The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
July 22, 2007
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.”
Has anyone here noticed that we have a very “Martha” church here? It’s great sometimes, don’t get me wrong. We are a bunch of busy people, hard-working people, productive people. It makes us a strong and vibrant congregation – full of great programs and activities. We usually have a lot of fun together, even at church business meetings. We’re toiling in the vineyards of the Lord, right? It’s all good – most of the time.
Only sometimes our volunteers get burned out. Have you ever felt like Martha? Like you’ve been working forever, at full speed, and then suddenly you stop and think, “Now wait a minute. How is it that other members of this church get away with just coming to worship on Sunday now and then, when they feel like it? How is it they get all the goodies, all the spiritual food, and I’m stuck back in the kitchen, always doing their dishes?” If you’re a Martha, you’re probably annoyed with Jesus in this story. With her, we cry out, “Lord, tell those other people to help me out! Don’t you care that I’m wearing myself out, serving alone?” And what does he say? “There, there, Martha, stop your fretting. Only one thing matters, and Mary has chosen it. I won’t take it from her.”
How could Jesus be so unfair, we might wonder? There’s nothing so annoying, when you’re worked up into a pretty good dither, when someone tries to help by just TELLING you to calm down. But that’s what Jesus does here. He might as well have rolled his eyes and said, “Oh Martha, grow up. Nobody here wants to hear your whining.” But Luke doesn’t say what Jesus is DOING as he answers her – we don’t know but that he might’ve actually embraced Martha, and taken her wet dishrag, and told her to stop work and come sit at his feet too. I’d like to think he did that, wouldn’t you? That’s the Jesus I’ve come to know, in my own struggles with the Martha inside me anyway.
I’m descended from a long line of very gifted and talented homemakers, on both my mother’s and father’s side of the family. From my mother’s mother Lela, I learned to roll out and make delicious and delicate sugar cookies, so thin you can see light through them. From my father’s mother Ada, I learned to bake angel food cakes, and jam cakes, and pumpkin and lemon meringue pies, plus Christmas fudge in three creamy and luscious flavors. From my Aunt Inez, I learned to knit, from Aunt Zella how to make the best sandwiches and keep a clean kitchen sink, and from my mom, how to make guests feel like kings and queens – and, the crowning touch, make it look like it was no bother at all.
But like church work, housework is never-ending and demanding. To do both, and do both well, would be an all night all day proposition. As a full-time pastor, and a wife and mother, it’s all too easy for me to start down the slippery slope toward a good Martha conniption fit. Christmas time, especially for me with all that’s going on a church, can be a recipe for disaster. The Christmas cards, the shopping, and all that special holiday baking that is a family tradition – used to make Advent a season to dread, for everyone in my family. Finally, my dear and long-suffering husband convinced me to do January baking, send New Year’s cards, and bake star-shaped cookies for Epiphany. Or in really busy years, it’s been Valentine’s cards, with gifts of fudge. You get the idea. Especially in December as we recall Jesus’s birth, but really all year round as we remember the love of Christ for us, what’s most important is not our endless “to do” lists, however well-intentioned or generous they are, but drawing closer to his transforming Spirit.
Paul writes a lot, in all his letters, about his joy at being saved from his stress-filled life of striving for righteousness and being transformed into a new person through faith in Jesus Christ. But when we read in Colossians, where Paul writes of “warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ,” it sounds a bit bleak. When we hear that phrase “Mature Christians,” what might come to mind are the grim faces of Colonial churchgoers, steeped in the bleak reality of a New England winter. We all have that capacity to go about our chores –at home, on the job, or at church – with the grim, Martha-like determination that built our pioneer nation. In the wider world, that relentless Protestant work ethic passes for maturity. But Jesus begs to differ. He suggests that true Christian discipleship calls us to cling more tightly to his love instead, to spend more time listening and learning at his feet.
Paul celebrates the amazing power of a close relationship to Christ in Colossians, as he writes about “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” My children are constantly teaching and RE-teaching me this – they’ve been trying their hardest to help me develop in this way into a more mature Christian. “Mommy,” they’d say, “we don’t NEED more cookies,” as Advent would stir me into a good Martha baking frenzy, “we just want to spend more time with you.” When is God more present than in the shining face of a sincere and loving child, especially at Christmas? Earlier this hot week at Vacation Bible School as I led a prayer of thanks, one little girl thought to thank God for Christmas – Jesus, in Luke, is the best gift, the one Mary chose.
I loved getting to work at church this past week – with 200 bouncy Bible School kids filling every inch of the place, I’m here to tell you, Jesus was IN the building. Sometimes I couldn’t even make it easily from the office door across the hall to the restroom, because there were two bobbing lines of children, marching with ant-like precision – one class up the stairs to Brooks Hall, another class coming down. From the sanctuary was always the sound of happy singing and laughter. It’s not for nothing that Jesus said that the children would lead the way into the Kingdom of Heaven, right? They know how to celebrate life, and love with unrestrained joy.
The Bible School theme this year was “Lift Off,” which is why we left the giant polka dot balloon hanging from the balcony. Each of those many dots represent a gift the children brought to the food pantry. Lift up Jesus, they learned, and he lifts you up. Amen, and amen. I talked on Friday morning with the middle-school counselors-in-training about how surprisingly fun service to others can be – especially when we get to pray and play with the littlest lambs of God’s flock. Even for adult teachers, as exhausted as they were at the end of the week, I heard many of them say how hard it was to have it all end. Those of us who work with kids can’t help but love it, because the hearts of happy children seem to hold within them the amazing lift of the Holy Spirit.
What’s really special is when we, as teenagers and adults, can hold on to Jesus with the same unshakable faith and whole-hearted devotion we had in our Bible School days. It’s so important because the love of Jesus makes it possible, as Paul did, to actually “rejoice in sufferings.” Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was leading a high school mission trip cleaning and painting a nasty flood-damaged bathroom at the Guerneville, California, United Church of Christ. I got to work with a very fun group of girls who were awesome a cappella singers – and if you’re a shower singer like me, you know bathroom acoustics can be amazing. It was nasty and dirty work, but I’m here to tell you, Jesus was very close to us that day – as we were singing praises to him at the top of our lungs and in four-part harmony. We gave Jesus our hearts, and our hands followed.
We need those faith immersion experiences and the memories of them to sustain us through the hard times. Because it’s the closeness we reach with Jesus, as Mary showed us, that gives us the energy to do the toughest Martha chores. I know that’s what kept my grandmother Ada going, as she raised two children with my grandfather in Appalachia during the Great Depression – she gave Jesus all the thanks and praise. You know that old song, “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus”? That was my Nana. For her, because she spent every day with Jesus, you could see that keeping house was always a joy. She loved to stand at her kitchen sink and do the dishes, she said, because warm soapy water felt so good on your hands, and because from there you could see the flowering trees my grandfather had planted for her there. They blocked the view of a dirty old alley – but trust me, she never saw the alley. She just saw the beauty of the day the Lord had made. At 97, she was more childlike and joyful than most kids I know.
That, my friends, is the kind of “Mature Christianity” Paul encourages us to find. “For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.” We are called to join him in making more and more mature Christians, who then join us in building Christ’s church. And these new Christians come in all sizes – sometimes they’re big ones like us, and sometimes they’re small, like the ones in our pews this week with their little feet dangling a foot above the floor. Jesus is there for all of us, happy to have us just rest in his love and sit at his feet for a while. Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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