Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Moore, Director
ELCA Wittenberg Center
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15:1, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
Kathy and I are delighted to be back among you after a year since our last visit. It is amazing what has happened here in one year’s time. As I preached then concerning the greatness of this congregation, I see once again that your future is taking shape and matters are developing steadily as you look toward the future. I want to look with you into that future and, therefore, am most grateful to Pastor Derr for his trust and for the invitation to preach this morning.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. (Thesis 62 of the “95 Theses” formulated by Martin Luther in 1517)
With this grand sentence from Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” we begin our own meditation on the words of scripture. They are for us just words on a page until we gather, invoking God’s presence among us, listening to the readings, singing the psalm, anticipating the Holy Meal, and preparing to be sent into the world which God loves. The words on the page become a message from God. We are entrusted with this message and accountable to God to receive it as God’s word and as no other word than that which we encounter in the presence of Jesus Christ who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. . . For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-16, 19-20)
The church is entrusted with God’s message embodied in Jesus Christ, so that every word written on the page of those writings we deem to be Holy Scripture are to be received and heard as if we encounter Christ himself. This is accomplished through God’s Spirit who transforms the letters on the page into meaning, significance, voice, address, and calling.
That is why Luther characterized the church as a “mouth-house.” The church is commissioned to proclaim the message of God’s love for the world. The content of that message is no less than the person of Jesus Christ, so that as we as his followers tell the story of Jesus Christ, we live out the meaning of that story in relationships with others.
The story of Jesus is the treasure of the church. That story tells us that Jesus himself was sent by God to communicate the reign of God that is drawing near. This reign is not like earthly rulers who rule top down by the exercise of power over others. It is a reign marked by the qualities of justice, care, and mercy. Jesus spoke in terms of the “Kingdom of God.” His stories, his teachings, and the example of his life, death, and resurrection present a God, not of hierarchical domination not a God of force and violence; rather, they present a God of relationships made concrete in the incarnation of God in Jesus. This has led theologians to calling the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed a “kindom.” The kindom of God in which God is more concerned about our kinship with all creation and especially our fellow human beings.
Power as it was manifest in the life of Jesus was not something to obtain and to possess in order to give one a sense of importance, security, and authority. Power in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is something to be given up in the recognition that God is the truly powerful one and that our neighbor benefits not from the strong man above, but, rather, from the one who is beside us and who out of trust in God submits to the fate of humanity in our sin and mortality.
The gospel of Jesus Christ declares that God loves us and there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. In Christ, we are referred to the hidden God who in the midst of all our troubles and challenges promises to be with us. This word is what we need first and foremost in our lives. Everything else is secondary. This word is the treasure of the church and of every seeking soul.
The author of the Gospel of Luke illustrates the power and priority of the word with the story of Mary and Martha. Jesus is traveling on his way to Jerusalem when he arrives in a village where two sisters live—Mary and Martha. Martha shows traditional hospitality and invites Jesus into her home. Jesus plops down and finds an audience in Mary, the sister of Martha. Mary hangs on to every word that Jesus speaks while Martha is distracted by the household duties and cooking in preparation for the meal. Martha expected Mary to help with the chores and food preparation, but Mary cannot pull herself away, at which point Martha complains to Jesus about her sister. Martha’s concern is not only a distraction from Jesus and his word. It is also leading to alienation between the two siblings. Any of us who grew up in a good home in America knows that Martha is arguing from a position of strength knowing that it is Mary’s duty as a woman to assist with household activities.
But Jesus doesn’t act according to traditional norms. Instead of calling Mary to her conventional duties, Jesus commends her for treasuring the word. He does not criticize Martha, but takes the opportunity to clarify the values in the coming “kindom” of God. The priority lies with hearing the word. All other activities are on the lower rungs of the ladder, but they are on the ladder. Martha insists that Jesus tell Mary to get to work. Jesus just looks at her and says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Dear sisters and brothers, if the holy gospel is the true treasure, then we must ask ourselves a question evoked by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when he asserts,
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21 NRSV)
Mary and Martha are the church. They are sisters and not to be separated. Mary treasures Jesus. So does Martha. Mary wants to hear his voice. Martha wants to do his will. The author of the Gospel of Luke is aware of this potential problem and seeks to guide his or her community in the right path to avoid alienation and distraction from the true mission of the church which is to extend the message of Jesus in word and deed.
The story of Mary and Martha invites us to consider the age-old dilemma in the church: the choice between being hearers of the word and doers of the word. But in actuality hearing the word and doing the word is a false dichotomy. We do not choose between hearing and doing. As Jesus also says in Luke, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28) The issue is that there is a priority with respect to hearing. Then and only then can our actions make sense and find meaning.
The division between hearing and doing has historically been a matter of contemplation and action. This is especially the case with Father Richard Rohr whose daily meditation from the Center of Action and Contemplation reaches hundreds of thousands of readers. Father Rohr seeks the unity which is ours through faith in Jesus Christ, just as the author of the Letter to the Colossians expresses it.
17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. (Colossians 1:17-18)
I have always admired the faith culture at Christ the King Church. There are those, indeed, who prefer contemplating the word and those who prefer obeying or doing it, and it has taken both types to bring us along this. And the future of this community of Christ the King Church will not be distracted so long we cherish the kinship which is ours in Christ Jesus. Since the proclamation of Jesus was about the coming “Kindom” of God, everything we do can be evaluated by how we treat each other in our love of Jesus.
I am not a believer in the idea that Jesus’ death is a transaction conducted by God on behalf of humanity whereby God insists that the price of our sin be paid by the death of Jesus. I am a believer in Jesus Christ and confess him as the true son of God because in his love and obedience to the God of the Kindom. Jesus Christ sacrifices his life, not in the sense of a blood sacrifice as our ancient ancestors would have thought. Jesus rather sacrificed his life in the sense that he gave his life up rather than to cling to it in order reveal the power of God in his life, death, and resurrection. This capacity of Jesus to give up his life is something that haunts us, especially in Holy Week. His willingness to give his life for others also draws us toward Jesus. We love him, want to be near him, and yearn to hear his voice, even as we sing:
Lord, grant that I in ev’ry place
may glorify thy lavish grace
and serve and help my neighbor.