Luke 12. 13-21
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Part of the time I was growing up, my dad worked in Manhattan, where he worked with the pharmaceutical division of Revlon, and they made everything from Tums to all kinds of prescription medications. And my dad recalled a meeting with Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, who had a needlework pillow on the couch in his office that said, “You can never be too thin or too rich.” Yeah, it’s kind of funny…but we all know that people who suffer from eating disorders don’t think it’s funny, and people who have any kind of a moral compass don’t think so.
And it got me thinking…sometimes, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
One of the lessons I learned from my dad is that money is a tool to be used for good in the world, and that it is not an end in itself. Money is not essentially good or evil…it’s a tool that can be used toward positive or negative purposes. And I thought everyone believed that. But many of us have a conflicted past with money. Some of us grew up without much, and maybe that leads us to feel insecure about having enough…yet others who were raised in similar circumstances don’t have the same conflicted relationship with money. Some folks grew up in families with plenty of money, and perhaps that has led us to think we are entitled to the same or more wealth…yet others raised in well-to-do families approach money with equanimity. I wonder whether most of us have a relationship with money that is complicated. And perhaps that is what makes us so uncomfortable when we talk about it. And Jesus talked about money… a lot.
The parable we hear in Luke’s gospel today sets before us a “rich fool,” who definitely has a conflicted relationship with money. It’s as if he has a pretty secure retirement plan, with enough in his Bank of Judea 401(k) to last, but he is under the impression that he needs to shelter the excess wealth with which he has been blessed, so he decided to craft a new retirement plan to maximize his assets.
To many North Americans that doesn’t sound wrong or unjust…maybe the rich fool is just being prudent and saving for a rainy day. So, does the parable of Jesus strike us as odd? You and I may think of the wealthiest one percent of our populace and assume they are not bearing their fair share of the tax burden. But what about us? What about folks at Plymouth? Are we as individuals building bigger barns? Is that investment property we own helping us to be rich toward God? Is that investment we made in our retirement plan going to be used to build up the realm of God, or is it going to make us just a bit more comfortable in retirement? Do we, some of us, have too much of a good thing?
We all know that there are other good things in life that we should enjoy in moderation…food, drink, sunshine. We are probably aware of the pitfalls of excess in eating, drinking, and being out in the sun. But how do we tell when enough is enough, and not too much?
Some situations are measurable. When you go for your annual physical and your doctor advises you to lose 25 pounds, you have quantitative evidence that things are out of balance. When you get pulled over after a few drinks and just miss getting a DUI, you have quantitative evidence that you’ve exceeded moderation. When you have skin cancer lesions removed after spending too much time in the sun, you have quantitative evidence that you’ve gone overboard.
But what about when things are not so easily measured? And what about some things where you and I might be tempted to say there is not such thing as “enough?” What is “enough” houses? What is “enough” retirement funds? What is “enough” cars? What is “enough” health?
I was thinking about that last week while waiting for my radiation treatment down at the UCHealth Cancer Center. Usually, I’m one of the younger patients in the waiting room, but when I went in there were two kids, I’d guess about 4 and 6 years old, working on a big coloring page on the waiting room wall. And I assumed that they were waiting for a grandparent undergoing treatment. And when their 30-something-year-old mom walked out, it struck me. Wow…I’m dealing with cancer in my 50s, and she is about 25 years younger than I am and has little kids. That make me sit up and take notice, and it put things in perspective for me. I’m planning to be around for a while longer, but I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I’ve had a longer and a fuller life than that mom in her 30s, let alone kids dealing with pediatric cancers. Is there enough health? … a long-enough life?
I told someone recently that four years ago, I had an internist. And now I also have a urologist, a surgeon, a radiation oncologist, a cardiologist, and a pulmonologist. I have more than enough doctors! But thank God they are there. And when I’m feeling as though I don’t have good enough health, I try to go into an attitude of gratefulness for what I have: health insurance, the ability to make the copays, top-flight caregivers, and a cancer center that is only 15 minutes away. And the people who work at that place are an absolute blessing…there are a lot of angels wearing scrubs down on Harmony Road.
