The Trouble with Mary and Martha

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

GOSPEL: Luke 10:38-42
38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Once again this week, we hear a familiar story from the book of Luke. Last week as we unpacked the parable of the Good Samaritan, we looked at the way in which that parable was less about loving our neighbour through good deeds, as it was a metaphor for God’s mercy and grace given for us. When we read the parable through the lens of the lawyer’s question regrading inheriting eternal life, we discovered that in fact God was the Good Samaritan and we were the one in the ditch. God is the one rescuing from sin and death when our efforts to justify ourselves fall short. 

Today, we pick up just after that story with the story of Mary and Martha, another familiar story from Luke. A story for which there are countless pieces of art, bible studies and sermons that all warn against the distracted fussing of Martha and lift up the quiet listening of Mary. Another sermon when the brain can be turned off early on, because we think know what the message is here. 

If I am honest, I can go back into my files and find sermons about the version of Mary and Martha that I just described. About two versions of hosting and “women’s work.” 

And yet a deeper dive into the text reveals a story very different than the one we so often imagine, 

Biblical Scholar, Mary Stromer Hanson and Pastor Amy Courts have done some excellent work to re-visit this text and a lot of what to come is based on their work. 

Following Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer who prompted Jesus to tell parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to a certain village. Presumably this village is Bethany, the home of Mary and Martha. 

Upon their arrival, Martha meets Jesus but exactly how and where is not so clear. What reads as “welcomes” Jesus may also be heard as receives Jesus, as in receives his message or teaching. And while we might imagine Jesus the disciples crowded into Martha’s home, the earliest manuscripts of Luke do not include this detail. So this interaction between Martha and Jesus might be taking place anywhere, on the road, in the town square or some other public place. 

Then the story notes that Martha has a sister Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus. This of course has led to the many paintings or other pieces of art depicting Jesus and Mary sitting in a living room of sorts as he teaching, while Martha scurries about the kitchen. However, “sitting at the feet” is well known 1st century phrase which means to be a disciple of or follower of a teacher or rabbi. 

So Mary is not quietly siting at Jesus’ feet while he id waiting supper, but rather is named as one of his disciples. But it isn’t just Mary. In many English translations the word ‘also’ is omitted. Martha had a sister named Mary who ALSO sat at the feet of Jesus. 

In other words, Mary and Martha are both disciples and followers of Jesus. Jesus who earlier in Luke declares that his disciples are the ones who hear his word and do it. 

So rather than two women taking different approaches to hosting a guest for super, we have two sisters and two disciples of Jesus.

The story goes on to say that Martha is distracted by many Diakonen, a greek word you might know from Diaconal Minister or Deacon. We have traditionally translated that Martha was distracted, but the connotation is being troubled and in an ongoing way. Martha is troubled by diakonen, not the tasks of keeping a home, but ministry. Martha is troubled, almost being split and divided in herself by all the work of ministry around her. 

Martha is not distracted by cooking dinner, but by tending to her village. Feeding the hungry, caring for the widows, visiting sick and imprisoned. Doing all the kinds of things a disciple of Jesus would do locally in her village. 

And being troubled, Martha comes to Jesus to confront him about her sister, Mary. Now, ever why wonder why Mary doesn’t speak in this story? It is likely because she isn’t even there. Again the connotation in Greek is that Mary has left her sister, Mary has gone off with the rest of Jesus’ travelling disciples to preach the good news throughout Galilee. Martha does not know where Mary is but Jesus does. And so she is relaying the message through him, that she wants her sister to come home. 

And just maybe Martha isn’t only stressed by the task of ministering to her community. Maybe she is worried about her sister who is out on the road, out doing the things that are usually reserved for men, out in the world which is not a safe place, especially for a woman (remember the bandits we just heard about in the story of the Good Samaritan). 

And so in the midst of her troubled spirit and worry about her sister, Jesus brings Martha back to herself. ‘Martha, Martha’ Jesus says her name twice. Like a good friend grounding another, Jesus helps her find her feet. 

