Sunday, July 18, 2004

Seventh Sunday in Pentecost
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

But the Lord answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: for Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Have you ever been so caught up in something, such as an event or project, that by the time it is over you can’t even remember what happened? This is often said about a bride and groom. There is so much to do and so many people receive that it all gets lost in the hullabaloo. I used to be a disc jockey that performed at weddings. More than once I had a bride upset because she thought I forgot to play her favorite song or do the things she requested of me, yet I had done them all but she missed it because she was busy with other things.

Over the years I have been either a member or even the head of committees planning special events. It takes a great deal of work to prepare the food, organize the decorations and execute the activities. More than once, after it is all over, I have had to ask other people how it all went because I was so busy I didn’t even notice if people had a good time. The worst part is when we are so caught up in the work that we miss out of the fellowship. I have been disappointed when I have heard about old friends that came that I was unable to see because I was too busy.

Many people even do this at their homes when they host a party or picnic. They spend all their time in the kitchen and they have no time to visit with the people they have invited. Though not all things can be prepared in advance, I do try to ensure that most of the work is complete long before my guests arrive so that I can sit and chat with them. If our purpose were simply to feed our friends, then it would not matter. However, we generally invite guests to our house so that we can enjoy their presence. What good is it to be busy in the kitchen making the food if we never get to spend time with them?

We have two stories of hospitality in our lessons this week. The first is the story of Abraham and an encounter he had with the LORD in the desert. The second is the story of Mary and Martha. In both these stories, the Lord is present and is being served, but their busy-ness is received much differently.

Abraham was a wondering sheep herder. He had large flocks and had settled on the plains near Mamre. While he was resting in the heat of the day, three men approached his tent. As was the custom in that day, Abraham jumped up from his seat and welcomed the strangers, offered them water for their feet and organized a meal. It was common practice for strangers to be so warmly welcome, particularly in the desert. A journey might cover many miles and last for days on foot with little water or food available. The hospitality of those who are somewhat settled on the road could mean the difference between life and death.

Abraham did not just serve the men food. Abraham treated his visitors with great respect. He bowed down to them, asked them to meet their needs as if it would be a favor to him and he hovered over them as they ate so that he could answer every call quickly. His focus was totally on his guests and their presence.

The second story is about Martha, a woman busy with the work of meeting the needs of her guests. Her sister Mary was not helping, just sitting at the feet of the Teacher and ignoring the pleas from Martha for help. Martha thought she was doing what was needed, after all the job of the woman of the house was to meet the physical needs of all those who entered her doorway. As a woman, Mary was expected to do the same, but instead she was acting outside her gender roles by being a disciple. In that day only men were taught the things of God, particularly if there were work to be done.

Martha probably would have enjoyed listening to Jesus, too, but she was distracted by all her preparations. All us “Marthas” in the world understand what she is feeling. If only Mary would help out, perhaps everyone could listen to what Jesus is saying. So, she went to Jesus with her complaint. “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister did leave me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” Martha was far more concerned about her own well being than the well being of her guests.

Martha was probably producing a great feast when Jesus would have been just as happy with a ham sandwich and chips. She was more concerned with doing ministry the way she felt it should be done than experiencing the presence of the one for whom she was serving. She forgot that it is all about Jesus and made it about herself. Jesus answered Martha, “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: for Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Abraham and Martha were both meeting the needs of their guests, but the difference was in the way they were doing so. Abraham was focused on his guests, meeting their needs as they came. Travelers on the road would certainly need water to wash, food to eat and a cool place to rest. His attention never left his guests. Martha was more concerned with what she was doing than the ones for whom she was doing it. Her work became more important than the presence of Jesus.

Jesus did not reprimand her for her work, but for worrying about it too much. Mary was commended because she stopped for a moment from the hustle and bustle of life to sit at the feet of her Master to listen to Him speak.

