Saturday, January 13, 2018

“What Martha Can Teach Us”

            Our current worship theme at Christ United Methodist Church focuses on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  Although the Divine is always present in our lives—even in the everyday routines which we have—we sometimes find it hard to experience God in our everyday lives. 

            I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine because we are not expecting to encounter God in everyday life.  In other words, we are not actively opening ourselves to God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the next few weeks, we will examine and reflect on ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in everyday life.  Our focus this Sunday, January 14th, will be exploring ways the Divine is present in our work of volunteering. 

            According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 62.5 million Americans volunteer some time to various organizations each year, with 33% of persons volunteering to help religious organizations.[1]  These approximately 62 million people comprise 25% of the overall population.  Another organization, the “Corporation for National Community Service,” estimates that the typical volunteer averages “32.1 volunteer hours per person, per year, which comes to 7.9 billion hours of service, the equivalent of $184 billion.”[2]  In addition to supporting our church or religious organization, we also volunteer for educational and youth service, community and civic organizations, environmental groups, and hobbies, in addition to a whole host of other causes and endeavors.

            From a Christian perspective, volunteering to help support our church or other groups, which are dedicated to the betterment of humanity and the environment, are important means of serving Christ and establishing God’s Reign here on Earth.  Volunteerism is important, especially in the church which depends upon volunteers to support and strengthen all of its ministries.  However, the question I want to examine this week is how we experience the Divine when we engage in volunteer activity—either in the church or the broader community?

            To ground and guide our examination of this question, I will be drawing from the story of Christ’s friends, Mary and Martha.  Since the story is short, I have included all of it below:
Now as they went on their way, he 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.”

In addition to this story from the Gospel of Luke, the two sisters also appear in the Gospel of John (see 11:1-16 and 12:1-8).  Taking these stories together, Martha comes across as something of enigma.  In our story from Luke, Martha appears about what is truly important.  Whereas, in the stories from John, Martha is depicted as a woman of great faith and discernment.  Let’s take a deeper look at Martha.

In the story from Luke, Jesus arrives unexpectedly, seeking a place to rest on his journey to Jerusalem.  Martha immediately welcomes Jesus and his entire entourage of disciples and friends into their home and assumes the role of host.  While Martha scurries about caring for the various needs of her guests, Jesus sits down and begins teaching his disciples.  Mary also “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”  In sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary takes the usual place for one of the disciples and, in so doing, violates a clear social boundary of the time.  As the scholar R. Alan Culpepper observes, “By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is acting like a male.  She neglects her duty to assist her sister in the preparation of the meal, and…is bringing shame upon her house.”[3]  Yet, Mary is so captivated with the teachings of Jesus that she doesn’t care.  She just wants to absorb as much as possible.

As she continues to scurry about, caring for the needs of her many guests, Martha’s frustration with her sister begins to grow and grow.  Eventually, Martha can take it no longer and so she appeals to Jesus, asking that he tell Mary to do her fair share of the work.  Instead of taking Martha’s side, Jesus reprimands her, saying:  “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.”

Perhaps it’s because I was the oldest child in my family, but there is a part of me that really identifies with Martha.  I feel as though Martha comes off badly in this passage and that not even Jesus properly appreciates her work of hospitality for him and his entourage.  Can you just imagine the scene, if Martha had sat down beside Mary at the feet of Christ and listened intently to his teachings?  There would have been no water for Jesus and his entourage to wash their feet after a long, dusty journey on the unpaved road.  There would have been no food or other refreshments for the entourage to enjoy after their long walk.  Heck, the visitors may not even have known where to go to relieve themselves after their long journey.  So, Martha in her scurrying about provides important resources for Jesus and her entourage.

While Martha does not come across well in this story from Luke. She fares much better in the Gospel of John.  In John, Martha is depicted not just as a good friend of Jesus, but also as a woman of great faith.  In John, chapter 11, Lazarus, who was the brother of Martha and Mary, becomes sick and dies before Jesus can reach their home.  When Jesus draws near to Bethany, their village, Martha goes out to meet him.  Revealing her deep faith, Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (Verses 21-22)  Then, Martha adds this conviction, “…Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (Verse 27)

As noted above, Martha appears as something of an enigma in the two gospels.  On the one hand, Martha appears to have a very superficial faith in the story from Luke, where she obsesses on her domestic chores of hospitality, while losing sight of the opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from his teachings. Yet, on the other hand, in the Gospel of John, Martha has a deep and mature faith in Jesus as the Messiah.  Who is the real Martha?  I believe that we should view Martha as the woman depicted in the story from John, with a deep, mature, discerning faith.  If this is so, then we can ask what happened to Martha in the story from Luke?

