Sermons That Work

Jesus Had Special Friends, Proper 11 (C) – 2007

July 22, 2007

Jesus had special friends. Among them were Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. Some modern scholars think that Lazarus was “the Beloved Disciple” of the Gospel and the Epistle, and the disciple at the foot of the cross. We won’t really know until we are in the next life. Then we can ask!

The story of Mary and Martha and their encounter with Jesus is much loved. In the days when church task forces were called guilds, many a parish had a SS Mary and Martha Guild. Whether the members were asked which saint they wished to follow is an open question.

Mary wanted to know about Jesus, to get to know him and to learn from him. While she was doing this, Martha was left with the household chores, including hospitality to this journeying teacher who had arrived on their doorstep. You can imagine Martha preparing the bedroom, fussing in the kitchen, grumbling and mumbling to herself that she has to do all the work while her sister plays up to their famous guest. Finally Martha can bear it no longer. Imagine her bursting onto the scene to the surprise of Jesus and her sister, and then letting loose her resentment about her sister’s laziness to Jesus, not caring what impression she was making.

This is not an unfamiliar scene. We’ve all been chided for shirking our duties, often by a partner, or parent, or child. What is odd is the reply Jesus gives to the irate Martha: “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.”

Some years before the careful historian St. Luke wrote this account, St. Paul wrote to the infant church in Philippi telling them “The Lord is near; do not be anxious, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”

You may well be thinking by now “easier said than done.” It is so easy for us to relegate the difficult parts of faith into the “other-worldly” compartment, that section of our memory where we store quaint ideas and strange phenomenon; things we don’t think we will experience in everyday life. We follow Martha.

“You are worried and distracted by many things.” Aren’t we all? Certainly life is a good deal more complex than it was two thousand years ago. Computers and the Internet open up to the youngest members of our families a world of discord and a multitude of influences, many of which leave us feeling distracted and lost. Mary’s answer, to go and spend time getting to know Jesus, listening to Jesus and learning from Jesus, seems suspiciously simplistic, particularly to Episcopalians. After all, we fancy that we are sophisticated, educated, and in the know about most things.

Consider the way that St. Paul fleshes out the “don’t worry” advice Jesus gives to Martha. “Do not be anxious,” he writes to Christians who are misunderstood, reviled, and even persecuted for their faith. He writes to men and women who try to work out the practicalities of living the faith in a hostile world, among, for the most part, gentiles, to whom religion is rather like crossing one’s fingers or not walking under ladders. Worshipping a pantheon of gods who play with humans and are unreliable guides at best, the neighbors of the Christian community in Philippi looked askance at these members of a Jewish sect who believed in a moral God, a faithful God, and a redeeming God.

Neither Jesus nor St. Paul advised worried people to make the sign against the evil eye, cross their fingers, or avoid walking under ladders. Jesus tells Martha that she has things back to front. Mary has the better part because she first goes to Jesus. St. Paul reminds the PhilippianChristians that “The Lord is near.” It means the same. If together our hearts are fixed where true joy is to be found, if “we make (our) requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving,” the peace of God will be ours.

An old revivalist hymn tells us to “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” An old image that can be helpful is that we are to nail our hopes, joys, fears, and worries onto the cross, where they die to all that complicates them. Having died, behold they live anew.

This reference to the cross brings us to the “thanksgiving” St. Paul mentions. That word is the root of the word Eucharist. The Eucharist takes us in a time machine, backward, to the Upper Room, to Calvary, to the Empty Tomb and Resurrection, to the Ascension, and then forward to the end times when the nations of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord Christ. In other words, every time we join in the “thanksgiving,” we are reminded that God is in control and that God’s purposes are working out as year succeeds to year. The Church, the churches, and we, the people of God, are in God’s hands, in God’s purpose, and in God’s pleasure.

When we despair because of what happens in the church, in our parish, in our homes, in effect we “do a Martha.” We rush around in mind or body trying to get things done, trying to fix things, as if God has left it all up to us and retired! Instead we are called, with Mary of Bethany, to live “in” Christ, to get to know him, corporately and individually; to learn from Jesus and to live in Jesus, in whose face we see God. We are to bring to God all we are and all the complexity of life and begin there. Above all, in our thanksgiving, as we eat and drink with God, we are to be renewed, to gain confidence, to live and love and rejoice, because underneath are the everlasting arms.

It is in intentionally “practicing the presence of God” that we receive “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” Our Presiding Bishop concludes her letters with the word “Shalom.” The word means “peace.” Our peace is not the absence of discord, worry, or sickness. Rather God’s peace enables us to “live and love” despite “the changes and chances of this fleeting world” as the old collect puts it. Mary was right!

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Christopher Sikkema


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