“It’s Not What You Think” (Sermon, July 28)

Luke 10.38-42

I really don’t want to preach this sermon today. This story makes me more-than-a-little uneasy.  Maybe it makes some of you uneasy. And maybe for similar reasons.  And maybe, for many of you males, you hear the story and turn your attention to your wives or mothers or aunts or other women, assuming along with us that this is a story about, and for, women.

So, no: I don’t want to talk about Mary and Martha. I don’t want to force types or categories of women. I don’t want to tempt false dichotomies and risk alienation.  But mostly I don’t want to talk about Mary and Martha because most of us assume we already know the lesson here. As Danielle Shroyer writes, “It’s that time in the lectionary where we throw the practical women under the bus and shame them.”[1]

We could do that.  We could focus this morning on the tired dichotomies of women who do, do, do – keeping busy at hosting, getting frustrated at those who do not. We could focus this morning over-praising the docile, quiet, contemplatives. But the truth is, we’ll keep missing the point.

This story is not a story of shame. This story is not merely a story for women to discern personality type. (Am I a Mary or a Martha?) But think about all the ways we’ve turned it to that – we shame women for being too busy. And you never hear men say, “Oh, I was being a total Martha that I just didn’t even sit down!”

We as women have grown up with this story, placing us in categories of sinner and saint.

But I’m done with that.

Not least because I’m tired of women pitting against one another. But mostly because this story is not about a dichotomy between sitting or doing. It’s about something deeper.  It’s about presence. As Shroyer describes, the Mary and Martha story is “a presence parable.”[2]

This is a story about what happens when our activity loses its object. And what Jesus says is that there ought to be one object of devotion. There is One Most Important thing.  “[Jesus] is not going after Busy Martha, but Worried and Distracted Martha.”[3]

The Greek word, perispaomi, used here to indicate Martha’s distraction indicates that Martha has drawn away from, or diverted her attention away. The problem is the distraction.

Again, this story is not about an either/or typology, but a both/and.

We must do. And we must listen. The truth is, “either posture [– Martha’s doing and Mary’s listening -] assumed to the point of preoccupation or ideology courts very serious problems.”[4] The real dichotomy here is between the distracted person and “the person who is present in whatever task he or she is doing.”

In this case, Martha’s distraction has left no room for gracious attention to her guest – she has sacrificed true hospitality for the sake of sibling rivalry – she embarrasses her sister in front of her guest, and goes so far as accusing her guest – accusing Jesus – of not caring about her.

Talk about distraction.

The opposite of Martha’s activity, then, isn’t Mary’s passive sitting (because that isn’t what Mary is doing); the opposite of Martha is a centered, present Martha. The counterpoint to a distracted, anxious Martha, is a Martha who understands true attentiveness, who has maintained or Charles-Gilchrist-labyrinthreclaimed her focus.

We need to hear this message all the more clearly and all the more bluntly in our age of touch-screens, and internet and text messages and constant Googling. Technologist Linda Stone diagnoses the “disease of the Internet age is ‘continuous partial attention.’”[5]

We are really adept – and getting better – at constantly moving, convincing ourselves that we can do more and more things at the same time. I’m pretty convinced that all my devices don’t run on battery, but on the power of keeping me distracted.  Perhaps you understand.

We are motivated by garnering comments, and likes, and retweets, and favorites, and followers. Even if you don’t think you know what I’m talking about, I’ll bet you get the idea. And if we aren’t distracted enough by our screens, or our devices beckoning us with their sounds and vibrations and flashing screens, surely we are distracted enough by all the words that saturate us: blogs, tweets, cable news, talking heads.

We are absolutely saturated by words, surely it is scientifically impossible to really listen to all of them. I have a friend who can hardly stand to turn on the radio when she is in her car because she feels that because of all the words she hears at home, at work, around town, that her ears are just too full to abuse them with any more.  Perhaps she is on to something.

In all these words, in all these distractions, we need this story even more. We need to be reminded of the real lesson here – not found in choosing between doing and listening, but that in all of it – in our doing and our listening and all that’s in between we must reclaim attentiveness to the presence of God.

We do, to be sure, need to hear Jesus commend Mary for choosing to sit and listen and to hear his words. But we need to continue to listen to what it is he says to Martha. He does not chide her activity, but her distraction. And listen to her words – so full of self-talk – as though she has forgotten the person to whom she is speaking.

