Saturday, July 21, 2007

Proper 11, Year C (RCL) Sermon Notes

[Luke 10:38-42]

[Movement 1: 2 stories]

- The visit to Mary & Martha's home comes right after the episode with the lawyer. In last week's Gospel, we heard a lawyer ask Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus affirmed the Two Great Commandements-- Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself.

- After that, Jesus told a parable expanding on the point of loving one's neighbor, a story about a Samaritan man who stops to help a man beaten on the side of the road.

- Today's events, the story of the visit with Mary and Martha, elaborates on loving God.

- Neither of these stories is complete without the other. Both of these stories have a point to make that illuminates one of the Great Commandments. The Good Samaritan teaches us more about loving our neighbor. Mary & Martha teaches us more about loving God.

[Movement 2: The two elements of discipleship]

- The things we learn from these stories...

- The Good Samaritan is praised for his action, and Jesus tells the lawyer "Go and *do* likewise." Love of neighbor is characterized not merely by affect (feeling), but by action.

- On the other hand, Jesus praises Mary for sitting and listening. Love of God will move us to action, yes, but first comes seeking God in prayer, and silence, in "sitting at God's feet."

- The life of a disciple requires both: silence and action; prayer and service; quiet seeking and listening, and active helping of neighbor.

- Love of God is characterized first by listening and seeking because our "need" is greater. We can do a lot for our neighbors. But what can we do for God that God cannot do already? The fact is, God is perfect, powerful, complete, and self-sufficient, where we are imperfect, weak, and in need of God's love before we are complete. God's love is not something we have to earn, but comes first as a gift-- our frank need of God is graciously answered with God's love. Mary doesn't have to "do" anything to "merit" Jesus' love; she just sits at his feet.

[Movement 3: Taking time for Love]

- Both stories, furthermore, illustrate how *hurry* can get in the way of loving God and loving neighbor.

- In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite are too busy to stop and be inconvenienced to help the beaten man. At least part of their unwillingness probably stems from their hurry to reach their destination-- where they are going and what they are planning to do it "more important" than the unexpected complication of helping someone.

- Martha is busy and preoccupied with many tasks; these prevent her from paying actual attention to Jesus.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Proper 11, Year C (RCL) notes

[Luke 10:38-42]

Now, if you've been going to church for any amount of time, you've probably heard a sermon or two about slowing down and making room in your life for prayer. Such sermons seem to crop up like mushrooms during seasons of special devotion, especially Lent.

And it's a good message, one worth hearing, the "Mary & Martha sermon." It usually goes something like this: "Balance your Martha side with your Mary side; Don't bustle around so busily that you lose track of Jesus. Don't be so 'anxious and preoccupied with many things' that you miss out on the 'one thing [that] matters.'"

Alright. That's all well and good.

But here's the thing: Every preacher who's ever preached this is a hypocrite.

Oh, to a lesser or greater extent, to be sure. Some clergy balance their spiritual lives with their work more gracefully than others. But every clergyperson has, at some point or another, become so preoccupied with the bustle of ministry, with its conflicting and often urgent demands, that they find themselves drifting away from their relationship with God-- praying less often, sitting with scripture less often, simply being still in the presence of God less often. The whole busy-ness of ministry can become just a business, a daily grind. People who once vowed at their ordinations to "persevere in prayer, both in public and private," can find themselves just a functioning religious professional. Who has time to pray when they're running around like a chicken with its head cut off?

In fact, there's a whole niche in the church-publishing industry that focuses on clergy burnout. More than a few trees have given their lives for books counseling clergy how to stay connected to God, how to keep their spiritual lives healthy in the midst of work. There are seminars and conventions teaching ministers how to keep their focus on God, discipline their prayer life, stay spiritual. And many clergy see Spiritual directors, people who help other believers stay focused on their spiritual journey.

All of this is just to say that no one is immune from the busy-ness and bustle of the world. Whoever we are, wherever we are in our faith journey, and whatever sort of work we find ourselves doing, everyone can become "worried and distracted by many things." In fact, perhaps it's when we engage in some sort of ministry that it's more likely to happen. We know we're up to something good, and that it's important, and that it needs doing now; it's probably that much easier to forget to take the time to pray, or to take a mental step back from our anxiety to ask God's presence in our work.

