Thursday, July 15, 2010
The Main Thing
With all the intramural fighting about the role of women, the place for gays in the church and the gap between the fundamentalists, the conservatives, the moderates and the liberals—not to speak of the scandals--much of the world looks at us as if we are simply irrelevant. No wonder so many thinking people have given up on the church—there is still a famine in the land and the world looks at us like we are handing out stones instead of bread.
Of course we have not been short on answers. If you want to find out about church you might just look in the yellow pages of your phone book under Church. Chances are you would be confused. I found 14 yellow pages of lists and ads from churches.
I looked under Christian Church and I found Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Christian Missionary and Alliance. There are nine kinds of Baptists. Not only are there Roman Catholics but also Catholics that observe the Byzantine rite. You will find regular Episcopalians and Charismatic Episcopalians and the Anglican Church that tells you they use the same Prayer Book that Jesus used. There are six different churches of God and Bahai and one church that says it is Interdenominational. There was an Islamic temple and four kinds of Methodists. There are three different Presbyterian groups not to mention the Spiritualists, Unity, and Metropolitan Community Church. Some preachers wear robes while others are donned in blue jeans and Reeboks. You’ll find beautiful stained glass windows and storefront churches. There are guitars and tambourines and rockin’ and rollin’ and there are places so quiet people would have a stroke if somebody said Amen. We have beautiful church buildings and churches that look like the civic auditorium. The outsider, hungry for some word to keep them going would be frankly confused.
Now turn to the Gospel reading we find that interesting story in Luke’s tenth chapter. And Luke is really trying to help the struggling church understand its real identity. Leave those fourteen pages in the phone book and look at what Luke is trying to tell the church. What really matters? What is the main thing?
Luke gives us a story of two sisters. Jesus came to see them and they were so glad. They were old friends and it was a marvelous meeting. But it also a study in contrasts. Martha went to the door; she wiped her hands on her apron, pushed her hair out of her eyes and told Jesus to come in. She hugged him with a great big Martha hug. Her sister, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and they talked. She listened. Martha set the table, got out the silver, put a dish in the oven, turned down the burner on the stove, and began to peel onions and potatoes. And she called into the other room, “Mary, would you help me. Mary—I could use some help out here.” Five minutes later she comes to the door and says icily, “Mary. Would you please come in here and help me.” It was an awkward moment. Jesus sighed and lovingly said, “Martha, you are distracted with many things. There is only one thing. Your sister, sitting her has chosen the better part.” Martha’s jaw fell about four feet.
What is this main thing that Jesus talked about? It’s not the pot roast. It’s not a bulletin—without a single typo. Neither is it a proper Doxology or Lord’s Prayer led by someone who doesn’t forget half-way through the prayer. The main thing is not some politically correct or incorrect pronouncement.
In the story--Mary broke the rules. Women were supposed to stay in the background and submit. The men would sit at table with the guests. Not only was Mary not setting the table but she was not pushy—the in-your-face type. She sat and listened. But Jesus said: “Mary understands the main thing.” But it’s not that simple, is it? I wish it was. Just gather and pray and sing and forget the world. Is this the main thing? Martha did not think so. I don’t know how many women in the church through the years have come by the church door on the way home and said: “I just can’t stand that story. Mary—the chosen one? Huh—if it wasn’t for Martha you couldn’t get anything done around here. Somebody has to work.”
Luke didn’t think it was that simple either. In the story that precedes Jesus' visit with the two sisters he tells the story of Good Samaritan. Who was it that got the point—understood what he was to do? A Samaritan stopped and bound up the wounds of a hurting man when no one else seemed to care. Jesus said what really matters is that we show mercy.
Luke gives us a clue as to what we really are to do about the famine in the land. Luke or some scribe placed the Samaritan story and the story of the two sisters back to back for one purpose. The Gospel demand is to do like Martha the Good Samaritan. And the gospel demand is to do what her sister, Mary did. Sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet and listening. So our task is two fold: doing and listening.
Some of us doers here have so little patience with the Mary’s. And some of us meditative types have too little patience with the Martha’s. And Luke says: we need both.
Mary had it right. She sat at Jesus’ feet—quiet and listening. Martha also had it right—she set the table and prepared the meal. Hopefully after listening to Jesus she saw her world in a different light. Mary saw faces she had not seen and needs she never knew existed. Martha—hopefully learned after the meal to sit and be quiet—to let her exhaustion melt away as she remembered the visit of Jesus and the things they talked about—and how good it felt.
People today long for something to move them beyond their distractions. I-Phones, Pods, Pads, computers, email and the constant blaring of late breaking news does not feed the soul. We all need something that will make us more human, kinder and participants in a better world. Mary and Martha are both our models—and they are models for that long, long list of different churches in my phone book.