This sermon was preached at Ascension Lutheran Church in Northfield, Illinois as a guest preacher at the invitation of Pastor JoAnn Post.
Texts: Genesis 18:1-10a / Psalm 15 / Colossians 1:15-28 / Luke 10:38-42
Grace and peace be with you, people of God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a pleasure and an honor to worship with you this morning, a day I have been looking forward to for a few months now. When I received the invitation to preach, it was with the hope that Pastor JoAnn would be enjoying some well-deserved rest and renewal with her family. We could not know that she would be grieving the death of her mother, so we hold her and Jim and their family in our prayers for comfort and healing during the pain of these days.
In my regular work, I serve as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. So, before I go any further, I want to thank you on behalf of the seminary for being our partner in the education and formation of leaders for the whole church. I have known your current vicar, Vicar Julie Grafe, for a number of years now and I can tell you that you’re all in for a treat with her. She brings gifts of intelligence, compassion, generosity and humor to the work of ministry, and I am confident that you will all learn from each other and grow together as the Spirit does her work in your ministry to and with each other.
As a child I remember knowing that if the house was looking especially tidy, and company wasn’t expected, that something was likely bothering Mom. It’s a functional coping mechanism that pays a useful dividend, cleaning the house when the mess life hands you refuses to come under your control. Managing the chaos of emotions on the inside by imposing order on the outside. My sister and I both inherited the trait to some extent, and now it’s my husband’s turn to notice that when I seem preoccupied with taming the piles of paper accumulating on the dining room table or organizing the limited counter space in our kitchen it’s likely because I’m feeling slightly out-of-control in some other area of my life.
There’s a lot in life right now that seems more than “slightly” out-of-control, and I’ve definitely spent some time this past week cleaning and tidying, but the chaos of the world around us isn’t going to be quelled by time spent organizing the stacks of paper on the dining room table, or finishing the leftover summer vacation laundry. The only way to survive the daily onslaught of the news, I suspect, is to face it head on. To sit down with the stories of the world as it is and to make space within my own spirit to ask how the world outside of me is also a reflection of the world inside of me. To be quiet and return once again to that place deep inside where the sound of the genuine resides in my soul, and to wait patiently for the voice of God to speak into my lack of words for all that is too much for me to bear alone.
Martha often comes off sounding petty in this age-old story of sisterly resentment, complaining that she got left with all the work as Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. Countless sermons dissect the differences between the two, affirming the need for both labor and rest, and I’ve preached a few of them. This time around, however, given all that’s going on in the world around us, I’m hearing something different in the exchange between Jesus and Martha. By this point in Luke’s story, John the Baptist has already been killed by Herod for his relentless truth-telling, and Jesus has already predicted his own death twice, though the disciples don’t know what to make of it. The gospel says they were afraid to ask him what he was saying (9:45).
Fear doesn’t take care of itself. It doesn’t do its own work, unfolding its arguments before the light of reason, and leaving the body once it has answered its own anxious questions. Fear rattles around the inside of a body, taking up residence in our minds in the form of persistent, unwanted thoughts. Fear lives in our muscles, clenched so tightly that our necks and backs work themselves into knots. Fear attacks our chests with panic, roils our guts and burns holes in our stomachs. Fear haunts our dreams with apparitions, messengers we keep sending away during our waking hours, who own the hours of the night. Fear is patient. It has something to say, and it will wait for you to stop and finally listen.
I wonder what Martha’s fear was trying to tell her that kept her so busy in the kitchen, trying to cook her way out of a terrifying moment. Her friend had come to her home and she was honored by his visit, but it was plain to see that his face was set toward Jerusalem where nothing but death awaited him. He’d said so plainly, and none of his disciples seemed able to stop him from this foolishness. She’d already seen too much death in her life. Of course she had. She was a Jewish woman living under Roman rule. Crucifixion wasn’t an especially cruel and unusual punishment, it was a common occurrence. The current arrangement of power was kept in place with state-sanctioned violence, as it always is. Young people, tired of imperial oppression, were always joining the zealots, plotting their next revolution. They were always being buried by their mothers. Maybe Martha knew Jesus’ mother, who shared a name with her sister. Both Marys seemed so calm, so confident that God was doing something new in Jesus, but perhaps to Martha it all just looked too familiar, one more Jewish man lining up to die.
Or maybe not. Who knows what was going through her head as she kept herself busy in the kitchen. I just wonder what she might have heard, what she might have been able to hear, if she had slowed down long enough to take a seat next to her sister and the other disciples. What was her soul trying to tell her that day?
