Saturday, July 20, 2013

Keeping First Things First

RCL Proper 16C
21 July 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Colossians 1.15-28 and Luke 10.38-42

Click here to hear the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. Eucharist today.

            As many of you know, I spent a week in Ottawa in early July attending the first Joint Assembly of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.  This event draw an international crowd from the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches.  Why?  It would seem that this was the first-ever occasion when two churches of differing families came together to do joint business as well as their own separate business.

            Because I was not elected as a member of General Synod, I attended this gathering as a guest in my capacity as an out-going member of the Joint Anglican-Lutheran Commission.  Although I had an assigned table on the floor of the Joint Assembly and another assigned table on the floor of General Synod, I had neither voice nor vote.  This gave me a lot of freedom to wander through the exhibits, to chat with friends and acquaintances from both churches and, when I wanted to do so, skip a session to relax.

            Sometimes I find such gatherings so filled with ‘busy-ness’ that there is little or no time for personal reflection.  This time, however, I had ample time to be alone.  Since all of the official delegates often had lunch-time or dinner-time or post-session meetings that did not include me, I often went back to my hotel room and thought.  This was particularly important to me because General Synod made some significant decisions regarding how our church will do its national business.  For me these changes have personal implications; I have served on national commissions, committees and task forces since 1989.  I have lived through three ‘re-structuring exercises’.

            I began to be a bit anxious as this third round of re-structuring picked up speed.  I found myself wanting to grab a microphone or corral one of the national executive to lobby for my point of view.  But then I remembered something that I had learned about myself almost thirty years ago and some of my anxiety slipped away.

            When Paula and I became engaged in 1984, a new tool for helping individuals, couples and groups to understand their personalities was coming into vogue:  the Myers-Brigg Personality Inventory.  I don’t have time to go into all its meaning today, but let me say that taking this inventory helped me understand myself.  I am happiest when I am allowed to think about something by myself and having as much information as possible with a clear time-line for decision-making.  Although I can and frequently do make quick decisions based on my intuitions and instincts, I often go through a period of ‘second-guessing’ once I’ve made such a decision.

            At some point during that week in July I remembered this truth about myself.  I even coined a motto that I have occasionally written in my journal since then:  'Watch.  Wait.  Ponder.  Breathe.  Then act.'  Several times since the Joint Assembly I’ve been at gatherings when I have said this quietly or written this in my notes to myself:  'Wait.  Watch.  Ponder.  Breathe.  Then act.'  It calms my anxious thoughts and, I hope, helps me to make better decisions.

            The story of Martha and Mary is a familiar one.  It often is re-told with Martha as the icon of Christian action and Mary as the icon of Christian contemplation and reflection.  I’ve even preached this story using these ideas.  But in preparing for today’s sermon I listened to some other interesting Christian voices who have encouraged me to look at this story a little bit differently.

            If we look more closely at Jesus’ words to Martha, then we will see what the real story is:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10.41a)  Martha’s problem is not that Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus as a disciple, has chosen the better thing.  Martha’s problem is that she is distracted and worried, an obstacle to Martha’s own discipleship, her own way of being faithful to Jesus.[1]  Her concern about everything being just right, about making the right impression on all Jesus’ hangers-on, has made her forget why she is offering this hospitality.[2]

            “Martha’s distraction and worry leave no room for the most important aspect of hospitality --- gracious attention to the guest.  In fact, she breaks all the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest, and by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute.  She even goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her . . . .[3]

            I can almost hear Jesus say to Martha, ‘Wait.  Watch.  Ponder.  Breathe.  Then act.’  What is the main reason Jesus is there?  He is there to share with every human being God’s creating and re-creating love.  He is there not to be served but to serve.  ‘Milk from the carton is fine,’ Jesus seems to say to Martha, ‘just sit down for a moment and listen.’  Martha embodies the busy-ness of our contemporary society, our drive for faster e-mail, our lust for the newest technologies, our desire for quick solutions to long-term problems, whether in our homes, our cities, our world.  We fail to keep focussed on our discipleship, our purpose as followers of Jesus.

            The writer of the Letter to the Colossians echoes this message in today’s lectionary selection.  He describes Christ as the pattern of God’s creation and as the agent of God’s re-creation.  In other words, if we will just listen with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength, then we will discover and re-discover who we are meant to be and how we are shaped into that identity.  In Jesus of Nazareth we see the pattern of what it means to be fully human, fully alive in God.  In Jesus of Nazareth we see just how far God is willing to go to redeem human beings, to re-mould us when we stray into our proper shape.

            But the key is to keep first things first.  We inhabit a society and a culture where there are many things that do and will distract us, pulling us from pillar to post, obscuring our path of discipleship with clouds of dust and tempting side excursions.  We can become so completely engrossed in activity that we become blinded to why we are doing what we are doing:  We are disciples of Christ.  We follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  We are co-workers with God in the creating and re-creating of the kosmos.  When we lose sight of this, we can become anxious, uncertain --- even cranky.  And in those moments Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, is lost in the haze.

            For me the responsibilities of leadership in a religious community navigating the rough waters of a fast-moving cultural river can often lead me to forget why I’m in this boat and on this river.  At times it feels as if I and all the others in this boat are so busy surviving, managing crises and seeking safe shores that we have lost sight of the journey’s purpose:  abundant life, freely given by God, made possible in Jesus of Nazareth, renewed daily by the Holy Spirit.  Just like Martha I am so concerned with the table settings that I’ve forgotten the reason for the banquet.

            So first things first.  Why did we paint this building?  We painted this building to show our neighbours that we care for this neighbourhood.  Why did we build a new playground?  We built the playground to show the community that we care for the little ones.  Why did we buy a new furnace?  We bought a new furnace because those who come here for worship, for meetings, for special gatherings, for healing, for whatever reason need the warmth of God’s love made real.  We do all these things because at the centre of our life is Jesus of Nazareth, the pattern of our true identity and the means of our renewal when we realize we have fallen short of our true selves.

            'Wait.  Watch.  Ponder.  Breathe.  Then act.'  Amen.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003), 1874-1875.

[3] Elisabeth Johnson at accessed on 17 July 2013.

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