Several years ago when we were living in Ohio, I was driving back to the church after lunch, and traffic came to a quick stop. The person in front of me stopped. The person in front of them stopped. I came to a complete stop. Then the person in back of me stopped too. By driving into the back of my car at 40 mph.
I climbed out of my car and I stood in the small center median looking at the damage. My car was pretty banged up. Her car appeared to be totaled. We were both basically ok. But I could already feel that I had hit my neck and head.
That day I learned something about myself. That apparently when things are not at all fine, I decide to tell myself that I am fine, and I become what Dave would lovingly call “a little stubborn.” So as I stood there in the median next to my wrecked car as they tried to put a neck brace on me, Dave received the following phone call. “Hi! It’s me. I got in a little car accident but everything is fine and I am definitely fine so no need to come. Love you!” Click.
This was the phone call I made about 20 seconds before they helped me into the ambulance to go get checked out, just before the tow truck arrived to take my car.
Truth: I wasn’t fine.
My own perception: Nothing to worry about here. It’s just a regular day.
Lucky for me, I have a wonderful husband who knows that the more I say I am fine, the less likely that is to be true, and he was there in a minute standing next to me. What did I learn that day, besides what it feels like to get whiplash?
Even I am not the best judge of who I am or how I am really doing.
It would seem like the best source of information about myself would be me, but it turns out that even I can’t always be trusted. Even I don’t always know what’s true, even when it’s about me.
Today we are going to be talking about questions like who we are, and how we are doing, and how we know that. When Dave talked about truth, and he shared two questions we should be asking: what do I think I know, and how do I think I know it? What do I know, and how do I know it? So when it comes to figuring out the answers to questions like who we are and how we are really doing, what do we know? And how do we know it? The most important question for our conversation for us today is actually the second one: how do we know it? How do we know, at any given time, who we are, and how we are doing? How do we figure that out? There are plenty of possibilities for us to consider.
Our first source of information is usually our own perception, what we have decided based on how we feel about ourselves. This is usually where we start, with a self inventory. I learned that day when I was “fine” that we are not always the best source of information about ourselves.
But there are other sources we can look to for more information. The people around us will often happily tell us who we are. (And they aren’t usually nice about it). The culture will too. Pick up any magazine or scroll through any self help website, and they will have plenty of opinions on how you are doing at living your life. So it’s not a lack of information. We are inundated with ideas about ourselves. Then what’s the problem?
The problem is that the information we are getting isn’t always true.
To be fair, sometimes your perception of yourself is spot on. Or sometimes someone else will tell you something about yourself, and it’s absolutely right, and something you need to hear. But sometimes, and I might argue, more often than not, it’s not true. How then do we know who we are, and how we are really doing? With all of the information we get about ourselves, how do we know what’s true?
Our passage for this morning tells the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha, who are both figuring out the answer to these same questions about identity. Let’s take a look at this story from the gospel of Luke:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted (this word literally means pulled in lots of directions) 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.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In this story, Jesus shows up in the home of two sisters. They both immediately spring into action. Martha starts bustling around the house, cooking and cleaning and trying to be a good host and do 50 things at once. Mary immediately goes and sits at Jesus’ feet. Martha isn’t happy with Mary’s choice, and she is quick to tell her that. Martha tells Mary exactly what she should be doing, and in effect, who she is: that she is being lazy and should help her get everything done that she needs to do. She is so convinced about who Mary is that she tries to get Jesus to side with her.
But before we are quick to judge Martha, she wasn’t crazy. She isn’t the only one telling Mary who she is. The culture of these two women would have been fully on team Martha with this one. Women were expected to do exactly what Martha is doing. So who does Mary think she is?
A disciple, apparently.
Look again at where Mary is sitting. Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, who is a teacher. We often misread this passage and think Mary is simply being still. We lift up the value of sabbath and resting in the word, which isn’t a bad thing for us to take away. It’s important for us to take time to rest in God’s presence, to stop moving and simply be.
But that’s not what Mary is doing.
Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet is putting herself in the position of a disciple. Her posture is that of someone sitting at the feet of a teacher, ready to learn. By sitting there, she is saying this is who she is. Why is this complicated? Because women weren’t supposed to do that. Women in their culture would never think of themselves as disciples of a teacher. Martha knew that, which is why she objected so strongly. Martha, and anyone else in her neighborhood, would have told Mary she was wrong. That she couldn’t be a disciple. That a disciple is simply not who she is.
But then, there she is. Sitting at Jesus’ feet.
Jesus says “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” There was plenty of information for Mary to tell her who she was, how she was doing. She could have listened to Martha, or to the culture, or to what she had been taught growing up. But she doesn’t. Because the only person who can tell Mary who she is is Jesus. That’s the only truth that matters. If truth, as we have been talking about, is everything Jesus taught, then her only reliable source for figuring out who she is, is Jesus. What does Mary know? That she is a disciple. How does Mary know it? Because Jesus told her it was true.
That was good enough for Mary. It’s good enough for us. This can be how we know the truth of who we are too.
We are constantly taking our own temperature. We think about who we are. We wonder how we are doing. Then there are plenty of sources of information for you about yourself: your friends, your family, some stranger on the street, what’s on tv or the internet, your own feelings today on the matter. You have plenty of ideas to choose from in figuring out who you are.
But it’s really easy to choose something that’s not true.
This bad information falls into one of two categories: thinking we are more than we are, or thinking we are less. A few years ago in church we talked about two kinds of sin. One is sin when we think we are more than Jesus says we are, and one when we think we are less. This is exactly the kind of bad information we are getting our ideas from. The lies you believe about yourself will tell you that you are doing just fine and don’t need God in your life. That you are more than enough. That you don’t need God, or anyone else for that matter. We call that pride.
Or, the second lie says you are not anywhere near enough. That somehow all that stuff about God loving you can’t be true because there’s no way God loves you. That everyone else might be made in the image of God but you are somehow a mistake.
Both of these can feel like really convincing answers to what we think we know about ourselves.
But neither one is true.
This is what makes them so dangerous. Believing we are more or less than we are always gets us into trouble. It sound so convincing. We listen to people break us down, and we start to believe them. We listen to the things we tell ourselves and convince ourselves that we are fine.
But we aren’t more than Jesus says we are, and we are certainly not less either.
So who does Jesus say you are? Let’s take a look at a couple teachings:
In the gospel of John , chapter 1, verse 12 it says “but to all who received him (that’s Jesus), who believe in his name, he have power to become children of God.”
If you believe in Jesus you are a child of God. You are a child of God.
Then in Matthew 5:14 Jesus says “You are the light of the world”
In other words Jesus says you are the one he is counting on to share hope with the rest of the world. This teaching doesn’t say, “you all, over there, the ones with your lives together, you go be the light of the world.” No. It’s all of us. It’s you. You are the light of the world.
Here’s another one: John 15:5 says “I am the vine, and you are the branches…apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus says we are in this with him. That we grow from him. Without him, we are lost.
You are a child of God. You are the light of the world. You can do nothing apart from Jesus.
These are the things that are true.
What would it look like if you got up everyday, and before you did anything, thought about these truths? If you looked in the mirror first thing (or maybe after coffee) and said things like “I am a child of God” and “I am the light of the world” and “Without Christ I can do nothing.”
This is who you are.
How do we know it?
Because Jesus told us.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan