Thursday, May 4, 2017

Have You Got The Time?

The church I serve happens to have a town-owned clock up in the bell tower.  Apparently, in the late nineteenth century, the town decided that knowing the time of day was important, so took charge of maintaining several strategically-located clocks, three in churches due to the height and visibility of their bell towers (New North Church; the Congregational Church; and the Second Parish Church), and the fourth in what became a schoolhouse and is now a business (the William Fearing Building).  Each clock survives today but none of them is in workable condition.  At the most recent town meeting, a majority of citizens voted to approve twelve Community Preservation Act projects, one of which includes restoring each tower clock.

E. Howard & Company in Boston made the clock installed in New North Church (originally Third Church, built by the New North Meeting-House Corporation in 1807).

Given that we all walk around with a watch or clock of some kind on our person (via smart phones, dumb phones, or even actual watches) or in our cars, and that just about every device and appliance in our homes has a clock built into it, why bother repairing some old clocks that will still need maintenance after their respective restorations are complete?
The argument that we don’t need working church clocks anymore is compelling.  Hardly anyone looks up these days anyway; we’re too busy looking down at our phones.  Or we’re driving by and can’t see the clock in any case.  Also, they’re just too danged expensive to repair.  This town has found a solution to that concern by using CPA money for the restoration projects, which is exactly what CPA money is intended to fund.  But still the question persists: Why bother?

It has lots if gears
Each armature connects to an
exterior clock face

I can think of two reasons.  First, the town owns the clocks and has come to realize that it has a responsibility to maintain them.  But why, when they have far outlived their relevance and purpose?  That feeds into my second reason: the town values its history and its legacy.  If we turn away from our shared heritage, more and more of what we hold dear will erode away.  Is taking pride in one’s community a sin?  Should we not love the place in which we live?  Knowing that the clocks actually work might give us hope that other, less tangible stuff in town might also work as designed, and that’s a good thing.

 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent Hope

Based on Isaiah 2:1-5

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new lectionary cycle, also known as Year A.  We call it the First Sunday of Advent, and our reading concerns the word that Isaiah saw.  That word is mostly about eschatology or the ‘end times;’ for Christians, this means the second coming of Christ.

The hope we share this first Sunday is the hope of the kingdom to come.  We pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Advent is about expectation, the hope for a better world, a just world, and a new world.

In Deuteronomy 18, the Lord says:
You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’  If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.

So how do we know Isaiah is not a false prophet, since his words – God’s words – have not come true?

How can they be true when we live in a world of wars and rumors of wars?  It is us who must start living as if the promises Isaiah saw were true.  Isaiah tells us, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  We have to practice peace, in our homes and in our communities.  We have to practice justice and reconciliation.  God’s words are not empty.  We are expected to wait for God to reveal the word, to share the word, and we are expected not just to listen to it but to see it as reality.  As Christians, we have to take God’s words and God’s challenges seriously, and work to create that reality.

Our current world is a frightening place.  Isaiah sees something that is not yet here: God’s creation as God intended it to be – peaceful, whole, healed, and reconciled.  Interestingly, Isaiah also tells us that they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks – but makes no mention of our swords or our spears.  The nations shall forget how to go to war but we will not be left unarmed.

Hopeful people not only pray for the coming of the Kingdom; they work for it too.  To hope for justice and peace is to work for it.  To hope for a time when all children are fed and properly housed is to do more than just complain about it; it is to find some children to feed and house and then feed and house them.  Realizing our hope is a constant struggle.

In 1995, South Africa set up a truth and reconciliation commission in the wake of the break-down of apartheid.  The entire nation engaged in a wrenching exercise in truth-telling and forgiveness, and is the better for it now.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “First, people prayed for us.”  Eugene Boring wrote, “If the Christian community is to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations,’ it must be a forgiving community, for only forgiveness makes it possible for people to live together.”

Just as we are invited to walk in the light of the Lord, we will all be invited to share a meal at Christ’s table.  Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  And what we are called to remember is that we gather in peaceful fellowship as a community, imperfect, not entirely whole, but a community nonetheless, as a house of prayer, to live into the hope of Advent.

Amen.



About the art:

The bronze sculpture, Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares, was created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich (1908-1974), and presented to the United Nations on 4 December 1959 by the Government of the USSR. 

