July 21, 2019 Sermon
I found it fitting in today’s reading that Martha, the frenetic busy one and Mary the contemplative quiet sister bespoke of the teaching Dan, I and fellow Bower Hill members heard this past week in the lectures of Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr, on “Falling Upward”, at the Chautauqua Institution. Over the course of Richard’s several lectures, he continually contrasted the difference between the busy outwardly focused spiritual follower and the contemplative inward turning one. In Richard’s latest book, “The Universal Christ” he continues to encourage Christians to return to the practice of contemplative prayer of the Christian Mystics along with becoming social advocates through service. Daily, contemplative prayer, allows us to eliminate our dualistic thinking, that is an all or nothing viewpoint. It takes the focus off our self, eliminating the need for unhealthy expectations of others, ourself, and God. By becoming non dualistic in our thinking, we can have healthy expectations of others, ourself and God as we can begin to see God in everyone and everything.
Beginning last fall, I began, like Martha, to become overwhelmed with my own busyness. (I mistakenly typed busymess, which probably is more appropriate!) I continued to take on more responsibilities in my personal life and at work, falling back into my old coping mechanism of needing to fix and control everything. I was convincing myself I could handle everything. Throw into the mix I was in the application process at the seminary then I was contacted by a recruiter from Estee Lauder and began, then decided to withdraw from the interview and application process. I was ignoring the warning signs that I was drifting back into an unhealthy pattern. I was not taking care of myself. I have not been exercising on a regular basis, practicing my Al Anon program and most importantly, I was not setting time aside for daily contemplative prayer. I lost my ability to have healthy expectations. When I made time for prayer, I was preoccupied with all my busyness. On the occasions I was able to reach the point of letting go in prayer, the message was loud and clear, simplify, simply simplify. I was not letting go, instead, I was grasping into everything. Like Martha, when I over extend myself, placing unrealistic expectations on myself, I can become easily overwhelmed and I place unrealistic expectations on others. The past week at Chautauqua has rebalanced me, a consistent diet of Rohr will do that. The week rebooted me back to keeping the focus on taking time to be available to be present to God, allowing God to be in control, and following God’s will. It is in that presence we receive pure love and can recalibrate our expectations.
In today’s reading in Luke, and through the account of Jesus’ encounter with Martha, Mary and Lazarus in the book of John, it is apparent all four had a close relationship. Today we read, it was upon returning to Jerusalem, Martha invites Jesus and his disciples to stay with her. Martha and Mary have two very distinctive spiritual personalities. In preparing a sumptuous meal, Martha exemplifies service through action. Mary’s spiritual intuitive nature gives her an awareness to be present to Jesus and his teachings, his time is limited.
With this familiar dynamic between Martha, Mary and Jesus, it is easy to see how Martha, in her bold extroverted personality, we could even say controlling, became overwhelmed wanting the perfect feast for Jesus and the disciples. With her fanatic busyness Martha developed un-communicated expectations of her sister to assist in the preparation. and serving of the meal. Upon finding Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, Martha admonishes both Mary and Jesus because of their apparent lack of awareness.
Unhealthy expectations are tricky, they often lead to resentment and then turn to anger. It is a result of a need to control, and a need to be right. It is based in an inability to trust God. I am very familiar with unrealistic expectations. As someone who had difficulty turning my will over to God, a co-dependent, a fixer, I have had no shortage of expectations for those around me including myself.