Jesus looks around the village of Bethany, knowing all that Martha is tending to in her community, all the care she is giving. “You have much that troubles you Martha, but there is only thing.” Jesus tells Martha that despite the many jobs and responsibilities of caring for her community, that there is only one call to discipleship. The same call that both sisters are following each in their own way.

And so this story that we used to think was about a couple of sisters fighting over the domestic duties of hosting a guest in their home is something completely different. It is the story of a disciple who confronts Jesus when he arrives in her town with her narrow expectations for what the work of the Kingdom of God might look like, only to have Jesus remind her that ministry and God’s work happens in a variety of ways, and through a variety of people. 

Sound familiar? 

As churches we have had the habit of being Marthas, not in the distracted busybody way, but as communities that have often and long expected the work of the kingdom to look and be a certain way. We have preferred ministry to take place among us according to our vision and expectations. And lately — say in the past 20 years or so — keeping up with it all has been troubling us and stressing us out. Especially as we think there are folks who should be here with us doing this work. 

But Jesus meets us where we are and grounds us too. “Church, Church, you are stressed and troubled by many things, but there is only need of one thing.”

There is only one thing to keep at the forefront, one thing to press us on, one thing that guides us as followers of Christ:

There is only one call to ministry. That each who is called to serve is called by the same God with the same call.  That one call is expressed in the variety of work that God is doing in and through us and countless others. 

We have been hearing this message over and over again in the Gospel of Luke. As Jesus and the disciples have gone about Galilee proclaiming the gospel, Jesus has ben constantly challenging the displaces to expand their understanding of what God’s work in the world can look like. To be open to others and their different forms of service, who have also heard that one call to discipleship.

And so as we enter this new age of being church together, Jesus is challenging us to too:

Jesus is hearing our complaints and struggles and stress, hearing our prayers and pleas. 

Jesus is calling out our names and grounding us again in the Word of God and the sacraments. Jesus is reminding us that God us the one who calls us to serve, and we don’t get to decide what what service looks like for everyone. 

And Jesus shows us that this call, this ministry, this discipleship, this preaching of the good news is going to look and be different than we expect. 

But it is still the work of the gospel, still the work of the church, still part of the body of Christ to which we all belong. 

Today we are called to be like both Mary and Martha, disciples following God calls, using our diverse gifts to take the good news first given to us, good news of mercy and new life, out to the whole world. 

Church conventions are boring…and vitally important – Pastor Thoughts

As I write to this, I am sitting and watching the ELCIC’s National Convention online. National Church Council decided to hold an online gathering in the 2022 and an in-person gathering in 2023.

The convention this summer will deal only with the items of business that needed to be dealt with according to the constitution (elections and budgets, etc..) Whereas items for discussion and deliberation, important reports from task forces, and other conventions items that are better dealt with in-person will be on the agenda next year.

If I had to guess, even the mention of the words “church convention” would cause most folks to start yawning. The perception of church conventions is that they are pretty boring affairs, with lots of motions, amendments, reports, minutes, points of order and generally people droning on about very uninteresting things.

Certainly, sometimes they can be that.

Church conventions can also be important moments for the church to gather together, to share in worship, discussion and fellowship together, to be one church body together across the country.

Most people who attend ELCIC churches like SPLC might only have a handful of times that they participate in events with other folk from the ELCIC. When the larger church does gather at events like the ordinations of new pastors, or installations of pastors taking new calls, synod conventions and national conventions, there is an opportunity for representatives from our congregation to meet with representatives from other ministries and congregations. These are chances to see what our siblings in faith are doing, to share in one another’s joys and commiserate in our struggles, and know that we are no not alone in the work of ministry. We have others all around us there to support us and who need our support.

As we already know through our shared youth ministry experience, the time of congregations functioning mostly on their own is over. More and more we are going to find ourselves meeting up with and then working intentionally with folks from other congregations. The larger church is going to become a far more interconnected and interdependent environment in the future. We are all coming to learn that we cannot do the work of ministry on our own. Not as congregations, not as Lutherans in Winnipeg or in Manitoba or in Canada.

