Our culture is awash with words. Daily we live amidst a storm of words, most of them aimed directly at us and designed to convince us that they speak the truth. We hear the words of politicians who speak beautifully in an attempt to convince us of the rightness of their policies, but once elected the words seem to mean little. We hear the words of editorialists and television talking heads who speak with such authority on subjects about which they actually know very little. Titles like “expert” and “advisor” are thrown around and attached to people who are neither. We hear the words of advertisers and sellers of products that appeal to a dream or an ideal to which the actual product may or may not even be connected. We have more words than we know what to do with.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes powerfully about this in a book that contrasts our words with God’s Word. We live amidst “the assault of consumerism,” she writes, “which forces words to make promises they cannot keep. Pressed into service on billboards, in newspaper ads, on television, and on the telephone, words are chosen not for their truthfulness but for their seductiveness. What they mean is beside the point. What they seem to mean is all that counts… Their value lies in the fantasies they inspire, and in the power of those fantasies to separate people from their money. Even those of us who resist this strategy cannot save the words employed in it. Once you have bitten into a mealy, pale pink tomato, it is really hard to forgive the sign that said ‘vine ripe.’ Those two words will be suspect from now on, although your tongue knows exactly what they mean. The problem is the discrepancy between the word and the reality. Because the connection has been lost, the language is no longer trustworthy.”
Our culture is awash with words, and people have been burned after putting their trust in them. It’s not always about “vine-ripe” tomatoes. Churches do it, too. Every single church in America claims to be the warmest and most welcoming church in existence. Churches are just as fond of slogans and catch-phrases as the rest of our society is. So churches say things like “All are welcome”, or “Everyone here is family”, or “Building holy and healthy lives”. What a visitor experiences once they get inside may bear little resemblance to the description on the church sign, however.
One of my colleagues once told the story of a church he served that put a slogan on their church sign that read, “THERE ARE NO STRANGERS HERE”. The sign was there for years until the day that the sidewalk out in front of the church had to be repaired. A crew of workers was using a jackhammer to tear out the old concrete and somehow ended up breaking some of the lettering off of the sign. Specifically, they broke part of the letter ‘N’ in the word ‘NO’ so that what remained was little more than a straight vertical line. Some weeks later a church member glanced at the sign and saw that it read, “THERE ARE 10 STRANGERS HERE”. You have to wonder which version of the sign was more truthful.
We are just as guilty of using and misusing words as anyone else. We depend so much on our words, and the image that they convey. We care more about what they seem than about what they mean. For years, churches have attempted to connect with the surrounding community primarily through words, words forced to make promises that they can’t keep. One of the methods employed to do this has been called “drive-by outreach”, and it is exactly what it sounds like. Drive-by outreach focuses on reaching as many people as quickly as possible. It utilizes tools like brochures and fliers and mailers. Through drive-by outreach churches operate under the assumption that if you just throw enough things at the community with words on them, if you just print the words welcome, and service, and love enough times that people will come to you, and it will be true, and people will want to join the church. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with brochures or fliers or mailers, but if that’s all the church is doing for outreach, if we are relying solely on words amidst the flood of words in our culture, then we need to understand that people may very well read our words and think things like “vine-ripe” tomatoes. The words can’t be trusted anymore.
So what do we do when our words aren’t good enough? What do we do when our culture is so awash with words that people just don’t trust what they hear anymore? What do we do as a church when the one task that Jesus entrusted to us – to make disciples – is one that we have to carry out without relying on our words as our primary tool?
The first thing we do is remind ourselves that this isn’t a new problem. It was St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.” Words are not meant to be our only thing – they aren’t even meant to be the first thing. They are an afterthought. They are window dressing. Again, Lewis Cass in 1840 said, “People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do.” Maybe being a follower of Jesus Christ is more about what we do than what we say.
