In the wake of the recent resolution (GA-1327 Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All) at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we're going to offer over the next few days some of the sermons preached by Disciples ministers who are attempting to confront the difficult conversations that will inevitably ensue.
No Telling What God Could Do
Last week, some of you may recall, was the parable of the Good Samaritan. And it’s important to recall that the parable of the Good Samaritan was a response to the questions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?”
The lawyer, who approached Jesus to ask those questions, demonstrated his knowledge of the content of the life of discipleship. He got the words right: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus told him that he got that part right, and that he ought to begin to live that knowledge out.
The point, I think—at least on a very basic level—that Jesus was trying to make was that it’s possible to know the right stuff without ever having to go to the inconvenience of actually living it.
But the church isn’t principally concerned with having us know more about Jesus; what we care about is helping us to look more like Jesus. Discipleship means getting in the game and getting our hands dirty, not just knowing the rules.
It’s not enough to know the right thing, following Jesus actually means doing the right thing.
I want to suggest to you that the story of the Good Samaritan and today’s story about Mary and Martha are placed back to back on purpose.
Why do I say that? Well, what’s the story of Mary and Martha about?
Pretty simple, really. Jesus goes to Mary and Martha’s house. While Martha’s in making the congealed salad and deviled eggs, sister Mary’s in the billiard room with the boys.
Apparently, she’s forgotten her place—which is where? In the kitchen. “She’s supposed to be in here peeling potatoes, not in there chewing the fat.” At least that’s Martha’s position. And, if you listened to the story of the Good Samaritan last week, you can hardly blame her, can you?
You’ve gotta walk the walk, right Jesus? It’s no good just talking about it. You’ve got to get in there and get your hands dirty, right Jesus? It’s not enough to know it, you’ve got to live it.
You can understand how Martha’s a little confused. Didn’t we just go over this? She’s just living out the truth of the previous story Luke told. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to quit passing by on the other side of the road, and get in here and help me.”
Wasn’t that what we said Jesus was pushing for? No more sitting around talking about it. No more sitting around studying it. It’s time to get in the game. We want to see the fur flying. We’ve had enough of this egghead stuff. Let’s get to work. Isn’t that what Jesus was saying?
It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re in there doing something. We don’t need any more navel-gazing. Let’s get busy. Good Samaritan. Lazy lawyer. Right Jesus? Tell her to get her to get her body in here and start sprinkling paprika on the deviled eggs. Talking ain’t gonna get the banana pudding made.
And what does Jesus say?
“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.”
What? What is that all about? I thought you just said, get busy. Get in the game. Quit thinking about it, and start living it. What’s Luke doing—besides offering paradoxes, which only give navel-gazing clergy-types something else to help them avoid doing real work?
Well, let’s look at Mary and Martha for a minute. Jesus seems to be contradicting his wisdom from the Good Samaritan, doesn’t he?
If the point of the exchange with the lawyer that led to the telling of the Good Samaritan was—it’s not enough to know about the life of discipleship, you’ve got to live it—then the point of Luke’s telling of the story of Mary and Martha is that it’s not enough to do good works, you have to spend time reflecting on the good.
Jesus as much as says this to Martha, doesn’t he? Relax a little. Take it easy. Don’t work so hard. The most important thing to do is think.
Is that what he’s trying to say—that thinking is more important than doing? Well . . . sort of, but not exactly.
What exactly does that mean?
It means that doing is not nearly as important as knowing why and on whose behalf we’re doing it. And you can only know that after you’ve sat at the master’s feet.
Why? Because we often confuse busyness for faithfulness. If it’s not enough to know the life of discipleship without practicing it; it’s not enough to do good works without knowing why or the one for whom you’re doing them—because if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s not always possible to tell if work is good or not.
Remember, following Jesus and the things he asks from us are more often than not counter-intuitive, crazy sounding—loving our enemies, doing good to those who persecute us, going after one lamb while the other 99 sneak off to Atlantic City.
Discipleship isn’t just common-sense niceness—it’s radically subversive dependence on God to meet the needs everyone else tells us we ought to be meeting on our own. In this story, once again, Jesus is telling us to do something that’s a tough sell in our busy world. He tells Martha, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
How do we know that’s what this story’s driving at?