So yes, National Convention might be something that elicits a few yawns. But it is also a tangible sign that we are not alone as a congregation and the work of ministry will include more siblings of faith working together than ever before.

PS You can follow-up with all the ELCIC’s National Convention things on their Facebook Page:

Just who is the Good Samaritan?

Luke 10:25-37
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity….

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

We have been making our way through Luke’s gospel for a few weeks now. Today, we hear a well known parable again.  We pick up with Jesus just after the 70 disciples have returned and we hear about The Good Samaritan. Just the name of this familiar parable carries so much meaning for us. We speak of good Samaritans as, those who carry out random acts of kindness to complete strangers. We praise Good Samaritan and altruistic behaviour. We even name hospitals and care homes after the Good Samaritan. Being a Good Samaritan is an ideal to aspire to. 

We know this story, and we are often pretty sure that we think we know what it means. We have all heard the sermons that come along with this story. Condemnation for the priest and the levite who walk on by. Praise for the Good Samaritan who stops to help when he has no obligation to help. And so follows the logic. See your neighbour in unexpected people. Be Good Samaritans to those in need. Don’t look down who are less fortunate than you are. We hear this story and we remember the moral messages that we have heard associated with it. We can almost just turn our brains off at this point, because we know the story and we probably know the end of the sermon. 

So often we forget why Jesus told this story in the first place. 

It all begins with Jesus teaching and preaching, when an expert in the law stands up to challenge him. Not a lawyer in the chasing ambulances and cheesy late night commercials sense. But an expert in Hebrew law, the Torah, the law of Moses. Religious law. The question that the challenger asks is not an honest question, but one meant to trap Jesus. To get Jesus to fall in line with tradition religious teaching, or out himself as a heretic. 

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is a loaded question. A tough question. A dangerous question.

It begins with “What must I do”  a statement that is searching for certainty and control. It comes from a self-centred place, it is about me, my life, my actions, my power. 

And “to inherit eternal life?” It is a question of place, of God’s place in our world, in our lives. It is not so much how can I get into heaven, but more about how can I be in control, how I can be God in God’s place, how can I be the one who determines my own goodness and righteousness.

Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, and forces the lawyer to answer his own question with proper religious teaching. Jesus’ clever reversal reveals the lawyer’s true motivation. In perhaps the most important line of the whole story, we hear that the lawyer wants to justify himself. 

The lawyer wants to justify himself. Save himself. Earn his own way into heaven. Earn his own salvation. Make himself righteous. 

As Lutherans we should know this word. One of the most important refrains of Martin Luther and the reformers was, Justification by Grace through Faith and not by works. Meaning, we are saved not by works, but by grace. 

And yet most of the time, most of us would rather be with the lawyer. We would much prefer to save ourselves, we would much prefer to be the who make ourselves right, who justify ourselves, who judge ourselves and others, who earn our own way into heaven. 

In fact most Christians, and even Lutherans, despite what we are taught in confirmation, if asked, would say that in order to get into heaven you “have to be a good person”. And while it sounds innocent enough, it is actually a statement that puts us in control. Our actions determine our worth and righteousness. 

But Jesus does not let the lawyer off the hook. Nor does he let us off the hook. 

We want to make this parable all about how we can be Good Samaritans, but consider again the characters of the story. The priest and levite are not the bad guys, but in fact the best that human religion and human laws have to offer. They pass by not because they are uncaring, but because maybe they feel like their religion demands it. They could be made unclean by touching a dead body, which would then prevent them from fulfilling their religious duty as they faced 7 days of ritual purification. 

Or maybe they didn’t help because they were afraid. They worried that the same bandits who caught this man would get them. They were worried about what would happen to themselves if they stopped to help. 

The Samaritan is a foreign Jew, and outsider who worships the same God, but NOT in the same way. A Jew that is thought to be unclean already, a jew who worships wherever he wants, not only in the temple. This man can help because he is already rejected by law and religion. This man does help he worried about what would happen to the man in the ditch if he did NOT stop. 

