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Distractions and the Better Part

July 21, 2013 Leave a comment

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Luke’s gospel story of Martha and Mary contains a variety of issues to choose from when trying to get the heart of what Jesus is saying.  There are a number of interpretations for this passage of scripture, so for beginners let’s look at several items of interest that can be argued.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with what Martha is doing.  Going about her assigned duties in the preparation or cleaning up after a meal is something we all do, and I’ll get back to that in a bit.  Secondly, there is not a polarization between Mary and Martha.  By this I mean the sisters have a very good relationship between themselves; the only other reference to them comes from John’s gospel where they mourn for Lazarus who has died.  Some believe there is a notion that this is strictly a gender issue dealing with allowing women to study and learn with the men.  But let’s now look at some other points and see where they will take us.

Most of us have been in the situation of hosting a dinner or party.  Being a good host or hostess requires us to do many tasks at once.  It is probably the best (and original) honest to goodness definition of what we today call multi-tasking.  Greet people at the door, prepare the meal, offer drinks and a seat, chase the dogs off the couch so there IS a place to sit, clean up spills, set the table, serve the guests, and chase the dogs out from under the table; this is only a partial list of things that sometimes involves just one person during the course of an evening with company.  Even with two people there is always the possibility of forgetting something.  We can easily relate to Martha who, by the way is probably the home owner.  The opening line says she welcomed Jesus into HER home.  When we invite people into our homes we can so often become wrapped up in what the chores are that we lose sight of the hospitality side of things.  We can even go as far as seeming to ignore the friends we welcome.  So we are not to assume or misinterpret that Jesus is telling Martha to stop what she’s doing, the chores can wait, or that Mary is doing the only thing necessary.  He says she is doing the “better part”; the word “part” being essential here.  Listening to the words of Jesus is essential and foremost, but He reminds us that He is the most important part of the hole, not the sole attention of our acts.  If that were the case nobody would ever get anything done because we’d all be sitting around listening to each other talk about Jesus.  We can identify with this situation in our church life.  We would lose focus of where all of our energy is to be spent if we are looking at who we are serving or leading and what the end result is for them, the actions take over and we begin to make the program our idol.  Each of our programs then becomes the center of attention and the person or persons we start out to help become a by-product of the system.  There should always be a focus no matter how many things are on our agenda.  At our most recent diocesan convention, there was a resolution to begin each meeting – regardless of what it is – with the question “What actions will we be taking during our meeting here that effects the poor?”  When we sit back and think about that it puts things in a different perspective than jumping right into reports and figures and assignments.

Jesus puts it this way.  He says “Martha, you are distracted by many things.”  The only thing to do is keep his teaching and words in front of our actions.  When we take our eyes and ears off of the sacred, necessary chores become dull and bothersome.  It’s as if our way of doing things have been reversed, or turned upside down where we’ve somehow placed the better part at the bottom of our “to-do” list.   A perfect example of this would be the story of Brother Lawrence.  Brother Lawrence lived in France during the seventeenth century.  He grew up poor and so at the proper age he joined the military where he knew he’d always have food and shelter.  One day he was resting under what appeared to be the lifeless limbs of a tree in winter.  It was one of those instances that place an indelible mark on your soul.  In a vision he recognized his own seemingly dead life could be awakened if he only sought to bring God into his own life.  Shortly after he was injured, eventually had to quit the army, and so joined a monastery in Paris.  Having no great skills outside of being a foot soldier, Brother Lawrence was placed in the kitchen to wash the pots and pans and clean the floors.  He immediately set himself to work praising God for giving him this job, and soon even the filthiest of chores became a delight for him as he was able to find God in the presence of it.  He knew that every act, regardless of how mundane, could be a medium for God’s love, and he dedicated every act of his with these words; “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”  This, I believe, is what Jesus is telling Martha to do.  Do things for the love of God.  Embrace all that we do as an act of prayer.  If we could do this in just a portion of our lives imagine how much peace we would find and how much aggravation we would avoid.  For years I personally viewed St. Paul’s conviction to “pray without ceasing” as something unattainable for the ordinary people we are.  That was while I was being like Martha, and allowing the multi-tasking to distract me.  But the less I allowed things to distract me, the more I could then focus on keeping God and the body of Christ as the head of my household, and the easier some things became.  The challenges don’t vanish into thin air, the same things come along in life as they always did, but by keeping Christ first and reacting in faith that God is with you, somehow makes things easier to get through.

