January 02, 2022 • Rev. Mindie Moore

Renewed (January 2, 2022; Luke 10:38-42)

Well, it’s the beginning of a new year. 2022.

And I have to say that as we watched the ball drop the other night, I definitely felt a little skeptical, a little unsure. Are we really excited about this year ahead? Are people actually celebrating right now? In fact, I think this Instagram post might sum up how I’m approaching the next 365 days:

(Slide) Before I agree to 2022 I want to read the terms and conditions.

Is anyone else with me? After the last not one, but TWO years that we’ve had, I am at best cautiously optimistic about ANY plans, goals, or timelines that I set for the year ahead. I think was at about a 30% success rate for things going according to plan last year.

But, even with all that said, I have to admit...I do love a good goal. I spent some time this week sketching out what I want to see happen in my life this year, and even as I was writing, I was well aware that so much of it might not go according to plan.

But even with that doubt, even with the couple of years that we’ve had, there’s something about a new year and new dreams to go with it. It feels exciting to think about what we could accomplish, what could be, what is going to be different this time next year. Even when we’ve had losses, challenges, or just chaos, there’s something about looking ahead.

And whether we're ready to look ahead or not- another year is here. Time is going to pass, activities are going to come up, decisions will be made. And as all of that happens, we’ll have the chance to make some choices about how and where and with who we spend our time. We’ll have to decide what’s worth pursuing and what we need to let go of. And I hope as we do this, I hope as we go into this next year, that we will ask the questions- what matters the most and what role does our faith play in all of this?

So to help us start to ask those questions, I want us to spend some time in this story of two sisters named Mary and Martha. It all begins at Martha’s house and she, along with her sister, are essentially throwing a dinner party that includes a pretty special guest- Jesus!

And as we enter this scene, we’re first drawn to Martha. Poor Martha. I can imagine her trying to have everything with this gathering be just so- the table set, the food cooked to perfection, the drinks stay filled. She’s even cleaned the baseboards and straightened the pictures on the wall. But even with all that work, even with all her preparation and planning, Martha is having a rough day.

Because she is doing ALL THIS WORK…but remember, Martha didn’t anticipate doing it along. She’s supposed to have a partner. She’s got her sister Mary, who instead of working alongside sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Now we know that sitting at Jesus’ feet is a good place to be and a great way for Mary to use her time- but in contrast to Martha, this feels very unproductive! I have to tell you, When I read this story, my instinct says to root for Martha. I understand her- she's BUSY. She’s productive and driven and she wants to do the right thing.

But even Martha has her limits. And we see that here in this story because all of a sudden, she can’t contain herself any more. She is overworked and had enough and things are not going according to plan, so she goes straight to Jesus and basically tells him put Mary in her place, in front of all their guests.

Now, I know a lot of us spent time with family over the past couple of weeks- if something like this happened in our gatherings, we might call this “drama”. We might call it “making a scene.” We might discount what’s happening here as “that’s just how they are”...But I really want us to understand just how big of a deal it would have been that Martha did what she does here- because it tells us something about what must have been going on inside Martha to get to this point. In that time, women didn’t just go up to men and tell them what to do in front of an audience. Hosts didn’t just disrupt a party to voice their complaints. This wasn’t how you did things!

So what is going on with Martha? I think something is getting ignited in her that goes a lot deeper than being tired and overworked or Mary not doing her fair share of the hosting duties. Something was off in Martha’s spirit- Steve Carter calls this “the thing beneath the thing”- the old wounds, past experiences, or false beliefs that shape us and the way we respond to the world. And those things are worth paying attention to because can be powerful- they can drive us to overfunction, they can make us react, they can totally derail our focus. The pain, the memories, the assumptions that we hold can get louder and louder and make us forget why we’re doing what we do in the first place.

And I wonder if that’s what’s happening for Martha. See, Martha, for all the good that she was doing…Martha forgot her why. (slide: It’s easy to forget our why) As she does all these good and productive things, she’s forgotten about the fact that the whole point is to make space for Jesus. He’s sitting at her dining room table, but it’s almost like she forgets that he’s even there in the first place.