The sculpture depicts the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other, which he is making into a ploughshare.  It is meant to symbolize man's desire to put an end to war, and to convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of mankind.  It is located in the North Garden of the United Nations Headquarters.

From: Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Take It to the Cross


Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Luke 23:33-43

So here we are in late November and we’re talking about the death of Jesus.  Next week, we celebrate the first Sunday in Advent.  There must be a reason why we have this reading from Luke’s Gospel for today.  Is the death of Jesus really the way of hope, to help us prepare for the birth of the Messiah?

Luke A. Powery, a professor at Duke University, wrote that the old folk songs, the spirituals, the slave songs of the South before the Civil War and Emancipation, all held the belief that ‘Jesus suffers with us.’  Jesus’ death on the Cross shows us that we are not alone in our suffering and death.  God works in the midst of suffering, especially in the case of wrongful suffering and undeserved death.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, ‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:18).  If you think about it, we follow the teachings of a convicted criminal.  Who wouldn’t find foolishness in that?

But we find redemption at the foot of the Cross.  To say we ‘take it to the cross’ means that we celebrate not death and violence, but a love that is always faithful, even in death; a love that shows great mercy; a love that gives grace freely.

At the foot of the Cross, we proclaim the power of God to redeem and to give life.  That’s pretty good news.

As often as we gather in peaceful fellowship not just at the Lord’s Table but for all of our meals, Jesus says to share the blessings of bread and wine in remembrance of him, to give all glory, thanks, and praise to God for God’s abundant mercy and steadfast love, and to follow God’s shepherd.

Amen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In a Quiet Corner

Based on Luke 18:9-14

The parable form enables us to arrive at an interpretation based on where we are in our culture and in our own time and place in history.  One commentator says that some parables “break up the soil of previous teaching and prepare for a new perspective.”  Much of the meaning in a parable depends on us.  Having said that, we also want to pursue what Luke was trying to tell us.

Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” to people who regarded others with contempt.  At the end of chapter 17, Jesus is talking to the disciples about the coming of the Son of Man and then, immediately before today’s reading, he tells them the story of the persistent widow.  So we know that at least the disciples are present.  Pharisees and scribes always seem to be lurking about too, along with the ever-present crowd that follows Jesus around.  And then there’s us, the audience.  So Jesus is telling this parable as a warning to anyone for whom giving thanks has turned into self-praise.

This is God's judgement: that we need purging 'with hyssop;' we need wisdom; we need to acknowledge our iniquities, our transgressions. Only then can God create in us a clean heart. Only then can reconciliation and forgiveness with our neighbors occur.

Imagine how difficult it must be to continually dodge the truth that we have sinned before the Lord; how much physical and emotional energy that must take. Do you think Bashar Hafez al-Assad thinks at all about the toll the civil war must be having on Syria's citizens? Or is the enormity of his sin so great that he can't even speak about his people and what he's doing to them? Do we ever wonder about the toll exacted upon our homeless population by the policies we impose that only seem to be helpful when actually all they do is frustrate and make the problem worse? At what point do we lose our compassion and fall into sin?

How often are we thankful that we’re not like other people?  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Is there a difference between the Pharisee just doing his duty and the person who gives to charity only to reduce their taxable income at year end?  How often do we admit that we’ve missed the mark?  Like the tax collector, do we recognize our sinfulness?  Does that knowledge bring us sorrow?


We know what God expects, through the prophet Amos:

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:22-24)

When we re-orient to what God expects – justice, righteousness – when we look at every situation from God’s point of view, then we begin to see the world differently.  The situation in Syria then looks more like tragedy, and the campaign trail, like comedy.

Jesus opens the door for us to discuss the public façade of any system of oppression.  He exposes those who would destroy the village in order to save it.  He tears the veil hanging between our reality and God’s.  He helps us reorient to what God expects versus what we have become used to.  We are free to stand far off by ourselves in our own private prayer time and lay it all out to God.  That’s humbling.  It frees us from our past and from the weight of what we’ve done – or not done.  The good news tells us that all who humble themselves and confess to God what God already knows will be exalted.

Re-orientation leads to self-knowledge, re-evaluation, and transformation.  What we take away from this parable is not that who we once thought was a good guy is now a bad guy, and vice-versa, but that we need to look within and reflect on our own relationship with God – is it honest and direct or are we trying to maintain a façade for others?  Are we self-aware when we seek out the God who made us?

