Being a Mary in a Martha World

Martha and Mary

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things…”

 In part it was understandable that Martha was anxious and troubled. Hospitality was and still is a very important concern in the Middle East. Once I was in Egypt and was told that if the host offers you something to drink, accept it even if you don’t really want it. To say “No” would be considered a great insult. So Martha was no doubt feeling some pressure to do it right and that is why she wanted Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen.

Nevertheless it is a good thing for us that Jesus addressed her anxiety because anxiety is no small matter. This is from the American Journal of Managed Care. “The lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders is approximately 28.8% in the United States, with more than 1 of every 4 adults experiencing at least 1 anxiety disorder in their lifetime…The total annual cost of anxiety disorders has been estimated to be between $42 billion and $46 billion….”  Another report stated that worldwide 75% of anxiety disorders go untreated which in turn leads to about 1 million suicides per year.

With anxiety being so prevalent and even so dangerous we certainly need more than a cute song telling us over and over “don’t worry, be happy.”In his book called Anxious for Nothing, Max Lucado does a masterful job of unpacking St. Paul’s words to the Philippians. Words that give concrete and divine instruction concerning anxiety. Here is St. Paul.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.”

First we see that St. Paul does not begin his instructions by condemning them for their anxiety. That is important because feeling guilty about being anxious is not a way to conquer it. Having anxiety attack you is not a sign of spiritual immaturity nor is it an indicator of a lack of faith. It comes with life. It’s even highlighted in our morning and  evening news. Nearly every morning we hear a shootings in Nashville. We read of home invasions, international terrorist threats, the economic bubble about to burst, home prices going out of sight, global warming, and worst of all, everything that you love to eat is going to kill you, especially bacon! Anxiety is delivered to you on a silver platter every day.

The key is what you do about it. As Martin Luther said in general about temptations, you cannot keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from making a nest in your hair. Anxiety is constantly flying overhead but we have the power to make a choice about whether or not we are going to invite it in to live with us. Jesus of course says that we should not because it is of no value whatsoever. As He classically put it, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Mt 6:27

Max Lucado took the words of St. Paul and provides a very handy acronym. Fittingly the acronym is CALM.

“C” stand for “Celebrate.” St. Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” This is brilliant. Think about it; it is very difficult to be anxious and celebratory at the same time. One tends to drive out the other.

And what are we rejoicing? While there are endless things in the Lord about which to rejoice, when it comes to life’s anxieties, it is most fitting to rejoice that He is our Sovereign Lord. We rejoice that He is good not some of the time but all of the time. We rejoice that He loves us with an unending love. We rejoice, as St. Paul said in Romans, that nothing can separate us from His love. We rejoice that nothing can befall us that He will not turn to our good. We rejoice that our past is forgiven and that we don’t need to worry about tomorrow because God is already there. We rejoice because, as author James Bryan Smith put it, “We have confidence in a great future…We are safe and secure.”

I had lunch with Pastor Ronnie Meek last week. As most of you know his wife passed just a few weeks ago and I had the privilege of officiating at her graveside. He wanted to talk about her passing and he welcomed my questions. Because we have been friends for so long I felt I could ask him a tough one. I asked what he was telling himself now that all the plans that they had together for their future are gone. He said to me, “I don’t think that there is a day that goes by that I don’t cry, but I believe that this will be a new chapter in my life. And like all of the past chapters God had been faithful and good to me every time, so I know that He will be faithful and good in this next chapter.” You can see why Pastor Ronnie is a hero as well as a friend. If you can rejoice in God’s goodness amidst your tears, then you will crush anxiety beneath your feet. “C” is “Celebrate.”

“A” stands for “Ask.” St. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” This should be the first thing that comes to mind but to be honest sometimes we do everything else BUT pray and then we don’t understand why we have no peace. St. Paul says that we are to pray “in every situation.” So we don’t wait to pray until it is the really big stuff or we are facing something that we cannot handle. The Lord says that we are not to be anxious about ANYTHING but to pray in EVERYING. I’ve done extensive research in the Greek and have discovered that “everything” means everything! This means from losing your keys to going into surgery we are to pray.

