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Sermon for Sunday 17 July 2016

FIRST READING Genesis 18:1-14

1And the Lord appeared to {Abraham} by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 9They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10aThe Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”


PSALM Psalm 27

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? 2 When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell. 3 Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; 4 And though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him. 5 One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; 6 To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. 7 For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock. 8 Even now he lifts up my head above my enemies round about me.
9 Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; I will sing and make music to the Lord. 10 Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me. 11 You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” Your face, Lord, will I seek. 12 Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. 13 You have been my helper; cast me not away; do not forsake me, O God of my salvation. 14 Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will sustain me.


SECOND READING Colossians 1:21-29

21And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. 24Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.


GOSPEL Luke 10:38-42

38Now as {Jesus and the disciples} went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”



How many here today have ever noticed just how many of Jesus’ parables and lessons were done in contrast? The Prodigal Son, the Ten Virgins, the patch and the wineskins and so on. The answer to why is simple. We learn so much better in contrasts. This is the way it is with simple truths: right and wrong, light and darkness, good and evil. However, all of these contrasting stories, while on the surface seemly simple, require a more in depth look to appreciate their many nuances. Sometimes, it may mean getting to know ourselves and others, in order to get at the heart of the story. Such is the case with our gospel reading for today.
Some years ago, The Archbishop of Canterbury was rushing to catch a train in London. In his haste, he accidentally jumped on the wrong passenger car and found himself in a car full of inmates from a mental hospital. Just as the train pulled out of the station, an orderly came in and began to count the inmates, “1-2-3-4…”… when suddenly he saw this distinguished looking gentleman, seated among the inmates, wearing a business suit and a clerical collar and he said: “Who are you?” The answer came back: “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury!” Without further response the orderly continued: “5-6-7-8.” The point of that story is this: It’s important for us to know who we are and who other people are.
If we know what makes us tick… and what makes other people tick… it can be so much easier to get along. If we understand where we’re coming from… and where other people are coming from, we can better relate. By understanding ourselves and others, we can learn to be more understanding, compassionate, more empathetic and show more kindness. It’s a lesson that many need to learn in our current national climate! This is also one of the reasons why, that in recent years, we’ve heard so much about personality tests. Employers, counselors and job-placement agencies are using these types of tests to increase their effectiveness. One of these personality tests is the Birkman Personality Profile.
By way of illustration, I’d like to use it this morning as a way to study our passage of scripture; to look at this contrasting story of Mary and Martha. (Luke 10:38-42) Dr. Roger Birkman, a psychologist, has developed a computer personality profile, which suggests that there are generally four different personality styles. As I outline these styles, see if you can find yourself or someone you know somewhere between the lines. First, there’s the action-oriented doer.
The “action-oriented” person primarily is strong-willed. This is a person who also could be thought of as an autocratic doer. They means business and everybody else better get out of the way. A kind of a “my way or the highway” type of a person. They employ a single-minded approach to task accomplishment. The second personality style is a person who is the detailed planner.
The detailed planner “plans the work” and then works the plan. Their personality is precisely as the name implies – one who thinks things through in great detail, one who plans ahead, one who wants things done neatly, orderly and systematically. The detailed planner does really well… as long as no one messes up the plan. The third personality style according to Dr. Birkman is the enthusiastic salesperson.
The enthusiastic salesperson is an individual who has no plan. This is a “people person” who operates on personality… and has the strong ability to wow people and win them over and sell them on his or her ideas and dreams. Dr. Brinkman’s salesperson is one who gets an idea in their head and goes full steam ahead until they get a yes and then they’re off to the next big idea. This brings us to the last personality style, the artistic poetic philosopher.
The artistic poetic philosopher is more “soulful,” more tuned in to beauty, reverence and awe. People who exhibit this trait are creative; they enjoy quiet and meditative moments of solitude, are someone who can tune in to the wonders of the universe, who can experience a sunset or a Brahms melody and feel in that experience, the presence of God nearer than their breathing. On the whole, these personality traits, while broad in nature, are pretty straight forward. So, in an attempt to help us to better understand the distinction between each trait, Dr. Birkman has developed an interesting way of clarifying these four personality styles.
Dr. Brinkman says, “Imagine that you have nine cats in a house and that your task is to get the cats out of the house. How would you do it?” The action-oriented doer would simply take charge and say “scat!” and the cats had better get out if they know what’s good for them! The detailed planner, on the other hand, would number the cats, 1 through 9 respectively, in calligraphy of course, with neat tags attached to the right side of each cat’s collar. Then the detailed planner would make nine neat holes in the wall and number them 1 through 9 in calligraphy as well. The expectation is for cat One to go out Hole One, Cat Two must go out Hole Two, Cat Three must go out Hole Three and so on. However, if Cat Four runs out Hole Seven, then the detailed planner’s whole world is thrown out of whack! For the detailed planner, things must go as planned! Any deviation from the plan is seen as a failure.
