Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer Service
Sept 9, 2018
“Called to life together.” This is a phrase you’ll hear a lot of at Duke Lutherans this year. It’s a phrase that’s printed on our lime green plastic cups and lime green shirts. It’s a phrase you’ll find on our website and our facebook page. It’s phrase that we are going to try to live into (and spoiler alert: fall short of, again and again) in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Duke Lutherans is called to life together here on campus, among one another—Lutherans and non-Lutherans, undergraduates and graduates. We’re called to life together in our local congregations: St. Paul’s, an ELCA church a mile down the road, and Grace, a Missouri Synod church just off East Campus, where we’ll be sharing life with young people and old people and everyone in between. And we’re called to life in our community, called into relationship with neighbors throughout Durham.
So I wanted to take the first few worship services this year exploring this calling a bit more, unpacking this “mission statement” of sorts, as we look at the year ahead. Tonight we’re asking, “What does it mean to be called?” Next Sunday, we’ll explore “What does it mean to be called to life?” And then the following week we’ll ask, “What does it mean to be called to life together?”
So part 1: What does it mean that we are called? This is our starting place, before we look at what we’re called to. On the most fundamental level, we are a people with a call. Luther talked a lot about this, he called it “vocation.” But it’s a concept that certainly predates Luther; it’s found throughout the Bible: God calls Moses through a burning bush. God calls Samuel through a whisper in the night. God calls Jonah, who is perhaps the most reasonable one of the bunch in that he hears God’s call and runs the other way. God calls Mary to give birth to Jesus. Jesus calls the disciples to drop their nets and follow…
And today, we hear another example in the story of Jesus calling Martha to stop all the cooking and cleaning, to stop with the tasks and to-do’s that she thinks would impress Jesus at their dinner party, and instead come and sit on the living room floor and hang out. Jesus calls Martha to stop doing in other words, and come simply be.
“But Jesus,” Martha objects, in my own paraphrase now: “Doesn’t it tick you off a little bit too that my sister is leaving all the chores to me? There sits Mary—quite contrary—while I’m stuck doing all the work?! Would you please get her to stop schmoozing and send her back to the kitchen?”
Jesus answers her, “Martha. You are fretting and fussing about so many things, but only one thing matters. And I hate to break it to ya, but your sister figured it out.”
I don’t know about you, but Jesus’ response to Martha here has always really bugged me. Martha is in there working her butt off, frankly, she’s doing more than her fair share, and what happens? Jesus rebukes her. Martha’s just trying to be liked by Jesus, trying to do works for Jesus, fulfilling—no exceeding—expectations for Jesus, but what happens? Jesus admonishes her. As a Martha myself, I find this totally ridiculous. Totally unfair. And I would venture to guess I’m not the only on this room (given that this room is located at Duke University) who thinks so. Right? We’re the Martha’s of the world. The Martha’s on steroids, in fact. The super-Martha’s, who earned our way here. Who work really hard. Who know how to impress.
But Jesus, in this story, see right through that. He sees right through Martha. He sees right through us. It’s a call that exposes our performing and posturing. It’s a call that not measured by what we accomplish or produce. It’s a call that puts no stock in resumes, exam scores, or number of metals earned. It’s a call that isn’t impressed by busy schedules, a call that doesn’t define worth according to the number of snapchat friends we have, or the number of times we made it to the gym this week…thank goodness.
It’s a call that invites us, in the midst of the inevitable busyness and pressures of life at Duke, of life in a consumer society, of life in an age where we can be endlessly amused, entertained, distracted…to stop. To put down our books or our phones, our stress and concerns, and come to the York Room on Sunday evenings, or Duke Chapel on Sunday mornings, or Bible study on Wednesday evenings. To spend ten minutes between classes wandering in silence through the majestic architecture of Duke Chapel, or taking a walk with a friend and enjoying the buzzing abundance of creation of Duke Gardens. To spend some time in scripture each evening. To begin each morning in prayer.
I hope you’ll do some of these Mary kind of things throughout the year. I hope you’ll find time to sit at the feet of Jesus, to sit at the feet of others (where we often find Jesus), and simply be. For this is the simple and refreshing and life-giving and Good-News call in today’s text.
But…I think we would be mistaken to think that this is where God’s call in this story ends. I think we would’ve missed something really important if our only take-away from this text is that God’s call is to contemplation instead of action, or about being instead of doing.
Rewind 500 years to medieval Germany, where a feisty monk named Martin found himself questioning the contemplative life he was living. Martin’s questioning led to a revelation—a Reformation. Perhaps the life of faith is not limited to churches and monasteries but also happens in homes and offices, universities and breweries, throughout streets and around dinner tables. Perhaps the life of faith isn’t some quiet retreat to elsewhere, but rather takes place in the places we already are. Maybe the life of faith is not one of removal from the world, but rather a life lived in it (in it but not of it, Luther clarified).
Now if that’s the case, then the character of Martha is perhaps a bit more complicated that we might have initially thought. Luther’s reading of this story emphasized that Martha is not any less holy or Christian than Mary; she’s not any further away from God’s love. Luther goes even further to say that Martha is not wrong about doing works. Rather, she’s wrong about what works do. She’s wrong about who needs them. She’s wrong in thinking that Jesus does!
Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your works, but your neighbor does.” You see? Martha is merely mistaken that good works lead to faith, instead of the other way around. She is mistaken in thinking that her work in the kitchen will earn her a spot on that living room floor, instead of her already-given spot on the living room floor leading her back into her work in a whole new way.
When we come and sit and the feet of Jesus, when we enter into relationship with this Christ, when we listen to Jesus, we can’t help but get busy in the world again. The life of faith does not end there at Jesus’ feet—it starts there. It starts with these feet that walked around with tax-collectors and criminals and bleeding women. Feet that walked on water. Feet that we nailed to a cross and feet that three days later walked out of a tomb. Sitting at these feet calls and compels us to get on ours and get to work. This is what it means to be called.
But we do not know what this work is, we do not know where this work is, we do not know who needs or how we even begin, until we first listen. Until we first listen to God’s call. Until we listen well to one another. Until we listen even better to people who aren’t in this room, people who find themselves on the margins of our Martha world. The called life is a life with our ears strained…
So as we begin this new academic year, I invite you to the living room. I invite you to pull up right next to Jesus’ feet. Grab a big pillow. Get comfortable (…although not too comfy, for we won’t stay here too long). And listen up.
Sunday, September 2
Welcome to campus, Duke Lutherans!
It is a season of new beginnings. I am in the midst of my own new beginning as the Duke Lutherans Campus Minister.
You all are beginning your semesters as biomedical engineering students, incoming freshmen, divinity schoolers, philosophers, music majors, and (hopefully really good) basketball players.
As we all prepare for (brace for?) this new beginning with Duke Lutherans, we look forward to forming and deepening relationships with you, experiencing God’s grace through word and sacrament each week in worship, wrestling with what it means to be a Christian and Lutheran on campus and in the world today, and living out our vocations as neighbors throughout the Duke and Durham community.
While we are all part of the new beginning of this school year, as people of faith we are always in the midst of a new beginning. As Paul writes, “Behold! Everything is being made new.” Or as Luther says, “Life is nothing else than a daily baptism,” a recurring dying-and-rising. Or as Lutheran theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claims, we are always in the process of “becoming Christian.” The life of faith, in other words, is one in which we are given the grace to start anew, morning by morning.
I invite you to rise each morning, find some water, and mark the cross of Christ on your foreheads as we enter the unknown and unsettling newness God has in store for us this year. I am grateful and excited to be part of this new beginning with you.