No one has to tell me I’m a sinner.  God knows I know that.  What’s important is how we talk to God about it.  The true confession of our weakness will get us acquitted.  But since we’re not sure this is so, it’s better if we re-orient to what we know God wants from us: justice and righteousness in all that we do.  We must all break up the soil of what we “know” and prepare for a new perspective, through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review - Music and the People of God



da Silva, Jetro Alves. Music and the People of God. Self-published in Lexington, KY, 2016. viii + 121 pp. Softcover.

 Jetro Alves da Silva is an accomplished musician, having worked with Whitney Houston, El DeBarge, and others; a theologian; a student of music history and music in the Bible; and a proponent of the power of music to heal and transform.  In the abstract to his book, Music and the People of God, da Silva states that the project aims to ‘discuss the role of music among the people of God’ and its use through the centuries (iv).
This review offers a brief summary, a critique, and my assessment of the work.  Full disclosure: the author and I attended classes together at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts.  Who knew then that he had such a story to tell?
Broadly speaking, this is a book about music and faith.  It examines music from ancient times forward to today, with an extended discussion on the role of music in the Hebrew Bible.  Along the way, da Silva asks himself many questions about all the aspects of music and its role in faith formation.  His questions lead him into the psychology of religious experience and the theology of music, its history and its purpose.  He takes us on a survey of musical tastes ranging from the ancient Egyptians to Martin Luther and John Calvin to 50 Cent and Jay-Z.  His references are extensive and his research impressively deep.  He knows his topic well and intimately.  Much has been written on the social history of music but I am not sure anyone else has quite taken the approach presented here.
 
