Tag Archive: community


This was the sermon I preached on January 4th at Community Lutheran Church.

Well, here we are in 2015! Another year has rolled by and I find myself reflecting on the past year, as well as this coming year.  After the holidays, get-togethers and parties, I can at least say that I feel this much from Isaiah’s reading is true: “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will give the priests their fill of fatness…” After so many delicious meals and wonderful treats, I can certainly attest to the last part!

In all seriousness though, we’re still in the Christmas season, even as we’ve celebrated the turning of the year and the beginning of something new.  In John’s Gospel, we hear an echo of Genesis – of a new creation.  Of the Word taking on flesh to live with us and to show us who God is.  In each of the texts for the day, God is up to new and exciting things, but they also remind us that it’s through the birth of Christ that these new things are springing up in our lives.

john-1-001This first chapter of John has come up a couple times in the past few weeks, and what jumped out at me this time around was actually the last verse: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  The phrase that particularly caught my attention was “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart.”  Close to the Father’s heart. It sounds like Christ is near and dear to the heart of God.  There is an intimacy and a type of tenderness there.  Jesus, who is God, is at the very heart of God – he knows God’s heart.  As I did a little more researching, this phrase actually means “in God’s bosom.”  It’s a very maternal type of image.  This matches up with one of the descriptions of God found throughout the Old Testament – God is described frequently as Rachoom, which is often translated as “compassionate,” but literally means “having a womb” or “womb-y.”  These are images of care, tenderness, affection, connection and relationship.

Ok, so now you’re thinking, where on earth is she going with this?! All of this imagery helps to show not only who God is, but also the relationship of God and Jesus.  John’s Gospel is trying to say that while no one has seen God, Jesus, who is so intimately connected with God, has shown God to us, by becoming human and living with us.  John is trying in every which way to show that a God, unfathomable, mysterious and cosmic, has become fleshy and earthy in order to have a close relationship with us.

Not only does that mean God living among us, but it also means us becoming the daughters and sons of God.  As John’s Gospel puts it, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” And Ephesians says, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. … In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.”  Through our dying and rising in Christ in baptism, we have been adopted as God’s own beloved children and given the inheritance of God’s promises.

At the turn of the year, we make resolutions and, yet, we don’t often keep them.  Maybe they are only halfhearted attempts at changing and that’s why they often fall by the wayside at some point early into the New Year. Habits are hard to change and new habits difficult to implement, but maybe it’s a mindset that needs changing.  As children of God, when it comes to thinking about resolutions for our faith and our lives as disciples, maybe it’s helpful to think about continually growing and maturing in our faith.  Maybe it’s more helpful to reframe our thoughts in terms of children growing in God’s grace rather than checking the box for a completed resolution.

Think about being in a loving relationship with a parent who has our best interests at heart.  When you’re a child, you take delight in being with your parents, spending time with them, and learning from them.  Prayer, reading Scripture, and service do take effort, but they are also activities that bring joy and delight because we encounter God in doing so.  In a relationship with God, the loving parent, we receive joy, support, care, affection, encouragement, but also gentle correction and forgiveness.

Growing and transforming are difficult.  Maybe we really don’t want or know how to change.  Maybe we don’t even know what changes we need.  Perhaps we don’t really want the kind of intimacy with God that Jesus has – being close to the Father’s heart.  That can sound wonderful and yet also a bit threatening or uncomfortable to us and our independence.  Maybe we worry that that kind of relationship with God will put us out of sync with those around us, our culture, or our world.  I have wrestled with these questions – wanting to grow in my faith and yet wondering what changes might need to occur.  Wondering what others might think.  Wondering what I might have to face about myself.  But that kind of loving relationship is what we are called to as children of God, as disciples of Christ.  It’s interesting, but the only other time the word “bosom” is used in John’s Gospel is when the disciple whom Jesus loved leans on Jesus at the Last Supper.  We, too, are the disciples whom Jesus loves.  We, too, are being invited into a deeper relationship with God, this year and every year.

