Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14)
Psalm 27:(1-6) 7-14
Colossians 1:21-29
Luke 10:38-42

When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; My heart said unto thee, Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek.

How do we respond to the presence of God and His Word?

Abraham and Sarah were semi-nomadic; they lived in temporary dwellings and moved with their livestock, spending limited time in one place during which they might plant and grow some crops. They were people of some means, large flocks and even servants, but they had no home except the tents they carried from place to place. This lifestyle was more common in Abraham’s day; it was a way of life that is different than what we experience today.

One thing that was vital was hospitality. The roads were dangerous, and there was not a McDonalds on every corner. Some travelers might go for days without being able to access fresh water or food. The nomads or semi-nomads settled, even briefly, in places where good water was available to take care of their own needs and the needs of their animals. Travelers passing by were always welcome into the camps, and received with grace and hospitality. As we read the text in today’s Old Testament lesson, we know that God was in their midst; this is said to be a pre-incarnation appearance of the Christ. We might think that this is why Abraham went over the top to welcome the guests. Yet, this is how he would have treated any passersby.

Would you go to such trouble if someone came knocking at your door?

I like to entertain. I like to plan and prepare for parties or smaller gatherings and I think I’m a pretty good hostess. No one leaves my home hungry; I usually have a refrigerator full of leftovers. They rarely leave empty-handed, as I usually have some sort of favor to give away and many are sent home with food. Overnight guests are greeted with a comfortable room and a vase full of fresh flowers. I go a little crazy getting things ready for my guests, but I try to do as much as possible before they arrive so that I can focus on them rather than on the task of serving them.

However, it is impossible to be ready for unexpected guests! I’m more than willing to receive those guests, but I’m not sure I’d be as good a hostess as Abraham was for these strangers. I don’t know if any of us would be. Are we ready to prepare a full meal if someone knocked on our door without notice? The meal Abraham served wasn’t whipped up in minutes. They killed a lamb; the process from field to table may have taken hours. I’m sure I wouldn’t roast a lamb for someone who drops by unexpectedly. I have to admit that sometimes I even forget to offer them a drink.

But it was second nature to the people in Abraham’s day. Abraham would not let the men leave until he served them a meal. Was it because he knew he was receiving the LORD? Perhaps, but I think he would have received any strangers with the same grace; and in his kindness, Abraham discovered that his guests were something special. I wonder how many times we miss the opportunities to serve the Lord because we don’t know how to handle the unexpected. Abraham received the LORD by offering his best.

Now, Sarah, might not have been quite so grace-filled. She made cakes just as Abraham asked, and probably did far more than that, and she was busy in the tent the whole time. We don’t see her in the presence of her guests. We have to remember that both Abraham and Sarah were quite old at this point, well beyond the normal lifespan of the time, and even old in our society. She was probably tired and she may have been depressed. After all, what did she have to show for her life? She had no children, no grandchildren. It is likely that the relationship between Hagar and Sarah was strained, and Ishmael’s presence was a constant reminder of her failure.

Though she was probably not invited to talk with the men, it seems odd that she never even greeted them. But she was aware of her guests, and worked to do her part to make them feel welcome. She made cakes and listened to the conversation from behind the tent flaps. The text reads, “And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent.” They were interested in Sarah, and knew she was in the camp. Perhaps they even knew why she was hiding.

“And he said, I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him.” How would you respond so something this ridiculous? I would definitely laugh out loud if someone came and told me I was pregnant. Though it is highly unlikely for me at this point, it is not biologically completely out of the question. I certainly hope it will it will be by the time I reach my late 80’s. Sarah responded to this ridiculous suggestion by “laughing within herself.” It was a private laugh, not one of joy or frivolity. It was a laugh of sadness and grief. She asked herself, “After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” It almost seemed cruel: after she went to all that trouble to serve the men, they responded by teasing her. She was so caught off guard by the LORD’s Word that she even denied laughing.

God’s Word is not cruel, but it doesn’t always make sense, and so we often receive it with skepticism and doubt. Sarah’s pain was so deep that she could not see that that Lord had come to reveal that she would see the promise of children fulfilled within the year. She laughed because it was unbelievable. She’d let go of the promise a long time ago. Sarah received the LORD with uncertainty and fear.

I wonder if Mary and Martha knew that Jesus was coming or if He dropped in unexpectedly. Martha, like Abraham, set out to prepare a feast for her guests. Like Sarah, she was busy in the kitchen; she was trying to meet the physical needs of a large crowd. She knew it was her responsibility to provide hospitality to those who came through her door, and she went right to work. It was a daunting task; if you have ever tried to cook for more than a dozen people, you know that it is hectic and exhausting. There are a million things to do, and it all would get done so much better if there were more hands in the kitchen.

But Mary found a spot at the feet of Jesus, listening to His stories and learning about the Kingdom of God. I can identify with Martha; I have had my own martyr moments. That’s what I call those times when it seems like I’m doing all the work and everyone around me is ignoring my cries for help. What I don’t realize that I don’t always ask for help. I get caught up in my aggravation and stress out over every little detail, convincing myself that if I don’t do it, it will never get done. At that point I have already convinced myself that it has to get done or the event won’t be perfect. That’s usually the problem: I put too much pressure on myself and worry about insignificant things. Did we really need to have hand-rolled scrolls with tiny bows for the program? Was it necessary for the green beans to be all the same length? Did I really need to change the color of the table linens because the flowers were a slight shade off?

(BTW, those weren’t real examples of stresses that I’ve experienced in the past, but I assure you that some of them have been as absurd.)

