If grace is a free gift, how come we have so much trouble receiving it?

I’ve really been enjoying attending St. Luke’s church in New Haven. Sometimes they even let me preach. Like a few weeks back.

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42
18 July 2010
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, New Haven, CT

Let us pray. O God who gives when we do not deserve, grant that we may open our hearts to your grace to be strengthened to perform you work in the world now and forever. Amen.

I’m working as a chaplain at a hospital this summer and it’s been an experience that has so far taught me quite a lot. For instance, what it’s like to try to be a calming presence in a chaotic emergency department. Or, how to sit with a patient in the oncology floor. Or, how to talk to someone in the ICU who has just had their first heart attack and is scared of what might come next.

Not long ago I met a patient named Susan. Susan was in the hospital for complications of bone marrow cancer and the prognosis wasn’t so good. But when we talked the first time she only wanted to hear about me. Where was I from? Did I like my job? What did I want to do with my future? It was a little confusing to me. Here was a woman who was quite sick and all she could think to do was make small talk and have a social visit with me.

A few days later I visited Susan and she looked quite despondent and depressed. When I asked how she was she told me she had just received a terminal diagnosis from the doctor. The cancer had spread and they would be unable to operate. She was to be discharged from the hospital shortly and sent home for hospice care. Having told me this – quite briefly – she immediately turned to me. “But enough about me,” she said. “How are you?” Again, she peppered me with questions about my life, how I came to be in the church, what my morning commute was like, and so on. Again, I was flustered and put off. Susan was nearing death and all she could think to talk about was me? I’m a chaplain to talk about “big” issues, “deep” issues, issues that make a big difference in people’s lives. I don’t want to talk about piddling little stuff about me. But Susan was persistent and did everything in her power to keep the focus off of her. I wanted to give her my attention and care and give her the opportunity to talk about her impending death but she was unable to receive that gift.

It’s with this story in mind that I approach this morning’s Gospel passage about Mary and Martha. Jesus and his followers reach a town and stay with two sisters, Mary and Martha. As you can imagine, this is a pretty big deal for Mary and Martha. Here is this wandering and itinerant teacher who has caused so much commotion and fuss these last few years with his teaching and healing and now he is planning on staying at their house. When I was growing up and we had visitors coming, my mother would turn into a cleaning machine, tidying up the house. I remember this because my brother and I were pressed into service, vacuuming, sweeping, cleaning up our things, while my mother focused on cooking a great dinner for the guests. Usually, by the time the guests arrived at our house, the cooking and cleaning wasn’t quite done, so someone – my mother – ended up in the kitchen taking care of those final details while the rest of us entertained whomever it was who was visiting.

If this is what we did for casual friends, imagine what it would have been like for Mary and Martha, getting ready to welcome Jesus. There would have been a lot of sweeping, preparation of food and beds, and so on and so forth. But something odd happens when Jesus shows up. Martha continues slaving away in the kitchen making preparations but Mary sits down at Jesus’ feet and – shockingly – stops working altogether. Jesus is talking, probably teaching, about this or that and Mary is content to sit casually at his feet and soak it all in.

This is a scandal for Martha. “Jesus,” she says. “Can’t you see how hard I’m working here? Don’t you think it is so unfair that she gets to do nothing at all while I am still slaving away in the kitchen. Really, now, how is this right?”

Jesus gives her a mild rebuke. “Martha, you are just too busy. Your mind is occupied by too many things. Only one thing matters and it is what Mary has found. She has the better part.”

If I were Martha, I’d find this to be kind of stinging. Working so hard and this is all she gets? To be told that she’s just too busy? You can imagine her thinking, “The whole point is to be busy, Jesus. I’m busy trying to make you happy and comfortable.” It is a perfectly understandable thing for someone in Martha’s position to be thinking. She is working so hard to please Jesus and all she gets is rebuked.

There’s this curious line that Jesus uses to Martha. “There is need of only one thing.” That’s a little confusing. We need lots of things. Water, air, food, shelter, friendship, love, attention. What is the one thing that Jesus is referring to? I think it is what we know as grace.

What is grace? It’s a word that gets thrown around in church a lot. We are “saved by grace” we are told. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” God’s grace is meant for all people. But sometimes the actual meaning of the word gets lost in the shuffle and confusion of church-related words and it becomes another empty buzzword.

Grace is classically defined as one-way love. God loves us unconditionally and absolutely, in spite of our plenty and multiple sins and offenses against God. We do nothing to deserve this love. In fact, we don’t even deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway out of God’s abundant care and concern for God’s creation, us.

We are reminded of how little we deserve God’s grace by the reading from Amos this morning. The passage begins with an attempt at humour. God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit and says, “What do you see?” I don’t know about you but this gets me scratching my head. First of all, why is God showing Amos something and then asking him what it is when the answer is so obvious? Second, what does summer fruit have to do with anything? Well, it turns out that the Hebrew word for “basket of summer fruit” is very similar to the word for “the end.” So the chapter begins with a joking and oblique reference to the end.