We make resolutions – I should eat better, exercise more, spend more time with family, watch less TV, spend less time online, devote more time to my relationships, pray more, spend more time serving others, etc.  And it all seems so overwhelming. We want to make better choices and form healthy habits, but we think it all needs to come at once.  We want to grow up and have our lives together.  Maybe we think that when we reach a certain age or time of our lives, things will suddenly fall into place.  But I think what we actually learn as we grow is that change happens over a period of time.  We slowly begin to understand that we are always a work in progress and, maybe, we begin to extend more mercy to those around us who we know are also works in progress.

Jesus is born as a human child, experiences the growing pains of childhood, and lives life into adulthood.  Yet he does it as the divine Word of God, succeeding where we fall short and revealing at each step the overwhelming love – the face and the grace – of the Father.

And even when we fail at our resolutions or fall short of who we are called to be, we remember that, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  We are in God’s grace, forgiven and strengthened to keep trying and doing our best, calling on Christ and other disciples for help.

Because we can’t do it alone.  Maybe part of the reason our resolutions fail is because we try to do them by ourselves.  But we have been given the gift of the church – the gift of relationships with other disciples.  In the community of faith, we help one another as we grow in grace.  We, too, bear the love and the face of God to one another as we stumble and stagger, fall and succeed on the bumpy road of life.  We need encouragement and insight from each other, and we need people to challenge us to help us grow and to take the next steps.

So thinking about being close to the Father’s heart, how do you hope to grow in your faith this year? What keeps or holds you back from pursuing or entering into a greater intimacy with God? Over the coming weeks, I invite you to spend time in prayer, listening for what God might be calling you to.  Find a friend, talk it over with them and test what you’re hearing.  Pray together, encourage and support one another.  And if you feel inclined, let Pr. Joe or me know what you’re thinking so we can help support and pray for you, too!

Just as Jesus is close to the Father’s heart, we have been invited through him to be close to the Father’s heart.  To experience the love, care and tenderness of God, while continuing to grow and mature as children of God.  To receive grace upon grace through God’s outrageous love.That is part of the mystery and promise of Christmas.  That is the promise that we can cling to no matter how many resolutions we break or how many times we fall short.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Sunday’s sermon from Community Lutheran in Sterling, VA.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, and I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t understand the Trinity.  Amen.  Nah… just kidding – you can’t get off that easy! And I think Pr. Joe is with me on this, too.  I find that no amount of seminary training or theological study can help us fully grasp the Holy Trinity.  As St. Augustine put it in a sermon: “What then are we to say of God? For if you have grasped what you wish to say, it is not God. If you had been able to comprehend it, you would have comprehended something else in the place of God. If you had been almost able to comprehend it, your mind has deceived you. It is not God, if you have understood it.  But if it is God, you have not understood it.”  Whoa… That was not so helpful, Augustine…

The God we confess as three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is a mystery.  On the one hand, I sometimes find this mystery frustrating as I try to understand and to explain it to others, and maybe you do, too.  On the other hand, however, I find that the doctrine of the Trinity is always inviting me to a deeper encounter with God and with others.

The idea that the God we worship exists as three persons in relationship with one another – in community – is amazing to me.  At the core of God’s very being is relationship.  One of the best depictions of this that I’ve seen is Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity.  Painted in 1425, this icon features three divine angels seated around a table.  These figures are taken from the description of the angels who met Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. The figures not only relate to one another through their body language and hand gestures, but also through the rich blue color, a symbol of divinity, used on a portion of each of their garments.  These holy beings not only form a circle and a community by themselves, but they invite the viewer into the conversation and intimacy of the table.

Trinity Rublev

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity

This is the community, relationship and intimacy into which God graciously invites us.  God the loving Father calls us through the Holy Spirit to an encounter with Jesus Christ – God in the flesh, visible and approachable.  God invites us into the holy conversation and leaves a space at the table open for each of us, inviting us to join the party!

Today’s texts speak about God as community.  We hear it in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians just as we hear it every week in our worship: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”  And in the Gospel we hear Jesus tell the eleven disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” 

Both of these verses point to the second part of trying to grasp the Trinity.  The triune God doesn’t just invite us into relationship with God, but calls us into relationship with one another.  God draws and gathers us together through the Holy Spirit as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Today, we are reminded of this incredible good news in the celebration of the baptism of Xander.  In baptism, we are not only brought into relationship with God through water and God’s promises, but also made a part of the community of Christians here in this place and around the world.