I have known people who never got involved in Bible study groups at church, but were quite involved with some of the social ministries. To them, Bible study was for the pastors and teachers – they could learn from an occasional sermon but any in depth study was a waste of their time when there was real work to do. “I’m not gifted in that way. God blessed me to go out and work.” Unfortunately, these same people often lost sight of the one thing that is needful – Jesus. The ministry was more important than the message.

What happens, then, is those who are busy with the work of the church, but never resting in God’s message of grace, get burned out. They get angry and start asking why the others are just sitting around in Bible studies. Someone once expected me to use scheduled study time to visit a food bank, even though there were plenty of other times the visit could have been made. To her the ministry was more important. Unfortunately, the ministry also had become the focus – Jesus was lost in the midst of all the good things we were doing as a congregation.

This story of Martha and Mary is often made out to be a conflict between the doers and the listeners, but that’s not what is being taught here. This is a message of recognizing the presence of God in our life and our ministry. The “Marthas” of this world see Mary as lazy, the “Marys” think Martha is not spiritual enough. However, the point Jesus is making is that there is a balance between the work we are called to do and the time we spend listening to Him. We need His voice to give us strength. We are sent to meet the needs of others. It is not an either or thing, but living the life of grace to its fullest. Without balance we worry and we lose sight of the one thing that is needful – Jesus.

Paul tells us in today’s epistle lesson that Jesus is supreme. “For in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist.” We would not exist without Christ; we certainly would not be saved or gifted for service in the Kingdom of God. No matter what we do, as individuals or as the Church together, is only done with Him as the center.

Paul writes, “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” He is our focus, the one thing we need wherever we go or whatever we do. With Him there is no reason for concern. Worry and fear comes when we turn our service inward and forget His presence in our lives.

With Christ comes a hope that reaches beyond the physical needs of our body. As we live in that hope, we are better able to discern the needs of those for whom we are sent to serve. There are indeed a great many people who need us to serve them food, to offer things through a food bank and provide other necessities for their physical well being. However, those people who need food for their bellies and clothes for their backs also need the hope that reaches beyond this world. They need Jesus. If we don’t have Him in our ministry with us, how will they ever see Him for themselves?

The point of listening to Jesus is so that His message is written on our hearts and in our minds so we can share it with others. We become a servant to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not to the people whose needs we are meeting in our ministry. Paul writes of his own commission to share the Gospel. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church; whereof I was made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which was given me to you-ward, to fulfil the word of God, even the mystery which hath been hid for ages and generations: but now hath it been manifested to his saints, to whom God was pleased to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we proclaim, admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ; whereunto I labor also, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.”

In today’s Psalm, David asks, “Jehovah, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?” The answer given is that those who are righteous will dwell in God’s temple. There is a long list of things to do – walk blamelessly, speak the truth, keep from slanderous speech, care for neighbors, despise evil and honor the godly. The psalm ends, “He that doeth these things shall never be moved.” We look at this list and wonder how we could ever keep it all. The law is always a burden that we can’t keep, but there is hope for us.

Jesus has fulfilled all these things, and through Him we dwell with God in His sanctuary. When we keep Christ at the center of all things, including our ministries we claim are in His name, we remain in the hope that we have been given by grace through faith. Our hope is not found in our ability to keep our walk blameless, but it Christ’s mercy that makes it blameless before God. Our hope is not found in the successes of our dinner parties or our ministries to the poor, but in Jesus Christ.

With this week’s lessons we are called to become more aware of the presence of God. We are encouraged to listen to His voice and to pay attention to the lessons He has given. Mary had Jesus and she sat at His feet to hear the Gospel proclaimed to her despite the fact that she did not fit into the mould of a disciple. We don’t have Jesus physically present so that we might listen to Him personally tell the stories that build our faith, but we do have Him in our hearts and in our Bibles.

Martha and Mary show us the two sides of the balance. We can’t work without hearing God’s voice and we can’t hear God’s voice without it leading to our lives of service. Both are necessary to a vital and full Christian life. In this life of faith lived in the hope of Christ, we will not be worried or fearful, but will go to do His work in joy and peace. Thanks be to God.

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