It is also noteworthy that St. Paul adds that we are to pray “with thanksgiving.” We don’t make demands of God with a sense of entitlement. We don’t “name it and claim it” as the TV preachers call us to do. We simply present our requests to our loving heavenly Father, thankful that He is fully capable of granting those requests. And we also pray with thankfulness that He may choose not to grant our requests for our own good.

I always feel convicted when I read the story in the Gospels of Jesus healing the 10 lepers but only one comes back to say “thank you.” Too often I am like the other 9 lepers, but I am working on it. Gratefully the Book of Common Prayer is a great help in that regard. “A” is for “Ask.”

“L” stands for “Leave.” After we present our requests to God then we are to leave them with Him. According to Jesus’ teachings it is perfectly fine to repeat the request but that is very different from giving our burdens to God and then picking them back up.

I once saw a very effective treatment for a lady with severe anxiety. The therapist, who was a Christian, had the lady make what she called “a God box.” It was like a Kleenex box with the word “God” written on it. Every time that lady identified something that she was worried about, she was to write it down on a piece of paper and put it in the God box. But the deal was if she kept worrying about it after giving it to God, then she had to take the bit of paper out of the box and carry it for the rest of the day. Some days she would have both hands full of bits of paper which made daily living a challenge. For example she couldn’t shake your hand and even eating was a challenge. It was a perfect visual metaphor for what she was allowing anxiety to do to her life. The more things she left with God the easier life became. Jesus said,“Come unto me all ye that are travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.” One way that He does so is by saying, “Leave that burden with Me. I’ll take it from here.” “L” is for “Leave.”

“M” stand for “Meditate.” St. Paul says. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.” The world says that we are what we eat but Holy Scripture says that we become what we think about. Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinketh so is he.”

Thus St. Paul doesn’t just tell us not to worry, he shows us a replacement. Just like nature, our brains abhor a vacuum. If we don’t intentionally fill it with good things then all kinds of junk will rush in to fill the void. I saw an article last week that said that constant complaining rewires the brain for anxiety and depression.

But I will be the first to admit that following St. Paul’s advice here is not easy to do. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to be an Eyore but takes a world of energy to be a Tigger. However a parishioner told me that she made a New Year’s resolution to find the good in every situation and it has been positive for her. It can be a challenge but I have no doubt that what she is doing has also had a positive affect on those who are around her. Because she is a Tigger I always look forward to Lulu’s posts on Facebook. They are inevitably funny, Southern, encouraging and/or make you hungry. So do the work to fill your mind with true and noble and lovely things and it will not only fight against your worry but it will be a blessing to others.

After confronting Martha for being worried about so many things, Jesus goes on to tell her that only one thing is needful. And He didn’t have to spell it out for Martha because that one needful thing was repeated throughout her Prayer Book, which today we call the Psalms. Psalm 16:5 “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.” Psalm 27:4 “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. Psalm 73:28 “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord my refuge.”

Martha made a mistake by not heeding these words and as a result putting the temporal before the eternal. And her is the irony. She was all worried that Jesus would get fed when just a few days earlier He had fed the 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. HE has this! She was missing an opportunity to fellowship with God in the flesh.

However Mary had chosen wisely. She chose the Lord’s presence over business, the eternal over the temporal, and Jesus said that the eternal would never be taken from her. Not in this life and certainly not in the life to come.

This story of Martha and Mary is fitting for us today. Life is so very busy even to the point that our kid’s lives are booked to the max.  From a societal point of view, not only do we no longer just sit on the front porch and drink a cup of coffee, we don’t even make front porches any more. Making proper priorities for our lives is a serious challenge but Jesus helps us.

In a variety of ways in the Gospels Jesus tells us that our priority is to live for today but to do so in light of eternity. In the Sermon on the Mount He said that we are not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow has enough trouble if its own. But instead we are to seek first the kingdom of God.