Because God exists as community, communion with God is always communion with one another.  We come together for worship every week to pray together, to share Christ’s peace with those around us, to sing songs in unity and harmony, to receive communion from and with others, and to be blessed to go back into the world to share the communion we’ve experienced here.  We come to deepen our relationship with God and we wondrously find ourselves in relationship with one another.

When I was a new to the Christian faith, I thought I could read my Bible and study on my own.  I found, however, that I wanted to be able to discuss faith and life with others who were trying to follow Christ.  I wanted to be with others who knew God and could help me learn more.  After being a part of a community in high school that proved divisive, I was ready to quit organized religion.  I decided that I would follow Christ, but on my own – without a community.  Sure, I would talk to my Christian friends about faith, but I wanted no part of church life. 

Once studying in Germany, I thought I’d give church another shot.  And so after a time, I found myself nervously walking down a street to a small church in Freiburg, Germany.  I was alone and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be welcomed, or that I wouldn’t understand anything, or that there would be the same insider/outsider lines drawn at this church as I had experienced before.  I prayed and told God as I walked that I was nervous and the response I received was what we heard in Matthew’s Gospel, “You are not alone – I am always with you.”  I ended up loving being a part of that little community, trying to sing the hymns and follow the service.  There, I found people willing to help me learn the liturgy, people who welcomed me although I was a foreigner, people who invited me over for Easter lunch since I was alone, and people who invited me to take my place at God’s table.

Once back in the States, I thought that I might not find another church as welcoming as the one in Germany, so I again avoided organized religion.  That was all well and good until I realized that I was missing out on being able to talk to others about faith. I felt kind of isolated.  I had questions and I wanted grow in my faith, but I needed support.  I was hungry for God and I found myself missing Holy Communion – I longed for and needed to hear those words, “the body of Christ given for you,” “the blood of Christ shed for you.”  So again, I nervously stepped through the doors of a Lutheran church.  The rest is, well, history in the making!

No community is perfect.  I have experienced ugliness in the church and maybe you have, too.  We’re always a motley crew of sinner/saints all gathered together.  But I have also experienced the incredible beauty of community.  I have been formed and shaped, welcomed, loved and taught by pastors and laypeople alike.  And my relationship with God continues to grow because of the encounters I have in this community of faith.  When young and old offer their gifts, or a child offers a prayer during the Children’s Message, or I listen to the wonderful conversations at Bible Study, Adult Forum, or Adults Anonymous, I catch glorious glimpses of God in community.  Where have you seen the face of Christ in this gathering? Who has helped to form and shape your faith?

We all need others to remind us of God and point to God.  There’s too much hatred, hurt and pain in the world for us to bear by ourselves.  And when we’re hurting or don’t know where to turn, we need others to help us see that God is with us.  We need others to care, ask about our lives, and to say, “I’m praying for you.”  We need people to share how God has been active in their lives to encourage us in our journeys.  We need others to inspire us to step out of our comfort zones by sharing their gifts.  In short, we need one another – each and every person.  That kind of sharing and mutual support takes real vulnerability – the type that says, “I struggle, too, but let’s lean on and learn from one another.”  Are we ready for that?

In World Cup terms, it takes a team of eleven working together to be successful.  Usually there are a multitude of passes and maneuvers before anyone can score a goal.  Or, as some might say, a “GGGOOOOOOLLLLL!” Hmmm, now that I think about it, Jesus sent out 11 disciples in today’s text – coincidence, I think not! The point is that no one can maintain the marathon up and back pace of a 90-minute soccer game and score by themselves.  They need their teammates.

Today’s Gospel says that Jesus came to the eleven disciples on that mountaintop and they both worshiped and doubted.  And in my experience, that seems about right.  We worship and doubt, wrestle and struggle.  And still, in spite of their doubt, Jesus sends the disciples out to make communities in the name of the holy community.  Even without perfect faith or complete understanding, he still tells them to baptize, to share the good news, to make disciples, and to teach.  Because the thing is, he’s going to be with them.  ALWAYS. Even until the end of the age.  We will keep messing up, but Jesus continues to forgive us and send us out to build relationships and community in the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  To keep trying to live out our new lives in Christ together in community because where two or three are gathered, Christ is there among them. 