Take Martha, for instance. Martha is busy and preoccupied, to be sure, but she's doing good. This isn't a self-serving rat-race, or a petty scrabbling after riches, that she's engaged in; she's welcoming and serving Jesus himself. That almost sounds like the textbook definition of doing good to me-- serving Christ to the best of one's abilities.

Before we go much further, let's give Martha her props. What she's doing is good. She's serving Jesus Christ. That's good. But there is a greater good right in front of her: Jesus himself. Somehow, all the "good host" activities she's up to, getting out the fine china and refreshing his drink and getting the hors d'oeuvres out of the oven, all of this is distancing her from Jesus himself.

That's the problem: not that she's serving Jesus, but that her service is actually keeping her from truly being with Jesus, and from listening to him. Notice that she actually interrupts Jesus to complain about her sister's behavior! Mary was listening to Jesus when Martha comes up to them, so Martha is probably interrupting.

The problem isn't one of activity, but attention. Martha is "worried and distracted" away from paying attention to Jesus. No matter that what she is busy with is good-- showing generous hospitality-- she is turning away from a greater good towards a lesser good. It is like turning from light of a lamp to a piece of paper is it illuminating.

In today's Epistle, Paul says that "Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." All things are already being reconciled to God through Christ. As Christ's body, the Church, we take part in that reconciling action-- but first we ourselves are reconciled to God.

But we don't even have to choose. It's not an either/or proposition. We are called to both: Love God and do good. We just have to remember to do them in that order-- "Love God and do good." It's when we try it the other way around-- "Do good, and love God when things slow down," that we get into trouble. First, love God. This is the better part Mary chooses, and it will not be taken away from us.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Proper 9, Year C, RCL