The story from Genesis this morning tells a parallel tale of hospitality, as Father Abraham greets three men (whom some later Christian interpreters have taken as an appearance of the Holy Trinity) and makes a place for them to rest with him. “Let a little water be brought,” he says, “and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.” Later, after he and Sarah have fed them, Abraham stands by them in the shade as they eat, and they ask him about his wife. Abraham and Sarah had been trying in vain to have a child and were perennially struggling to continue believing God’s promises to them. One of the men says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen. 18:10a) It was a prophecy of hope made to a family wrestling with hopelessness.
Given the horrors of this week’s news cycle — children detained at O’Hare airport and separated from their parents; a culture of racism and white supremacy tearing apart the fabric of our society and corroding our public discourse; an ongoing global refugee crisis; a new season of storms and other signs that the climate crisis is accelerating faster than predicted — it is obvious that action is required. It’s just not always clear what that action is. Is it another story posted to social media? Is it another recitation of woe shared over lunch with coworkers? Is it the next letter writing campaign, or public rally? It may well be. Or, each of those things may be a kind of busy work, to keep our fearful hearts and minds preoccupied so that we can’t stop and listen to the voice of our own inner teacher, the Holy Spirit speaking in us and to us, who is trying to tell us something about what we already know, but are too afraid to speak into reality.
This is a common struggle for us at the seminary, as we work with students and teachers holding deep and abiding commitments to lives of meaning and ministries that reflect God’s justice-making love. There is an abundance of passion and also, very often, a struggle to know how that passion can be directed most effectively. Frequently, out of fear that all our learning will be locked away in an ivory tower and not applied to the world’s gaping and obvious wounds, we can become overly critical of one another, adding insult to the injuries that afflict the body politic. After one such incident a while back, my boss — whom some of you know — issued an open letter to the seminary, writing:
“From various quarters there are calls for religious communities to pray or speak or march, and of course there is a place for all these actions. I am proposing, though, that white people like me must engage the more basic, disturbing work of thinking and confessing. These practices are not at all neat and tidy, for taken seriously they are actually agonizing. But without first thinking about who we are and then confessing how we have benefitted, all of our praying and speaking and even marching become an insubstantial, self-serving charade.”The Rev. Dr. James Nieman, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, President
The work of discipleship does require action of us, but for our action to be more than what Jim Nieman called “self-serving charade,” the first action we need to take is to stop and listen. To take what in 12-step spirituality is called a “fearless moral inventory.” Before I address the “splinter in [my] brother’s eye,” I need to address the “log in [my] own.” (Mt. 7:3-5) So much of what is passing for activism right now, and I include myself in this assessment, is actually a form of posturing in which people create the illusion of action by publicly aligning themselves with ideas or ideologies. Another level of transformation, and perhaps a far more frightening one, takes place once we withdraw from the flurry of public activity that creates this illusion of action to listen for a divine word inviting us to consider what it is in each one of us that must change in order for the world to be made new.
I wonder if the reason we are so reluctant to stop and sit and listen is because, on some level, we have given up hope that anything new can happen. The many voices of grief, fear, and despair drown out that singular voice that says, “behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) Even Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors in faith, doubted that God could birth a new thing in them; but still they were given the gift of new life in the form of a child.
Here, I believe, is the gospel’s invitation to us today: stop with the things you are doing to keep yourself from hearing the voice of your own soul, which longs to be heard. Stop with the to-do list that makes you feel effective, even as you wonder what difference it all makes. Sit with Jesus, who knows that you are afraid. Sit with Jesus, who has seen all the very same things that haunt your thoughts and dreams. Sit with Jesus, who knows death and does not run from it. Listen to what he is really saying: that you do not need to be perfect. That you do not need to have all the answers. That you are not loved for your politics, or your education, or your achievements. That you are no better or worse than any of your neighbors, near or far. That there is life on the other side of death. There is life on the other side of death. This is not all that there is. This is not the end. The world is not falling apart, it is being reborn. So are you. In your lifetime a child will be born that will see peace and reconciliation we have only dreamed of so far. That child may already be in this room.
It may seem laughable to speak of hope at a time like this, but this is how God works in the world. Always bringing new life to people and places left for dead. So let a little water be brought. Let me bring a little bread that you may refresh yourself. (Gen. 18:4-5) Come, sit down with your sisters and brothers and siblings, your neighbors and your friends. Come, listen, and live.