But it quickly becomes clear that this is no joking matter. When God is talking about the end, God really means that’s it. There will be no more opportunities for God’s people to get it right. When this end comes, God will have plenty to judge the people of Israel for. Even though God had brought the Israelites up out of slavery in the land of Egypt, the Israelites started backsliding. They cheat each other in business dealings, oppress the poor, and generally show a casual lack of concern for those commandments God gave them. When I read passages like this, I am struck by how much they apply to our own time. We are still not fulfilling God’s commandments in our world.

For Amos, it is clear that the punishment will be great. God will send a famine of the land. But it won’t be a traditional famine. It’ll be a famine of the word of God. What an awful thing. No longer will people be able to hear God telling them what to do. They’ve been disobeying those commandments anyway. Instead, people will wander the earth but be unable to find God. That seems like a pretty bleak picture. Not a lot of hope there.
From one perspective, this sort of punishment in the Amos passage makes a lot of sense. God rescued the Israelites from the Egyptians and gave them commandments to follow. If they followed the commandments, they would be blessed. If they didn’t, well, they had their chance – many times over – and now God is withdrawing from them. It’s hard to blame God for an attitude like this. God has experienced this history of rejection and disobedience. If I were God in that situation, I’m not sure so I’d be inclined to keep trying. At some point, I’m sure I would have thrown up my hands in disgust and said, “OK, forget it. I’ve tried to love you. I’ve tried to show you how much I care about you. And you just keep rejecting me. Well, I’m rejecting you now too.” To our modern mind, this seems eminently reasonable and fair.

Of course, we know that this not what happens. God does something completely opposite. Instead of withdrawing from God’s people, God commits to them in an entirely new ways. God loves God’s people so much, God takes the ultimate step of becoming human in the form of Jesus, being born in a little stable, wandering around the very land God’s people have been living in for centuries, and ultimately choosing to die just like any of the rest of them. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God shows for all time that God loves and cares for and will not abandon the people God loves so much.

So where is the grace in the Mary and Martha story? The grace is in Jesus’ very presence in this village, in Mary and Martha’s home. God didn’t have to take human form. God didn’t have to visit some dusty, backwater village in Galilee. I’m sure it was hot and tiring walking all over. I’m sure the food wasn’t all that great. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to deal with the people who doubted and questioned Jesus’ divinity and status as a teacher. More than that, I’m sure it wasn’t easy to come save a people who had so often and repeatedly rejected God’s commandments and God’s love. But God, through Jesus, does so anyway. And Jesus’ presence with Mary and Martha in their home is incredible testimony to that grace. Mary and Martha don’t deserve to welcome God as Jesus into their home. But Jesus chooses to come anyway, sit there with them, share a meal, and spend the night. What an amazing thing. It is a free gift given to them. All they have to do is accept that free gift. Free gifts must be pretty easy to accept, right?

Mary has no trouble accepting this free gift. She sits at Jesus’ teach and listens to his teachings and understands the importance of welcoming Jesus into her life.

Martha on the other hand has a hard time accepting this gift.

Martha just wants to keep working. Everything has to be right for Jesus. “If I just wipe this counter down one more time,” you can hear her thinking, “then everything will be just right.” Or, “If I just prepare this one more salad and turn down his bed covers, then everything will be right.” This is a feeling I can completely identify with. I look at my life and look at the world and see all the things that are wrong. I see all the ways I am failing to meet God’s commandments. And I think to myself, somehow, if I just keep working a little more, try a little harder, then things will work out a bit better and Jesus will like me a little bit more. I’ll reach out to that homeless person I pass on the street. I’ll take more time with my friend when she tells me bad news in her life. I’ll put more money in the collection plate on Sunday. I’m just like Martha, only my kitchen is the world.

I wonder if there’s something else going on in Martha’s head as well. She just doesn’t think she’s quite worthy enough to accept the grace that God is giving her. This is how that patient Susan seemed to feel in the hospital. She wouldn’t let herself accept the attention I wanted to give her. Maybe she was convinced there was someone in the hospital who needed more attention than she did. Maybe she just didn’t think she was worthy of the attention I wanted to show her. I feel this way sometimes. When I consider the great gift of grace that God is giving to me, I think to myself, “I just don’t deserve this. I need to work extra hard to make sure that God can see he’s not wasting his grace on me. I need to earn this grace.”

Oh sure, I’ll say to myself at times, I know that I’m saved by grace and that there’s nothing I can do change that. But even so I need to be working just a little harder just to prove to God that I’m worthy of the grace God wants to give me and that if I just do a few more things the world will turn out right.

But here’s what Martha needs to hear and here’s what I need to hear: nothing Martha can do, nothing I can do will make things turn out right. This world of ours is imperfect, full of sinful people. Even if I reached out to every homeless and downtrodden person in New Haven, the world still wouldn’t be right and I’d be exhausted and unable to help my friends, which is also important. We are incapable of working just a little bit harder to make things right. No matter what we do, it’s just not going to turn out right. The need and sin in the world is just too great for us to overcome ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much time Martha spends in the kitchen, the meal she serves Jesus is still going to be not quite perfect.