Martha was worried because she wanted everything to be perfect, and it seemed as though no one cared enough to help. Even Mary, who was jointly responsible for receiving Jesus, was ignoring her pleas for help. Did she really ask? Or did she grumble to herself in the kitchen until she was so angry that she took her problem to Jesus? She doesn’t ask Mary; she tells Jesus to command her to help.

I have been in many conversations about this text that inevitably ends up commiserating with Martha. We hostess types understand. We identify with her. We know that the work has to be done. One member of our study asked, “What would those men say if there was no food for dinner?” We laugh and we always focus on the reality that Martha must work if they will eat. But what I have noticed in this text is that Jesus doesn’t tell her she shouldn’t feed them, but that she shouldn’t worry about so many things. Jesus was happy to eat a few kernels of wheat walking through a field; He didn’t need a feast with ironed linens and favors. After all, He can do amazing things with a few loaves of bread and some fish.

“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.” Martha’s problem is not that she needs help. What she needs is peace. This is not a lesson to justify ignoring the needs of our guests; it is about setting the proper priorities. Martha was anxious and worried; Jesus welcomed her service but wished she would take time to enjoy her guests.

I think it is important to consider this, too. Many women, perhaps like Sarah, prefer to be in the kitchen. They feel needed there, and wanted. Martha lived in a time when women were not respected for their minds and were not encouraged to pursue intellectual discussions. The women knew the scriptures as it applied to their lives, and they were responsible for teaching their children, but they didn’t study the scriptures or talk about theological ideas. Now, Jesus had women among His disciples, so it was not that He pushed her into the kitchen. But there is a mindset, even today, that those conversations belong among the men and that women should just listen from a distance.

I once did a workshop for a women’s group about spiritual gifts. We did spiritual gifts assessments at the end of the workshop and many women were surprised to discover that they had gifts like evangelism, preaching and teaching. In the end, however, those women refused to see those gifts in their own lives. They believed they belong in the kitchen. “Hospitality is my gift,” they said.

It must have been difficult for Martha to see Mary so comfortable in the presence of those men, learning about God. Martha’s cry for help, “Bid her therefore that she help me,” is her response to her fear that Mary was putting her nose into business that should not have concerned her. But Jesus told Martha that it is ok. “Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Mary received the LORD with faith. Martha received Him with worry.

How do we receive the LORD when He comes into our presence? He doesn’t want us to hide in the kitchen, or worry that everything isn’t perfect. He wants us to give Him everything, including our time and our faith. He wants us to believe His Word and to live in His promises, knowing that He is faithful. We might identify with Sarah and Martha, responding to Him with fear and worry, but He wants us to be at peace. There will be times when we have to work hard to honor Him, but He wants us to live every moment with an attitude of peace. Even when things are hectic and out of control, peace will keep us focused on what really matters. It will help us let go of the things that really don’t matter so that we will provide for the needs of the world without fear or anger. Jesus doesn’t need us to serve Him. He wants us to enjoy Him.

All too often that is what happens to us. Every day we go out into the world in faith doing what God has called us to do: serve Him by loving our neighbor. However, sometimes our good works can become so self-centered because we think that we are the only ones who can accomplish the work. We set ourselves above those whom we are serving, acting as though the world would stop if we did not do our work. When we work with this attitude, however, we get burnt out and frustrated. We become distracted by the work, forgetting that God does not need us to do these things, forgetting that He comes to us with gifts so that we will take His grace into the world for His glory.

Jesus would have honored her servant heart if she had not been so worried and distracted about her work. He honored Mary not because she was particularly prayerful or studious, but because she had her eyes on Him. She recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and that He provides all that we need. 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.

Paul writes, “And you, being in time past alienated and enemies in your mind in your evil works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without blemish and unreproveable before him…” The reason many people avoid being in the presence of God is because they feel they are unworthy. They think that there is some reason that they do not belong there. Sarah hid in the tent because she was old and without hope. She worried that she was to blame for her barrenness. How could she ever show her face to the world?

Martha may not have felt herself to be unworthy to be with Jesus, but she saw her worth in her work. How could she stop serving and listen like Mary when there were still hungry people to feed and dishes to clean? We are all unworthy to be in God’s presence. We should all be afraid. But God invites us into His presence and has made us welcome by the blood of Jesus Christ. He makes us worthy by covering us with His righteousness. The promises and the lessons of Christ are given for all: men and women, Jew and Gentile, young and old. We are all invited to sit at the feet of Jesus so that we will become strong in faith and encouraged in our work. As we grow closer to Him, we will face all our days with peace.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Paul? The letter to the Colossians was written from prison. Paul was being persecuted for his faith and for his bold proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He speaks of suffering; there are few who have suffered as much for the Church as Paul. And yet he continued in the work of the Church because he faced the difficulty with an attitude of peace. He was happy to suffer if it meant that the Gospel would make a difference. Paul knew he was given a gift and a calling, and he was not only willing to do the work, but to be at peace in the good times as well as the bad times. He had his eyes on Jesus.

We have nothing to fear. We have no reason to worry. The world might be upside down. We might feel like we are doing everything alone. We might think that there’s too much to accomplish and not enough time to do so, but if we keep our eyes on Jesus we’ll find that we can accomplish everything He has ordained for us to do. See, with our eyes on Jesus, we’ll recognize what is important and what we can let go. With an attitude of peace we will know what really matters in every situation.

How do we respond to the presence of God and His Word?

God calls us to look to Him. The psalmist writes, “When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; My heart said unto thee, Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek.” Mary chose the good part. That doesn’t make Mary better than Martha; it simply means that Mary has found peace in the presence of God. She has work to do, too, but she’ll approach it without fear or worry because she’s spent time at the feet of Jesus.

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