When Mary trusted God to bear Jesus, she was taking a major risk. Mary was defying family, community, religious and government standards, but had faith in God that she is doing what is right.
Mary initiated a radical new vision of what her life and our life could be — God in flesh among us. Her whole life prepared her to say “Yes” when God asked her to do something important. Mary teaches me to wonder, “What is holding me back from bearing God into the world?”
God invites each of us in each moment, relationship, and heartbreak in the world as it is, to participate in the world as it should be — transformed in God’s word. We cannot stop it.
“Mary’s radical vision” Sermon by The Rev. Bonnie Osei-Frimpong Luke 1:46-55 Dec. 16, 2018 • Third Sunday of Advent
“One Thing is Needful”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 22, 2015
Choir Anthem: “It is Well With My Soul”
In our continuing consideration this Lent about what it takes to make changes in our lives, last week we looked at making choices. We make choices every day, some for the good and some for the not so good. But if we have a foundation for our individual choices, then it is clearer – not always easier by a long shot – but clearer which path to take. Moses encouraged the Israelites to “Choose Life” as they entered into the Promised Land, and Jesus reminded his disciples that He is the way, the truth, and the life, so if we choose life patterned after the life and example of Jesus, then we have a basis for the subsequent choices we make and for the reactions we have as life inevitably causes us to adjust and change course from time to time. But whatever complications, disappointments, or surprises along the way, there is that North Star, that unchanging bedrock decision we have made that keeps us pointed in the way that leads to the life that really is life.
Today’s gospel reading is one of the most famous stories in the bible. Jesus comes to the home of his good friends Mary and Martha to spend an evening relaxing with them and the disciples before he continues on his way to what he knows will be confrontation, hostility, and death in Jerusalem. It is an oasis for him of peace and tranquility.
Mary and Martha may be sisters, but that doesn’t mean that they are clones and can read each other’s minds. Those of you who have siblings can attest to the fact that you can grow up in the same house, eat the same food, go to the same schools, and even sleep in the same bed, but still be as different as day and night. Both sisters understand hospitality, but they act it out in different ways: Martha by cooking a wonderful dinner for her dear friend, and Mary by sitting quietly with him and listening to him intently. Both good food and listening ears are gifts of love. You can tell that knowing Jesus has changed these women; his presence brings out the best in them; his friendship means the world to them both.
But then their loving gifts of quiet listening and creative cooking are hijacked by some very human emotions. Martha is busy in the kitchen preparing a meal worthy of her friend, and it’s quite a task to prepare a meal, not just for Jesus, but also for his 12 disciples, herself and her sister. Back in those days there were no microwaves, no double ovens, no food processors, or refrigerators, much less cake mixes, hamburger helper, or salad in a bag. This meal is made from scratch! And understandably, the task that started with such love and gratitude, quickly becomes ridden with anxiety and stress. Martha needs another pair of hands to help in the kitchen.
The logical helper is her sister, but Mary is in the front room, sitting with the disciples at Jesus’ feet, wrapped up in every word he’s saying. Her mind is fixed on the conversation and she is oblivious to what’s going on in the kitchen. It’s not that she is lazy or uncaring about her sister’s predicament; she is simply unaware of anything other than listening to her guest and her friend.
Can’t you just imagine Martha spotting her sister just sitting there, doing nothing, as her anxiety quickly morphs into anger. Perhaps her eyes began to narrow, and her shoulders stiffen, as she thinks of the injustice of it all. The weight of this entire dinner is on her shoulders, while her sister, the one who should be helping, is hanging on Jesus’ every work, oblivious to the clattering of pottery or her sister’s frustrated call to her.
Bless her heart! Her righteous indignation and sense of frustration gets out of hand, and she does the least hospitable thing possible. She marches into the midst of the gathering, interrupts the conversation of her guest, and then demands that he help her to get Mary out to the kitchen where she belongs.
She must have been surprised by Jesus’ response. Instead of supporting her request, he speaks to her with kindness and compassion. First, he identifies her situation accurately, “you are troubled about many things.” In Greek the words for “anxious” and “troubled” have the meanings of “being drawn in different directions” and “making a disturbance or an uproar.” Jesus can see that Martha is troubled with cares, drawn in different direction, simultaneously wanting to concentrate on preparing a wonderful meal but also angry that she has no help from some she trusted would be there for her, so she makes an uproar because she’s tired, angry, and disappointed. And maybe feeling a bit left out of that great conversation going on in the other room.
Jesus doesn’t criticize the work she is doing or the way she has chosen to demonstrate her love for him, but he is concerned about her attitude of heart and mind. And when he says, “Mary has chosen the good portion, and it shall not be taken away from her,” he doesn’t mean that Martha, by default, has chosen the “bad” portion. He’s not saying, as is so often suggested about this story, that the quiet life is better than the active life. Martha and Mary have each chosen different “good” portions.