Look at the context. Where does this story take place? In Martha’s house?
So what? What difference does that make?
The very fact that you could ask that question locates you at a certain point in history. Our modern, liberated views about women haven’t been held by all people in all places.
Most of history has understood women as nothing short of the head chef and nanny, something to do on a Saturday night when the poker game’s been canceled. Typical understandings of women throughout history have called for female exclusion when it comes to business or education.
Parenthetically, the church, as often as not, has contributed to this hidebound view of women as the “weaker sex.” We must confess our sins—that we’ve often been the problem and not the solution. The church certainly has much about which it must repent with respect to its treatment of women.
But here in our Gospel, Jesus went to a woman’s house, and he was teaching a woman.
Now, that might not sound like a big deal to you—and frankly, I’m glad we’ve moved beyond some of that diminished view of women. But because we live in liberated times, we aren’t nearly as shocked by this story as we ought to be. Jesus crossed some pretty profound sociological lines to go to the home of a woman, and teach another woman.
Do you see?
But what does that have to do with what you said about it’s not enough to do without knowing why and who you’re doing it for? Now I’m confused.
Let me see if I can bring this home. What Jesus does in taking this radical step of meeting with and teaching women is to highlight the fact that what’s important in the service of Christ—is Christ.
Because we’re always prone to thinking that what we need is to do something, anything. We’ve often acted as though the success or failure of the work of God rises or falls with us—so we’d better get busy.
Enough sitting around, thinking, praying. We need to get in the game and do something. Otherwise things might fall apart. We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to find the right program, the right youth leader, the right minister—then we can insure our success. Who’s going to hold things together, if we don’t?
But what Jesus points out to us in our frantic efforts to secure our own future is that he doesn’t require much in the way of personnel to get the work of the kingdom done. He doesn’t need movers and shakers to accomplish his purposes. He can use folks that the rest of the world would never consider to do his bidding: a Samaritan, and a couple of women.
Why? Because it’s about him—not us.
What about this church? What about DBCC?
What’s at issue here is not our abilities, our competence. What’s at issue here is whether we seek to discern God’s will together, and then to do it.
Our prayer isn’t, “God, make us bigger or more successful,” or “God, give us some more young families and help us to look the way we think we ought to look.”
Our prayer is, “God, give us the strength to be faithful, and the courage to allow you to do with us what you will.”
Because God, in the final analysis, is responsible for what we’ll eventually look like. We’re responsible for trying to discern where God is moving in the world, and then working our tails off to be there—with full minds and dirty hands.
We never know where the train’s going. We’re just praying to be on it when it leaves the station.
This past week, for example—due in part to the vision of this congregation in the Highlands as the first sponsors of the resolution we passed at General Assembly—our denomination has spoken publicly about the need for the church to welcome and affirm all people, regardless of race, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, physical or mental ability, political or theological perspective, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Because of your work and a lot of other people’s, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) now calls on the church to become a people of welcome and grace to all.
Listening to God, struggling to understand God’s will and then to be faithful to it, and a handful of people on the corner of Douglass Blvd. and Bardstown Road have helped to make history and change the world.
Here’s the thing: the juxtaposition of these two stories in our Gospel for this morning forces us to see that doing and reflecting are indispensable to discipleship. It’s not enough to think without doing, or to do without thinking.
Because the real juice behind it all is God—not us.
But God we’re afraid. We’ve worked long and hard—us and the generations that came before us—and we don’t know where this is heading. We’re worried about what will become of us. We’re afraid that one day we’ll wake up and we won’t recognize the church we’ve known and loved.
God whispers gently to us, “I know. I know of your service, your dedication. I hold you and your work close to my heart. But there are even more people out there I want to hold close to my heart, and calling them to come home will require perhaps some different work than what you’ve done before. But don’t worry, my family is held together by my love—and not by anybody’s work (no matter how good).”
Trusting God to make of us what God wills may not be a formula for success the way we’re trained to think of success. But, then, God’s always doing crazy things.
None of this should surprise us, though. We serve a God who, as Martin Luther said, can ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow.
We serve a God who thought nailing a guy to a tree would turn out to be a good idea.
And if God can pull a miracle out of that particular hat, there’s no telling what God could do with us.