Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Purity of One

Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42
July 21, 2013
© 2013

When our grandson Sam started showing signs of ADHD, his mother Rachel exclaimed, “My mother is medicated for ADHD as an adult, and my husband is medicated for ADHD as an adult. I’m doomed!” When their adopted daughter Elizabeth proved to be a highly focused kindergartener, Rachel observed, “We just had to go outside the gene pool.”
We live in an ADD world where distractions that compete for our attention seem to multiply daily. Multi-tasking has been exposed as a path to ineffectiveness. Distractions feed our anxiety and depression.

This is as true for a church as it is for us as individuals, especially a church on the interim journey between pastors. What kind of worship, education, fellowship and outreach will we need in the future? Of the candidates available, which ones merit further consideration? What qualities should we be looking for? Will we make it?
Being present to Jesus is the only thing needed to cope with the distractions of our lives and for our church. Strange as it may seem, a Zen story give this perspective. A young man approached a wise master and said, “I want to know God.” “Do you, now?” the master replied, “Come with me to the river.” When they had waded out into deep water the master grabbed the young man by the hair and held him under water. When he brought him up, he asked, “Do you still want to know God?” “Yes, I do,” the young man sputtered. The master plunged him under the water a couple more times, each one longer than the previous. The last time the young man came up gasping and shouting, “Air! I need air!” The master said, “When you want God as much as you want air, you will know God.”

Today is the familiar but unsettling story of Jesus with Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42. Luke seems to tell it out of chronological order as a counter-point to the Good Samaritan we looked at last week. Though their brother Lazarus does not appear in Luke, he is in John 11 and 12 where the sisters’ temperaments matche this story but with affirmation.
Now 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.”
A lot of women react negatively to Jesus in this story, feeling he was unfair to Martha, with whom they identify. One commentator imagines immature sibling rivalry with Mary sticking her tongue out at Martha when Jesus’ back is turned. In an understandable effort to see Jesus in a positive light, some engage in some awkward exegetical gymnastics. If the story is seen as contemplative life in competition with activist life, that difficulty follows.
I think other commentators get it right when they view the story through the lens of hospitality. Martha opened the story positively by inviting Jesus, and probably a number of disciples, into her home. She was thrilled to be with Jesus. But instead of a simple lunch that would let them enjoy each other, she shifted her focus from Jesus to the meal and put on an elaborate spread. Jesus was not criticizing Martha’s hospitality, he was inviting her to enjoy being together, keeping the focus on those for whom she was preparing food, including Jesus. With that focus, she could well have prepared the meal without distraction.
One of the challenges with this story is that the early manuscripts are not clear about verse 42. Yet “There is need of only one thing” is the key to unlocking the story. That one thing is keeping focused on being present to Jesus which is the only thing needed to cope with the distractions of our lives and for our church.
Vince Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers in their glory years in the 60s. He is still remembered for saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." I have always thought that was theologically and sociologically off base, but it does reflect the importance of a singular focus. The hymn that we read from Colossians 1:15-20 also emphasizes a singular focus but puts Christ there, not winning.
Yes, this is a hymn that the church may already have been singing when Paul used it to explain that Christ is the center of everything. Philippians 2:5-11 is also such an early hymn that Paul also used to focus on Christ. Though they take different approaches, both hymns center on Jesus’ death on the cross at the core of our redemption.

In verse 27 Paul revealed the mystery, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We have immediate, intimate access to the Christ who is the center of everything! Paul went on to write in verse 29 that while he toiled and struggled in his mission, the energy and power to do that was not his own but was breathed into him by Christ.

In his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard brings Jesus’ assertion to Martha that “there is need of only one thing” together with Jesus’ sixth Beatitude in Matthew 5:8. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The Bible frequently identifies purity, not as morally clean, but as unmixed. Pure gold or water is only gold or water, nothing else. Like the Zen master, Jesus said in effect: if the only thing you want is to see God, you will see God. There is need of only one thing: being with Jesus.
Being present to Jesus is the only thing needed to cope with the distractions of our lives and for our church.
Not only are we easily worried and distracted by our many tasks as Martha was, we misread Mary as a student and turn our encounters with Scripture and prayer into additional tasks about which we fret, sure we’re not doing enough. Jesus may be saying to you something like I sense him saying to me, “Norman, Norman, you are worried and distracted by all your preaching and teaching preparations. Relax, slow down. Let’s enjoy some quiet together, without guilt, without regret, without worry.”

In Colossians 1:18, Paul was very specific that Christ is the head of the Church. In our society we tend to think in terms of individuals, but Christ dwells among us as a community of faith. In his book Christ the Center German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Christ can only be conceived of in the community.”
A group of men in Spokane, Washington wears red caps with Happy Helpers logos and gathers on Thursday mornings to do repairs around the church and help people in the community.  They use the hour before they tackle repairs to support each other.  Their founder, Seward Besemer, says, “I always tell the group not to lose track of the thought that the first reason for life is fellowship.” (The Lutheran magazine, July 2001)
For any congregation, the interim journey is cluttered with distractions. The sometimes arduous Search and Call process. The forces that tug in conflicting directions both past and future. The Martha-like resentment toward other seemingly more successful congregations. The differences of opinion among ourselves. I suggest we all listen for Jesus to say, “There is need of only one thing,” which is for all of use to enjoy being present to Jesus together. So whether it’s a business meeting, a Bible class or a worship service that might not be your favorite style, ask how to be present to Jesus with each other.

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