Sometimes it seems to me that we can often determine the success of a congregation by how busy it is. When I read church publications, or go to state or national church conferences, we hear about what this church is doing or what program that church is running and the implication seems to be that successful congregations will be running lots of programs, activities or events for their people to be involved with. It is like a sign I once found online which was out the front of a Lutheran church in the USA which read: ‘Jesus is coming soon – look busy!’
I do not want to appear to devalue or criticize programs or events churches offer, but I do believe it is important to ask whether our busyness is serving the Kingdom of God, or if we are caught up in a worldly culture that is preoccupied with keeping busy by doing lots of things.
In contrast to the sign telling us to ‘look busy’ Jesus called people to himself to find rest. He never said, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you more to do.’ Instead, Jesus said,
‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 28:11 NLT)
There is a sharp contrast between the busyness of our world, and which the church can also fall into, and the peace and rest that Jesus offers when he invites us into a relationship with him.
This contrast is clearly evident in the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Over my years of ministry, I have found that people naturally want to jump to Martha’s defense, explaining for example that someone still needed to get lunch and that her busyness was motivated by love for Jesus. Just about all of us have an inner Martha who like to be affirmed and valued for the things we do. It can be hard for us to hear Jesus tell Martha that Mary has chosen what is better. We can feel like Jesus is devaluing all the good things we try and do for him and the church.
So we need to listen to Jesus’ words carefully. He is not saying that Martha was wrong for wanting to make lunch for him. Instead, Jesus sounds concerned for Martha’s well-being when he says, ‘Martha, Martha … you are worried and upset about many things’ (v41 NIV). Jesus wants Martha to experience the rest and peace that he came to give people who are carrying heavy burdens in life. However, Martha is adding to her burdens by stressing about Jesus being in her home. Jesus wants to free her from the unnecessary worries and stresses of life so she can find peace and rest in his presence. He values time with her more than the things she is trying to offer him. So which is better – getting worried and upset about the state of the house, or finding peace and rest in the presence of Jesus?
Then I come back the state of our church and the busyness in which we can often find ourselves. Do we get caught up in Martha’s attitude of doing things – such as programs, activities or events – that make us worried and upset when we really don’t need to be? Or do we more reflect Mary’s relationship with Jesus by looking for peace and rest from the world’s stresses in his presence? What would our congregation look like if we were less like Martha in our busyness, and more like Mary in our willingness to look for peace and rest, or helping others find peace and rest, in the presence of Jesus? How would things in our congregation be different if we measured our success, not by the number of programs, events or activities we were running, but by the degree to which we are finding peace and rest in Jesus’ presence, and helping others experience that same peace and rest?
Of course, there would still be things in the congregation that would need to get done, but these things would take on a different purpose. If we approached our congregational life from Mary’s point of view, we could ask if what we are doing is helping people live in the peace and rest that Jesus gives. If it does, then it is worth continuing and investing time and energy into it. However, if it doesn’t, then we could have the freedom to maybe scale some activities back or wind them up in order to free up people’s time and energy for their family, their friends, or so they could be more involved in the community as Jesus’ representatives. By pursuing a more Mary-like attitude in our approach to church, we could offer each other and hopefully find for ourselves a greater sense of peace and joy in all of life’s circumstances.
This story of Mary and Martha basically represents two ways of approaching a relationship with Jesus. For some, what is most important is what we think we should be doing for Jesus. The other is looking to Jesus for what he is offering us. John reminds us that Jesus came in grace and truth (John 1:17 NIV) and not to give us a long ‘to-do’ list to keep us busy. During my time here, I will be asking you to think about how we can more closely sit with Mary at Jesus feet as a congregation to find peace and rest in the presence of Jesus, as well as how we can help others find peace and rest from the things of this world that worry and upset us. When we find peace and rest with Jesus, as he says to Martha, that will never be taken away from us.
More to think about:
- Do you more naturally identify with Martha or Mary in this story? Why do you think that is?
- In what ways does your busyness, either within or outside of your church involvement, get in the way of you finding peace and rest with Jesus?
- What happens in your church that helps you find peace and rest with Jesus? How might you be able to help others find that same peace and rest?
- Do you agree or disagree with the idea of scaling back or winding up programs or activities in the church to help focus on helping people find peace and rest with Jesus? What might be some obstacles to doing that? How might we overcome those obstacles?
- What might our congregation look like if helping people find peace and rest with Jesus was a core priority?