Sunday, Sunday, July 22, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 16
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.

It is worth noting that July 22nd is the feast day for St. Mary Magdalene. This is one of the lesser feasts that are less likely to be celebrated in most churches. Though the official date of Mary's death is not known, the feast day is celebrated in relation to the date of death, for it is the day the saint is said to have entered into eternal life. The legends involving Mary's later years are many, so it is difficult for us to really know where or when she died. Many believe that she retired to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus and died there. They say her bones were moved to Constantinople in 886. Others think that Mary, along with Lazarus and some other companions went to France to escape persecution in Jerusalem. Mary is said to have retired to a life of penance in a cave for thirty years. The location of her relics is the source of controversy and legend.

For many generations, the feast day honored "Mary the Repentant." This was changed in the 1960's because some have suggested the reason for the title was mistaken. Pope Gregory I, in the sixth century, identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet. He also identified her with Mary of Bethany, one of the sisters in today's Gospel lesson.

This has been controversial for centuries. While some connections can be made between the three women, there is no direct evidence that they are all the same. There was a time when the term that is translated "Magdalene" for us today was thought to be a word meaning "curling hair." This reference to hair was understood to mean that she was a loose woman. Modern scholarship has suggested that Magdalene refers to her home town of Magdala, so the references to repentance have been removed from her feast day.

I prefer to not connect the three woman – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman – because I do not think there is enough biblical evidence to do so, but also because I prefer to let these three women stand on their own merit and to know them by their own unique relationship with Christ. This is not to say, however, that either Mary should not be considered pure and blameless – as many choose to do. Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany would not be upset to be known "a repentant one." They each recognized their need for Jesus and His grace.

It is worth noting Mary Magdalene today even if we do not celebrate the feast day because I think Mary Magdalene is an example of the best of both women found in today's story. We often read this text and immediately assume that Jesus is putting down Martha for being too busy. We also identify with her and recognize how we might slow down in our own lives. Yet, I do not think Jesus is putting down Martha's service. I also do not think that Jesus is honoring Mary's laziness. Jesus simply tells Martha that she worries too much and that Mary has chosen what is better.

What is it that Mary has chosen? This is has been the topic of many lengthy discussions. I was taken aback when I went to read the Gospel lesson for this week because I was shocked at its length. A mere five verses tell us this story of Mary and Martha. I think that we, especially women, add a great deal of detail to the story that is not there. We imagine Martha and her home, can see with our mind's eye the work she was doing. We can feel her frustration at Mary's laziness and the hectic pace she must have been working to feed not only the unexpected Jesus but also the crowd that undoubtedly followed Him to their home. We can identify with her as she answers the door, imagining her hands straightening the pictures on the wall and plumping the cushions on the couch as she led her guest into the home.

We should not assume that God negates her caring attitude and servant actions. After all, look at the story we hear in the Old Testament lesson. There Abraham is lounging beneath a tree near his tent wherever it was that he had settled his nomadic tribe for a time. Abraham was a man of great wealth, power and authority despite his nomadic existence. After all, kings honored him. He had servants and herds so large that even when divided they were vast. Yet, when strangers came to his tent, Abraham ran to greet them. He invited them to rest and to wash their feet. Then he ran to prepare a feast, first asking Sarah to use the finest supplies to make bread and then choosing a fine calf to roast. The preparation for this feast would have been lengthy – it takes hours to prepare a meal like the one he served.

Then, as they ate, Abraham stood nearby, as if waiting to serve their every need with just a word. Though the passage begins, "The LORD appeared to Abraham," it does not say that Abraham knew it was the LORD. Hospitality was the cultural norm of the day, but Abraham was more than hospitable. He was willingly and willfully humble before his guests, extremely generous with his resources and patient with their visit. When he saw the three men he ran to them, bowing down before them to honor their presence at his tent. He met their needs as any good host would do. Yet, he did not simply welcome then at his table. He gave them his table and waited on them as a servant.

By these actions we might assume that Abraham knew that it was the LORD, but I think Abraham done so for any visitor. It did not matter who they were – Abraham honored them because they were guests. The writer tells us that the LORD appeared to Abraham, but then goes on to say that Abraham saw three men. Human flesh can not see God. God must reveal Himself in some way so that He can be seen, or heard, or experienced with our senses. When He reveals Himself, what do we see? Abraham saw three men. Was this because God manifested Himself as three men? Or is it because Abraham saw God through his own eyes and experiences?

There are many interpretations of this encounter. Some have suggested that this is an Old Testament vision of the Trinity – that Abraham saw God in three persons. Others believe that this is a pre-incarnation visit of Christ who was accompanied by two angels. There are others who think that this story should be understood in more spiritual terms, not as three flesh and blood men but a vision or dream. Some interpretations have more credibility than others, but I think in the periscope we ought not consider who visited Abraham, but rather how he saw his visitors.

He saw three men. He saw strangers in need of food, drink and rest. He saw people due honor and respect, people whom he could serve. Isn't that what Martha saw? She knew the LORD was in her presence. She wanted to give Him rest, to feed His hunger, to satisfy His thirst. She wanted to willingly and willfully serve Him. The difference between Abraham and Martha is the attitude in which they served the Lord. Abraham went about his work as if it was a pleasure to serve, Martha was worried and distracted by the preparations.