In response to Martha’s request to make Mary do what she does, Jesus tells her “no.” Mary is her own person just as Martha is her own person. It would make any more sense to send Mary to the kitchen than it would to send Martha to sit quietly in the front room. Mary can’t be Martha, and Martha can’t be Mary. I can imagine Jesus speaking to her in a quiet, gentle voice – and the louder Martha gets, the softer Jesus gets, and pretty soon Martha can her herself – can hear the noise she’s making, and can then begin to settle down.
Then Jesus’ message can work its way into her heart. Her anxiety and her anger towards her sister have overshadowed her love for Jesus and taken away any joy she might have had at serving him that day. Her service was no longer a gift to him, an opportunity for hospitality, but had dissolved into a desire to justify herself and judge her sister.
Martha’s top priority was meal preparation, so she thought it should be Mary’s as well. When she made her demand of Jesus, she was acknowledging that even his teachings, as important as they were, were not at that moment for her the foremost event of the day because they were interfering with her work. She lost the meaning of the hospitality she meant to convey; she lost her concern for the comfort and the needs of Jesus and her other guests. The love which had gotten her into the kitchen in the first place, was replaced by her anger. Her service was no longer about others and meeting their needs, it had become all about herself and her own needs. And so she justifies herself and blames her sister, and her original loving and generous gesture is forgotten in the power struggle to have her own way.
All of us have Martha days, and will have them in the future too. There are those days when we feel all the hard work has been left to us and no one will help. Days when, like Martha, we find ourselves over our heads in the kitchen, or the office, or the classroom, and somehow what started out to be a gift of our love, a fulfillment of our decision to choose life, to model our lives after Jesus, becomes drudgery, and we before we know it we get annoyed, frustrated, angry, full of righteous indignation, convinced that what we are doing is more important that anything else. And maybe in there with all the anger, is also a little bit of fear – fear of failure, fear of being thought inadequate or incompetent, fear of disappointing or of not measuring up to the expectations of those we most want to please. Is Martha your middle name? Some days I think it’s mine.
That’s when we need to remember this story. Jesus is able to hold a mirror up to Martha; his words are healing. He doesn’t criticize her for cooking or for her hard work or for not sitting at his feet. He does not object to her being busy. In fact, he’s probably looking forward to his dinner. But he is concerned about her attitude. She’s lost all sense of why she’s cooking in the first place. She’s lost all sense of joy in her service to him, and what had begun as a sweet gift for Jesus has turned in to a bitter opportunity to judge someone else.
Knowing what we do of Jesus’ teachings, it is probably a good guess that while Martha was busy in the kitchen, he was teaching Mary and the other disciples that afternoon in the living room that if they love him, they must show it by their love for one another. It’s not about being contemplative rather than active. Jesus likes busy people! Just before coming to Mary and Martha’s house, he’d told a lawyer the story of the good Samaritan, and encouraged him to go and do likewise. “Don’t just stand there, do something” is a great gospel truth.
It’s work done with the wrong spirit that troubles Jesus. If we’re keeping the main thing the main then, that whatever work we are doing – at home, in our public lives, wherever, will be done with a quiet sense of joy that comes from serving him, and demonstrating our love for God and neighbor. Love always comes first; we are to love God with all our hearts, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Love is the one necessary thing for a disciple. It is the one necessary thing for Martha. It is the one necessary thing for us.
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Dec. 14, 2014 • Third Sunday of Advent
During this Advent Season our children have been learning the story of the people who rose to God’s invitation, opened their minds to God’s imagination, and then risked everything in order to bring about what we celebrate on Christmas Day, the coming of God into our world in Jesus – the Christ – born in a manger because there was no room at the inn, wrapped in swaddling clothes, heralded by angels to shepherds on a distant hillside. We will be singing about all of that this evening in our Christmas music celebration with the Tuckston congregation and choir.
Last week the children learned about the central persons in the story – Mary and Joseph who accepted God’s invitation to participate in this amazing, miraculous event, even though the plan went against everything they understood about the world and about the culture they lived in, and about what they thought their lives would be like. But, they trusted that they were not being asked to do the impossible all by themselves, that they were not alone, and even in this most unlikely circumstance, God was with them.
This week, the children have focused on the relationship of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. It is part of the Christmas story that never makes it into Christmas music programs. There will be no songs about Elizabeth tonight. But her importance should not be overlooked. Mary decides to visit to Elizabeth after having received the perplexing news that she will soon become a mother. The angel who brought her this “good” news, also had shared an additional piece of information “And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:36-37)
No sooner does Mary hear this announcement, than she quickly travels to see Elizabeth. No small journey either – if we’re going to be at least geographically literal about this story – the traditional home of Elizabeth is about 80 miles away from Nazareth and nestled in some pretty steep hills. Luke says Mary “went with haste.”
That’s an interesting detail, and not just a throw away phrase, some kind of filler to pad out the story. That might be our reason for adding extra detail, but not the gospel writers’. You can count on every word that you read having a purpose for being there. So going in haste has meaning within the context of the nativity story. It doesn’t sound like she is headed for a casual social call. Maybe Mary is scared; maybe the original excitement of having been visited by an angel has subsided and now she’s realizing what she’s gotten herself in to. It could be that she even faced death threats at home.
