Monday, July 18, 2016

BOTH Martha AND Mary

Preached at Ascension on July 17. 
I don’t know if you grew up in a family like mine, but here’s how a typical Thanksgiving went at our house. My mom was up before the sun to get a humongous turkey in the oven, and then she spent the entire day in the kitchen, enlisting help from us kids or other female relatives. She worked toward the big moment when all the food was transported from the kitchen to the dining table and the feasting began.  
And then, after we finished stuffing ourselves well beyond the limits of our stomachs, all the men retired to the living room to watch football on TV. while the women cleared the table and did the dishes.
Somewhere in my high school years, I began to notice that there was something wrong with this picture. How is it that my mom and the women worked themselves ragged all day on this meal, and then when it was finally over, they got stuck doing the clean-up, too, while the men just sat around on their duffs watching TV?
After I started college I became even more aware of gender roles, and I decided that I could no longer participate in this oppressive system of injustice. That year when I came home for Thanksgiving, after the meal was over, with a shot of defiance coursing through my veins, I took a stand.
As the women scurried about clearing the table and washing the dishes, I retired to the living room with the men. I thought I’d get some grief for doing this, but no one seemed to notice or care. So, I sat on the sofa between my brother-in-law and my uncle with the football game blaring on the TV. And, guess what? In no time, I was the only one awake.
There I was, basically alone, watching a game on TV that didn’t interest me in the least, sitting between a couple of snoring old geezers. All the while I could hear chattering voices and explosive laughter coming from the kitchen, and I couldn’t stand it. What were they talking about? What were they laughing about? Enough of this. I was back in the kitchen before the end of the first quarter.
I decided that I made my point, to myself if to no one else. I could go with the men, or I could go with the women. And I went with the women. Not because it was expected of me, but because it was my choice. And, let’s face it, the women were a lot more interesting, and a whole lot more fun!
When I read the story of Martha and Mary, I have flashbacks to my childhood Thanksgivings. Here’s Martha, scurrying about, waiting on everyone and running herself ragged like a good woman should. She was doing exactly what was expected of her in that time and place.
It reminds me of the second miracle of Jesus recorded by Luke in the 4th chapter. The story is just two verses long, and it goes like this: After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. (And then listen for what comes next) Immediately she got up and began to serve them. Seriously?
Well, that’s what was expected of her. Not only was it a gender expectation, but it was also her house and there were definite cultural hospitality standards.
This was also true for Mary and Martha, who were hosting the gathering with Jesus in their home. So, there are layers of expectations at play in this story.
Mary is a woman after my own heart because she bucks the system. She doesn’t seem to give a rat’s petutti about expectations. She wants to hear what Jesus has to say. Jesus is in her house. What an opportunity! She’s not going to waste it in the kitchen. She’s going to sit at his feet and take in every word he has to say.
Now, in fairness to Martha, we also need to consider this story from her perspective. She’s justified to be outraged by her sister’s behavior. Why should she get stuck doing all the work? Maybe she’d like to sit at Jesus’ feet, too, but somebody has to serve all the guests. It’s really not fair. She’s hoping Jesus will notice that and see it her way.
But he doesn’t. He’s actually a little harsh with her. He says, “Martha, you need to chill. What your sister Mary is doing is a lot more important than what you’re doing.” Ouch! Those words had to hurt.
I suppose most of us can identify with either Martha or Mary in this story. Martha, the one who’s busy doing, serving, making sure everyone’s taken care of. And Mary, the one who takes time to be--listening, learning, growing in her relationship with Jesus. How many Marthas do we have with us today? And how many Marys?
If you were here last week, you heard the parable that immediately precedes this story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s narrative -- The Good Samaritan. It’s a story that’s all about doing, serving, and making sure our neighbor is taken care of. Jesus praises such behavior.
And then, *boom* we’re in the story of Mary and Martha, where Jesus praises the one more concerned with being in his presence than the one who’s doing for others. What gives? Is Jesus talking out of both sides of his mouth? It’s either important to be out there doing for others, or it’s important to grow closer to Jesus. So, which is it?  