Finally, you know I’ve mentioned a few other times how I’m learning so much from Luke’s gospels on how his words were intentionally written for the “least of these.”  Not only does he have Jesus intentionally praising women for wanting to learn, he places Mary in a position to listen attentively, something that mostly men would be doing in that era.  And of course he also has brought his teaching out of the synagogue into public squares and now brings it into a humble home showing that there is no place that God’s word does not belong.  So as we go about our normal business for the day, as we head out of our houses this week to go to work or play or whatever our plans are, let us not forget that our first action should be keeping God as the better part of the day.   Let us not get distracted by the clutter, or the clanging of pots and pans, or the blare of the neighbors TV, or the barking of dogs chasing the cat back upstairs where they think he belongs.  Let us pray first for the guidance and presence of our Lord in all of our actions and reactions and ask for help in remembering to do whatever is the “better part.”  Amen

Luke 10:38-42

Focus and Choose (Elisha and the Boanerges)

June 30, 2013 Leave a comment

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Knowing that I grew up in a coal mining town in the hills of western Pennsylvania, might give away who some of my childhood heroes were.  My first was a second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates by the name of Bill Mazeroski.  I still remember my Grandpap calling our house on that late summer day of 1960 when “Maz” hit the game winning home run in the final inning of the final game of the World Series!  He became a household name for many years to come, as would the likes of Clemente and Stargell.  Now my talents weren’t close to theirs and there wasn’t much of a chance for me to become like them, but in my mind when I practiced on the ball field I would imagine my body was going through every motion exactly as they appeared on the games I saw on television.  But the biggest thrill of all for me that left the biggest impression on my mind was actually going to baseball games at Forbes Field and seeing these idols perform before my eyes.  Oh, how I wanted so much to play at the level they did!  A competitive spirit was growing in me and would soon show in everything I did.  As much as I’d like to think I’ve settled down with the competing aspect of sports, my wife still brings to my attention from time to time that some things in life aren’t and shouldn’t be a contest.

Now I mention these sports figures not to brag about a particular team, city, place or time, but because as I look at the characters of Elisha, James and John, I see the image of some young people going about life with the same zeal for God that many youngsters have for sports.  There is an enthusiasm here that can get one in trouble depending on what you’re doing – and that is true to the point so much that James and John are told to settle down and start paying attention.  It’s also true in showing where our own passions and desires lie in our lives.

For Elisha it lies in wanting to be able to do more than Elijah does.  He sees the good that Elijah has demonstrated throughout his life, knows that it’s God who does the work, and so wants to do the same his desire to please God is evident everywhere.  Several times he’s told to stay at a certain spot, yet each time he insists on going the distance.  Some might classify this as a test of will and strength.  When we know we are heading toward an unpleasant situation there is always the choice of sitting back and saying no.  As we get closer to the end and we are given an option of not having to witness the final moments of it what will we choose?  Elisha is prepared to stay with his friend to the end.  His request for a higher blessing is met with a condition.  “If you see me as I am being taken from you… then it will be granted.”  Paraphrasing it might sound like this; “If you keep your focus on the ways of how I showed you to live your life up to the final moment, and never take your eyes off of the ways of God and look back to the past, your blessings will be increased.”  So Elisha, formerly a rich man who left his wealth and luxurious life to follow a prophet of God, gained a new life in the rich blessings of the Holy Spirit.