Worry is a very self-centered attitude. Even if our worry is about someone else, it is self-centered. We worry because we are afraid. We get distracted because we are afraid. We are afraid that things will not go right, that our guests will not be satisfied. We are afraid that we'll make a bad impression. We get caught up in the preparations because we are afraid that we'll forget something.

Martha saw Jesus as someone to serve. While it might seem like she was humble before Jesus, she was seeing Him as someone in need. He needed her food. He needed her hospitality. He needed her to meet His needs. While Abraham made his visitors feel like they were doing him a favor by allowing him to serve them, Martha was clearly acting as if she was doing Jesus and his guests a favor by providing for their needs. Martha, like many people, missed the fact that God does not need anyone or anything we can give. God does not come to us because He needs us. We need Him, so He comes to us to give us what we need.

Mary recognized that Jesus had someone to give. Martha forgot that Jesus can feed thousands of people from just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish – and event that had happened less than a year before this encounter. Martha forgot that Jesus has the living water that quenches the real thirst in our bodies. Martha forgot that Jesus could cast out demons with just a word and could make miraculous things happen with just a word. She certainly had heard the stories. Perhaps she had even been present for some of them. When the Lord appeared to Martha, she did not see the Messiah – she saw a man who needed her gifts, talents and resources.

Mary saw something different. She saw the source of joy and peace. She saw the teacher who would give her hope. She saw God's grace and stopped for a moment to linger in His presence. She saw the Messiah, recognized her own need and received that which Jesus had to give.

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. Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene, recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and that He all that we need which He offers freely to those who keep their eyes on Him.

The Psalmist for this week writes, "O LORD, who may abide in your tent?" The psalmist then describes the life of a righteous man who is welcome to worship in the Temple of God. This psalm is a liturgy used at the beginning of worship at the Temple. These characteristics of the righteous man were the conditions of entering into the presence of God. They walk blamelessly, do what is right and speak the truth. They treat their neighbors with mercy and grace. They despise evil and honor what is good. They do not lie and keep their promises even if it might bring some harm to their own life. Those who do such things may dwell in the house of the Lord.

This doesn't seem too bad, and yet are any of us really worthy of abiding in the Tent of God? Are any of us really able to walk blamelessly? Haven't we all failed at some time in our life? Don't we all fail in some way every day? In the Lutheran liturgy, we confess that we have sinned against God by our thoughts, words and deeds by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Haven't we all, daily, left something undone? Haven't we forgotten to share a word of hope with our neighbor or given them a piece of the hope we have in Christ?

The psalmist writes, "He that doeth these things shall never be moved." I like the translation found in the New International Version. It says, "He who does these things will never be shaken." When we do the things mentioned in this psalm – walk righteously, do what is right, speak the truth, do not slander, do no evil, do not criticize our neighbor, despise wickedness and honor those who fear the Lord, who stand by their oath, do not lend with interest or take bribe – we do not have anything to fear. We won't suffer the consequences that come from unrighteous actions. We will be at peace.

I would like to think that I can be welcome in the house of the Lord, but quite frankly the words of my mouth are not always right and my actions are not always just. I take advantage of my neighbor and I do not always do what I should do for their sake. I do not always welcome the stranger into my home and I focus so much on the work that I forget the one for whom I have been called into service.

It is an incredibly exclusive group that is welcome in the tent of the LORD. As a matter of fact, I can only think of one who was truly righteous and that is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is the only one who will never be shaken, the only one who can dwell in the house of the Lord. That’s why we stand firmly on Christ Jesus. By His invitation we are welcome in the tabernacle and loved by the Lord. He makes us right with God and grants us the grace to enter into His presence. There, in Jesus Christ, we will find peace and dwell in the house of the Lord forever

Interestingly, we ask the question "Who may abide in your tent?" and yet the reality is that we can't by our own ability go to God. He comes to us, just like He went to Abraham's tent and Martha's home. He has no need of our hospitality, for everything we have is His. He comes to reveal Himself, to bring His grace into our lives.

We follow a God that is invisible. We believe in the Christ who is physically beyond our grasp. We can't really hear Him, as we might hear our neighbor and if we do the world considers us insane. We can't be entirely sure of our interpretation of the events and the words that have been given to us because we are biased by our own needs and desires. We "see" God through our own flesh and experiences. It is no wonder that so many people are atheist or agnostic. How can we be certain of something that we can't see? How can we trust someone that is invisible?

Yet, God has revealed Himself to us. Paul writes, "He is the image of the invisible God…" 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. Yet, we must remember at all times that God does not need us to do the work. He calls us to join with Him in humble service.

We become a servant to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not to the people whose needs we are meeting in our ministry. When we focus on the needs of our guests, we forget the One who has sent us into the world. When we focus on our worry and fear, we forget that God has taken us to dwell with Him in His tent and that He provides all that the world might need. Our humble works becomes self-centered and useless when we take our eyes off the Christ by whose grace we are saved and gifted for service.

That is the one thing that is needed, eyes that see the image of God in Christ Jesus. God has come to us. He has revealed Himself so that we might know and experience His grace. We can't chase after Him. We can't give Him anything He does not already have. He does not need us. He calls us to dwell in His tent, to share His grace and to live in the hope that keeps us from ever being shaken.

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