A Sermon for 17 July 2016
A reading from the gospel of Luke 10:38-42. And remember that this story comes after the gospel writer has clarified that Jesus intently has set his face to go to Jerusalem. He’s resolute in his march towards the Holy City and all that awaits there. Along the way, here’s one thing that happens. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.””
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Sometime around the winter of 1630 in France, an eighteen year old boy (named Nicholas Herman by his parents) was lingering outside on a mid-winter day. We’re not really sure why he was outside – if his stroll had something to do with his work as a young foot soldier, or if he was out on an errand for his parents. One thing is for sure: he was not on his way to university for any sort of studies. For Nicholas Herman never received any formal education. He was a simple young man from a simple French family who lived nearly four-hundred years ago. And yet I am talking about him today! . . . It so happened on that winter day in his eighteenth year, that Nicholas Herman looked upon a tree. It’s been described as a “dry, leafless tree standing gaunt against the snow” (The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims, Revell Books, p. 12). Whoever would think one seemingly life-less tree in the dead of winter could make all that much of a difference? After all, you and I are blessed to be surrounded by trees every day. Not many of us stop to intently look upon them. Not many notice at all the grandiosity of a single tree – spring, summer, fall, or winter – roots digging down deep into the rich soil of the earth, branches reaching as far as possible up into the heavens, trunk firmly resolved to stand among us whether we turn aside to notice or not.
It wasn’t the case with the young Nicholas Herman that mid-winter day his eighteenth year in France. Before he knew it, his full attention was on that dry, leafless tree that stood scrawny-like against the wintry white mounds of snow. Like our ancient ancestor Moses who after around forty years of tending sheep in the very same spot; one day finally turns aside to notice that the same old bush that had been there yesterday and the day before and the day before that for like the past four decades – yet suddenly, that day, that same old bush was burning. That’s what Moses finally noticed when at long last he turned aside with eyes opened wide to see it. There he was standing on Holy Ground with a message from God awaiting. . . . That winter day his eighteenth year in France, Nicholas Herman opened his eyes to that dry, leafless winter tree to suddenly realize that change would come in the spring. Nicholas reports that the message of that tree resonated so deeply within that in an instant, he fell in love with God. He suddenly knew God and the immense favor God has for us all – the with-ness of our LORD, who will not leave us alone in the wintry storms of our days. Who in due time will bring about change in us as certainly as new life will spring in that dry, leafless tree. From the day Nicholas Herman stopped to intently look upon that tree, his life would never be the same again.
He’s known today as Brother Lawrence, the saint of a man whose words about the continual presence of God have spanned the centuries to inspire millions to simply remain attuned to God in our midst. No matter his duties – and for fifteen years Nicholas Herman, who became the lay brother called Brother Lawrence, would serve in the kitchen among Carmelite monks in Paris. Work he dreaded and found himself not at all cut out for, due to his clumsy nature. Yet Brother Lawrence sought to keep himself attuned to God in all things so that even while scrubbing the dirtiest pots in the heat of the summer for fifteen years in that kitchen, he would pray: “Lord of all pots and pans and things . . . make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!” (Ibid., p. 11). In all things, he sought to act for the glory of God, to keep himself aware of and connected to God in his midst. So that it’s been recorded he would say: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament’” (Ibid., p. 12). That’s the wisdom of Brother Lawrence, the simple French boy who once turned aside to see that dry, leafless tree. You can read all about him in the Christian Devotional Classic called: The Practice of the Presence of God.
Even though Brother Lawrence faithfully concerned himself all those years with the pots and pans in that monastery kitchen, I think Jesus really would have loved him. Even the Jesus whose words are before us in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke. I’m guessing most have heard of this little story tucked into the travelogue of Jesus’ last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. In my experience among Christian women, there seems to be an innate pecking order about who is a Martha and who is a Mary? As one of five daughters in my family, we all know which one of us would stomp around the kitchen, noisily banging the pots together as the fury radiates off of us as surely as steam spouts from a boiling kettle. At long last, in total exacerbation, we’d pound our way into the living room to insist our lazy sister be made to help us! . . . If you were raised in a family with any siblings, then certainly you know this scene. One commentator cautions preachers of this text that it’s not just in families were such tantrous tiffs take place. We’re to tread lightly here – especially on fellowship coffee Sundays – because isn’t it always the case one person of the church seems to be left alone to do all the work. The last thing in the world we’d want to do is offend the Marthas among us – who, after all, really make this place work. You know, those of you who tirelessly count the offerings, and fix up the grounds, and wash yet another dish in the church kitchen. Those who teach Sunday School every week, and greet the children in our mid-week ministries, and work the Food Bank or Good Samaritan ministry week after week after week. We need you! We need you to go about such work because without it, this church has no ministry! I doubt Jesus – even the Jesus pulled into a triangle between two sisters – I doubt this Jesus would tell us to stop such faithful efforts. Just drop to his feet and sit around on your pew as Mary seems to do in this story. Though many of us have heard it interpreted so, this is not an either or kind of story – at least not an either or between faithful service to God or devoted study at Jesus’ feet. Rather, this is a story – an imperative by our Lord to choose the better way.
Isn’t it true that we can go about anything with the kind of attitude captured here in this one, little, unfortunate moment of Martha’s life? Martha happens in us all. We start off with the best intentions. She does too. Though the text never clarifies exactly what work she’s doing, it’s likely she’s in her kitchen preparing a meal for The Guest who has come to dwell with her. Jesus never belittles her gracious acts. Rather, hear what he does say: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” (Luke 10:41). Worried and distracted by many things. It’s not about what Martha is doing – or what Mary is doing, for that matter. It’s about the way in which each sister goes about doing whatever it is she’s doing. The better way – the better part Mary seems to display – is the same sort of intent focus that changed Nicholas Herman’s life for good. It’s attention. It’s focus. It is attuning to the presence of God always in our midst. Connecting deeply with our LORD, no matter the task at hand. As Brother Lawrence once said: “the most excellent method he had found of going to God was that of doing our common business . . . purely for the love of God” (The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims, Revell Books, p. 27). In all things we can align ourselves in love to remain in communion with God. Even the most mundane, maddening of tasks can be done to the glory of God. Attuned to the Spirit’s presence in our midst. Worry and distraction released. Intent focus instead, blessed notice of God in our midst whether we’re doing all the work alone again, or sitting in the quiet reading the words of our Lord. It’s not about what we do, it’s about how we do it – the better way in which we can live each moment of our lives.
I’ve heard it said that’s regrettably what’s missing among churches today. Disciples of Christ like us just skimming the surface of things – never diving down deep no matter the moment to attune to God. Worry and distraction can take over among a whole church so that anyone who comes among us can smell the panic. The frenetic pace we go about each week – rushing through worship to get on to the meeting we feel like we have to sit through once again. We can go through the motions of being church and allow worry and distraction to be our driving mission. Fear of scarcity our constant companion. . . . But the better way – the way we’re called to by our Lord – is the way of deep communion. Connection with one another and with God because we constantly seek to attune fully to the Presence in our midst. We do it all for the glory of God. In love – ready to notice whatever message from God awaits. Jesus seems to tell us that we have a choice. It really is up to us because everywhere we are is Holy Ground – every place we stand God is with us – in our midst. . . . All we have to do is turn aside from worry and distraction. Open our eyes to notice.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)