We do this when we choose the eternal over the temporal. We become like Mary when we make being with Christ our highest priority. We become like Mary when we don’t allow anything to keep us from being united with Christ through receiving His Body and His Blood. We become like Mary when we give God our first fruits rather than our leftovers. We become like Mary when we seek Christ in all people and prefer the needs of others over our own. We become like Mary when care for “the least of these.” And God has set up life so that the more we become like Mary the more peace filled our lives become.

But we don’t become like Mary by accident because we live in a Martha world. In fact millions of dollars are spent every day, through television, radio and the social media to convince you to remain like Martha. And all of your Martha like friends and colleagues will load you with expectations and guilt to get you back in the kitchen and act like “a responsible adult.”

Being a Mary in a Martha world does not come by accident. Jesus said it is a choice. So the question to answer every day is if we are going to choose to be anxious and worried about many things or if we are going to choose that one needful thing. Today you have chosen to be a Mary. Who will you choose to be tomorrow? Amen.


Free to Serve

Freedom - Girl

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.”

Most of you will recall those powerful words in Braveheart,that William Wallace shouted to the Scots, as they faced battle with their English oppressors. But these words pose an important question. Why then, and indeed throughout all of history, has freedom been so precious to men that they were willing to die for it?

I believe this passion for freedom comes from being made in the image of God. There is no more free Being than Almighty God. No one or nothing can compel Him to do anything and no one or nothing can keep Him from His perfections. So as His sons and daughters it is in our spiritual DNA to also seek to be free. In our lesson today St. Paul tells us that is exactly what Christ has accomplished for us. He says “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Note first that St. Paul puts this in the past tense. We are not awaiting our freedom, Christ has already set us free. Free from what? Free from condemnation. Romans 8. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Free from guilt and shame. Psalms 103 “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” And how does He remove our transgressions? Hebrews 9 “For if the blood or goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ….purify our conscience from dead works to serve a living God.” Free from unholy fear, I John 4. “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.” Free from slavery to sin. Romans 6 “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.” The list of our freedom goes on. As Jesus Himself proclaimed, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Thus we are free indeed but St. Paul goes on to warn us not to lose our freedom and then he goes on to tell us how to properly use it. How do we lose our freedom? He touches on two primary ways. First, as he argues all throughout the letter to the Galatians, we lose our freedom when we return to the law to earn our righteousness. As Gentile Christians we don’t really have the great temptation to returning to the law of Moses but we certainly make up for it with our propensity toward legalism.

At the time of Jesus the purity and holiness code had become complex and moved way beyond the 10 commandments. We get a smattering of this in the Gospels as Jesus enemies confront Him about His disciples not washing their hands or healing on the Sabbath or hanging around certain people.

When I was in Jerusalem I took the stairs to exit the hotel and there was a sign on the exit door that if you opened it on the Sabbath it would be a violation. Also in parts of the city there is a wire overhead that indicates that if you walk past it you would violate the Sabbath because the walk would turn into work.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not poking fun at this form of Judaism. In fact I wish more Christians too their more seriously and had half their zeal to please God. But my point is that keeping up with so many rules and codes puts a huge burden on someone who seeks God’s face. And so Jesus comes along and gives us the Great Commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor and that is why He could say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Years ago I struck up a conversation with a bank teller, who was Church of Christ, and he asked if we could study Scripture together. I think that he was hoping to convert me but I agreed and we met many for weeks to study and talk. We could not have had more different approaches to God. His approach was that you had to keep the letter of the law or God would be displeased with you. Following St. Paul, my approach is that I have been accepted in the Beloved and so all things are lawful to me but not all things are profitable. So we don’t go through our day asking “What am I allowed to do?” we go through our day asking “What it the next best thing to do?” His legalistic approach to God made God seem more like the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz and yet Jesus has come so that we can call God Abba. Don’t lose your freedom to legalism. “…you are not under the law you are under grace.”

The second way that we lose our freedom is through licentiousness. This is when we take our freedom too far and mistakenly think that since grace abounds where there is sin, then we are free to sin more so that there will be more grace. That may sound like a ridiculous agreement, because it is, but I continually see articles written you young hipster evangelicals, confronting them about the very list of sins that St. Paul refers to as “the works of the flesh.” Where St. Paul was taking his argument is that if there is no difference between our lifestyles and beliefs and the lifestyles and beliefs of the world, then Houston we have a problem. Our core calling is to be a peculiar people and a holy nation.