Reality television could easily film an updated ‘Odd Couple’ show featuring my husband Dan and me. Dan would play Oscar, and folks guess who I would be! Now Dan is not a type A Oscar, and I am not an everyday Felix, but most of you would know who would play whom. Saint Martha is the patron saint of cooks, housewives, servants, waiters and waitresses. It is of no surprise of those who know me well, that I can relate to her style of entertaining. I was an early adopter of the other Martha, Martha Stewart and all things good. I can proudly say I am a Charter Subscriber of Martha Stewart Living Magazine! Needless-to-say, this fed my desire for perfectionism, particularly on the domestic front. Dan and I cohabitant well together, but Dan must deal with my retentive need for an HGTV photo ready home and garden. Much like Martha of today’s reading, I have been known to place non verbalized expectations on Dan as he can tolerate a tremendous amount more of cat hair, crumbs, and nose printed windows. Before a major holiday I ask Dan if we should host the family. Dan replied, “No. All the preparations, the cleaning, grocery shopping, set up, cooking, the serving and cleanup is too much.” I responded, “You do not do any of that, what is the problem!” See, I can let go of unhealthy expectations! In all seriousness, Dan does help, even if it is just a little bit!
I have had a need to project perfectionism which leads to having unhealthy expectations of others, both in my inner circle and outer circle. My unhealthy expectations lead to intolerance, being judgmental and eventually leads to anger. My unrealistic expectations apply to ones I place on myself, and those I imagine are imposed on me by others. I have found myself placing expectations on God, with petitions to control an outcome I want. This creates dualistic thinking, again all or nothing, which makes unconditional love and acceptance largely impossible. I lose my focus to see Christ in everyone.
Dan did make a good observation and called me out on it. Like Martha preparing a meal for Jesus and the Disciples, I can become so focused on presenting the perfect event, I lose sight of why we are having everyone to the house in the first place, to spend quality time with family and friends enjoying each-others presence. Like Mary, Dan wants to focus on being present to our guests for the short time we are together. If Dan had his way, we would always entertain at a restaurant or we would have the affair catered. Fortunately, for us, and our guests, I discovered Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, finding the best of both worlds. Ina simplifies complicated recipes and events encouraging a relaxed, laid back presentation where everything is ready to go when guests arrive. This allows the hosts to be with their guests. I have transitioned from Martha’s mission statement,“It’s a good thing,” to the more relaxed Ina statement, “How easy is that.” I have learned to take the expectation of perfection off myself and found the healthier balance preparing good food and enjoying quality time with my guests.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus teaches healthy expectations to his followers to take care of others through good works and to find quiet time and place to be in the presence of God, to know God’s will. It is difficult to strike a balance between these as is portrayed in today’s Gospel. We have become a busy society and we value busy. Many of us are stretching ourselves to exhaustion as we have placed self-imposed expectations on ourselves with infinite lists of the obligations of family, errands, house chores, our jobs, all while trying to fit in time for exercise, friends, entertainment, bucket lists, and volunteering.
The New York Times article, “The Busy Trap” by Tim Kreider explains that our “busyness” often serves as a euphemism for “exhaustion.” We have become so busy incurring an endless list of tasks and unchecked boxes, that we are drained, restless, and exhausted. Ironically this is a way of life we have chosen, if only by our acceptance of it. I do not know about you, but when I am tired, I speak without thinking, and that never has a good outcome. Ask Dan what I am like on a Saturday evening after an exhausting week. Dan has learned, nap before conversation. We equate busy with success, fearing our lives might somehow appear meaningless, our life will have no tangible value, if we do not have every minute of our day accounted for.
The book of Amos does not condemn accomplishments and successes, he warns us not to let them become a replacement for God’s will, God’s true calling for you. Once we fall into the trap to equating our self-worth on our accomplishments and actions, we enter a self-serving position of protecting our gains with the mentality of scarcity, there is not enough for everyone, and a need to control everything. Remember the need for control leads to unhealthy expectations. We see ourselves as superior rather than equal. I have read, we must be cautious our lives are a response to God’s love, not a plea for God’s love. Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monks who passed away nearly 50 years ago, said the biggest disease in America, at that time, is busyness. Merton is not calling for us to do nothing, he said faith without works is dead, yet we cannot base our faith identity purely on the merit of actions.