Here’s the other thing Martha and I need to hear. We will never be worthy of the grace that God wants to give us. No matter how hard we work we will never earn it. It is a gift we do not deserve. No matter how good a meal Martha cooks, not only will it never be perfect but it will never make God love us more than God already does.

But here’s the grace. It’s fine that the meal is not perfect. God loves Martha anyway, just the way she is. As for me, no matter how hard I work, what I need to remember is that it is God’s grace that makes all things well, not my own efforts. Both Martha and I need to let ourselves receive God’s grace instead of trying to achieve things through our own efforts. Just like Susan in the hospital the other week couldn’t receive the gift of my attention to her, I can’t receive the gift of God’s grace to me. I want to be a vessel of God’s grace to others and work hard for them. But I can’t do that if I don’t let myself receive grace first.

Now it is here that we should emphasize something. It actually is important that the work of God be done in the world. You only have to step outside the doors of this church to see that this world of ours is hurting. And we know that God’s people are called to heal God’s world. It actually does matter that Martha finish her preparations. The house needs to be clean, the food needs to be cooked. It actually does matter that I reach out to the homeless person on the street. This is important work.  But if we focus on these things as if they are the most important thing, as if somehow doing them will prove our worth to Jesus, then we miss the point. The point is that we are not worthy of God’s attention, no matter what we do. But God gives it to us anyway and it is our choice to receive it. We simply cannot make things right in our own way. But God’s grace working through us can. It’s a complicated relationship. The work needs to be done but if we try to do it ourselves, we’ll fail. Only when we trust in God first will we have the power to do what needs to be done.

Here’s one quick way of thinking about it that Martin Luther used to illustrate this point. Imagine a tree that bears fruit. The fruit is the natural outgrowth of a healthy tree. If the tree is healthy, the fruit it produces will be healthy as well. But if the gardener puts all his energy into producing good fruit and forgets to tend the tree, then the tree will die and the fruit will wither, regardless of how much effort the gardener gave it. On the other hand, if the gardener tends to the health of the whole tree, then the fruit will be produced naturally and wonderfully.
This is how it is with us. If we focus only on doing good deeds in the world, then we’ll be like the gardener who focuses only on the fruit. We – the tree in this analogy – will wither and exhaust ourselves, just like Martha does in the kitchen and just like I find myself doing every day. But we if focus on our entire spiritual health, on the health of the entire tree, on accepting God’s grace into our lives, then good works will flow naturally from a life well-lived in the Lord.

There’s something important to emphasize about Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha. They are both women. This sounds obvious enough but it wasn’t in Jesus’ time. In a society where men were dominant, it was unusual for a woman to sit, as Mary does, at Jesus’ feet. In this story, as in so many others, Jesus is showing us that God’s grace is meant for all people, whatever their gender or skin colour or wealth or whatever. God’s grace is for everyone. We must show that grace to everyone we meet as well, even when society is telling us that they are somehow less than or different.

OK, this is all easy enough to say. How do we actually practice receiving grace so we can show it forth? As I’ve said, I’m no good at this so I might not be the right person to offer advice. But in the letter to the Colossians this morning, Paul says that we must “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, with shifting from the hope promised by the gospel you heard.” I try to remain steadfast in faith by coming to church on Sunday and praying. This reminds me that God forgives my sin, even when I don’t deserve it. When I approach the communion rail, as we all will in a few minutes, I am reminded of the grace of Christ’s sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that none of us deserve but which was done on our behalf anyway because of God’s love for us. And Martha’s story gives us some hope in this regard. Although Martha doesn’t seem to “get it” here, she does so later. When her brother Lazarus dies and Jesus shows up, she talks about how she believes in the resurrection and how she believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Just because she didn’t get it on one day, doesn’t mean she doesn’t get it forever. She can learn. I can learn. We all can learn to receive God’s grace.

It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I come to church and walk right out of here again, forgetting about God and determined to save the world on my own. Sometimes I think I have to prove myself to Jesus so I can earn grace. To say the least, I am not always steadfast in the faith.

But sometimes things work when they are supposed to. I let myself receive God’s grace and let that strengthen me. I come to church and leave here determined that God, working through me, can heal the world. It is this grace that gives me the strength to encounter the suffering of God’s people, to keep visiting with people like Susan in the hospital who need help but are unwilling to receive it, to reach out of those who are different to me, to find my role in God’s reconciling love that surrounds me, and to show forth God’s grace that is at work in me and in all of us.

As Jesus tells Martha, there is need of only one thing. It is the grace that God freely gives us, grace that saved the world from the sin. We have only to stop trying to do things on our own, to allow ourselves to be strengthened by God, and that one thing that God gives us can and will change the world.


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