Our scripture reading this morning is a somewhat surprising reminder of this. In it, Jesus is visiting a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. I can imagine Martha, as industrious as she is, wanting to get the word out that Jesus would be welcome in her home. I can imagine her telling everyone she knew, “If you see Jesus, tell him that he will find warmth, and hospitality, and love in my home. Make sure he knows that he’s welcome here!” Sure enough, Jesus drops by later on that day. In her excitement, Martha is rushing around her home, “distracted by her many tasks”. We aren’t told what those tasks were, but the point is that she was distracted. She may have been cleaning, or preparing food, or any number of other things. As it happens, Martha’s sister, Mary, instead of helping out with the household chores takes her place at Jesus’ feet, the place of a disciple! She looks him in the eyes. She listens to him attentively. She relates to him by giving him her undivided attention. The great irony of this text is that the sister who was so busy trying to be hospitable actually ended up ignoring Jesus altogether. It was the other sister, Mary, who chose to take time away from the busyness, to sit as Jesus’ feet and listen to every word, who in his own words, “chose the better part.”
Which part do we choose, I wonder, when we claim to be warm, and loving, and welcoming, but fail to take time to look our neighbors in the eyes, hear their stories, and give them our undivided attention? Which part do we choose when our everyday distractions keep us from slowing down enough to see the face of Jesus in whomever happens to be sitting with us or walking past us? Which part do we choose when we busy ourselves with one church meeting after the next, talking about ways to attract people to our church, yet never meet the people where they are, out in the midst of their struggles? It’s a true saying, you know. Just because you’re busy at church doesn’t mean your faith is growing. Just because you’re busy at church doesn’t mean you are making disciples. Just because you are busy at church doesn’t mean you are following Jesus.
What we are really talking about here is relationship. That’s what Mary had right. All of Martha’s busyness couldn’t bring her closer to Jesus. For that she had to slow down enough to realize that if she really wanted to be warm, and welcoming, and loving to Jesus, she needed to start by sitting down with him and hearing his story. The same is true for us.
This week Thom Schultz in his Holy Soup blog wrote about “a church in a metropolitan area that had invested in numerous efforts to reach out to the community. None of it seemed to work. The pastor of the church described a dinner the members provided for low-income people in the neighborhood. ‘We filled the hall with hungry people,’ he said. ‘And our members turned out to cook the dinner. It was very nice. But I noticed that while the people from the community ate, all of our people huddled in the kitchen. It was a like a total separation of the haves and the have-nots.’ Schultz went on to write, “For many churches, the local missions budget line funds one-shot meals and other seasonal handouts. It seems every local parade or community event sees churches handing out chotskies–fly swatters, hand fans, novelty currency, bottled water, microwave popcorn, etc.–bearing a sticker with the church name and slogan. All of this may be an attempt at church branding. But it rarely produces any lasting effect for the cause of Christ.”
What’s missing, he says, is relationship. If the mission of the church has something to do with making disciples, with helping people come to know, love, and follow Jesus, that doesn’t happen outside of real relationship. In fact, our faith in Christ is a relationship. It is not a brand. It is not a drive-by. It’s a relationship. And our efforts to help people grow in faith and to feel God’s love are best pursued in relationship with them.
Relationship. That’s what matters. It’s what Shane Claiborne had in mind when he said that it’s not that we Christians don’t love our neighbors, it’s that we don’t know them. It’s what Tom Friedman had in mind when he told the story of a taxi cab ride through Paris. During the one-hour ride he and the driver accomplished a number of things. Friedman had been riding, listening to his iPod, and working on a column on his laptop. The driver had driven the cab, talked on his cell phone, and even watched a video (which was more than a little nerve-wracking for Friedman). “There was just one thing that we never did,” Friedman wrote. “Talk to each other.”
And yes, it’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That one thing is all around us, everywhere we go. It’s in the single mother at the grocery store. It’s in the overworked teacher across the street. It’s in the young immigrant worker in the field. It’s in the child who doesn’t have a home and has never really celebrated a birthday. The question before us, and ultimately the only question that matters isn’t what do we throw at them so they notice us or what words do we use to get them to come to our buildings. No, there’s a simpler and more important question. Who are they?
What are their needs? Who will sit down with them, look them in the eyes, hear their stories, and see the face of Christ in them?
That’s it. That’s the one thing. Anything else is just a distraction.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, When God Is Silent, p. 12.
 Thomas Friedman, “The Taxi Driver,” New York Times, Nov. 1 2006.