Luke 10:38-42 provides a rare occasion where Jesus rebukes a woman. Jesus is not critical of Martha’s service, he is telling Martha she is losing sight of the joy of service based in love. Service based in anxiety caused by excessive stress and fear overshadows love. M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary revisits the Heidelberg Catechism in his book “Body and Soul” Dr. Barnes warns that “Anytime you think you can find a little salvation through your own work, you are in grave danger. The danger is this: if you fail, or worst yet if you succeed for a while, then you’re stuck with yourself for a god. That destines you to the profane existence of journeying through life as if the solution to every problem is to get busy.”
In the time of Jesus, women were not permitted to have leadership positions and certainly not allowed to be alone with males. Unfortunately, we still find this to be practiced in many religions and societies today. Richard Rohr pointed out last week that Jesus always raised woman up and brought men down challenging religious authority. My good friend,a religious educator and retreat leader, Dr. Joann Paradise, puts this into perspective. When Martha entered the room to have Mary return to the kitchen, the traditional place for woman, and found Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, Martha may have also been upset because that place was usually reserved for a male disciple. When Jesus said it was the better way, he was not judging Mary against Martha who was working. Jesus was saying the better place was anyone who was called into discipleship because, and here JoAnn echo’s Richard Rohr’s teaching, because in Jesus there is no male or female, Greek or Jew, free or slave, straight or gay, we are all one in Christ. Now, does that not make Mary a pioneer in Woman’s Equality? And, where was Lazarus in all this? Well, John tells us he was at the table waiting to be served. Now, is that no a typical expectation of many males !
When we allow ourselves the time to silently pray and reflect on who we are and what God’s original will for us is, we can avoid a life of exhaustion from our inflated expectations of ourselves and others. By clearing our inter chatter, we allow God to come to us. It is in silence we can be aware and receive God’s grace.
Dr Barnes encourages us to keep a day of Sabbath to unplug from self. Again quoting “Body and Soul”, “The literal translation of Sabbath is “give it a rest”, stop or even “cut it out.” Worship (prayer) is God’s great interruption of our busyness.”
Jesus is teaching us we do not have to choose between our busy lives, and a retreated prayerful life, Jesus is teaching us to have a balance between the two. It is in prayer God reveals how he wants us to keep busy! We relieve ourselves of having constant expectations of others by first detaching from the need to control. Accepting and recognizing the Christ in everyone and everything. Turning the focus on ourselves and our relationship with God. Once we empty ourselves of expectations, in the silence of prayer, we allow that emptiness to be filled with God’s love to reveal God’s will through the Holy Spirit. We develop healthy expectations of others, ourselves and God.
The concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankel said; “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Balance allows us to develop healthy expectations. We can have expectation of ourselves to answer God’s call to be social advocates of the under privileged, living according to the example Jesus set to serve others in need with love and respect .We can have expectations of our church and its leaders to practice the gospel of unconditional love and inclusion, challenging us to be part of the solution to societies humanitarian needs. Of our government and its leaders to create a country which is open and free to all, ensuring equal opportunity and equal quality of life for all. Of our corporations to use the latest technology to ensure a healthy sustainable environment, healthy products, and clean technology in the manufacturing of their products. Ensure their employees work in safe environments and are compensated fairly. We can have the expectation that God’s infinite loving grace is available to everyone and everything.
The Chautauqua Institution of my last week is expecting the lectures with Richard Rohr to not only break this season’s top attendance records, but possibly the all-time top attendance records! The open air Hall of Philosophy was packed, spilling out onto the surrounding grounds while being simulcast in two other buildings and viewed on Facebook in many of the denominational houses, which were all full. The bookstore ran out of Rohr’s books on Monday, his first day there and had to place an emergency order. Chautauqua was not ready for the overwhelming response to the universal spirituality and social advocacy of Father Richard and his Center for Action and Contemplation based of New Mexico, where he lives. In a time of social, political and religious unrest, the Holy Spirit is creating a renewed enlightenment where God truly is seen in everyone and everything. Amen