, kudos to Martha for inviting Jesus along with the usual twelve disciples.  That would be a lot of work in itself, but if Jesus was travelling with a much larger entourage, that pretty much qualifies Martha for instant sainthood.

So it’s clear that Martha gets hospitality.  The question for us is, what is the difference between Martha’s and Mary’s attitudes, and why does Jesus say that Mary has chosen the better thing?  Christianity has a long tradition of using Mary to describe a life of contemplation, self examination, and study of the faith (the via contemplativa)  while Martha is used to describe a life of active service (the via activa).   Sometimes the life of contemplation and meditation is made out to be more important, when in fact it’s a bit of a false distinction.     We can’t be disciples unless we listen to scripture, hear sermons, and try to hear what Jesus says to us in the gospels.   However, if send our time listening to Jesus and never do anything, if we never give of our time, our talents, and our wealth, then what good are we as disciples.  We are like salt that has lost its power.

Take St. Paul’s Community Church in Cleveland.   Why are they going to take in protestors and travellers when the city might be engulfed in riots and chaos?   Why not just batten down the hatches and ride out the storm?   I’m guessing that they are called to this ministry because, like Mary,  they have sat at the feet of Jesus and heard his commands to love and show love.   The same goes for any church where members give sacrificially of their time, talent, and wealth because they want to follow Jesus.  It shouldn’t be a matter of choosing between volunteering at a soup kitchen or attending a bible study.  The one reinforces the other, and vice versa.  Both are parts of our lives as disciples.

I’m not entirely sure how to explain what “the one thing” is that Martha lacks.  Perhaps it’s a lack of patience, or a sense of resentment against her sister.   Jesus gently chides her for her distractions and concerns.   Perhaps that chiding might be helpful to us as churchgoers as well.  I haven’t seen a congregation yet that isn’t trying to do more with less.  As numbers fall, there are fewer and fewer people to pay the bills, do the outreach, maintain the building, and act as leaders.  Everyone ends up tired and frazzled, like Martha.  Some of us fall away.  For those of us who remain, our message becomes confused.  We send signals that we need new people for work and chores to keep the church going, when in fact we need new people  because people need to know Jesus.   I would go further and suggest that the more we know Jesus, the more we will know what Jesus wants us to do, and the happier we will be.

I’ve been in Barrie long enough to know that the Anglican landscape is shifting.   A new ministry may be built around this parish as other churches wind down their ministries and regroup here.   Personally, I hope that happens in a good and life-giving manner for us all.   However it happens, I hope and pray that we can ask the following questions at all times.

  1. What is Jesus calling us to do?
  2. Are we listening to Jesus, as Mary did?
  3. Are we working, as Martha did, to allow others to listen to Jesus?  

1 comment:

Colonel Scipio said...

Good to see you back on here, Mike!

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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