We are not perfect and we never will be, but the God who does live in perfect communion continues to call us together and to breathe new life into us through the Spirit.  So maybe we won’t always understand the Trinity completely.  But the faces around us will help us understand that God, the three-in-one, calls us to live out our faith in community because it is through relationship with others and the sacraments that we experience God.  And I have learned that I need that community, always, even to the end of the age.  Don’t you? Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

This was this morning’s sermon, preached at Community Lutheran Church!

 

 

Today is a big day here at Community!  We’re celebrating 15 young peoples’ First Communion, and we’ve got two baptisms happening.  It’s a day full of joy! We’re welcoming people into the body of Christ in the waters of baptism and celebrating how we continue to grow and live out those baptisms through receiving God’s holy meal time and time again.

And we also have this wonderful passage about salt and light, cities on a hill and what it means to live out our faith.  This passage always makes me think of the musical Godspell:

You are the light of the world!
You are the light of the world!
But if that light is under a bushel,
It’s lost something kind of crucial
You got to stay bright to be the light of the world

You are the salt of the earth
You are the salt of the earth
But if that salt has lost its flavor
It ain’t got much in its favor
You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth!

I love musicals and this song makes remembering Jesus’ words catchy and jazzy!

However, I think when we hear this passage, our tendency is to think, “what do I have to do to be salt?” or “what do I have to do to be light?”  I think we hear Jesus’ words in the second part of the passage and they put us on edge: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Gulp.  Well, I’m out!  Good luck, right? To give you an idea, the rabbis, the descendants of the Pharisees, name 613 commandments or mitzvot to follow.  If we’re honest, it’s hard to even follow the 10 commandments, right? So how can we possibly reach such an incredibly high bar?! We can’t.  We all fall short. And thankfully, God knew this and took on humanity to do what we couldn’t do – to fulfill the law and the prophets.  And so we’ve been made righteous through Christ, our savior.  In God’s eyes, Christ has made us righteous – right before God – through his self-giving life and death on the cross.

We know this.  We are reminded of it week after week.  We remember it when we enter the church and see the font – the waters in which we were forgiven and welcomed as children of God.  We remember it when we are graciously invited to the feast and we hear those words, “‘Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.  Do this for the remembrance of me.’” “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.  Do this for the remembrance of me.’”

We know this incredibly good news and, yet, sometimes we lose sight of it.  Sometimes it remains in our heads and doesn’t quite connect with us in our hearts.  And so I hear in Jesus’ words in the Gospel today words of amazing promise: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  You all know by this point that I love grammar.  So here goes!  “You all” – plural – meaning all ya’ll.  “Are” – present tense meaning right now, at this very instant!  Each and every one of you is salt and light! Great, you may be thinking, but what on earth does that mean?!

In the ancient world, both salt and light were precious.  Salt was a valuable trade commodity, a symbol of purity and wisdom in Mesopotamian thought, and was used in sacrifice.  It was, and is, a seasoning and a preservative, helping food last longer, and was also used as a cleansing agent.  Light was precious because people were dependent on the sun or lamps to see – remember, they didn’t have fluorescent bulbs in every building to making working or shopping easy! It was also a common metaphor of God and God’s salvation.

So what is Jesus saying when he says that we are salt and light? I think he’s saying, “You are a precious commodity, seasoning the lives of others around you.  You are a sign of God and you help others to see God’s salvation.”  What amazing words.  What empowerment.  What abundant grace.

Jesus doesn’t say that we will be salt and light if only we do this, that or the other thing.  Instead, he says you are already salt and light because you have been made bright and well seasoned! We have already been illuminated by the current of God’s love and grace running through our lives.

