Sermon, July 17, 2016

A Church of Contemplation and Action  
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
July 17, 2016   Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalms 130 & 131; Romans 8; Luke 10:38-42

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”

Before I preach this sermon, I want to make sure that I am talking to the right people.

How many here today are worried about anything in your life, or in the lives of those you know, or in the world, things like terrorism, cancer, addiction, the presidential campaign, relationships, money, global climate change, racism, bigotry, aging, death, the Red Sox, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your grandparents, your to do list, the church, the town, your house, your car, your work, where life is going, did you leave a burner on, did you lock the door, what’s for lunch?

How many of you are worried about one of those things, or anything else? How many of you are worried about many of those kinds of things?

How many of you have been distracted, thinking about something other than worship at any time since the service began?

And one last question: how many of you would like to be less worried or distracted in life?

Thank you! This sermon is for you.

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” I hope you hear the love in his voice when he says that. He repeats her name gently and compassionately. She is a faithful disciple who has invited him into her home. She is working hard making a meal for him. He does not want her to feel bad. He does not intend to shame her. He does not tell her what to do. He simply points out that there is another way, and that it is the better way, and no one should try to stop another person from following it.

Paul is not so gentle. He says, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

It is extremely important that we understand Paul’s teaching. To live according to the flesh or set our minds on the flesh means that we are engaged in an all consuming way with the material world, from our bodies on out. We look at material things as simply material things, and we invest in making them come out well. Martha is doing the best job she knows how in that kitchen so she can feed Jesus and his disciples. What could be wrong with that?

According to Paul, what is wrong is that Martha is on the path of death. Paul is not explicit about what this means, but it makes sense on many levels.

Her sister, Mary, is setting her mind on the Spirit. She is at peace, fully present and savoring the life that really is life.

Imagine a lifetime of being Martha. At the end of it, you may have made thousands of meals, you may have worked from dawn to dusk to serve Jesus and make a difference in the world, you may have held every position you possibly could on every church board, committee or council, and yet it could be as if you never lived if you did all that while being worried and distracted by many things and setting your mind on the flesh or material world. Imagine poor Martha being so busy she missed what she was doing and failed to grasp the meaning of her life in the deepest sense. In her drive to serve, she missed the gift at the heart of that service, the chance to be fully present within her actions and with those around her, including Jesus.

On the other hand Mary will have lived wide-awake and at peace amid whatever came her way, and when worries and distractions inevitably knocked her out of presence from time to time, she will have returned as quickly as possible to setting her mind on the Spirit while the turmoil swirled around her.

And yet, Mary will have made her share of meals, too. Mary will have served on her share of committees. Mary will have lived not only a life of contemplation, but also of action, because imagine sitting at the feet of Jesus and setting your mind on the things of the Spirit. What would you hear that Jesus was always saying?

Love! Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, love your neighbor as yourself, love the poor, the sick, those in need, love your enemies! The love Christ calls us to have is not a feeling, it is not passively wishing someone well or saying a prayer and leaving it at that. Christ-like love gets down in the ditch like the Good Samaritan, it risks safety or reputation and takes decisive, merciful action.

Mary will not sit there forever, she will feel moved by compassion for Martha to get up and help, she will feel moved by love for the people to get up and serve a community dinner, she will do whatever love asks her to do—and, she will do it in a different way than Martha. She will carry that peace with her that she gained in contemplative prayer at the feet of Jesus. She will try to do all her tasks not worried and distracted by many things, but focusing on the one thing, the better part of everything, that is the presence of God in it. And when she finds herself worried and distracted many times a day, she will take a breath, and set her mind on the Spirit once again.

Jesus said there is need of only one thing, and this is it. This is the secret of life. It is just a simple habit of the heart and mind, a simple shifting of our focus from the surface of life with all its worries and distractions to the depths where God is in all things.

Paul said, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” He went on to say that those who set their mind on the material realm cannot possibly fulfill the laws of God. We can love everyone and everything unconditionally only if we set our mind on the same Spirit that is in everyone and everything. It enables us to love our neighbor as our self because when we set our mind on the Spirit, we see we are all one. This vision changes everything. It brings us not only an infinite capacity for love and effective action in the world, but also a peace that surpasses understanding.

The Christian contemplative tradition teaches us how to see and live in this light. I would be happy to talk with you about it and offer classes in it if you are interested. The reason to learn contemplative prayer, meditation or mindfulness is not to feel good about ourselves, nor is it even to gain eternal life.

The motivation for contemplation is that our lives are full of worries and distractions. The world is changing in ways that can feel scary and overwhelming. It needs churches and individuals who are increasingly effective at exactly what this congregation feels the Spirit calling it to do. Our Identity and Aspiration Statement ends, “We dream of being a church that shines like a lighted window into the community, a beacon for social justice, increasingly engaged in works of mission and widely known for generously serving those in need.”

The Fourteenth Century Christian contemplative, Meister Eckhart, said, “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.” The Twentieth Century contemplative, Thomas Merton said, “Action is the stream, and contemplation is the spring.” Action is the lighted window, contemplation fills us with light to shine.

Let us open ourselves now to the presence of God in contemplation, like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, so that when we get up from these pews, we will shine the light of Christ through our actions…