Well, here’s the deal. The life of faith isn’t an either/or proposition. That’s what we call dualism. You’re either this or you’re that. You’re either a Martha or you’re a Mary. You’re either good or you’re bad. You’re either a saint or you’re a sinner. Jesus was either human or he was divine.
Dualistic thought gets you into trouble because the life of faith isn’t that simple. It’s not a matter of either/or. The life of faith is about both/and. It embraces paradox. Jesus is both human and divine at the same time. We’re both saints and sinners. We’re both good and bad at once… And we’re both Mary and Martha.
As people of faith, we long to serve others. We want to help out with Vacation Bible School. We want to sing in the choir, volunteer during the week. We want to help people in need in our community. We want to speak for those who have no voice. We want to stand up for those are being treated unjustly. Following Jesus is all those things, and we want to be people who do.
But we’re often inclined to do, do, do, without taking time to be. There is both an outer life of faith, and an inner life of faith. And in fact, a full life of faith includes both. If we do, do, do without taking time to go inward, not only do we burn out, but we lack direction. We spend all our time running from one project to the next, setting the agenda for our ministry without really taking the time to listen to what God’s calling us to do.
I felt myself struggling with that the week before last when our country was experiencing one senseless violent act after another. More black men were killed by law enforcement officers. Then in the midst of a peaceful demonstration, a crazy man opened fire on the police. It was too much. I’ve been so upset and angry about this stuff that I wanna scream. Enough! Enough! Enough! I can barely catch my breath and then the horrific violence in Nice, France.
My first thought is, what can I do? What can I do to make this stop? When I hear people concluding that all we can do is pray about it, I can’t stand it. We’ve got to do more than just pray! My Martha comes out big time.
But then, I also think about how these acts of violence are calling me to go deeper into myself. How is it that I might also be a part of the problem? How is fear of the other and racism a part of me? How can I listen to people of color and better understand their experience? That’s my Mary.
It’s not a matter of one or the other. The life of faith is both/and. And in fact, the outer life of doing flows from the inner life of being and vice versa. We act and we reflect on our action and based on our reflection we act, and it goes back and forth.
Notice how Jesus was constantly moving from an outer expression of faith to an inner expression of faith throughout the gospels. He recognized that he needed to spend time being in the presence of God. He went inward. And that strengthened him to continue teaching, healing, and proclaiming God’s reign in the world around him.
I think also about a central message of John’s gospel where Jesus tells us again and again the importance of abiding in him. We abide in the vine so that we can bear fruit.
This is certainly true for us as a congregation, as we move forward. Are we drawing upon both inner and outer expressions of faith as we strive to fulfill God’s mission for us? If we neglect one way or the other, we’re not all here. We’re not completely experiencing all that we can as God’s people.
This is also true for us as individuals. If you feel like you’re missing something in your faith life, this may be a key for you. You may be living your faith in an either/or way—either inwardly or outwardly. And when you do that, something’s definitely missing.
Strive to live as a both/and person of faith. Spend time listening to Jesus, sit at his feet, join him at the table, savor his presence. And follow him into the world, serving him by serving others. If your natural tendency is to be like Mary, spend some time cultivating your Martha. If you tend to be more of a Martha kind of person, don’t neglect your Mary.
In today’s lesson, Jesus stuck up for Mary. Within his culture, that was necessary. Mary needed permission to sit at the master’s feet. For us as a congregation, and for you as individuals, what’s the expectation we bring to the life of faith? If you expect it to be about doing, give yourself permission to be. If you expect it to be about basking in the presence of Jesus, give yourself permission to do.
Then you’ll experience what it means to be all in as a follower of Jesus. You’ll be on your way to discovering the breadth, the width and the depth of living fully in Christ.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The most dangerous moment of my day