Let me suggest a theory.  I believe that in the Lukan story Martha saw her hospitality as a duty or obligation to be fulfilled, rather than as an opportunity to experience God’s presence.  Rather than being open to experiencing God through her work of hospitality, Martha “was distracted by her many tasks.”  As she became obsessed with the work of hospitality, Martha also became resentful of her sister, who was sitting at the feet of Jesus, enjoying being in his presence and listening to his teachings.

I believe that the same thing can happen to each of us when we perform volunteer work.  Regardless of how good and important our volunteer work is intrinsically, our attitude remains critical.  If we see our volunteer work as a means of fulfilling duties or obligations, then we close off the possibility of experiencing the Divine in the volunteering, just as Martha when she hosted Jesus and his entourage.  However, if we approach volunteer work as an opportunity to serve the Divine by establishing and furthering the Reign of God on Earth, then we simultaneously open up ourselves to experiencing the Divine through our volunteer work.  The Divine become present through our volunteer work.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 14th.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, “Volunteering in the United States,” accessed online at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.toc.htm, on 11 January 2018.
[2] The “Corporation for National Community Service” is cited by Marc Johnson, “America Does Not Have Enough Volunteers” in “The Huffington Post,” 31 January 2016, updated 31 January 2017, accessed online at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-joseph/america-does-not-have-eno_b_9032152.html, on 12 January 2018.
[3] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

“Finding God in the Cold, Cold Winter”

Happy New Year!!

            As we begin 2018, our worship focus at Christ United Methodist Church will be on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  The spiritual basis for this exploration is a claim that the Divine is always present in our lives, even in the everyday routines which we all have.  However, many of us rarely experience God in our everyday lives, although we do experience the Divine in worship or in those life altering moments, such as the birth of a child or death of a parent.  Why is that?

            Our guiding thesis in this series is that we do not experience the Divine in everyday life because we are not expecting to encounter God in everyday life.  In other words, we are not listening for God to speak in our ordinary affairs; we are not open to experiencing God’s presence in the mundane.  So, the goal of this series is to help us hone our openness and sensitivity to God’s presence in everyday affairs.  We begin this Sunday, January 7th, by examining how to become more aware of God’s presence through nature—even in the cold, cold winter, which we are experiencing.

            The scriptural grounding for my reflections on this week has been Psalm 19: 1-6:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.  Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.”

I remember twenty years ago, when the comet Hale-Bopp was so evident in the night skies over the United States.  To see this astronomical marvel most vividly, a friend and I took our children camping at Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California.  When the sun set and darkness was complete, we walked down to the beach, built a fire to keep warm, and spent a good deal of time gazing up into the night sky at Hale-Bopp.  Our view of the comet remains vivid to me, even 20 years later.  
           
            With the comet brightly splashing light across the night sky, I simultaneously felt two remarkable feelings.  First, I was mindful—in a new way—of how small and insignificant we are in the grand universe—and, how awesome God truly is.  Secondly, I experienced a new and special closeness to God the Creator that evening.

            Perhaps the psalmist had a similar experience, gazing up into the desert night sky centuries ago.  Perhaps the psalmist was first overcome—as I was—with the awesome glory of God manifested by the heavenly bodies on a clear, starry night sky.  To paraphrase his thoughts into the conceptual framework of contemporary scientific cosmology, our Earth, our sun, other planets and stars, galaxies, nebulae, black holes, and novae all manifest the glory and greatness of God the Creator.  Through Creation, we also see God’s rich creativity and ingenuity, from the tiniest quark to immense galaxies and mysterious black holes. 

            Secondly, in viewing its magnificence, perhaps the psalmist also experienced God’s presence through Creation.  Perhaps—as with me—the psalmist experiences a special closeness to God as he gazed up at the night sky.  For the psalmist, this experience of God’s presence is constant, “from day to day” and “night to night,” all of Creation proclaims, although not with human language.  Left implied is the psalmist’s understanding that we must open ourselves to Creation’s unique forms of manifesting God’s presence.

            At the end of our passage, the focus shifts to the sun which rises and sets each day.  Biblical scholars remind us that, in the ancient world, the sun was an object of religious worship for many of the nations surrounding Israel.  In implicit contradiction of the sun as a deity, the psalmist asserts that the sun is a created object, just as all of the other astronomical bodies in the sky.  Rather than viewing the sun as a deity, the psalmist depicts the sun as manifesting the majesty of the true God, whom all of Creation worships and glorifies.  Instead of being a deity, the sun points to the glory of the Creator and becomes an instrument through which we can experience the true divine Creator.

            Psalm 19:1-6 provides a strong scriptural warrant for experiencing the presence of the Divine, when we lift our gaze to the night sky or trace the course of the sun on its journey each day.  But what about experiencing God’s presence here on our home planet, teeming with an abundance and diversity of life?  In our worship this Sunday, January 7th, I will suggest that God’s presence can always be experienced in the nature of our home planet—even, now, in the middle of a cold, cold winter here in Nebraska and many other parts of the United States.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 7th.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.