And Jesus doesn’t stop there.  Rather, he says that it is important to remain salty and illuminated! We do so by staying plugged in to God, as well as by letting our lights shine forth into the world. Jesus says that we aren’t to hide or misuse the gifts and the calling we have as children of God, but rather to put them to good use.  It’s even a part of the sacrament of baptism – the newly baptized receive a candle and hear, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Through the leading and strength of the Holy Spirit, we are to seek after and do our best to follow God, humbly serving and pointing to God.  We will make mistakes and mess up, and we will never be perfect, as much as this recovering perfectionist would love that! But just because we aren’t perfect doesn’t mean we can’t let our lights shine brightly or that we can’t make a difference.  Remember, God has made us light and salt and we have something to share with the world.  And no matter how often we fall short, God forgives us and frees us to go back out into the world – to make a difference by following Jesus, the Light of the world.

I’ve been thinking about being light and salt for a while now and trying to keep my eyes open to see where people are salty and bright.  And I’ve experienced some wonderful things! I’ve witnessed people listening to one another and comforting each other at the Compassionate Friends grief group.  I’ve seen people step up to shovel and salt the church sidewalks – more of a literal use of salt, I suppose! I’ve heard of the life-changing work that LINK is doing in our community.  And I’ve been reminded by so many of you in conversations, e-mails and phone calls the things you do day in and day out not only for this church, but for your jobs, schools, other non-profit groups and the larger community.

Those things may seem small or to go unnoticed, but those are the little things that help to season others’ lives – to have an impact on them.  As Catholic nun, Sister Jean, put it in a trailer for the upcoming documentary, Radical Grace, “In every encounter, something sacred is at stake.”  Even a smile, a kind word, or a simple action can shed light on God and reflect God’s light into someone’s life.

Being salt and light for the world means working for the kingdom of God.  It means calling for an end to injustice and standing with those who are oppressed and downtrodden.  It means comforting those who mourn and having compassion on the suffering.  It means speaking out against persecution and bullying, and caring for the hungry and the poor.  It’s a big job!

But we have been called and welcomed into this kingdom work in our baptisms.  We’ve been made part of a community – sisters and brothers all called to work together to make the world a bit brighter.  And we continue to be strengthened to do this work every time we receive bread and wine – the promise of Christ for us and with us.  We welcome others, grow in grace and share Christ’s love.

So as we celebrate with these young people being baptized and receiving communion for the first time today, may we hear the promises of God anew.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.

And in the words of Godspell:

So let your light so shine before men
Let your light so shine
So that they might know some kindness again
We all need help to feel fine.

Amen.

Beeswax Candles Burn Brightly by Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Photo taken by Annabelle Markey in January 2014)

Beeswax Candles Burn Brightly by Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Photo taken by Annabelle Markey in January 2014)

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

 

 

Persevering in Prayer

This is Sunday’s sermon I preached on Luke 18:1-8 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, Virginia.

The Gospel reading this morning opens with this: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  Jesus says the disciples have a need to pray always.  It’s a necessity.  It’s not a suggestion or a tip, but it’s necessary.  That’s pretty strong language.  And maybe as good Lutherans we don’t like to hear that language of “must,” but when we think about prayer as our means of communication with God, it is pretty important stuff!

In thinking about prayer, I spent some time on that most theological of resources, YouTube, watching movie clips in which people try to pray.  While one from the end of Bruce Almighty was very touching and heartfelt, most of them were funny.  Usually, in these scenes people unaccustomed to praying are asked to pray before a meal or before a group of people.  They try to build a prayer, stringing together bits and pieces of religious language they’ve heard, along with song lyrics (a little Godspell perhaps?), and even the Pledge of Allegiance.  People look up from their prayers, eyebrows raised, concern on their faces and awkwardness and hilarity ensue.

Now watching these clips gave me a good chuckle, but these movies also pointed out another truth: many people are uncomfortable with prayer.  Maybe that’s why Jesus spends a great deal of time encouraging the disciples to pray, especially in the Gospel of Luke.  In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus praying and discussing prayer more often than in the any of the other Gospels.

Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow must have struck his listeners and the early church as pretty funny.  Here’s a vulnerable widow persistently harassing a judge who is neither objective nor impartial to give her justice.  The odds are not in her favor, and yet, she never gives up.  Finally, he gives in, figuring that it’s in his best interest to give her what she wants.  And what we miss as English speakers is that the judge actually says he’s going to act “in order that she doesn’t finally strike him in the eye.”  Yes.  That’s what it says! So Jesus is telling a parable where the powerful judge is worried about a vulnerable, powerless widow giving him a black eye.  This lady might not only physically make him look bad, but also ruin his reputation by continually seeking justice.  The image must have been quite an absurd one to Jesus’ hearers!