Da Silva believes that music has ‘the power to make a simple lyric or a powerful philosophical statement become digestible to the one who is listening’ (1).  In that sense, I believe his intention in writing this book is to draw a line from the music of nature – the sound of the waves of the oceans, bird song, trumpeting elephants, the sound of tree leaves moving in the wind – directly to the music of the people of God in praise of God.  For da Silva, music is both mystical and spiritual, and he connects it with the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Christian Trinity and the ruah of the Hebrew Bible.
As a musician and performer, and then as a music teacher and trained theologian, da Silva has traveled widely and acquired vast experience both personally and professionally.  From Brazil to Brooklyn, West Africa to Los Angeles, to Boston and beyond, da Silva’s exposure to a variety of musical forms gives him a unique perspective on his topic.  All that he has learned in his craft has focused his thinking about the role of music and its use in spiritual and religious settings.
The idea behind the book, the thing that animated Jetro’s urge to write, is that musicians can give their best to the Lord, to glorify God, to keep God at the forefront of their thoughts in their playing, singing, and even in their rehearsing.  In our listening and in our appreciation of the musician’s efforts, music can be a means to grace, emotional healing, transformation, and to sanctuary.  Through its long history as a means of human endeavor, through all its forms from primal drumming to modern Jazz and hip-hop, music has generated joy, controversy, and its own varieties of language, not to mention much that endures in our hearts and minds as rhythms and tunes.  Hearing a favorite song can often transport us back to the time and place when we first heard it, just as a favorite aroma can bring us back to the kitchens of our youth.
Music has been a part of human life experience from the very beginning.  It is used in all aspects of our cultures, in celebrations, funerals, battlefields, religious ceremonies and more.  We listen to music for pleasure.  We create music as an offering.  We present music as a gift to God and to our neighbors.  It has always been thus.  But the musical form is never stagnant.  Throughout its long history, music has evolved, changed, influenced other forms across the nations, and in general has been a constant part of our life together.
The very sounds of the earliest forms of music have been mostly lost to us, though we can pick up traces through ancient sources such as the clay tablets of Assyria, the bas reliefs of Egyptian tombs, and in the psalms of the Hebrew Bible.  Through these, we can know which cultures used which types of instruments and how they used music in all their moods and emotions.  A Hebrew shofar, for example, had a different use and purpose than a Phoenician pipe.  This exploration is just part of the journey da Silva takes us on in this book.
In order to realize this ambitious project, da Silva has appropriately broken his task into discrete, manageable sections.
Four chapters follow a brief introduction in which Jetro describes the groundwork of his own life and experience.  Chapter one offers a summary of musical instrumentation in ancient times and our resources for understanding their use.  Chapter two talks about how music is used as therapy, beginning with King Saul in the depths of his depression, and for emotional and physical healing.  Chapter three discusses music from a theological perspective.  Men like J.S. Bach, Martin Luther, and John Calvin had strong and differing opinions on the use of music especially its use in a church setting.  Luther, a musician, was for it as he believed music was a gift from God.  John Calvin, on the other hand, held the contrary view that music came from people, not God.  Lastly, chapter four addresses music as a spiritual and sacred practice, and forms the heart of the book. 
In my view, as someone with some musical training in his background and as a minister-without-portfolio, this is all fascinating stuff.  In a way, it’s good to know what Luther thought about hymns used in church.  A trained musician looking for a broader view of what it is we do on Sunday, or why, or how it came to be, might find this book to be of great interest.  Even therapists who work with people suffering from PTSD or depression can derive something new here.
Knowing Jetro, I can clearly hear his voice speaking to me from one page to the next.  He keeps to the book’s scope pretty well and seldom strays from his mission to show us the relationship between music and God.  In fact, quite often he goes way beyond just presenting some interesting nugget by offering two or three other points of view, and he almost always moves the ball forward by including his own thoughts and opinions.  His sources extend from the truly ancient to the contemporary, exposing us to a wide range of thinking on a given aspect of the discussion.
One thing jumped out at me as something that might spark a discussion, and that is the dance performed at Herod’s birthday (25).  I’m not sure the goal of the dance per se was to ‘persuade Herod to kill John the Baptist,’ though that was certainly an end result.  The daughter’s goal was merely to please Herod and his (male) guests (Mark 6:22).
At 121 8.5” x 11” double-spaced pages (my copy lacks page 122, da Silva’s C.V.), this first edition print-on-demand book is pretty slender despite the wealth of information it contains.  In a smaller size with a different font, it might feel more substantial.  It is, however, not lightweight in any other way.
There are some typos here and there, too, mostly around the numbering and formatting of just a few footnotes, and sometimes a dropped word, but overall, this is a thoughtfully done academic paper in book form.
Overall, this is a great introduction to a complex topic.  Da Silva tells us where we are going and then takes us there.  We cover a lot of ground, from archaeology to mysticism, but not once did I feel as if I were on my own, even in the midst of the discussion about the relationship between music and neurology and psychology.  In fact, da Silva is quite adept at presenting heavy material at a level appropriate for the reader.
I almost want to join a choir now, or at least to revisit the piano as a tool for tying hymns to sermons.  This book provides greater understanding at several levels, especially in how we experience music from within.
In its current form, I recommend this book to anyone who plays music in church and wants to know more about how we got to where we are today.  Non-church people might not be attracted to this kind of book, but I know some church pastors who might be quite interested.  All I would change is the format, and to fix the few errors in the text.
A great effort by a good man and a great husband and father.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review - Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World



Moss III, Otis. Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair.  Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.  xvi + 127 pp. Softcover.

