I had the privilege to be with the good people of St. Mark’s Lutheran in St. Paul, Nebraska today (July 21, 2019), thanks to the invitation of Pastor Steven Neal. It was a joy to be with them, to preach and worship with them, and also to gather in conversation during the fellowship hour about deacons, stewardship, the Nebraska Synod, and work we share together as the ELCA. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the appointed gospel story from Luke 10:38-42.
Grace and peace from God in Christ, who is with you, loves you, and is for you. Amen.
Good Morning St. Mark’s! It’s great to be with you this morning. Thank you so much Pastor Steven for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas, and from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Steve Meysing, as well as from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I’m grateful to be with you today, to dig into this famous gospel story and wonder a bit about what God might be calling us to and what God might be up to all around us, and to think some about our stewardship which is our response to God’s work and promises for us.
Digging into this week’s story
This week’s story picks up right where last week’s ended. Jesus has just finished answering the question to the man wanting to justify himself about eternal life, and an unpacking of the depth and breadth of who is one’s neighbor, with the story about the Good Samaritan. And Jesus concludes that story with the command to, “Go and do likewise.” Then Jesus literally goes himself. And as he is on his way, he shows up and enters a village where he is met by two sisters. Martha, the one who is amazingly in this male dominated culture of the Roman empire, the head of the house, welcomes him into her home. And the other, Mary, sits at the Lord’s feet listening to what he says.
I suspect many of you have heard this story tens to maybe even hundreds of times in your life. Perhaps you identify with one sister more than the other? Perhaps you feel uneasy hearing this story like me sometimes? Whatever might be on your mind and heart today, let’s approach this story with some fresh eyes and see and wonder about what God might be calling us to see today.
In ending the story last week with the command to “Go and do likewise,” Jesus is commanding us all to show up for our neighbor, to care for them, and do what we can with what God has entrusted us with for their sake. This isn’t about ourselves, this is about our neighbors who God calls us into relationship with. And we acknowledge, that sometimes God very much shows up in the world through us and our neighbors, using us- our hands, feet, bodies, souls, hearts, and minds, to do some of God’s work in the world. Often in ways that might seem to go against the norms and practices of the world- like Martha as head of the house, and Jesus participating in lifting up women in leadership, at a time when that was rarer than rare in the Roman world.
This week’s encounter allows Jesus to expand on “go and do likewise” with the caveat, concern, or awareness of what we Lutherans might fall into. This might make me sound ridiculous, but I deeply believe by and large, we Lutherans are a great group of Martha’s. We generally get the call to be hospitable and serve, though we aren’t always aware of what that might need to be or look like. We certainly understand the need for some water, coffee, and some sort of food in fellowship after worship. Martha can’t be faulted for hurrying around trying to prepare a meal for her guest. That’s basic hospitality 101.
The problem though is perhaps below the surface. When we, like Martha, get so caught up in our doing and our stuff, we might well lose sight of the bigger picture. We might miss the deeper “why” behind why we are doing what we are doing. When this happens, we might miss God showing up, present, and right in front of us.
In this way, this week’s story is a great one. It’s a reminder to take the time to just be present. To, as Mary does, “sit at another’s feet,” and soak in their wisdom. Perhaps you have done this with your parents or grandparents at some point in life? Perhaps with someone you deeply admire in your faith community or congregation? Perhaps you have done this with a favorite teacher or professor? Maybe a favorite coach or even pastor?
It’s also a reminder for us to check ourselves. It’s important to do the work like Martha, but to do it intentionally and not to be totally lost and distracted in it. Full confession time, as a first-born son, I know full well which of these two sisters I might resonate more with. So, I must be careful here, because I am highly tempted (like many of you probably) to try and defend Martha. But really, this story is a call for us all to take stock of life, and see how we are stewarding our time.
Where Stewardship Fits In
I should probably pause here, and unpack what I mean by stewardship for a minute. It’s not just as some of you might suspect who I see crossing your arms in the back, about money. No, I see you, and rest assured, I am not here to ask about money. No, stewardship is way bigger than any one thing. It’s holistic and broad. It’s built off like what the psalmist says in Psalm 24 that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Which put another way means, that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. All means all. God entrusts us with all that makes us who we are: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, passions, vocations, ideas, questions, and stories; our money, finances, treasure, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and that we are a part of. All of this and so much more, has been entrusted to our care by God to us, to use, manage, and care for.
What we have, God entrusts to us so that we might have life and live it abundantly, but that also means so that we might care for the neighbors that God calls us into relationship with, near and far. For through us, some of God’s work is done. And we do this work, because we can’t help but be so overjoyed and grateful for what God has done for us, that we want to give thanks and be a part of this work in some way ourselves.
Recognizing this, I deeply believe that today’s story about Jesus showing up at Martha’s house, and visiting with Martha and Mary is a story all about stewardship. It’s a story about the stewardship of time and presence. Martha and Mary make choices when Jesus shows up. Martha chooses to get to work in the kitchen and loses herself in that vocation. Mary chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak in all of his presence. It’s understandable why Martha might get exasperated with her sister. But it’s also not too hard to see, that perhaps Martha is missing something beautiful right in front of her face by not taking the time to breathe and be present.