Jesus’ response, we should not be surprised, is one of grace and love – he extends an invitation to receive his presence. His invitation communicates to Martha that her value is intrinsic to who she is – not in the activity she busies herself doing. He invites her to remember her focus – to remember what gives her life, which is found in the purpose for the action, not in the action itself.

Jesus offers us a similar invitation – this is where this story does and can and ought exist on the level of parable: “Jesus [invites] us to get caught up in the joy of being in his presence such that we forget, if only for a little while, all the usual things that hold us back, all the usual worries and headaches and concerns, and simply be… ‘in Christ.’”[6]

Further, the call, the invitation from God is to move away from our lives of continuous partial attention, to give continuous full attention – in all our undertakings. It is no accident or mere coincidence that Luke places this story after the story of the Good Samaritan, which, you will recall, is a story told to illustrate the greatest commandments.  To Love the Lord Our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Good Samaritan, it would seem, is a story about doing. About activity. In fact, Jesus closes the parable with “Go and do likewise.”[7]

And then Luke follows that parable with this story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. We don’t know what words Mary heard – but we do know what Jesus said to Martha. Keep in mind this is the only account of his visit at their home – the only recorded conversation from that night. Luke’s retelling, and Luke’s juxtaposition of the Good Samaritan with the Mary and Martha story is intentional.

We can no more fully understand and love God by doing only as we can by hearing only. If our attention, our focus, is rightly placed, then one will follow the other.

To assume that discipleship can be a one-or-the-other life, is to assume that we could keep on living by only inhaling or only exhaling. There is a balance – there is a rhythm. Both are essential to life. Our exhalations presuppose our inhalations. And in our inhalation, we anticipate the exhale. Likewise, we must seek the balance of sitting at the foot of Christ and listening, of contemplating, of being still and seeking quiet, and by turns being prompted to actions of grace, love, and hospitality – all of it centered on the one object of devotion.

What is that Most Important Thing – that one object of our devotion? It is found in our attentiveness to God’s presence – in all things. David Lose describes this attentive spirituality, “as easily practiced in the kitchen as in the study, at school or at play, while working the farm or looking for work. What matters is not so much what you are doing, but the attentiveness to God’s presence and purpose in, with, under all our varied activities and responses.”[8]

Continue reading

Imagine the God. Sermon, 21 July

Genesis 32.22-31

 

Imagine the desperation.  There was Jacob, on the shores of the Jabbok, surely terrified.  He was about to face his brother, about to face certain death.

And he deserved it.

For someone labeled a ‘hero of the faith,’ for someone who gets included in our list of Fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – he certainly didn’t life a very heroic life.

Jacob was the second-born son of Isaac and Rebekah. Well – barely the second born. His twin brother, Esau, emerged only moments before Jacob. In a culture that values birth order – especially amongst sons – even these precious moments helped determine a lifetime of animosity and angst between these two brothers.  Jacob’s name, even, reminds him, informs others, of his birth, meaning “he takes by the heel,” (and could also be understood to mean, “he deceives.” To be sure, Jacob would maintain his grip on Esau’s heel, living up to his name for years to come.  The stories that follow the birth of the twins seem to retell mistake after mistake or one deceit after another from Jacob.

Jacob steals the birthright from Esau, trading it for a bowl of stew. Under influence and encouragement from his mother – he always was a momma’s boy – Jacob deceives his father and steals Esau’s blessing.

The two brothers never quite got off on the right foot. (Pun intended.) It seemed destined that they would be at odds, as the scriptures tell us in the words to Rebekah before they were born: Genesis 25.23: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

Turns out, God knows what God is talking about.

For all Jacob’s conniving and jealousy-driven coercions, he has trumped Esau, forging a permanent wall between them. Tricking both Esau and Isaac out of Esau’s proper blessing was the last straw. Jacob’s life is not on the line, and he heeds his mother’s advice to “flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away – until your brother’s anger against you turns away and he forgets what you have done to him.”

Jacob left, but not after being blessed again by his father. That was the last he would know of his family and his brother – that he had deceived all of them and his brother wanted to kill him.

Talk about not being able to go home again.

But that is exactly what Jacob wanted to – and intended to do. After 21 years of living with Laban, a victim to his own tricks, being deceived into marrying Leah first, and sticking it out to marry Rachel.  Jacob felt ready to return to his homeland. His attempt to leave resulted in conversation with Laban that did not go as planned and he then received the resentment of sons of Laban. He was left with no choice but to pack up everything – wives, servants, goats, sheep, all that he had – and begin the journey back to his home.