Originally presented as a series of Lyman-Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School, this slim book includes three chapters, each based on an individual lecture, and four sermons which serve as illustrative examples for the material covered in the lectures.  Moss talks not just about preaching, but also about the history of Black, or ‘blue note,’ preaching, what Valentino Lassiter calls ‘the African American preaching heritage’ (Lassiter, preface, 9).  Like Lassiter, Moss notes that modern day preaching often fails to address contemporary needs.  His lecture series and this book seek to correct that situation.
This review offers a brief summary of the book followed by a critique, and concludes with an assessment and recommendation for the intended audience.
There are as many styles and approaches to preaching as there are preachers.  Moss adds his voice to a long list of authorities on preaching, including his mentor Fred Craddock, David Buttrick, Thomas Long, Kirk Jones, and others.  His influences are many, from Howard Thurman, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frank A. Thomas, Henry Emerson Fosdick, and his parents, Edwina and Otis.  This book could sit on the shelf next to Jones’ The Jazz of Preaching, as the two authors both apply musical metaphors to the subject.
Moss intends to show preachers – any preacher – how to ‘effectively communicate hope in a desperate and difficult world’ (according to the publisher’s description).  Preaching with a ‘Blue Note sensibility,’ that is, preaching with a blues aesthetic (Moss, xiii) as it developed in the black American church in the South, is prophetic preaching; a ‘Blue Note sensibility’ preaches about tragedy but refuses to fall into despair (6).
Writing from the perspective of the black preaching tradition, Moss wants to recover and reclaim this tradition from today’s church ‘where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag’ (4).  Blue Note preaching is meant to challenge the church and the preacher: ‘America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday’ (4).  Preaching the Blues tradition is now lost ‘in the clamor of material blessing, success without work, prayer without public concern, and preaching without burdens’ (4).  Moss wants preaching to regain a literary sensibility, prophetic speech, and a powerful cultural critique, and names exemplars of each genre, for example, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothee Solle (4-5).
For Moss, Blue Note preaching is an oral art, rooted in sound not the printed page, nor is it confined to the pulpit.  It reaches the head, heart, and hopes of the hearer.  It is performed in the sense of ‘using all sensory resources to communicate’ to others, and not performed in the sense of being entertainment (36).  Elsewhere, Moss says that the preacher ‘paints with a homiletical brush upon a spiritual canvas’ (34) but also includes a level of musicality (40).  Blue Note preaching is many things save for the preacher reading an essay from the pulpit.  And yet, Moss says, there is a danger in preaching, for ‘preaching brings the purveyor into contact with a world of conflict and contradiction’ (34).  Amen to that.
In chapter 3, Moss develops the metaphor of digital/mobile culture versus analog/stationary culture.  The digital culture informs Blue Note homiletics.  There is always something new being created from the old.  Jesus moved the culture, metaphorically speaking, from an analog to a mobile, digital culture.  The introduction of movable type and the printing of the Guttenberg Bible further pushed the culture into a digital framework even as it was only part of a stationary, analog culture in terms of who had access to it (48-50).  This analog-digital culture shift is occurring around us all time, and challenges the preacher.
Moss is speaking mainly to preachers, specifically black preachers but anyone who steps into the pulpit on Sunday is welcome to apply what he has to say.  This is a challenging book; not everyone will be comfortable with what they read.  As a ‘person of pallor’ reading this book, my responses ranged from feeling excluded in some ways from this amazing-sounding tradition to feeling inspired to include in my own preaching Moss’ call for preachers ‘to stare in the darkness and speak the Blues with authority and witness the work of God’ (9).  This preaching style ought to be valid not only for black American preachers but to anyone who proclaims the good news of Jesus and his ministry in their preaching.  Moss’ intent, I believe, is to open up the pulpit to powerful witness from any source and not to preach the saccharine platitudes of a ‘happy Sunday’ (4).  Our world, Moss writes, has been designed by shadows, not truth (30).
In a time of civil unrest, Moss sheds light on (a) how we can address the current sense of despair, and (b) provides insight to preachers for ways to address contemporary issues in authentic, relevant ways.  This book offers a good start for anyone to whom this is news.  If you are a text-based, immobile preacher, this might be unsettling stuff.  For a book based on a short lecture series, Moss presents his material in a logical, coherent way with the caveat that some fine-tuning, some light editing, might help tighten it up, but to do this is to risk stifling Moss’ engaging voice which comes through on every page.  He quotes blues tunes, Scripture passages; he brings in just about every musical form from classical to hip-hop.  There are a few typos – Larry Byrd?  Hey, Moss isn’t from Boston, so we’ll let it go.
Mostly, we hear Moss telling us to study out of our tradition.  Blue Note preaching challenges us to do the work, study our craft, and develop our own voices (61).  Though Moss sometimes repeats himself and occasionally makes the odd claim, this book is appropriate for its intended audience.  Moss displays some showmanship, enthusiasm, and the movement of the Spirit through both the lectures and the sermons (number four, How to Get Away with Murder, is worth the price of the book).
The book is significant and timely, given the recent situation in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Moss is biased toward preaching the truth and shedding light on injustice.  His background as a preacher at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago makes him credible and persuasive.  This work is a useful addition to any preacher’s library, particularly to a non-black audience that seeks understanding and new methods of proclaiming the Gospel.
Critically speaking, the book isn’t perfect but it comes close and it does the job as the author intended it to.  In terms of presenting his ideas in an authentic voice, Moss hits a home run.  He taught me that my way of preaching needs to open up and he gave me ways to do that.  There is much food for thought in this little book and I would recommend it to anyone who preaches, period.
References
Valentino Lassiter, Martin Luther King in the African American Preaching Tradition.  Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001.
Kirk Byron Jones, The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Service & Devotion

Based on Luke 10:38-42

This is one of four meals that Luke tells us about on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  Here, Jesus enters “a certain village” – it doesn’t matter which one, but the Gospel according to John tells us that it’s Bethany.

