Pastor Gary's final sermon as Pastor at Advent
Dear Friends in Christ,
Seven years ago we embarked on a grand journey, not knowing where we would end up, but trusting that God’s Holy Spirit was leading us in this new venture. You stepped out in faith, wishing to welcome into this Advent community our Spanish-speaking neighbors. I stepped out in faith, leaving a full-time call to come here on a part-time contractual basis. And we together stepped out in faith, wishing to be one congregation in Christ, worshipping and serving God’s people in two languages.
As I prepare to retire next week from active ministry after serving the church for thirty-five years, and though we will be together one more Sunday, today is the last time I will preach in English from this pulpit and I find that of all the sermons that I have prepared to be preached here at Advent, this one has perhaps been the most difficult to write. How does a Pastor go about summarizing his thoughts as he leaves a congregation he has served, and people whom he has come to know and dearly love? And how does one truly thank people who have become much more than friends and family, truly become brothers and sisters in this faith journey, eating together at this table, singing and praying together in this sanctuary, going forth together into the world with a message of hope and promise and justice for all people because we have been baptized at this or some other font? A pastor’s last sermon in a congregation is both emotional and a tough assignment, especially when you want to make sure the sermon is not about yourself but rather points all of us to Christ and his Word one last time before you leave. I think that our Gospel text for today helps us to do just that.
Our story starts, "As Jesus and His disciples went on their way, Jesus entered into a certain village.” That raises two questions. First, Jesus and His disciples were on their way - on their way where? We find the answer to that question back in chapter 9 where it says that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem - on his way to the cross - on his way to die. Sure puts a different spin on everything else that follows, doesn't it?! Second, where was this "certain village" that Jesus entered? Luke doesn't say, but the Gospel of John tells us that the name of the village was Bethany, and that Bethany was near Jerusalem.
John also tells us that Martha and Mary have a brother - Lazarus - and that, shortly before Jesus' death, he raised Lazarus from the dead. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are friends of Jesus. Jesus is popular, and many people would be proud to have him as a guest in their house. John tells us that Jesus loved all three of them.
Martha welcomed Jesus into her house, and then went to the kitchen to fix dinner. Mary, Martha's sister, did NOT go to the kitchen to help, but instead sat at Jesus' feet and listened to his word.”. That seems OK. After all, you can't just abandon your guest while everyone works in the kitchen.
But it wasn't OK with Martha. Luke says that Martha "was distracted with much serving.” Many of you know how that feels. You have experienced being "in over your head,” "distracted by many things." You have wanted help and didn't know where to turn. I have been there too. I'm a lot like Martha. I like to work, and I ,ike to be busy, I like to get things done. I like Martha and know how she must have felt. Maybe you do, too.
So Martha, angry at being abandoned in the kitchen, came to Jesus and said, "Lord!" Now don't miss that little word – “Lord.” The first word out of Martha's mouth acknowledges Jesus as Lord. But then Martha, who has just acknowledged Jesus as Lord, rebukes him. First, she asks if Jesus doesn't care that Mary isn't helping. Then she actually gives Jesus an order: "Tell my lazy sister to get into the kitchen and help me." Well, those aren't the exact words that Luke uses to report this incident, but that's what Martha meant!
Now that kind of outburst has a tendency to make everyone angry. If you are Mary, you wonder why Martha didn't just say - to you rather than to Jesus - "Mary, I need some help." I’m sure that Mary would have helped her. And if you are the guest - like Jesus - it's embarrassing to have your hostess blow up like that.
I'm sympathetic to Martha. I sometimes get angry when I feel that I'm doing all the work. And I have surely said a few angry words in my life - very much like Martha did. But having been there and done that, I also know what Martha could have done differently.
I've preached a number of sermons on this scripture over the years – by my count at least 17 times - but I always struggle with it because I am more like Martha than Mary. I want someone to appreciate Martha and those of us who are like her.
But this week it suddenly occurred to me how Mary's focus on her relationship with Jesus was so right - and how Martha's words and actions were so disruptive. Jesus said as much: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
As I say those words, I feel sorry for Martha. I want Jesus to commend her for her work. I want him to say, "Mary, let's both go in there and give Martha a hand." But instead, He says: "Don’t be anxious and troubled about so many things; only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part."
What the heck is this all about? Is there anything in this little story for us? Yes, I believe there is. We are such busy people, and we live in such a busy world. We go 24/7. And it's easy to miss the important things.
The story of Martha and Mary tells us that there is value in sitting - in listening - in learning - in loving. Like Martha, we think the important thing is doing - but Jesus tells us to sit - to listen - to learn - to love.
Whether at home or work or school or here at church, take a moment to look around and find the blessings that are daily bestowed on you individually, on your family, and on us as a congregation. Take a moment to thank God for giving you another day. Sit at Jesus' feet for just a moment. Be quiet. Listen. Treasure the moment. We live in a Martha world, but take time to be Mary. Jesus says that that's the one thing that's needed, as difficult as it may be to do. He says that's the better part that won't be taken from you. And then you will be able to do what is truly important.
Today is an emotional day, a transitional day, if you will. It marks the end of one era, and the beginning of another. For me, today marks the end of my time as your pastor. For you, today marks the end of one pastor’s time with you, and the beginning of a process to call your next pastor. It marks a leave-taking but not a separation for we are always united together at the feet of Jesus and through his promises and his Word. As Lutherans we look to our baptism and its vivid reminder to all of us that the work of testifying to the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t end today, but that it is an ongoing task, both for me as a pastor moving on, and for you as a congregation moving forward from this day.
Sit at the feet of Jesus. Listen. Learn. And find hope and love there. Then, with the saints who have gone before us, those who dwell among us today, and those yet to come, proclaim God’s Word, Jesus Christ. And I promise to continue doing the same. This isn’t your church. This isn’t my church. This is Christ’s church. He is the head of it, we are merely the caretakers of it for the brief time we have in this world. This is where he wants to give you the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through his unchanging Word and Sacraments, in the midst of a world that’s constantly changing, constantly busy, seemingly out of control. Don’t ever take your focus off of Jesus, walking with each other as sisters and brothers, united in love, acting with justice, serving one another, always walking humbly with God.
I thank you for the honor and privilege that has been mine to walk with you as your pastor. I love each of you, and this congregation. I shall pray for you daily for the rest of my life. And I know with all certainty that, for those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, we are always united together in him, and we will see each other again one day; maybe not in this world, but in the splendors of paradise where we will sit at the feet of Jesus and see with our own eyes the promises fulfilled, the better part that cannot be taken from us.