The Nearest Neighbors

Sermon preached for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV, v. 38-40, my translation, v. 40-42)
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was drawn away by much ministry work; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the ministry by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are pulled apart and set in uproar by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be cut off from her.”

A few years ago, I was part of a conversation among pastors who lead smaller churches—churches like ours.

“What’s the best thing about pastoring a small church?” our leader asked. 

We thought a minute, then somebody said, his voice full of affection, “It’s always the same small group of people. And you really get to know them.”

We all nodded. We shared other answers, and then the leader changed things up. “What,” she asked, “is the worst thing about pastoring a small church?”

The first respondent broke out laughing. “It’s always the same small group of people,” he repeated. “And you really get to know them.”

We all nodded. Emphatically. 

The best thing about church? The people. The worst thing about church? The people.

Later that day, our group leader used a word to describe small churches that I’ve loved ever since: audacious. It is audacious, she said, to believe that a small group of people can work together this closely, spend this much time together, and know each other so well without driving each other completely crazy. Without completely collapsing. 

It’s easy to love our neighbors in the abstract. Harder when we know them inside and out. Last week Jesus offered us the parable of the Good Samaritan, who showed mercy to a beaten man on the street. We love that parable. We love its example of love. But you know what? The Good Samaritan did not have to come home to the robbed man sitting on the couch watching sports while the trash hasn’t been taken out. The robbed man never had to get an email from the Good Samaritan written in all caps. Neither man had to listen to the other chew. 

The Good Samaritan’s act of love was costly, generous, extraordinary. But loving a neighbor who is always around is a different matter altogether. And so I have to laugh that immediately after the fairy tale parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus heads straight into a real life scenario that shows just how hard it is to love the neighbors you see every single day. 

I’ve always loved the Mary and Martha story primarily because it’s about sisters. Siblings. And their sibling dynamic comes shining through 2000 years later with compelling clarity. We don’t have to be great historical sociologists to see what’s going on here. 

Martha is working hard while sister Mary sits and listens to Jesus. And Martha is done. Done. And you just know that this is not their first spat, not the first time Mary and Martha have gotten on each other’s nerves. Not the first time Martha’s been running around while Mary sits on her derriere.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that Martha’s work was housework—cooking, cleaning—women’s work. But the word used for her work in Greek is diakonia, the root of our word deacon. Everywhere else this word is used in scripture, diakonia gets translated ministry. We know both from our own scriptures and from other ancient sources that women could be deeply involved in the care of their community, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. There’s no reason to think Martha was not doing the very work Jesus had called his disciples to do. 

It is not what Martha is doing that’s the problem here. It’s what it’s doing to her.

Again, the Greek here is helpful. Translations often water Martha’s experience down to being “distracted” and “worried”—but the Greek verbs are much stronger. Martha is being pulled apart. She is in uproar. She has plunged into her work of ministry with such fervor that she is in real danger of coming to pieces under the strain of it all. 

Mary sits there at Jesus’ feet, and all Martha’s exhaustion turns to anger, as it so often does. 

Jesustell Mary to get up and help me! she asks. There’s too much to do to be sitting around.

And Jesus’ response is quiet and kind. Martha, you’re falling to pieces. Mary has found the good piece. I won’t tear her apart to put you back together.

The story ends there, and I wish it didn’t. I wish Martha came and sat with Jesus and Mary. I wish we saw her rest. I wish we saw her get a chance to experience Christ’s peace, as well as Christ’s marching orders. But perhaps the lack of ending is itself intentional; we get to decide for ourselves, whether we keep pushing on in anger and exhaustion, or whether we join Mary at Jesus’ feet.

A friend of mine put it this way: this story isn’t just about “who will do the cleaning and cooking. It is the BASE struggle of ministry between action in programing and gaining perspective at the source of Love…”

Like Martha, we have a lot to do. We’ve got a schedule full of mission projects, fellowship events, youth gatherings, accounting audits, building maintenance, worship services. It’s good work. Necessary work. Christlike work. But when doing all Christ’s work takes us too far away from Christ’s heart, we start to fall apart.

Let me repeat that: when doing Christ’s work takes us too far away from Christ’s heart, we start to fall apart.

And when we are unbalanced, we often try to pull others off balance too, in a desperate attempt to right ourselves. We latch onto whoever’s closest and we pour out our frustrations on them. 

Last year I had the joy of going through our historical archives at CSPC. I’d seen the materials we’d pulled together for our 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries—stories about the growth of the congregation, the steady enlargement of the building, the success of our womens groups and Sunday Schools. Glowing accounts of constant improvement, extraordinary generosity, familial love. But in the archives I found much more ordinary material—monthly newsletters and committee reports and deacons’ minutes. And you know what I found, scattered across those everyday histories? A lot of grouchiness. 

From the turn of the century—a pamphlet complaining about the lack of financial generosity from the community, demanding that everyone who receive it mail back a dollar.

From the fifties—a scathing commentary by the pastor about how there weren’t enough men active in the church to fill the choir. 

From the seventies—a fight over whether to buy a Coca-Cola or Pepsi vending machine. It must have ended in a stalemate. 

And my personal favorite—an actual motion, passed and recorded, that no deacon was allowed to make a motion that might offend another deacon. I can only imagine the fight that produced that one. 

Far from being discouraging, these momentary failures and petty squabbles made me smile. This church has always been, simply, a group of people—people who have annoyed and disappointed and offended each other, and yet—yet—by the grace of God, we are here, 124 years later. 

And we are here, I believe, because when we cannot stand it a moment longer, we know to return to the feet of Christ, and draw strength there. Sometimes it gets messy before we remember to do that—sometimes very messy—but this church has survived because we have come back to Christ, and found him overflowing with grace, until we remember how to extend that grace to each other.  

It was always a long shot, this church thing. The idea that the same group of people could sit together, cook together, pray together, plan together, clean together, worship together, make decisions together without annoying each other—it’s bonkers. It’s impossible. It’s audacious. 

It’s church. It’s neighbors. It’s family.

By the grace of Christ, we learn to turn to each other, not on each other.

By the grace of Christ, we find our peace.


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