Mary’s Faith

Mary’s Faith

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on July 18, 1888


Somewhere around the year 400 a British monk named Pelagius traveled to Rome and wrote some books. He had just read a book of St. Augustine’s and he was really upset to read that human beings cannot save themselves by their works. “What’s the point of trying to be good,” asked Pelagius, if what we do makes no difference?”

Well, that’s a tough question and Augustine and Pelagius fought it out for quite a while. They wrote books and their supporters wrote books and councils of leading Christians gathered and debated and finally the decision was that Augustine was right and that Pelagius was a heretic and you shouldn’t read his books. If you agree with Pelagius, that you can save yourself, you’re a heretic, too. Lots of people are. Now, I think you can sum up the story of Mary and Martha, in terms of Augustine and Pelagius. Here’s Martha, rushing around trying to get everything done that has to be done when you’ve got special guests and here’s Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, just sitting and listening. Where do your sympathies lie? Be honest: Do you side with Mary or Martha? If Jesus came to your house, would you be rushing around in the kitchen or would you be sitting and listening?

It used to be, of course, that it was always the women who were in the kitchen, but now-a-days, at least ln barbecue weather, it’s as likely to be the man who’s doing the cooking. Or, if you’re like me, you won’t be doing the cooking – nobody would benefit from that – but you’ll be gardening. There’s always something to be done and the notion of sitting around when there’s. company – or sitting around at all – isn’t comfortable for most of us.

Pelagius was condemned but his influence lives, his way of thinking is maybe more popular than ever – and especially in this country. They say that Americans invented the rocking chair so they could keep moving even when sitting down. And the game of golf was invented, I’m sure, so that you needn’t sit idle even on your day off or after retirement. But here is a gospel that says it is better to sit still. Christian councils have always voted for Augustine, but I’m not sure our hearts have ever really been in it. Down through the ages, the church may have taught salvation through faith but when people have continued to ask for things to do, the church has always been happy to oblige: yes, come serve on the Vestry, the Altar Guild, be an usher, work at the soup kitchen, help with the barbecue, teach church school. You want work? Fine, it’s available.

What was the Reformation all about? The fundamental issue was faith versus works. Luther proclaimed salvation through faith. He thought the medieval church had been offering a system of salvation through works and that needed to be changed. Everybody now, from the pope on down would agree that Luther was right and yet how many funerals have you gone to at which the emphasis was on works, at which there was a eulogy reciting accomplishments, good works? Why do we have eulogies at all if we are saved by faith?

Augustine and Luther were right but you would never know it to see what goes on in our Churches. Down through the years, I think it has been the so-called “reformed churches” that have tried harder, and have put up standards like tithing and Sunday observance and no drinking or card playing: all kinds of things you can do and can’t do so you can know, so you can do what the church says to do to get into heaven. And it’s obvious why, isn’t It? You can measure works but you can’t measure faith. Work puts you in control. Faith is beyond your control. Faith puts God in control and leaves God to be the Judge, and that, of course, rightly makes us nervous. If there’s nothing we can do, after all, what can we do?

Yes, it makes us nervous, to be made to rely on faith, but finally Pelagius really was wrong and the gospel really is good news because if salvation depends on us, we’re in trouble. Do you really think that God will decide our eternal fate on the basis of bake sales? Do you want it that way? What if the Last Judgment comes and we didn’t make enough muffins?

But you see, that was the world into which Jesus came. The Pharisees, in particular, were always fighting Jesus on that issue: keep the law, they said; obey the commandments, do this, don’t do that, and that’s what God wants. God gave us a law, a set of hurdles to jump, and if we get it right, do right, we’re set for life hereafter. Jesus said, That misses the point. The point is your relationship with God and you can call it faith or you can call it love, but the relationship is essential, and it’s created not by what you do but by your response to God. Initiative, your response to God who loves you, seeks you, calls you, and asks only that you say, “Yes.”

Now, if you want, you can bring up last week’s Gospel and the story of the Good Samaritan which sounds as if God is telling us what we have to do: serve our neighbor in need. It sure sounded that way didn’t It? Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” But if you remember, that was the answer to a lawyer who had zeroed in, as lawyers do, on the least important point. He began with the big question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” and the answer to which Jesus pointed him, the answer every faithful Jew knew already, was “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” The needs of the neighbor come second. But the lawyer zeroed in on that and got an answer. But Jesus did not say, “To Inherit eternal life, you must serve your neighbor in need.” No, he said, “You must first of all love God.” First of all, respond to God’s call, first of all say, “Yes.”

God will do everything possible to get your attention, even lie beside the road and hope that you’ll stop and help. But it’s not what you do that matters near as much as the fact that you did stop, that you did respond, that God’s love for you elicited your response of love to God wherever God is, even in your neighbor.

All God asks is that response of faith and love. But what about Martha out there in the kitchen: isn’t that a response? Isn’t she-responding to God’s love and showing her love by fixing the potato salad? Maybe she is; it’s not always wrong to work In the kitchen; please don’t go home with that message! The point is that the response comes first, faith comes first; works come afterward.

The point is also that God never needs our works. Remember the feeding of the 5000? If a meal is needed, Jesus can provide. We’re not necessary; we’re here only because God decided to put us here out of love. And God shows us love by giving us work to do. And we can show our love by doing it. But that part is always second. And Martha had put it first.

Suppose Martha also had sat down at Jesus’ feet: do you think they would all have starved? The 5000 didn’t starve. The wedding at Cana didn’t run out of wine. Or do you remember that time when the disciples had been out fishing all night and caught nothing and looked up to see Jesus on the shore, baking fish and inviting them to come eat? I think they’d have been alright that day in Bethany too if Martha had just had faith. Martha was doing the expected thing in a society where a woman’s place was in the kitchen. It takes no faith to do the expected thing. Mary was daring to be different; somehow she knew that Jesus was changing things and the human race was going to have to learn some new ways of living. And that took a lot of faith.

How much faith do you have? Do you have faith enough to set aside time each day to sit at Jesus’ feet, to spend time in prayer and time with our Bibles and trust that the rest will still get done – and if it doesn’t, well, maybe it wasn’t as important as we thought, or maybe, because we have put first things first, we’ll have the patience and strength and love to get things done faster and better than before. God requires only one thing. God asks a response of faith. Is that your response to God?

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