38Now as they 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.”
There is a classic episode of the TV series Taxi that I just love. I think of it almost every time I see a traffic light. The cabbies who make up the main characters of the show spent considerable time helping their burned out friend, the Rev. Jim Ignatowski, study for his drivers license so that he could get a job as a cab driver.
The most hilarious thing to me about the whole scene is not really even the scene itself, which is regarded, for what it is worth, as one of the most classic scenes in all of television. But it turns out that Christopher Lloyd was just told to keep saying “slow down” slower and slower until people quit laughing . . . But they didn’t quit laughing. Clearly something about the scene struck a nerve in the audience, strikes a nerve in those who watch it now, strikes a nerve in me, because if I am anything, I am someone who is not used to slowing down.
Is there anybody like that here? Is there anyone on earth who slows down really well, on purpose, just because we are supposed to slow down some times? I don’t know where we got the idea that the only way to be faithful is to add more things, to go faster, harder, but I don’t see anything in the Bible about running yourself ragged.
But somebody’s got to turn the lights on, right? Somebody has to unlock the door and take up the offering and vacuum the carpet and set up the coffee and drive the van and make sure there’s no bubblegum stuck to the bottom of the pews. If we all said, oh, we’ll just sit at the feet of Jesus, nothing would ever get done.
So I have a little sympathy for Martha, who is in the back room getting everything ready for Jesus, because if I were picking out the perfect church member, I would certainly pick Martha over Mary, because Martha is a go-getter! She is my kind of woman! The thing that I say in church meeting, more than anything else, is “I think we are on the same page here, let’s move on.” I don’t like to dilly-dally. I like to do! I get Martha probably more than most folks do, although you may get her, too, this woman who goes and goes and goes and . . . unfortunately, serves God without doing justice to the holy mystery of God’s presence.
Do you understand the problem? Sometimes we go go go so hard that we forget that church is not something you do but something you are. And listen, I am not advocating quitting your committee or dropping your commitments or whatever. But if your commitments are getting in the way of being in the presence of God—not in the way of watching football, but in the way of being in the presence of God-- you might as well be in the back room seasoning the soup while everybody else sits at the feet of Christ.
I think Martha gets a bad rap, but I understand the temptation to do at the expense of being, and it is not a new temptation, for at its root, I think, is the fear that we aren’t enough, that God does not accept us as we are, that we must do a little more, push a little further, go a little harder because, we fear, God may decide not to accept us after all.
At least, that was the fear of the Colossian church we hear expressed in today’s epistle lesson. They, like just about everybody, were worried about this church business, worried that it was not enough, that they weren’t secure enough, that they needed to begin with doing rather than beginning with being.
There were false teachers, in fact, teaching that what the church ought to be about was doing—specifically, about having more ecstatic visions and engaging in more ascetic practices, going to great lengths to deny themselves the basic needs of life in order to appease God, who, as these false teachers taught, would go after them if they did not perform enough of these acts, if they did not do enough. There was no grace in this teaching, just the expectation that God is mad at us and wants us to do things in order to buy God off.
And so Paul shares with the church a hymn, what has come to be known as the Christ hymn, and you can almost hear it being sung at ancient funerals as those gathered sought to praise God and reassure themselves that the business of being the church was worth all their heartache and work and money and time.
8He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the cross
That church—the ancient church—faced the same fears we do, and that at least makes me feel a little less crazy about my own struggles. How do we know that we are secure in our salvation? How do we know that this business of being the church is worth it, and not some giant practical joke where we are the punch line? These are the same struggles we have today, and the ancient church had them too. So Paul, or whomever wrote the letter to the Colossians (because we are not completely sure), decided that in order to reassure them, in order to get the church to worry less, he would share a hymn, of all things. A hymn to remind the church of where it had been, of who it was in Christ, and where it was headed. I love this. In order to reassure the church, he shared a hymn. I can almost hear it now, the writer scribbling away on parchment, humming as he went along.
(hum Blessed be the tie that binds)
And this is well and good for the Colossians, but where does this leave us? Let me just say that I have really enjoyed visiting with many of you. I still have some folks left to visit, and we will get to that, but I hope everybody will be thinking about where we are going as God’s church here at the corner of Church Street and North Decatur, because we need to make some decisions about where we are going, what our values are, what God’s vision is for this place. I have been thinking a lot about this as I have listened to you talk about what is important to you and where you think we ought to be going.
And as we discern the direction in which God is calling us, there will be many exciting things in store for this church. They will involve doing. But remember, throughout all of this, that the church—this business, the thing we are doing now—matters not because of what we are doing. It matters because of who we are, and whom we worship, and whom we serve.
It is my experience that when we think of the church as the body of Christ, the actual, mystical body, we start to understand a little more that who we are matters: that it has inherent value in itself, even without the many preparations we are doing to prepare for the presence of Christ.
And lest this sound easy, let me assure you that your pastor struggles with this more than just about anybody. I am a planner. I plan sermons months in advance, I like to know exactly what is going to happen and when and for how long and who is going to be there and what we’re all going to be wearing. I am a planner, just like Martha, and I’d just as soon be in the kitchen making sure everybody is having a good time as I’d be out in the living room. Maybe it is because I am an introvert. I don’t know. But I don’t like to be surprised, and I like to prepare.
In many ways, it is good, because if I did not plan my sermons, you’d probably be listening to some trite colloquialism this morning rather than this FINE sermon.
But there be dragons there, for those of us who are doers need to learn to slow down, to breathe, to be in God’s presence and breathe deep the breath of God.
We don’t need to do things in order to be the church. We already are, we already are the church, secured in Christ’s love and forgiving grace. And yes, we are called to respond to that grace by doing, but it is a response, not a preparation, for God is already here, among us. No matter who you are—whether this is your first time in this place or whether you’ve been here since day one, slow down, breathe, remember that you are God’s beloved. Breathe deep. Breathe deep the breath of God.