Jesus goes on to say that if even this terrible guy gives justice to the widow out of his own selfish interests, how much more will a good and loving God give ear and justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out day and night?

Right before this story, Jesus spoke with the Pharisees and explained that the kingdom of God was already present.  He explained that it was not completely here and that it was unlike any other kingdom they might have seen in the world.  Instead, he said that it was here already, growing in and among people.  He then spoke about how the Son of Man would come again unexpectedly.  It is in this context that we hear about the need to pray always.

In the first communities to receive and hear Luke’s Gospel, the faithful believers were eagerly waiting for Jesus to return and to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth.  But they needed encouragement to hold on and to be faithful during this period of waiting.  The Romans had destroyed the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, and the believers were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Christ in the Roman Empire.  How long must they wait for God’s reign and justice?  How long must they hold on until Jesus returned?  And how could they hold fast in the meantime?

The answer was to be persistent in prayer.  And the same is true for us today.  Prayer is a means of communicating with God.  As Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer wrote, “Prayer, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us.”  It’s a way of not only telling God what is on our minds and in our hearts, but of being open to listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.  It’s also a way of connecting with one another in community.  Listening to others pray not only inspires us to pray, but also opens us to the concerns and needs of those around us.  And coming before God to intercede for others brings us closer to those for whom we are praying.  Prayer shapes our attitudes toward God and others and transforms our hearts in the process.

Prayer is an incredible gift and yet I still find that I don’t pray as often as I’d like to or as I should.  And maybe it’s the same for you.  I’d love to tell you that I pray every day for an hour, but that would be lying.  When things are difficult, perhaps it is easier to pray more, but what about when things are going pretty well? It has been my experience that God is always patiently and persistently reminding me of my need to pray.  I am reminded of this through others requesting prayer and also through others in the body of Christ reminding me of the importance of prayer.  I also experience God calling me to prayer through that still, small voice that seems to gently say, “spend time with me in prayer.”

And even then, I confess that I sometimes put it off, metaphorically sticking my fingers in my ears and saying, “la la la la – I’ve got other things to do!”  But I’ve found that once I make that time to pray, it is almost always the case that I feel a greater sense of calm and peace.  You see, God always faithfully pursues, calling us to spend time with God in spite of ourselves.  Out of amazing love, God has chosen each and every one of us.  And so, God wants to hear everything that we have to say, even if we’re angry or frustrated with God.  That’s incredible.

But then there are the other times when prayer is a struggle.  Sometimes it seems as if God isn’t listening and that things will never change.  Sometimes the prayers seem to go unanswered.  Sometimes it seems that the right words don’t come and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of that peace or calm showing up.  Sometimes even though we feel called to serve or to take action, it can seem that what we’re doing isn’t making any difference.  What then?

It is then that we are to be persistent – to continue praying and bringing our needs, hurts, hopes and dreams before God in prayer.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus continued praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion even though it was difficult.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus prayed for his disciples and continues to encourage us to pray.  It is then that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  It is then that we persevere and push onward, trusting that God does hear and will act.

And it’s crucial to remember that we are a part of a community.  We’re not just praying alone or for our own needs, but with and for others and they for us.  As Martin Luther wrote in A Simple Way to Pray: “Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly.  Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say ‘yes’ to your prayers.  Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain.  Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’  That is what Amen means.”

When Jesus asks if he will find faith when he returns, I think he’s talking about this dogged, messy, stubborn, persistent faith that keeps on praying despite the odds.  It’s a faith that keeps on keeping on even though it doesn’t make any rational sense.  It’s hanging on tightly to God, even when it may seem foolish to others to do so.  It’s the faith that follows the way of the cross, believing that in death there is life.

In the words of one of my favorite singers, Audrey Assad:

My faith is not a fire
As much as it’s a glow
A little burning ember
In my weary soul
And it’s not too much
It’s just enough to give me hope
Because your love moves slow

God calls and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to persistent prayer and faith.  God invites, reminds and emboldens us to keep a steady ember aglow, waiting for God to fan us into faithful flames, capable of setting the world on fire with God’s love.