For the next type of person to tackle the cat problem, the enthusiastic salesperson would say, “No problem, piece of cake, I can handle this.” The enthusiastic salesperson would simply open all the doors and windows, get some warm milk and cat food, go outside and say “Here Kitty! Kitty!…” and then convince the cats that they’re a lot better off outside anyway! Meanwhile, the artistic poetic philosopher would say: “What in the world am I doing worrying about cats??”
The point of Roger Birkman’s computer personality profile is obvious: We’re all different and when we recognize, understand, respect and celebrate our differences, we get along better. This is an idea that finds it roots in the Bible. It’s a key theme of Paul in his letter to the church of Ephesus. St. Paul wrote, some are prophets and some are teachers. (Ephesians 4:11-16) Rephrased we could say, some are action-oriented, while others are contemplative and thoughtful. Some are poetic and some are autocratic. Some are loud and some are quiet. We’re all different with different personalities, different styles, different temperaments. And that’s good! In fact it’s necessary for a diverse and functional society, as long as we’re loving and tolerant about it. With this in mind, let’s take another look at our gospel lesson for today.
It’s a story we’ve heard many times, the occasion when Jesus comes to visit in the home of Mary and Martha. All morning long there’s been a bustle of excitement in anticipation of His arrival. Since daybreak there’s been sweeping, scrubbing, dusting, checking recipes, darting in and out of the kitchen… someone runs frantically to the market to buy the provisions, then back home again to prepare the meal, all the while making sure everything is in order for this special occasion… Every detail has been well planned out. Then, Jesus arrives… and look what happens.
Mary whisks in to take over as hostess. She welcomes Jesus and the disciples warmly and ushers them into the living room. There’s a certain urgency about the moment. The Master is on His way to Jerusalem and the cross. He begins to talk to His friends. He has so much to tell them, so much to teach them… and so little time. They listen attentively, especially Mary. Mary has positioned herself at the feet of Jesus and she’s drinking in His every word. How good it is to have Him here! It’s good to hear His teaching again! How good it is just to be in His presence! Meanwhile, Martha is bustling about, attending to the details of the plan.
Martha is out in the kitchen, slaving away… preparing the meal, polishing the silverware, cutting up the fruits and vegetables, checking the last minute details, doing the one hundred and one things which, in her super-efficient mind, need to be done. But there’s a problem. The entire time Martha is working feverishly, she’s seething inside! Her indignation mounts… She gets more and more aggravated, more and more frustrated. She’s feeling more and more put upon, more and more stressed out. “Where is Mary? Why isn’t she in here helping me?
Who does she think she is… sitting in there with our guests… and leaving all the dirty work to me? Surely, Jesus can see the injustice of this situation,” Martha reasons. Finally, unable to contain herself any longer, her resentment erupts… she bursts out of the kitchen… into the living room and she makes a scene!
It’s not hard to imagine the conversation. With her hands on her hips Martha cries: “Look at this Lord. It’s not fair, I’m having to do all the work here. Don’t you care that Mary has left me to serve alone? Tell her to get in the kitchen and help me!” But lovingly, Jesus says to her; Martha, don’t be worried and troubled by so many things. Relax. Lighten up. One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken from her. And here’s where the story ends. Once again we have a lesson with a contract that needs to be dissected. In our reexamination today, look again at the story in light of the personality styles as described by Dr. Brinkman.
First look at Mary. She is, of course, the artistic poetic philosopher, the one who is thrilled to just bask in the warmth of that moment. She’s stirred, thrilled, touched and inspired by the presence of Jesus. It’s about being in the moment. Now, consider Martha.
Martha is obviously the detailed planner. She’s planned the event to the nth degree. She’s covered every detail. She’s worked her fingers to the bone in her super-efficient way. Yet, here in the story, Jesus rebukes Martha. It’s a gentle rebuke, but nevertheless, He did speak words that compared Martha unfavorably with her less practical sister, Mary… and the question that explodes out of this story is “Why?”
I don’t think for a moment that Jesus was unappreciative of Martha’s intense desire for a job well done. Not for a moment should we imagine that Jesus thinks artistic poetic philosophers are better than detailed planners. This simply isn’t the case. If Mary had been seething, He would be rebuking her. The issue at hand here, is that Jesus wasn’t concerned about what Martha was doing outwardly, but rather about what she was feeling inwardly! Jesus’ concern was for Martha herself! He was concerned about her attitudes! It’s amazing how quickly Jesus could size things up. In a moment, with a brief glance, He could penetrate right down into the innermost motives. He could see right down into the inner recesses of a person’s soul.
One thing we need to recognize, is that the message of this story isn’t a criticism of detailed planner personalities. It’s a fact that we need them. Every church, every business, every family needs Marthas. We need detailed planner personalities, in many cases, to get the various tasks in a church done. But, when Jesus looked at Martha that day, in that emotional scene, He saw some red flags, some warning signals, some danger signs, some destructive attitudes within her, which were more harmful to Martha herself than to anyone else. Jesus rebuked Martha because He loved her.