This has me wondering today about time, decisions, choices, and opportunities. What choices have we made recently and why? How have these choices reflected our calls and vocations? How do we react to opportunities, visits, questions, and ideas that come before us- like schools right across the street? And where have we seen God active and up to something around us lately?
Being Present as the Lord is with us
Martha is so busy in her own world, perhaps so busy stuck in her own head with her own to-do list, that she is missing the bigger picture here. She is trying to faithfully fulfill her vocation as host and show hospitality to her visitor, but by doing so, she is missing God’s call, invitation, and activity right in front of her face.
It’s easier to see this perhaps when you have a baby or toddler in the house as I do. My wife Allison and I are learning everyday what it means to be parents, as we live and learn with our beautiful, curious, and adventurous daughter Caroline. Often when I sit for a moment on the couch in the living room at home, I get out my phone and peruse my news-feeds or see what is happening on Facebook. It would be so easy to get lost in looking at my screens, but having a toddler is good medicine for this.
Whether I want to put my phone down or not, Caroline will find a way to get my phone or at least get my attention. That might seem annoying at times, but honestly, I think it’s a God sighting. When Caroline does this, I believe God perhaps is showing up right in front of my eyes in the form of a young child, saying: “hey, wake up.” “I am doing a new thing.” “Something awesome is happening here.” “See the beauty of creation before you.” “Come, join the fun and play with me.” Now this comparison isn’t perfect. Martha isn’t Mary’s parent, and Jesus isn’t a toddler in this story. But you get the idea.
That doesn’t soften the blow though of the way the story ends. Jesus answers Martha’s request for him to send Mary to help her by 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.” As a doer like Martha, this response from Jesus stings. But that stinging is a good thing. It catches my attention. The law and gospel together are meeting in this story, calling me to wake up, and to move from the monotony of the routines of daily life, to be awake, alert, and open to God’s call and activity.
God is up to something new here in the ordinary action of daily life, much like God will be up to something in the bigger events and work that only God can do of the cross, tomb, and resurrection to come. And much like God in Christ is truly present and the host in the sacrament and feast to come.
Stewardship in Action
I have seen God active and up to many things lately in this synod, and especially in part through you St. Mark’s. I have seen and sensed God active and up to something through you as you have stepped up like many of the other 244 congregations in our synod, to respond to our neighbors’ needs in the face of rising and falling flood waters, sand covered fields, and questions of what’s next, and how to move on or rebuild. I have seen it in the way you have stepped up to help your neighbors particularly in Dannebrog.
This recovery effort will be long, and we will all be called to continue to hear, listen, and share these stories as in the months and years ahead as rebuilding and recovery continue long after the news crews have gone home, and long after the obvious physical signs of the floods and blizzards of this year will have passed away. The signs of this change, the hard realities of grief and questions of how one might continue to make a living, will be there right below the surface. This is hard stuff, but it is stuff that God calls us all too in ministry and as disciples and stewards to be aware of, present for each other, believing that at the very least we are God’s hands and feet in the world, but also God’s shoulders as we offer shoulders for our neighbors to cry on, and help where we can, together in doing this work.
I have seen God active and up to much through each of you through your congregation’s continued participation in mission share too. Mission share is the undesignated offering your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe, changing lives.
Through it, you help raise up new pastors, deacons, and leaders of our church. Through it, you spread the good news of the Gospel that God is for you, with you, and loves you, in part through supporting and sending missionaries around the globe, and sponsoring new and renewing ministries right here all across the Big Red State. Through it, you also spread the news of God’s deep love for youth and young adults through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry, including Camp Carol Joy Holling. And through mission share, you offer the presence to show up for those in need like Mary and the helpful and determined work like Martha to listen and do what needs to be done for our neighbors near and far, through joining in and supporting our church serving arm partners like Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, and Mosaic, just to name a few.
There is so much that you are a part of and that you do as part of God’s work in the world. If you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this. Thank you! Thank you for being present in the world that God calls you into. Thank you for doing the work that God calls you and entrusts you with resources to do. And thank you, for being a part of this church together. Together, we all do so much more than we could ever do alone. Together, we aren’t just Martha in the kitchen on our own, but together we are God’s people growing and learning as disciples like Mary, and also serving in response to the needs of the world as stewards like Martha.
Today’s story is one of tension. If we aren’t caring for the people and things entrusted to our care and doing the work of our vocations it would be fair to say that not much is going to happen. But, on the other hand, if we aren’t paying attention, listening, growing, learning and discerning what God might be up to and active around us and calling us to be a part of, what is the point of all of our efforts and work? Martha’s actions are okay, if they are the response to Jesus’ call and words of grace and truth. But without those words, they aren’t a response at all, and just busyness and time spent not being fully open to what God might have her do.
In today’s story Jesus is calling us to be present and intentional. He is calling us to “come and see that Lord is good.” To sit down and listen, so that like Mary and Martha we can share this Word which Jesus shared with us, so that we can point to the Kingdom of God breaking into the world sometimes even through us bit by bit, and so that we can get down on our knees like Jesus does for us, to serve and wash our neighbor’s feet. In seeing and knowing that God is for us, loves us, and is with us, we too can wonder and follow God’s call to each of us, to live and grow as stewards and disciples as our response to God’s love for each of us. Thanks be to God for this reminder and gift, and thanks be to God for each and every one of you, God’s stewards and disciples here in St. Paul. Amen.