In any event, there is no time to waste. She needs to talk to somebody now – somebody human, not some angel who thinks he knows it all. Interestingly, Luke doesn’t say she goes in haste to her talk to her mother; she doesn’t rush to talk to Joseph. She hurries to see Elizabeth – her relative, who is older and wiser than she, and who is also surprisingly expecting a child. Elizabeth’s pregnancy is just as much a miracle as Mary’s is because after years of being unable to bear a child, she is to become the mother of the one we know of as John the Baptist, the one whose preaching would prepare the way, who called people to repentance, and wh baptized Jesus. So maybe Mary thought Elizabeth would understand; maybe she could offer Mary some advice, some consolation, a safe haven, if just for a little while. Maybe she would believe her and help her to make sense of what is happening; maybe she could help her to overcome her fear of what might lie ahead.
And what a wonderful greeting she receives upon her arrival! Elizabeth recognizes the significance of Mary’s visit – Luke says she’s filled with the Holy Spirit, which is probably the way any of us are enabled to see beyond the superficialities of a situation and deep into the heart of things. And with that vision, she’s able to welcome Mary with words of blessing and praise. She says Mary is blessed and so is her baby. She affirms that Mary was right to believe what is happening to her is not an accident, an illusion, or a mistake, but a gift from God. She is blessed because she has trusted that God will do what God has promised.
What if Elizabeth had said something different? She could have; after all, she and her husband Zechariah were prominent people in their community. Zechariah was a temple priest, and she was descended from the priestly tribe of Aaron. They had spotless reputations. So, what if she’d said, “What are you doing here? You can’t stay here – this is a respectable household. Don’t embarrass me by bringing your problems into my house.”
But instead, Elizabeth is filled with joy on Mary’s behalf and she offers her a safe place where she is welcomed, accepted, and understood, where she doesn’t have to be afraid but can come to believe that she is blessed. Maybe in Elizabeth’s welcome, she could hear and remember the words of the angel, “Greetings favored one; the Lord is with you.” Although Luke doesn’t say so, I wonder if there might have been some long conversations between the two women before Mary then could sing her song of courage and of praise –conversations where they shared together what it meant for each of them to become mothers in their particular situations – hearing one another, authenticating and validating their experiences, supporting and encouraging one another.
Everybody needs someone in their lives who believes in them and encourages them, who will say honestly and sincerely, “you can do this.” “I see greatness in you.” “you ARE a unique and unrepeatable miracle of God.” Hopefully, each one of us has such a person, and if we’re really lucky, more than one person, who has seen something in us that we couldn’t see for ourselves, has listened to us, given us a new perspective, and has encouraged us to think outside the box, to take a risk, to venture out in faith, not knowing what exactly lay before us.
And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ve had the opportunity to pass it forward, and become a mentor to someone else, offering that same encouragement and support that had been offered earlier to us at a crucial time.
Mary certainly needed the encouragement. She knew and understood what we have either forgotten or don’t wish to understand — being blessed by God is most often a difficult gift. We associate blessedness with comfort, with care, wealth, health, material things, security. But from the time that God blessed a 75 year old Abraham to be a blessing to others, and then sent him and his wife on a journey to a new country yet to be named, “blessing” has meant “chosen for God’s special work”; chosen to put everything you have—even more than you thought you had– into the task that God has given you. Just think about Mary’s blessing. Mary has been chosen to risk her life and reputation to give birth to a baby and then to watch him grow up to be an outsider, loved by some, but disapproved of, and even feared by others; to be betrayed by his so-called friends, and finally to be tortured and then executed on a cross as a common criminal. It makes you wonder about asking God to bless someone, doesn’t it? Because God’s blessings are not about ease and comfort, but about being used by God for God’s purposes, which often include, as a consequence, challenge and sometimes adversity.
So Mary’s blessings include shame, persecution, and grief. These are some of the strange blessings that Jesus would talk about later in his ministry “Blessed are you who are poor . . . blessed are you who are hungry now . . . blessed are you who weep now . . . blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you” on my account. Why are these wretched ones blessed? Because God is working even in the midst of their hardships; because theirs will be the kingdom of God; they will be filled; they will laugh; they will one day leap for joy. There is no instant gratification in scripture; only the sure knowledge that one day, one day . . . God will make it right. Only the confidence that all present information and evidence to the contrary, God is at work doing the unexpected with the unnoticed, and in God’s good time, all will be well.
Maybe Jesus was able preach that later because his mother had told him about the conclusion she had reached while staying with her relative Elizabeth. She had been given a safe place, time and space to think, and encouragement to step out in faith, so that she was able to discern God present and acting in her life, even in these most difficult circumstances. She trusted and she hoped that good would come from her situation and so she could finally say with joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . the Mighty One has done great things for me.” And she was able to say what her son would affirm later, “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Elizabeth’s encouragement allows Mary to see that she is blessed, that God is working in her present situation, and once she is able to see that, then she is able to hope and trust that God is working in the future as well to make sure suffering and injustice will not have the last word. Thanks be to God. Amen.