For James and John, their passion for God was so intense they were given the name “Sons of Thunder.”  Jesus seems to have a liking for giving out new names to his followers, especially the twelve, the ones closest to him.  Have you ever stopped to think about what he might name you if he were around now?  This is one passage many consider to be the main reason Jesus dubbed them “Boanerges.”  As they pass through the Samaritan village they are treated badly.  Take into consideration that during the first century CE the relationship of a Samaritan to a Jew then is what the relationship between an Arab and a Jew is today.  They barely tolerated each other; to the point where I read New Testament historian C. Bernard Ruffin tell us to imagine signs on the hotels reading “no Jews allowed.”  That is what is meant by the more polite statement here made by Luke, saying that Jesus’s face was set toward Jerusalem.  Another spiritual lesson is taking place, this time in humility.  James and John are so riled and offended at the apparent hatred being thrown at them they’ve allowed their thoughts to be brought down to that same level.  They want to throw hate back at hate and so ask Jesus to send down lightning bolts from heaven.  They have seen him numerous times control nature by calming the storms and walking on water.  If he can stop the wind and waves from turning over a boat full of fishermen, surely he could shock a few bodies or at least rattle them with some rolling thunder.  Combine that attitude with their presumably powerful voices echoing the good news of Jesus through the huge crowds –the Sons of Zebedee become the Sons of Thunder.

But Jesus tells them to let it be.  They are not traveling through this place or any other place to retaliate and get into arguments and fights.  The mission is clear, at least to their leader.  He is travelling to the place and time where soon He will be taken up.  Just as Elijah has related to Elisha, the focus has to be on God and the Holy Spirit to make it through the entire journey.  Now to drive this point further home, Luke presents some issues that cut through centuries of time and generations of culture.  What about my family?  What about those I love?  What about the things I put above all else every moment of the day?  The people say; “Lord, I would follow you anywhere but you see, I have a wife and 3 children, another family member has passed away and the winds and rain are coming so I must harvest the wheat and there are all these things I must attend to in my daily life, but after I take care of those things, then, yes, Lord, I’ll start following you.”  And then the final request of them is to “let me go and say goodbye to family.”  First of all, it’s my hopefully humble opinion that in none of these cases is Jesus literally telling us to leave everything we have or we will never be able to serve God the way God is to be served.  I do not believe He would tell us to forget about family values or socially acceptable customs or business ventures that keep us clothed and fed.  If that is the case, then we certainly wouldn’t have been given the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Luke’s presentation of the gospel and Jesus’s words are directed to a society where family life was considered central and was more tightly knit than we are today in the western world.  So we must keep this in mind when reflecting on these very shocking words of how to realize the Kingdom in this world.  Jesus knew that all these things were important to people or I doubt these situations would have been put in the gospels.  He understood that family was a prime subject but he wanted to remind everyone that God should be at the top of the list.  He tells us that before everything we do, we must consider what is most important.  Everything is in its place.  We go to our jobs and perform our work but we keep our moral and ethical values no matter what kind of deals are offered.  We tend to the sick and dying with the respect and honor they need and deserve but we don’t forget about our commitment to the living while we mourn.  We value time with the family on weekends but we make certain that some of that time is spent together in church or prayer.  And we look toward the future with each other but we do it prayerfully and thoughtfully keeping God front and center in the decisions and plans we make.  Instead of following that idol from childhood we must now start following the Christ that Jesus has become.  We are Its body.  Through Him it is realized.  By us the work is done.  Will we be like “Boanerges”, daughters and sons of thunder?  Like Elisha, desperately wanting more?  The answer lies in where we choose to place God in our lives.  Amen.

(Scripture used from RCL for Year C, Proper 8.  2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14  Luke 9:51-62)

Preach and Heal

July 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Sermon for 7/22/2012         By:  Reverend Pete Gdula

Based on the Gospel reading of Mark 6:30-34,53-56.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus doing the things he felt most compelled to do.  No, not looking for rest and food or sailing around in a boat.  Although, it is interesting how he climbs into the boat once but exits twice.  For a moment it seemed that one of us; either the writer, Mark, or myself were having a Yogi Berra moment and it was “Deja vu all over again”!    It wasn’t until I saw the citation showing that we omit several verses that I understood what didn’t seem right.    What then, are the things that Jesus was doing?  One prominent modern day mystic, the Franciscan monk Father Richard Rohr, suggests that in the context of all four gospels, Jesus does primarily two things:  He preaches and he heals.  He preaches and he heals.  Here we find just that.  First he preaches:  We see Jesus’s compassion and sympathy for these people who came to him from all over the land; for in his eyes they are like “sheep without a shepherd” and he begins to teach them.  They come to him with their questions and he gives them answers with words to live by.  They carry the ill to him on cots and mats and lay them down to simply “touch the fringe of his cloak”, knowing that by doing so they would be healed.  And he healed them – without complaining – even after what seemed to be a failed attempt to get some rest, food, and more than likely – time to pray.  As Christians, upon hearing this, we no longer need to ask ourselves the question; “What then should we be doing as followers of Christ?”  If we listen to the Gospels in earnest it certainly would be; “preach and heal.”  And so it is that we, too, should preach and heal.