Imagine the desperation at this point.

Jacob really has no homeland. His mother is dead, and he is estranged from his father. He has a brother who, last time he checked, was intent and content to seek revenge ending in death.

Not exactly the homecoming I would want. But he’s on his way.

Jacob, determined to do all he can to make reparations, sends ahead messengers bearing gifts. Hoping to appease Esau’s anger, he tells his messengers, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and staying until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’” We can hear the change of attitude in Jacob’s calling Esau ‘my lord,’ and himself Esau’s servant. Either humility or desperation for his own life – for better or worse – it is a change at the very least.

But.

It does not seem to have done any good. The messengers, sensing Jacob’s unease and anxiety return fearfully to Jacob, reporting “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

Jacob, we read, “was greatly afraid and distressed.”

I’ll bet.

I can imagine this figure standing alone – in stark contrast to the men and women standing around the hundreds of livestock. There he is, pacing up and down the edge of the river, assured only of his certain death at the hands of his only brother – his twin brother – his womb-mate.  The only other thing he must know for certain is that he deserves every bit of what’s coming to him.

Hands wringing, beads of sweat forming.

Imagine the desperation.

It is this desperation that forms his prayer:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, … Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.”

This desperate father, brother, husband tries again to placate Esau’s anger, by sending an army of animals in three different waves, instructing all of them to tell Esau that the animals “Belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’”

Jacob sent all he had as a final act of desperation in hopes of finding favor with his estranged twin – thereby securing another day of his life.

So there is Jacob.  Still pacing nervously along the river. He sends the rest of his family across, leaving himself alone for the night. Alone to fear and question his impending fate.  I’m sure he had plenty of time to relive and regret all his deceitfulness and misdeeds.

Plenty of time to wrestle with his guilt.

All of his wrestling seemed to be internal – working up knots of guilt and anxiety and fear.  Until he found himself grip to grip with an unknown figure. The scriptures tell usjacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-artist-Marc-Chagall that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Jacob finds himself wrestled to the ground, caught in a Full Nelson (which I’m told is actually an illegal move), and all Jacob does is react.

He has no idea who this person could be – for all he knows it is Esau – and he is in survival mode.  It’s fight or flight, and he’s fighting until the end.

So. There they are, the man and Jacob, locked, wrestling, for hours.

Imagine the desperation.

Jacob was not going to let go.  And so the man strikes his hip, knocking it out of joint. Even then, Jacob’s letting go was contingent of receiving a blessing. (Do you notice a theme here?)

The stranger responds with a question: “What is your name?” to which Jacob answered. The man responds by saying, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed.” He does not tell Jacob his name, and proceeds to bless him.  Here Jacob realized who he has seen, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

We can imagine the desperation Jacob surely felt. He struggled all of his life to be on top – to get what he wanted, even when he knew he did not deserve it – especially when he didn’t deserve it.

And now, when he surely deserved his brother’s vengeance, he was desperate to change his fate. His wrestling, his refusing to let go was an act of desperation.

Imagining how Jacob felt in these moments is the easy part.

But. Imagine the God. Imagine the God who would appear physically to Jacob – to be present – interlocked arm-in-arm with him – and struggle with him. Jacob had received dreams from God, but this was divine intervention of a whole different sort. What does this divine wrestling match mean?  How in the world do we understand it?

Many perspectives exist – regarding the identity of the wrestler, the posture of Jacob, the meaning of his physical experience.  I believe we should read this story, though, as Jacobs.

We are tenacious, often desperate in our own lives.

God, though – God is not distant – God comes and wrestles with us. Because we do not want to let go, neither does God. In a sense, Jacob’s struggling and holding his own change a potentially negative situation into a positive, blessing-filled one. After the night at Penuel, certainly Jacob’s and God’s relationship has changed.  They hold fast to each other. Neither will turn away.

Jacob is changed.  We should not overlook the importance of Jacob’s name change at the time of his divine blessing.  God has given him a new name. He no longer needs to be identified by who he is in relation to his brother.  He is no longer marked by his past deceit and mischief. His new name, Israel, signifies his relationship to God. Jacob’s new identity is a God-given and God-centered one.