I want to teach you a very short Hebrew folk song that is sung around some Seder tables on Passover, as the people celebrate God’s abundance and deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Part of the Haggadah, the litany of Passover, includes the sentiment that “It would have been enough for us! If God had brought us out of Egypt but had not executed judgments against the Egyptians, it would have been enough for us! If God had given us their wealth, but had not split the sea for us, it would have been enough for us! So, the form is “It would have been enough” … “but God went beyond that and did this!” And the Hebrew word “Dayenu” means enough. Here is how the song goes: Day- Day-enu! Day-Day-enu! Day-Day-enu! Dayenu! Day-e-nu!
You know the refrain now, so let’s give it a try as a response to some of the things in our own lives that would have been enough. I’ll start with a couple, and then I’ll ask you for other ways God has blessed you with enough.
It would have been enough if God had given us the breath of life, but she sustains us even unto this very hour!
Day- Day-enu! Day-Day-enu! Day-Day-enu! Dayenu! Day-e-nu!
It would have been enough if God had given us a nice church to worship in, but he filled it with an amazing transformative tradition and the magnificent people who form Plymouth!
Day- Day-enu! Day-Day-enu! Day-Day-enu! Dayenu! Day-e-nu!
What do you say would have been enough…but then God went above and beyond?
[move to Communion Table]
Singing Dayenu brings us into the realization that God’s abundance is present and tangible. It leads us into a non-quantifiable understanding that what God provides is more than enough. What if the rich fool had been sitting around a Passover table, or the table where we remember Jesus’ last supper at Passover, and he sang “Dayenu?”
What might the rich fool had done differently with the overabundance he planned to store in new, bigger barns? Even if he were still to die that night, might he have died as a joyful man instead of a foolish man? And what of us? What might we do differently as those who hear this parable of Jesus? How might we change if we remember to sing “Dayenu” and to be thankful for the abundant blessings of God?
May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the LORD's feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." 41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
How many of you are familiar with this story? Anyone hearing it for the first time? How many of you winced when you heard Martha complain to Jesus? How many of you want to cheer her on because you have been in her position? Its not easy to ask for the help we need. How many of you wince when you hear Jesus’ reply to Martha? Anyone resent Mary just a little bit? Anyone just a little are envious of her? Anyone feel torn between loyalty to Mary and loyalty to Martha? Maybe like both of them live inside of you.
This is a brief, but not a simple story. Its complicated in the archetypes of activism and contemplation it presents us as followers of Jesus. It asks the question, how will we live in relationship with the Holy One? The story has been the theme for many a women’s retreat, its not just a story for women. Men, no sleeping in this sermon! This is story for all of us.
Martha may be the hostess welcoming Jesus ... but Jesus provides the really radical hospitality in the story. He turns the over the gender tables of his time. In the first two verses of this passage, he breaks with two Jewish social norms and conventions regarding women. First, he allows himself to be welcomed into Martha’s home. Not her husband’s home or her father’s or her brother’s. Notice the brother of Mary and Martha, Lazarus, who we hear about the gospel of John, is not even present in this story. This is Martha’s home. And Jesus enters it with no compunctions, no need for first being introduced to her by a male relative. He defies convention honoring her personhood as an equal. And then he goes even further by welcoming Mary and Martha to sit with the disciples for teaching. Women were not traditionally included in the teaching circles of rabbis. Yet there is Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. And my guess is that Martha was invited to sit in the circle as well from the very beginning. Before she headed to the kitchen.
This is a story of the radical hospitality of Jesus not just for women but for all of us. Because we all live in a world that provides the same distractions that got Martha all caught up and twisted around with anxiety. We live in a world where our worth is measured by our tasks, actions and accomplishments. It’s a badge of honor to be so busy that we are exhausted, worn out, over-functioning. We try to cram as much productivity into a day as possible. Our world pulls us in so many directions it is dizzying.
Have you ever longed to cry out with Martha, “Jesus, do you not care about all I have to deal with, work, school, children, aging or ailing friends and relatives, volunteer work at church and in the community, spending quality time with my partner? Can’t you help? Do I have to do this all alone!” Jesus replies, “My dear, dear friend, you are worried and distracted by many things; come sit. There is need of only one thing.”