I was warned repeatedly about this before I came to Ascension, Towson, and now that I’m in my first week, I know beyond a doubt that the warnings were justified!

Before I decided to come here, I’d ask people from the congregation, “Is there anything else I should know about Ascension if I should come to serve as your pastor?” Because there always seem to be a few things in a new congregation that I wish someone had told me before I started, I had to ask.

So, what was the big cautionary tale at Ascension? “If you’re crossing the street to get to the church and the light says Walk, don’t trust it. Wait until the traffic has come to a complete stop before you go.” Really? I couldn’t imagine how crossing the street to get to the church could be such a big freakin' deal.

The church parking lot is on a very busy street that must be crossed to get to the building. Years ago, the church had a traffic light and crosswalk put in. You know, the kind where you press the button to cross the street and the sign lights up saying, Walk or Don’t Walk. Well, they were right. When the sign says, Walk, don’t you believe it!

The light turns red and the cars completely ignore it. I’m not just talking about a few that squeak on by after the light changes. I’m talking about cars that continue speeding down the street driven by people who are absolutely oblivious to the fact that there is a traffic light at all. Although it’s been there for years, they don’t see it!

This morning, I parked my car, went to the crosswalk and pushed the button. The light turned red and the Walk sign lit up for me to cross. I waited for the traffic to stop. And it didn’t. It kept going and going so that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cross the street at all. Finally, I stepped off the curb and waved my arms pointing to the red light. Another car whizzed by. Then I started yelling at the cars. Eventually they stopped. I’ve never seen such a flagrant disregard for a traffic light in all my life.

As I crossed the street, I thought about how safe my world usually is. When I leave the house in the morning, I don’t worry about being in danger. I expect to be unharmed as I cross the street, especially when there is a traffic light on my side. But when I cross York Rd. to get to Ascension, I can never let down my guard. I can’t trust the law to keep me safe. It’s scary.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to go through every moment of every day feeling unsafe, never really sure that the law will protect me, fearing for my own life and for the lives of people I love. I realized that just a few miles away from me, people were living in such a world.

And then I turned the key in the door to the church building and I was inside, safely ensconced in an air conditioned office, checking my email. My brief ordeal crossing York Rd. was all but forgotten and I was enveloped in the comfort of my privileged life.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Living in Liminonium

Geographically, I now may be located in a town called Timonium, but spiritually, I’m in liminal space—a place between. When we’re neither here nor there, standing in the threshold between one room and another, it’s a liminal space for us. Although this unsettled state can be a bit unnerving, it also has a beauty of its own, and I’m relishing it.

I’ve taken three weeks vacation between my call to Holy Trinity, Charlotte, and my call to Ascension, Towson. The first week was hell. I packed my last few boxes and watched the moving company load them all onto a 24-foot truck. After spending a sleepless night trying to get comfortable on the floor of an empty house, Pooky, Guido and I drove away from our old home and toward our new one. It would have been a lovely drive if I had shared it with traveling companions who appreciated it. Lovely it was not.

For four straight days I ripped open boxes and found a place for all my stuff. Clothes unpacked, books shelved, pictures hung... in addition to transplanting some flowers in the yard and painting a room. Four days! And did I mention I charged up my drill and hung my own curtain rods. I am woman, hear me rrrroar!

Of course, it would have taken me much longer if I hadn’t had so much help from the people of Ascension. They were on hand in the beginning to help me with heavy lifting, putting stuff together and unpacking my kitchen. And they brought me food. I didn’t have to cook for a week. Not only was I well fed, but I also saved a lot of time that I would have spent on preparing meals. What an incredibly caring congregation! Something tells me I’m not going to have any problem loving them.

So now I have some time to relax and reflect. I’m detached from the congregation I once served and not yet attached to the one I will soon begin serving. And I’m not feeling like a pastor. I’m just me. I putter around the house, I walk around the neighborhood, I explore my foreign surroundings, I read, I cook, I sleep, I watch TV, .

And I’m praying these days in a way I can’t remember ever praying before. All the buzzing in my brain that I typically struggle to shut down isn’t buzzing. I'm not distracted with a list of things I gotta do, people I need to talk with, sermons I need to prepare. In this liminal space, contemplative prayer is easier, it’s freer, it’s deeper. I don’t know that this will continue after I step into my new life, but I’m treasuring it now.

Tomorrow company arrives from NY. Gretchen, Jon and Nick are driving down to see my new place. I’ve never shared a liminal space with them before. I wonder if they’ll notice the difference as much as I do.