A woman named Martha welcomes him into her home.  She has no husband living with her, just her sister Mary, and maybe her brother Lazarus, who is not part of this story, which occurs only in Luke’s Gospel.  Luke wants us to know that Martha is an independent woman of means.  Elsewhere, she is portrayed as one who supports Jesus’ ministry financially.

Her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, symbolizing her status as a disciple, a role usually reserved for men.  As a disciple, she has left everything in order to follow Jesus.

Now remember where we are – first century Israel, not twenty-first century Massachusetts.  What both women are doing is unheard of and would be quite shocking – radical, even – to the first hearers of the story.  It was meant to shock, or the lesson would be lost.  This is typical – Jesus continually turns the world upside-down and challenges us to see familiar things in new ways.  Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, and expectations are often shattered.

This is a story about extremes.  Martha’s distractions are rooted in the real world.  But her obsession with getting her work done before she can allow herself to hear the Word of the Lord has thrown her life into disorder.  Her cares block her path to her devotion to Jesus.  She never seems to be at home, so to speak, in the presence of God.  But Mary, by setting aside everything else, exemplifies the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  She delights being in God’s presence.  Jesus says there is really only one thing, and Mary has chosen it.  Apart from this, nothing matters, even ministry.

Concern for the realities of life is valid, of course, but Luke doesn’t provide an easy answer to the problem.  Instead, he maintains the tension between two extreme and opposing truths: Martha’s real-world concerns and Mary’s complete devotion.

But in John’s Gospel, Martha, who serves, shows greater faith in Jesus than does Mary, the disciple.  Mary devotes her life to listening to what Jesus is saying because her faith – her trust and reliance in Jesus – needs nurturing; it’s growing.  Martha, on the other hand, overwhelmed by her ministry of service, shows great faith in Jesus.  Maybe Luke wants to shine a light on why we do what we do in the Lord’s name.

As it happens, in the passage immediately before today’s reading, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.  That story and today’s story about Martha and Mary go hand in hand; in fact, we should probably always read them together, because one story teaches us about love for the neighbor who needs our help and the other teaches about love for and devotion to God.  And these happen to be the two greatest commandments.

The story of the Samaritan teaches us to open our hearts to those in need, and today’s story reminds us that there is also a time to listen and reflect, to love God with our entire being.  There’s a collective lesson, and a balance to strike, between the two.

Luke (and also John in his Gospel) uses Martha as the symbol of dedicated service and Mary as the symbol of dedicated discipleship.  It’s hard work either way.

The two stories also expose the injustice of social barriers, barriers that put people into categories, barriers that restrict and oppress various groups in a society.  To love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves means we must reject society’s rules and restrictions in favor of God’s kingdom, a kingdom without boundaries and distinctions between its members.  God’s rules are radically different from society’s rules; this is one reason why Jesus’ teachings all seem to flip the world upside-down – because it needs flipping!

Daniel Migliore reminds us that, united in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one community, members of one body and mutually dependent on one another.

Our challenge, as disciples of Jesus, is to balance our real-life distractions with our place at the feet of the Lord; to not only “go and do” as God’s servants but to also sit and listen and learn, and to recognize, resist, and break down the barriers that society creates in order to exclude and separate one group from another, or to prevent us from hearing the Word of God.  Luke has packed so much into just a few verses of Gospel.

And Jesus hasn’t made it easy for us.  We are forced to make up our own minds about how to resolve our work life with our spiritual life, and in how we build the beloved community in a world-flipping faith.  Jesus challenges us to live our faith to its fullest.  He doesn’t expect us to be comfortable in it.  But we need to hear the Word of God; we cannot survive without it.

There is need of only one thing: service and devotion together, with faith-building devotion being first.  Love the Lord first.  Love the Lord always.  And take delight in the Lord.  Choose the better part, as the song in Psalm 84:1-3 says:
 How lovely is your dwelling place, O God!
My soul yearns, even faints, to be in your courts.
My heart, my whole body sings for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home at your altars, wherever they may be – even the sparrow.

Amen.


Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 229.