Unlike the unjust judge, God longs for us to spend time in prayer, pouring out our hearts, silently and aloud, through words and actions, individually and in community.  As Luther reminds us, “prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance.  It is laying hold of His willingness.”  Praying to God is not wearing out a selfish and partial judge, but persistently embracing and enjoying God’s goodness and the relationship God wants to have with us.

In the week ahead, I invite and encourage you to experiment with prayer.  Pray for each member of your family – even the extended family.  Pray for your neighbors.  Pray for Community Lutheran.  Pray for the people you pass on the sidewalk.  Pray for people with whom you have a hard time interacting.  Pray for the person who cuts you off in traffic.  I know, that’s a tough one!  Request that others pray for you.  See what happens! Remember, you don’t have to be eloquent or use big theological words – you are talking to God, the One who knows you better than anyone else, even yourself.  God has given you a voice and a way of praying, so embrace it and use it!  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Audrey Assad singing “Slow:”

This is the sermon I preached this morning on the fantastic story of Martha and Mary found in Luke 10:38-42:

38 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.’

Martha and Mary.  Two of the Bible’s more famous siblings.  I love this story.  First of all, I have two brothers, so when Martha gets a little whiny about Mary just sitting there at Jesus’ feet, I totally hear the sibling rivalry coming through.  In my head, it always sounds like, “Jesus, tell Mary to help!”  I don’t know what Martha actually sounded like, but that’s what it sounds like in my head.

Second, this story is one that could easily fit into our day.  Let’s see… Martha and Mary are at home and they receive a knock at the door – Jesus is here!  If this story were taking place today, I’d imagine that Martha had been preparing on Pinterest, the social networking site for DIY projects, crafts, cooking, and saving and sharing all of your favorite things.  No, I’m not addicted at all! Anyway, Martha, who had been busily pinning and saving all of the most amazing Mediterranean dishes she could find, is now busily whipping them up in the kitchen while Jesus is out in the living room talking with Mary.

Running back and forth, Martha catches sight of her sister just sitting there at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.  Martha stops in her tracks thinking, “oh not she’s not!”  Her face begins to flush red and she hurries over to Jesus, eager for a righteous third party to play judge over this dispute.  But she doesn’t get what she’s looking for and Mary ends up being praised for listening to Jesus.

Now at this point, if I were Martha, I’d be frustrated and angry that my work was under-appreciated and that I wasn’t going to get any help.  I’d also be embarrassed that my esteemed guest had told me I was wrong in front of my sister.

We don’t know if Mary and Martha gave each other a hard time after this visit, but we do know a couple of things about these women.  For starters, it is crucial that we don’t look at this text as denigrating service or action, because Martha was doing exactly what was expected of her.  She opened up her home to Jesus and welcomed him in generously.  And in a culture where hospitality of the stranger was expected and treasured, Martha’s welcome of Jesus and the way in which she sought to serve him was admirable.

Besides, the story immediately preceding this one in Luke’s Gospel is the story of the Good Samaritan – a person whose loving service is lifted up as an example.  Jesus says at the end of that memorable story to “go and do likewise.”  So what’s going on here?

This is where looking at the text is really helpful in understanding a bit better what was taking place.  It’s not just that Martha was distracted by her serving and couldn’t really focus on her guest – the word used is even stronger than that.  It actually says she was being “overburdened” or “being pulled” or “being dragged from all around.”  She was being dragged away from the very one she was seeking to welcome and to graciously host in her home.

And when Jesus responds to her, he says that she’s continuing to be anxious or “unduly concerned” as well as “distracted” and “troubled.”  I don’t know about you, but none of those words or phrases has a positive connotation for me!  Martha is stressed out, overburdened, anxious, troubled, and being dragged away from Jesus.

My heart goes out to Martha.  No, even more than that – I believe I have been Martha at various points in my life.  Seeking to do all the right things and overextending myself in various activities, even “good” activities.  Running around like a chicken with my head cut off, feeling exhausted and zapped of my creativity and energy.  I hear Martha’s story and I completely get it.