And here we are in our progressive Christian community. We are called to social justice for our sisters and brothers who are homeless or who are immigrants, called to environmental justice for creation, called to eradicate gun violence in our country, called to the full inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, called to just treatment of women and to human rights around the world. And we know recent news cycles send us spinning. We could say with Martha, “Jesus, do you not care that we are trying to welcome and to save all the people who you have taught us are our neighbors, that we are trying to save our planet, that we are trying to keep our community safe from the flagrant use of weapons of war, to teach our children your ways? Jesus! We feel all alone! Who will help? Can you tell all these other Christians to help us!” Jesus replies, “Church, church, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
What is this one thing? Was Martha preparing too many dishes for dinner? Is Jesus saying, “Don’t’ multi-task!” Okay, Jesus....you have our attention. What is that one thing? Why has Mary chosen the better part? Why have you not sent her to rescue Martha in her anxiety? For that matter, why don’t you and the disciples get up and help Martha? The work of the world, the care of people, doesn’t get done with just thoughts and prayers! Surely you know that. What is this one thing?”
Jesus says, “Sit down here with Mary and be with me. Be with God. Tend to the intimacy of your relationship with the Holy One, prioritize this rather than the distractions. Come sit by my side. Tell me, how is your soul, dear one?”
Jesus’ invitation does not deny the work that must be done. No one knows more about justice work, about caring for others than he does. The late Madeleine L’Engle captured the importance of work in her brief poem, “Martha”:
nobody can ever laugh at me again.
I was the one who baked the bread.
I pressed the grapes for wine.
Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart,
“Martha,” (Harold Shaw Publishers: Wheaton, IL, 1978, 81).
Jesus does not say Martha’s work is unimportant. It is her distraction and anxiety that are tripping her up. The work of our lives is important. Yet Jesus is saying to us in this story, “Relationship to the Holy One comes first. Tend to this life-giving relationship, then all the other work is put into perspective.” It reminds me of Stephen Covey’s time management suggestion in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Your life with God, with the kin–dom of God that dwells within you, in your soul, is the first big rock to put into your time management jar. Then comes the other big rocks – family, work, helping to build God’s realm here on earth in whatever way you do that. And then the little rocks of commitments and activities will find their way into the rest of the time left.
When we are distracted like Martha – and I know for me that is daily – how do we sit at Jesus’ feet with Mary? What is quality time with God? This time is about intention and listening with our hearts and minds. Yes, in prayer in its varied forms -- centering prayer and meditation, journaling, praying with scripture, praying with a prayer group. It is regularly coming to worship for communal and individual prayer, scripture, music, even sermons and fellowship with fellow journeyers. It is the challenge of studying God’s word in scripture and God’s word in books that make you think and wrestle theology, spiritual practice and prophetic action. Quality time with God can be intentionally listening in the garden or the mountains. It may be running or yoga. Painting or knitting. It may be sitting quietly with your first cup of coffee or tea and simply being, paying attention to the movement of the Spirit that is prompting you to questions, to actions, to relationships. That “one thing” is intentional time devoted to being with the Holy. The “one thing” can be so many things that lead us into God’s presence where we unburden our hearts and listen for understanding.
There is a legend from the Provence region of France about Mary and Martha. It seems that after the resurrection of Jesus they journeyed to France as missionaries. They retained their archetypal characters. Martha was the activist....she tamed and banished a dragon that was bullying a small town. Mary was a contemplative hermit who supported her sister through prayer and became the wise woman of the area whom many came to for teaching. Each of us may have an affinity or a call for one of these archetypes or the other. In reality we need both Mary and Martha energy in our lives. And we need to remember how Jesus offered them the radical hospitality of God. It was Jesus’ own practice to turn to God’s hospitality of love in prayer so that he could invite others into it. May we be a community that invites one another as Jesus invited Mary and Martha. May we remember to sit with Jesus in radical relationship to God’s love so we can offer the radical invitation of God’s hospitality to our world. May we take Jesus’ words of invitation. to heart even as we serve God, one another and our neighbors.
”There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says. Choose the better part. Come sit with me. Learn with me. Listen with me. Be with me in God’s extravagant welcome of love.” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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