And this is where the story becomes more than just a story about a woman named Martha, but this is where gets personal. Because this story makes us look at ourselves ask the question- WHY ARE WE DOING THE THINGS WE DO? What’s the point of all these goals and the way that we spend our time? Are we just filling space on a calendar? Are we chasing success? Are we trying to escape loneliness? Are we looking for validation or control? We can DO all the right things, but if our heart isn’t centered on the things that matter most, we’re at risk for missing the whole point.

You know I recently read a story on Humans of New York about a man named Tony Hillery. (slide) Tony described himself a very successful life- he owned a limousine company, had a closet full of Prada suits, and sent his kids to excellent private schools. But when the economy crashed in 2008, his business went with it and he lost his career. He was trying to figure out what to do with his life being as close as he was to retirement, so he decided to spend his time “helping people.”

Now that sounds good- but listen to how Tony describes himself, these are his words: "I walked through the doors of the first elementary school I could find, asked for the principal, and said: 'I'm here to try to break the cycle of poverty.' She assigned me to the lunchroom, and that's where I started volunteering five days a week."

My guess is that volunteering in the lunchroom was probably NOT what he had in mind when he came to break the cycle of poverty! And I would have loved to have seen that principle’s face when he told her that! But as he volunteered with the kids, something started to change in Tony, and he was drawn to an abandoned community garden plot across the street from the school. Slowly he started working with students and teachers to clean up the space and plant new foods. He knew nothing about gardening when they started, so he had to learn right alongside the kids. (Slide)

He started working with this school a decade ago, and today Tony Hillery is actually accomplishing his desire that he voiced to that principle. This one garden plot has expanded to a whole network of community gardens and youth development programs throughout Harlem and is a growing nonprofit called Harlem Grown.

As he reflected on how Harlem Grown came to be, Tony said, “I was so arrogant when I first came here. I was unhealthy. My entire life was about things and money. I was doing it all wrong. Yet I came to this school thinking I knew all the answers. I thought I was going to fix these kids.”

Tony, even though he was doing the right thing, almost missed the thing that mattered most. And if he hadn’t been willing to slow down, to listen, to sit with a bunch of elementary school kids at lunch- think of what he would have missed. Think of what this community would have missed if he had just gone through the motions, checked off his volunteering for the week.

See when we talk about finding our why isn’t just an inspirational mantra- finding our why has the power to change everything. Our why impacts our commitment, our ability to learn and be humble, it impacts our willingness to say yes when God might be leading us in a direction that is totally opposite of what we planned. It helps us hang in there after a year like 2020, and another year like 2021. Finding our why helps us see beyond the things that make up our lives- it helps us hold on to something bigger than ourselves.

And in our story, Martha is about to learn just how important this is. If we go back to the moment where Martha has laid all her frustration out there in front of Jesus and her guests, I imagine that now all eyes are on Jesus. Because people want to know- How is he going to respond here, what’s about to happen? Is he going to tell Mary to get up and get work? Is he going to ignore Martha and go back to teaching?

I think Jesus does something a little unexpected here. He does not, I’m sure to Martha’s disappointment, tell Mary about herself. In fact…he gives his full attention to Martha, in all of her frustration and feeling, he turns to her.

There are a couple of ways we can experience what happens next between Jesus and Martha. Honestly, I have always really struggled with this next part of the story, because I’ve always read it through the lens of Jesus essentially scolding Martha. It’s like I can hear his voice, “Martha, Martha, Martha.” I can feel his disappointment and worse, I can immediately recognize the shame that Martha would have felt being on the receiving end of this reply. She’s gotten it all wrong and everyone is here to witness.

But recently, a friend challenged me to read this differently. To consider that maybe Jesus wasn’t scolding her at all. Maybe Jesus’ voice sounded a little more like this:

(compassionate) “Martha…Martha…Martha”

I could believe this…because I know Jesus. I’ve experienced that compassionate response in my own life. And Jesus knows Martha. He knows who Martha is under all the activity and Jesus loves his friend. And yes, she’s a little off track here maybe even a little bit lost, but he knows her. And he also knows that all this activity is exactly what she thinks she is supposed to be doing. She’s not the fool or the villain of the story. She’s just a productive person doing what a productive person would be doing at that time. On paper, Martha is doing it right.