The lawyer would not want to be a ‘Good Samaritan’ and nor would we really. We want to know that the good we do will get us into heaven, but we do not really want to be outsiders or unclean or those on the margins of society. 

This story is not a moral tale about good works that will earn us heaven, it is not about who is my neighbour, bur really about the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Hear the story again, as Jesus’ audience would have heard it:

“Human kind” was going down from “The Holy City” into “the night”, and fell “into the hands of Sin and Death” who stripped “Humanity,” beat “humanity”, and went away, leaving “humanity” half dead. Now by chance “Religion” was going down that road; and when he saw “Human kind”, “Religion” passed by on the other side. So likewise “The Law”, when he came to the place and saw “Humanity” passed by on the other side. But “the Grace and Mercy of God” while traveling came near “to Human kind”; and when “Grace and Mercy” saw humanity, “she” was moved with pity. “Grace and Mercy” went to humanity and bandaged humanity’s wounds, and fed humanity with bread and wine. Then “Grace and Mercy lifted humanity up”, brought humanity to an Inn, ‘a place of rest’, and took care of humankind. The next day “she”  took out two “days wages’” and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of “human kind”; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.

We are not the Good Samaritan. We do not have the power to justify our selves. We cannot do works good enough to get ourselves into heaven and nor does God expect us to. 

We are the ones lying in the ditch. We are the ones who are half – dead, the ones who are judged and passed over by religion and the law. The ones who are in the need but for whom there is only condemnation offered by the law and religion. 

And yet, as we lie half-dead, there is One who can offer grace and mercy. There is One who is not constrained by law or religion, One who is not concerned with becoming unclean by coming into contact with us. One who is more concerned with what will happen to us if they do not help, that what will happen to them if they do. 

And this is the One who finds us in the ditch, One who speaks a word of forgiveness and of mercy to our dying bodies, One who washes and cleans us in the waters of baptism, One who feeds us and heals us with bread and wine, with the Body and Blood of God. 

God the Good Samaritan is who this story is really about. God who saves, who justifies, who makes righteous is the One that meets us on road, who finds us half way to sin and death. God is the one who grants us eternal life, we do not earn it ourselves.

Like so much when it comes to what Jesus says to us, we would rather make it about ourselves, for good or for ill. Yet God knows this, and God crosses the road for us anyways. God meets us where we are. Whether we are trying to trap Jesus, or whether we would rather justify ourselves, God comes. God comes to us in Christ, comes to us on our terms, comes to us with grace and mercy, with forgiveness for our desire to be in control. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan who reminds us to be to good people and to care for our neighbour, may very well turn our brains right off. But the parable of the God Samaritan who cross the road, who pulls out of the ditch, who shows us grace and mercy, who tells us of a God who would justify, who would save us no matter who little we want to be saved. This is the parable that Jesus tell us today. 

The parable of humanity in the ditch, and God the Good Samaritan. 

Stranger Things and the Good Samaritan – Pastor Thoughts

And now for something completely different…

For the past couple of months or so, I have been watching the Netflix show Stranger Things. It first came out in 2017 and for some reason I didn’t get into it. I really should have been really excited to watch it as it checks a lot of boxes that match my interests. It is set in the mid-80s, the era of my childhood. It focuses on a group of friends who play Dungeons & Dragons together and do other nerdy things. There is a healthy dose of pre-teen and teen angst navigating the challenges of school, relationships and growing up. 

Behind all of this is the fact the there is a government science lab running secret tests that result in some pretty fantastical stuff involving monsters, portals to other dimensions, missing friends and danger that could end the whole world. Of course, the kids who play Dungeons & Dragons who understand the world of fantasy are the only ones who can really figure out what is going on. 

While I can see myself and my childhood in the kids in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, it is the adult characters that I identify with. I understand the sheer panic of Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce, when her son goes missing, and her determination to do anything to save him. 

But it is the Chief of Police Jim Hopper whom I cannot help but identify with. He is a big shabby grump with a tragic back story, who ends up caring about the kids of Hawkins and Joyce more than he ever thinks possible. I can see that without Courtenay, Oscar and Maeve I might have found myself living a similarly grumpy and shabby life. 