They were good friends… and that day, He saw in her some hurtful attitudes that were working in her like “spiritual poisons”… petty attitudes, which can devastate and destroy the soul. This is what’s at issue here in this story. Martha was showing some dangerous attitudes which we may find in ourselves… or someone we know… somewhere between the lines. When Jesus looked at Martha that day, He saw deep down inside of her… first of all… the dangerous attitude of resentment.
Martha was resenting Mary. There’s nothing more destructive to our spiritual lives than resentment. It can absolutely ruin our life… and Jesus knew it. It concerned Him to see this dangerous attitude of resentment in Martha. In the Greek language, there are two words for anger. There is Thumos – a kind of “quick anger” which quickly blazes up and just as quickly dies down. And then there is “Orge`” … This is a kind of “seething anger”… a brooding anger, an anger that’s long-lived. It’s the anger of the person who nurses his or her wrath to keep it warm… an anger that festers and simply won’t die. “Orge`”… a seething, burning, brooding anger … this is what resentment is made of.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks repeatedly about the dangers of resentment… and He says in effect: – Beware of resentment… it’s dangerous! – Beware of brooding, seething anger! – Beware of resentful gossip! – Beware of the contemptuous resentful tone or attitude! All of these are murderous… they’re all devastating. We see it here in the story in a couple of dramatic ways: First, notice the words used to describe Martha… three words – distracted, anxious, troubled. That’s what resentment does to us! But, even more, her resentment cut her off… not only from her sister, Mary, but also from her Lord.
The same thing happened to the Elder Brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He resented his brother… and it cut him off from the Father. That’s how resentment affects us and that’s why it’s so dangerous. It separates us from people… and it separates us from God! Jesus’ message here is blunt: beware of the dangerous attitude of resentment. It can devastate your soul! Second, there’s the dangerous attitude of narrowness.
In today’s gospel lesson, we can see how Martha is done in by her narrow perspective. Martha thinks, her way is the only way… and she wants to force her way on Mary! Martha’s view has become so narrow that she can’t see any other way, to receive the Master, but her way. She’s blind to the miracle of “uniqueness.” She forgets that we’re all different, that we’re individuals and that each of us has a unique relationship with our Lord. I’ve often seen this “narrow attitude” cause problems theologically.
This is why God gives us faithful theologians in the church. Theologians who look to the Bible first and then to the traditions of the church, to help shape the religious expressions of the community. The problem comes in when people begin to think their religious experience is the only valid one… and they try to force their way on everybody they meet. They don’t understand that God is big enough to relate to each one of us differently, individually, uniquely, personally.
Some years ago, a party was given to recognize a married couple for their outstanding work in the church’s youth program. The couple had very different personalities. Betty was vivacious, out-going, gregarious, affectionate… a hugger. If you gave her a “bow ribbon,” she would jump up and down and squeal with delight and then run around and hug and kiss everybody in the room. Bill, on the other hand, was the opposite. He was quiet, reserved, shy, stable, balanced. If you gave him a BMW and a trip to Hawaii, all he could do is say a quiet and sincere “Thank you.” Now, on this particular night Betty and Bill were given a surprise party.
The young people jumped out from their hiding places, shouted “Surprise!” and then gave Betty and Bill a present. It was a beautiful plaque. True to her personality, Betty read the plaque out loud. She squealed with delight. She cried. She jumped up and down and then ran around the room hugging and kissing everybody in sight. Meanwhile, Bill waited… and when she was through, he said quietly: “I want to thank you as well!” But that isn’t the end of the story. Betty turned on Bill.
Betty got mad and she made a scene: “Look at you Bill. You don’t appreciate anything. If you did, you’d act like it. You’d do like I do!” But Bill couldn’t act that way. He just isn’t made that way. He isn’t wired like Betty is. He can’t act like her, can’t respond that way. If he did, it would be fake, artificial, embarrassing.
In considering that situation we want to say: “Betty! leave him alone. Don’t force your way on him. Let him do it his way. Let him be Bill!” Hugs and kisses are great, but I also know that Bill’s quiet “thank you” is just as real, just as genuine, just as valid. In this episode with Mary and Martha, Jesus is saying, beware of the dangerous attitude of narrowness. It can devastate your soul. Finally there’s unkindness.
Martha tried to make herself look good by making Mary look bad and it “boomeranged” on her. In this instance, she was the unattractive one. Ultimately, it happens every time. Our harsh, condemning judgments come back to haunt us. When we’re unkind to others, we’re the ones who end up looking bad.
Some time ago, there was an article on marriage…a rather routine article, except for one great statement, one of the greatest statements about marital relationships. It said this: “If you’re ever in a situation where you have to choose between making either yourself or your mate look good, always choose to make your mate look good rather than yourself!”
Jesus, I believe, would have liked that counsel… and He would have enhanced it by saying, “Always choose to make other people look good rather than yourself!” That type of kindness “boomerangs” too. It comes back to bless us. I know a woman who lives like that… always bragging on others and encouraging others, always making others look good rather than herself. And the fascinating thing is that everybody who knows her loves her and respects her and appreciates her and admires her because of her unwavering kindness. The point is clear: What we send out, comes back!
If we send out unkindness, it comes back to haunt us. If we send out grace and love and compassion, those come back to bless us. In the Mary and Martha story, Jesus is teaching us a great lesson about our inner attitudes. Jesus is saying… Beware of resentment, beware of narrowness and beware of unkindness. Choose instead the way of understanding, grace, love and compassion.

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