But even all the right things can’t always make everything go according to plan. I think Jesus gets how disappointing that is for her- I think Jesus gets how disappointing that is for us. I think he can feel the frustration and anger coming from her, and I think Jesus is probably pretty sad because here is this woman who he knows and loves, who is so desperately trying to be enough and be in control, but it just won’t work.

So I don’t think Jesus is angry and shaming. I just think he has a compassionate urgency for his friend to get it. Because he knows:

All the activity.

All the right things.

All of that perfect image.

It all can go…just like that.

What Martha is doing, the way she’s filling her time, the things that motivate her- those things aren’t bad but they’re too small to be the whole story of what God wants for us. And at some point, as she might, as we might- those things will run out.

And so Jesus, in his response, not only tells Martha that she needs to renew her focus, but he (probably in a way that is incredibly frustrating to Martha!) points out that Mary has actually chosen the best thing here. And I want to be clear about something here- Jesus isn’t saying MARY is better because she’s sitting at his feet. No, I think what we see here is that Mary is ABLE to sit at Jesus’ feet because she has a better understanding of what really matters. She understands something that Martha doesn’t yet know. And she’s experiencing a freedom that Martha hasn’t found yet.

Because Mary has figured it out- it’s not about what we can accomplish, what we can control, or even about what people think- but it’s about how to intentionally keep putting Jesus back into the center of our lives. It’s the thing that both frees us from the cycle of always chasing something and it’s a truth that no one or no circumstance, no disappointment can take away from us.

See, Mary knows the truth that Jesus wants Martha to get so badly, and it’s a truth that I think we all need to be reminded of over and over again: (slide) Following Jesus releases us from the pressure to perform and instead invites us to BE formed. When we can believe that and when we can trust that Jesus is in fact at work in us, our lives become more than a series of goals to check off or situations to control. We’re free to sit at Jesus’ feet and be open to whatever God might want to do through us. Following Jesus isn’t a life of pressure to be perfect but in invitation to always be finding something better and truer and good in the midst of the God who loves us.

It makes me think of something that Barbara Brown Taylor said: we do not lose control of our lives. What we lose is the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place.

I guess that quote either feels like good news or bad news depending on how you’re wired, but the point is that some of the things we chase aren’t even worth chasing. They’re just distractions. Jesus is saying to Martha, “Martha you’re distracted. And you don’t have to be. There’s something so much better for you and it’s yours to have.”

It’s ours to have. I know that sometimes we get really mixed messages about where our value or purpose comes from. I know that we often feel the pressure to have all the answers or get it all figured out, to meet certain milestones in our lives, but Jesus says that we actually probably don’t have to work that hard. We’re allowed to sit at Jesus feet because we are always a work in progress and that’s not just an unfortunate side effect- Jesus actually loves us like that.

No guilt, no shame, not a list of rules and regulations, just an invitation by a God who loves us to follow and grow. As someone who thinks about discipleship all day every day, I think this is what it all boils down to. Showing up. Saying yes to God. Being so focused on following Jesus that those other distractions don’t get in the way of who we are called to be.

And since it’s the start of this new year, it’s a fitting time to renew our focus. And so Every year on the first Sunday of the year, Methodists all over the world take time to renew this commitment and remember who we are through praying the Wesley Covenant Prayer.

So that’s what we will do together today. As we say these words together out loud, I want you to think about what are the things that you want to hand over to God this year? What’s been distracting you? What’s your why? How will Jesus be the center of your life for the year ahead?

Let’s pray these words together: (slide)

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

I hope that this prayer reminds you of your why. I hope it convinces you that you’re not in control (and that’s a good thing). I hope that this prayer reminds you of Jesus’ unlimited compassion towards you. I hope you know that there’s no goal, no miss, no win, no loss that changes the way God sees you. I hope you give yourself permission to sit at Jesus’ feet and receive whatever he has for you. And as we come to the Communion Table together today, I Invite you receive grace- acceptance- unconditional love from the one who knows us best.

Other Sermons in this Series