Jacob is changed. We ought not overlook the mark left behind. Jacob now limps as a result of his encounter with God.  What does it mean?

We can understand it on two angles: On the one hand, it signifies Jacob’s success – not his failure or defeat. He has struggled and has prevailed. As such, Jacob does not become a victim of God, reduced to groveling or to insignificance before the Almighty’s power. Rather, God has met him in the struggle, and Jacob emerges changed, and yet better for the fight.

On the other hand, it attests to God’s graciousness; Jacob has wrestled with God to the break of day, yet his life is preserved. So the mark symbolizes both who Jacob is and who God is.

Yes, this is a very real experience of Jacob. The entirety of the story is wrapped up in its physicality. We cannot forget that.

This story is more than merely a story about a physical wrestling match between one man and his God – or some representation thereof.

We are Jacobs. Scared. Of relationships, regretting what should have been forgiven long ago – afraid of what we do not know.

We wrestle – sometimes it seems an intense physical battle, and sometimes it seems we wrestle within ourselves – with our own emotions and will and desire.

God wrestles with us – God is present with us.

This story is not about a competition where someone must win and someone must lose.  God doesn’t wrestle with us as God could.  God could “win” every time.  Without even a fight.  Rather, God meets us in the struggle – holding us tightly, intimately fighting, striving with us – waiting for our slow surrender – waiting to change our names – to change our walk.

We are Jacob.

It’s not hard to imagine our desperation.  Imagine our grasping – our need.

But imagine the God – wrestling, waiting – to change us into Israel.

Morning Prayer, 7.14.2013

We have heard it said, O God that your greatest command is to love you with all of who we are.

With all our heart, O God, help us love you. In loving what you love, may we be agents of your moving and acting love in the world. May we love justice and kindness as you do. May we love our families, our friends, our enemies as you love them. Challenge us to see them through your eyes. May we love as you love – choosing peace deuteronomyand presence instead of violence and alienation.

With all our soul, O God, help us love you. To the core of who we are, may we commit and re-commit ourselves to loving you. Sometimes this feels like a moment to moment challenge. There are many things that compete for our loyalty, for our commitment. May the things we choose reflect a deep and abiding love for you and your world.

With all our mind, O God, help us love you. May we use our questions, our curiosities, our inquiries to seek your face and your ways.  In our approaches to learning, to wondering, to knowing, may we find you in our investigations. We understand that your world and your ways are not found at the end of a Google search – may we know the power of loving you alongside our wonder.

With all our strength, O God, help us love you.  May we respect not only our spirits and our minds, but our bodies, knowing that you created us – fearfully and wonderfully made us. May we use our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears, to love and serve you in the world. With our physical strength, our emotional strength, our mental strength, help us rely on you and on others, not only on ourselves.

You have also called us to love other people with all of who we are. Challenge us and change us to love others as you love them. Show us your face and your image in all those around us. May we find neighbors in the most surprising of places, and yet not so surprising, as we see your fingerprints, your reflection in all corners of our world.

Write these words on our hearts, that they become part of who we already are, created by you, for you and in you.

We ask all this in your Son’s name,

Amen.

Morning Prayer, June 30, 2013

On the occasion of celebration of baptism.

God of our birth, God of our life, God of our death, and God of our resurrection – in the waters of baptism you call us to new life. In the waters today, call us once again to life in you, following your Son.

In the waters of baptism we remember that we are buried with Christ and raised with him. This day may we be buried to our old lives and raised anew in the ways of your Kingdom.

Buried to vengeance, hatred, and violence,baptism
                  Raise us to peace, acceptance, gentleness.

Buried to jealousy, self-doubt, and hostility,
                  Raise us to contentment, confidence, and welcome.

Buried to wall-building and judgment,
                  Raise us to drawing circles of inclusion, seeking understanding.

Buried to systems of injustice, discrimination and oppression,
                  Raise us to foster new systems of justice, equality and righteousness.

Buried to our own tendencies towards fear,
                  Raise us in your perfect love, which you have promised casts our all our fears.

Buried to our inclinations of despair, anxiety, and worry,
                  Raise us anew in the fullness of your hope and your joy.

Buried to our selfishness and anger,
                 Raise us to compassion and reconciliation.

Buried to our posture of competition,
                 Raise us to cooperation and fellowship.

Buried to our sin,
                Raise us to new life in your son, for it is in his name we pray all these things, and join our voices with him, saying Our Father…