Proper 9, Year C, RCL

2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

When I was in middle school, I used to read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy novels. They were always full of bold, capable heroes—like Superman, or Gandalf from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—whose brave, dramatic actions saved the day, and changed the courses of events. Of course, you don’t have to be a sci-fi geek to get what I’m talking about; if you’ve ever studied history, you know that it is the bigger-than-life figures who get remembered—the Washingtons and Jeffersons, the movers and shakers, the shapers of great events. This sort of image—the dramatic, impressive hero—bounced around in my imagination for years afterwards.
It’s fun to imagine being influential in that way, to dream of making the world a better place, of carving one’s mark in history. Who wouldn’t want to be the “chosen one,” one of those figures around whom Great Events seem to swirl—the next Harry Potter, or Gandalf, or Neo from The Matrix—or, for you non-nerds out there, the next Mother Teresa or Abraham Lincon?
Now this is bringing me around to something else I did a lot of in middle school—daydreaming. I used to zone out during classes, daydreaming some earth-shatteringly successful future for myself. Now, this is hardly unique to me. We all daydream. We daydream during lectures and while driving, at school and at work. Heck, some of you are probably doing it right now.
Now, the thing about daydreaming is, it’s rarely realistic. Daydreams tend to be built up to this overblown point. Maybe it’s just no fun to daydream about something small.
In today’s Old Testament reading, an important general with leprosy travels all the way from the neighboring country of Aram to Israel, drawn by rumors of a powerful man of God—Elisha—who might heal him. This man, Naaman, had a long journey to speculate and wonder how the prophet might heal him. Perhaps there would be some sort of dramatic ceremony. Maybe the prophet would wave his hands over his leprous skin, and invoke the name of his God. Or maybe he would give Naaman certain ritual acts to perform. His expectations must have had time to grow larger and more colorful all along the journey, daydreaming of how he might be healed.
And so, when Elisha tells him—by messenger, no less!—to just go and bathe himself in the Jordan river, Naaman is bitterly disappointed. It seems too trivial, too ridiculously anticlimactic. He’s come all the way from Aram, for goodness’ sake! He’s an important general! Shouldn’t there be something more? Surely there should be personal interaction with the prophet, some Spirit-filled waving of hands, a divine light show—something, anything more impressive than this.
Well, lucky for Naaman, he has a servant with him who’s got enough common sense, and courage, to encourage him to take Elisha’s advice. “Look,” he says, “if the prophet had given you some elaborate, difficult task to perform, you would have done it. Shouldn’t you be all the more willing if the task is simple?” And, also lucky for Naaman, he’s able to listen to such advice. Even though it doesn’t live up to how he’s imagined this healing, he follows Elisha’s instructions—and is healed!
Now, I can think of ways in which I need to be healed—of my sinfulness, of my inadequacies—of all the ways I don’t feel “good enough.” And I can daydream about how God will remake me in the image of Christ, and about how dramatic that change will be. But what if the healing that God is offering to me is much simpler than I imagine? What if I’m failing to take the good God is holding out to me because it doesn’t seem flashy enough? Naaman goes down the Jordan and immerses himself in the water seven times before he is healed. Think what a seemingly mundane act bathing is. We do it all the time; it’s no big deal. And think of the repetition of that immersion seven times. Instead of being hung up on how far I am from my image of how good I should be, maybe I could take those small, gradual steps (those “immersions”) that will move me in that direction. Like pray more. Or exercise more, if I’m worried about my health. Or pray more. Or see a spiritual advisor. Or try to be more kind in my everyday interactions. Or, did I mention, pray more?
The story of Naaman also says something about how we can serve God. It’s easy to daydream about doing good things. These daydreams may be grandiose and glorious—about how we might start a whole new ministry, or found a movement which will touch many people. And that’s good, as far as it goes; but it’s even better to do something—even something small. It’s far easier, I’ve found, to daydream than to plan. I can daydream a new cathedral much more easily than I can paint one wall that needs painting in my church. The trick is to not get so caught up in our own daydreams that we miss the chance to make a humble, but real, contribution in the real world.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus sends out seventy followers to go out in pairs before him, to all the places Jesus hopes to visit. First one person—John the Baptist—did this very thing, preparing the way for Jesus. Then, Jesus sent out the Twelve to “preach the Kingdom of God and heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). Now, he’s sending seventy before him, to heal the sick and announce that “the kingdom of God has come near you” (Luke 10:9). First one, then twelve—now seventy. The sense is that the movement is growing, and that more and more people are needed to spread the good news.
And Jesus uses a metaphor that would have made good, plain sense to his listeners, all of whom would have had some experience with agriculture. He uses the metaphor of the harvest. Richard Hays writes, “In every culture, harvest time is a time of great urgency. The common day laborer would have understood the exhortation to plead with the landowner to bring in more laborers to help with the harvest.” (Richard Hays, NIB v. IX, p. 219)
Now, Jesus does just that—sends out more laborers into the harvest. Since the group is larger, the task of each “laborer” is only part of one concerted effort. No individual disciple’s efforts are going to make or break the movement. They don’t have to reach everyone. Each pair is to stay at one household, if they are received, and preach the kingdom of heaven’s nearness. But if they are not well received, they are free to shake off the dust of their feet and move on.
By extension, Luke’s Gospel invites us to take up the same “labor,” to extend the same ever-widening work of spreading the good news. And this might manifest itself in some relatively humble ways—like inviting a co-worker to come to our church, or explaining to a friend how we can go in for all that “God stuff.” Or working, even in a small way, for justice in our community. It is good to dream of a world in which everyone knows God’s awesome love for them—but it is better to help even one person actually feel that love. It is a great thing to thirst for God’s justice to pour out over the whole world—but it is an even better thing to work for justice in some particular place. Naaman’s friend asked him, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when he asked you to do something simple?”
God is asking us not to fly—faster than a speeding bullet, leaping buildings in a single bound—to the realization of our wildest daydreams. God has a dream, and it is deeper and more wider than anything we had imagined. God is just asking us put one foot in front of the other towards God’s dream. And not to “greet anyone on the road”—that is, not to get sidetracked or distracted—either by the world or by our own vain imaginings.
Just asking us to take a step. And then another. And another.
Let’s get going.

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