Now I’m sure you’ll agree with Richard Rohr and me in also observing that we, as Christians, preacha great deal more than we heal!  And we preach it well!  We know all about every subject imaginable and the moment we see somebody doing something wrong we begin to preach.  Being human, I am as guilty of this type of preaching as the next person, my family can vouch for that, but preaching at someone – which is what it really is in this case – can easily turn into negative based, guilt induced, scare tactics that heals nothing.  When we preach at people we come to believe we are the finest orators and lecturers in the world.  We tell people what they should be doing in order to be healed.  And it doesn’t stop there; we get preached at through social media, radio talk shows, and reality TV – which by the way – are frequently mistaken as legitimate sources of information, when in reality, they merely serve as poor entertainment venues; venues that more than a few people use as their personal agendas to spread and foster division and fear.  They teach nothing, and keep us on the surface of every issue they confront.  Seldom does this type of preaching produce the type of healing that is necessary for us to grow in truth and spirit.   Our preaching must teach.  It must be formidable and informative, giving the people something to use in life that will allow them to grow and help others to grow.  This is how we preach the Word of God.  Preaching in ways that teach; teachings that plant the seeds of hope, and nurture our ideas into mature and functional practices.  Preaching is a wonderful way to spread the word of God and educate folks with information and inspiration, but let’s not forget that it should also heal.

In nearly every service in the prayer book, from the daily office to the Liturgy of The Word and beyond, we include intercessions for prayer.  And most of those are prayers asking for healing, mostly healing from physical ailments and life challenges that need our attention.  But there are many things that need to be healed.  In our families and communities we need to heal brokenness of spirit, faulty behaviors, and strained and battered relationships.  In our places of work we may need to heal moments of anxiety and frustration from every day conflicts.  In our schools we need to heal layers of resentment and fear, built up from years of bullying, abuse and neglect.  Throughout our world and societies we need to heal centuries of segregation and divisiveness that stem from our misinterpretation of written words and errant speech.    We need to heal a world that at times seems to be beyond help from the damages done to our environment, and the damages done to so many souls from an utter lack of decency and respect towards those who appear different from us….

And of course, we need to heal the riffs that are currently being started by those who have attempted to ignite sparks; sparks of discontent among a church that continually seeks to do the preaching and healing that Jesus tells us to do by taking ourselves out into the world and putting action to the spoken word, a church that already has the shepherds who the people are looking for and are already in place doing the work that is ours to do.

The list of things that require healing goes on and on.  Each person has their own identity with their own struggle and their own history, and each person is to be respected for who they are.  And if their identity is not something we can visually or intellectually relate to or it makes us feel uncomfortable, then that just may be a signal that perhaps there is something there that we can learn from – that will prevent actions that require healing in the future.

Yes, there are primarily two things that Jesus does throughout the Gospels:  He preaches and he heals.  As members of the body of Christ, they are ours to do as well.  I mentioned that it was a Franciscan monk who brought this to my attention.  It reminds me of another monk – the one who started the order which it is named after.  St. Francis understood what Jesus wanted us to do maybe more than most people ever will.  And he said it so well by his actions that it’s one of his most famously quoted instructions:  “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words only when necessary.”  It goes along wonderfully with Jesus’s own words, “They will know you by your love.”  As is my duty as your deacon at the end of the service when I dismiss all of you, I’ll be using words quite similar to this that echo these instructions, may you then and every day, truly go into the world to preach – and teach – and love – and heal, just as Jesus showed us.  Amen.