But again, St. Paul’s antidote to living according to the desires of the flesh is not legalism. It is walking in the Spirit and He points out that the desires of the flesh are at enmity with the Spirit. One will cancel out the other. So if you want love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc. then you cannot walk in impurity, jealously, anger, selfishness etc. We have to make a conscious choice if our lives are going to be led by the Holy Spirit or if our lives are going to be led by the desires of the flesh.

Then after warning us not to lose our freedom, in classic biblical paradox, St. Paul tells us how we are to use it. He says, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.”

In the John Belushi and Bill Murry era I watched Saturday Night Live. One night the guest musician was Bob Dylan and he sang a song that stopped the show in its tracks because there was no way to follow it. The song was called “Serve Somebody” and these were some of the words.

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You can see how the truth that no matter how you cut it you are going to serve somebocy did not exactly fit Saturday Night Live but that does not make it any less the truth. Just as St. Paul said that we are either going to walk by the Spirit or walk in the flesh so Dylan is rightly saying we are either going to serve the Lord or we are going to serve the devil but we are going to serve. We use our freedom to make the right choice.

Don’t miss the motivation for our service. St. Paul said ‘but through LOVE be servants of one another.”We don’t serve to make God like us more, we don’t serve because its our cross to bear, we don’t serve to get brownie points in heaven, we serve because we love and we love because God first loved us. We serve because our cup runneth over.

St. Paul goes on to call love the first fruit of the Spirit. I believe that the image of love being a fruit is significant. If love were a grace then you would either have it or you wouldn’t. You would ask God for it and presto you are a loving person. But as we all know it doesn’t work that way. Just as you can watch fruit bud and grow and mature so will our love, except its not quite that predictable and linear with us. This is how Eugene Peterson described it. “We have spurts of love, passionate risks of faith, impressive episodes of courageous caring. But then we slip back into indolence and greed.” (Run with the Horses, p.50,51). Sure it can be discouraging that our love ebbs and flows and that it is particularly difficult to be loving before the first cup of coffee but don’t despair. The longer we walk in the Spirit the more that fruit will mature, so “through love be servants of one another.”

 Right after St. Paul calls us to serve one another he quotes the Great Commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. This expands our call to love and serve beyond just doing it for one another. As we promise in our Baptismal Covenant we are to seek and serve Christ in all people.

I have a friend who I have been helping to journey from a non-denominational pastor to being an Anglican. As I have heard so many times before he started reading the Church Fathers and that put him on the Canterbury Trail. Sadly the church that he was pastoring folded and so he is currently surviving by being an Uber driver. Of course the best money to be made is late at night in Nashville so he was a driver a couple of weekends ago during the Gay Pride event. He saw things that are best not described in polite company and he was having an internal battle about being there and feeling Pharisaical, ready to cast the first stone. But as he was driving some folks around he said that he heard a voice, and he said that he knew it was not audible because he was the only one who heard it, but the voice said, “And I died for these folks too.”He said that he knew that the Lord was working on him to learn to love more deeply. Of course being loving does not mean that we have to compromise our beliefs and approve of every behavior but it does mean that we don’t get to decide who is worthy to be called our neighbor. Parents learn very quickly that you can love someone and totally disapprove of their behavior. Our heavenly Father gets a lot of practice at that.

There is a collect in the Book of Common Prayer that I hope they have preserved in the new one coming out for the ACNA. A line of it reads, “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom….”Freedom does not come to us by allowing us to do whatever we want to do. That path only leads us back into the bondage of sin. Freedom comes from living God’s way and walking in love. Freedom comes in serving God and serving our neighbor because servanthood is love in action. That is certainly what Jesus taught and lived. Further love and service are no more a threat to our freedom than two tracks to a locomotive. The more we lay down those tracks the further we can go and the freer we become. It was “for freedom that Christ has set us free.”