Now, what does this all have to do with church? Well, this week we are about to hear one of the most familiar parables of the bible, the Good Samaritan. A parable so common and whose image is so powerful that we encounter it frequently in culture, despite most biblical images falling out of the cultural awareness. (A metaphor that even Stranger things uses in on episode). 

Though the Good Samaritan is story that we often think is about doing good works, caring for our neighbours even when it doesn’t benefit us, it isn’t really about that at all. 

The Good Samaritan a parable Jesus uses to warn against the temptation to save or justify ourselves. To try and be the hero of our own stories, or take control of our lives and world and do it all alone. 

This is where Stranger Things meets the Bible. 

A common theme through the seasons of Stranger Things is that when one character thinks that they have to solve a problem, take on a mission alone or be the sole hero, they ultimately fail. It is always in team work that they succeed. 

This Sunday, this is precisely what we are going to explore. Now how the Good Samaritan is an example of how to care for our neighbour, but in fact why this parable is telling us the truth that we cannot do it alone, that we cannot save ourselves, that we cannot justify ourselves. 

The Good Samaritan is one of my favourite passages from the bible because when it is truly explored, it undoes our first thought about its meaning. And instead reveals to us what God is actually up to in our world and how God meets us right in the moments we are sure we don’t need God anymore. 

Looking forward to Sunday.

Thinking about a future church more than 1, 2, or 5 years from now – Pastor Thoughts

On Monday, the fourth of July I will be remembering an important anniversary in my life and my time in ministry. No, not American Independence Day. Only that I was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) on July 4th, 2009. 

I was 26 at the time and went from being a full-time student my entire adult life to serving a congregation on my own as “The Pastor.” I was full of enough naive and youthful confidence that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. 

Still, my immediate experience was that my sense of the future church was much different than nearly everyone I was working with.   Most of the church leaders and most of my colleagues were old enough to be my parents or grandparents. It wasn’t long before it became clear that most people when imagining the church were thinking one or two or five years down the road, if they were thinking forward at all. Often times the church of people’s imagining was a church 10, 25 or 50 years prior. 

My first pension plan statement really brought home the difference for me. My expected retirement was in 2048 – 39 years from my starting date. 

Well, this year I am about one third of the way into those 39 years, and if you did the math based on my ordination date and age, you will know that there is a milestone birthday coming up for me. 

With my 13th anniversary of ordination on the horizon, I have to say that things aren’t much changed. I still spend a lot of my time speculating about what the church will look like between now and 2048. Not just because it is my retirement year. Now, I often think about the church of my children’s future, and what it will look like for them. 

I think a lot of people in church leadership these days, whether lay or ordained, might think I am still naive for imagining a church that exists that far into the future. For a lot of people, imagining a church that is NOT closed one, two, five or ten years from now is really hard. 

In fact, a lot of the big questions that loomed in the background in the past decade or two have been pushed to the forefront. Questions are on our minds more than ever about whether or not the church that many have known for the past 50, or 60 or 70 years can survive into the future.

Certainly it is on my mind. 

But let me say this, even though there are big questions demanding to be answered just ahead of us, I don’t think I have ever felt less concerned about the church’s survival than I am now in 2022. I think the church needs to change and the way we do ministry together needs continued adaptation, but I can picture the church of 2048 as clearly as I ever have been able to. 

Thirteen years ago I was often planning for the church of the future, and that hasn’t changed for me. 

As I have been musing about visioning for the past three weeks, I hope it has been clear that I think God is calling us into the future. A future already prepared by God, a future that will stretch and challenge us, a future that will make the church look even more different than it has since the 1950s. It will be hard, and it will be exciting. 

But most of all, I believe that God will carry us through. Even when we are sure that the end has come for us, or think that it isn’t worth the effort anymore, God will show us the way. 

In fact, if there is something I learned in 13 years of ministry, God is already showing us the way to the next thing. The question is whether we are ready to go along for the journey.