And I don’t think I’m the only one.  In a 2012 New York Times Opinion Column, Tim Kreider wrote about “The Busy Trap.”  He writes: “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are.  It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.  It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”

Now, those are some harsh words, but after I read that article last year, I began paying attention to how others answered the questions “how are you?” and “what are you up to?”  More importantly, I started paying attention to my own answers to those questions, which were almost always some variation on “I’m good.  Busy, but good!”

We live in a society that preaches, “time is money.”  Our success is often gauged by overtime, productivity output, and how full our planners, Blackberries, iPhones or Google Calendars are.  It’s so easy to feel like we have to be on the move, doing something in order to know that we are worth something – that we are busy, important people.  In some ways, it feels good to be able to rattle off all of the many important tasks we have before us, or even better, that we just recently checked off of our to-do lists.

But I wonder if it’s not more than that.  Are we afraid of not being busy?  Are we afraid that sitting and resting, or reflecting or praying makes us unproductive members of society? Or are we afraid of what God might call us to do if we ever settled down enough to listen?

I sort through all of these questions and it seems like it is so hard to be still and to listen.  And it is.  But there is also amazing hope.   Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, in the role of a disciple, listening deeply, drinking in his words, and spending time with this guest to her home.  While Martha is being dragged away and overburdened by all of her tasks, Mary literally “takes her place beside” Jesus.  And Jesus says that this attentive time spent with him is the better part – the good portion.  But he goes even further.  He doesn’t just focus on Mary and leave Martha to run around, stress herself out or exhaust herself.  Instead, he tenderly calls “Martha, Martha,” urging her to leave her frantic rushing about and graciously inviting her to spend time with God.

And just as he called to Martha, he continues to call to us today.  Jesus calls us gently, “Come, sit at my feet.  Spend time in my presence, listening deeply to my voice.  Rest, learn and be refreshed.  Come to the waters and remember you are forgiven.  Come to my table and be strengthened by the food I offer.  Come and hear my word.  Come study it and let it take hold in your heart.  And I will send you into the world alive and centered in me.”

I think that’s why we come back each Sunday.  We need this every week – to be refreshed and strengthened in community.  We need to be reminded of that one thing that is necessary, that is really and truly useful – spending time dwelling in the presence of Christ and letting his love for us work in our hearts that we might better love ourselves, each other and all of creation.  We need to be reminded that God loves us and desires to spend time with us, not because we’re busy, important, or successful people, but because God is loving and faithful.

This story happens in Martha and Mary’s home.  Jesus encountered these two sisters in the middle of normal life.  And Jesus meets us in the midst of our everyday lives – breaking in and calling us to take time out of our busy schedules to spend in worship, thanksgiving and praise.  It doesn’t have to be a full-blown worship service, but how can you practice hospitality and invite Christ into your everyday life?  How could you make a space to encounter Christ and spend time in the presence of God?

Maybe you could pause for a few moments of quiet and prayer in your cubicle, office or even in the car as you commute – and please, keep your eyes open and on the road!  Or you could read a brief devotion in the morning, over your lunch break or before bed.  Maybe you love singing and hymnody, so taking time to sing a hymn that is near and dear to you could be a great way of making space.  What about the arts or crafting?  Perhaps your craft time is a place to invite God in and to listen for that still small voice?

The irony of this is that it takes some work to practice being still and listening.  I know I have felt overburdened and dragged all around like Martha, feeling like there’s no way I can possibly squeeze in prayer or devotion on top of everything else.  However, I have repeatedly been amazed at how much sitting in quiet prayer with God has refreshed me and brought things back into focus.  It’s in those quiet times that I remember that life is a gift to be enjoyed, not worried about.  I remember that it’s not about my never-ending to-do list, but about being attentive to what I am being called to do in that moment.  How might making space to listen for the voice of God and to make God the goal bring all other things into focus in your life?

It’s not that service or action is a bad thing.  Rather, it’s when that service obscures or takes the place of God that there is a problem.  When we’re distracted from God and hearing God’s call in our lives because we’re so busy serving or being active, that’s when Jesus gently calls us back, reminding us that a life lived as disciples learning at Jesus’ feet is the better part – the part that will never be taken away from us.  AMEN.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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