The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 10:38-42

This was no ordinary house guest that had arrived unexpectedly for dinner. This was Jesus, whom Mary and Martha recognized not only as their friend but as their Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God. If there were ever any doubts in their minds concerning the true identity of Jesus, those doubts had vanished when Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead.

No wonder, then, that Martha was a little anxious – distracted with her hostess duties. She wanted everything to be right. So, with sweat beading on her brow and flour all over her apron, she busied herself watching over the casseroles in the oven and the lamb on the grill. She counted and recounted disciples to make sure she had enough. She watched as the guests raised their glasses, and before they had a chance to call out for more, Martha was there with her wine flask, refilling their cups. She just wanted everything to be right.

All the while, as she hustled back and forth, keeping an eye on every detail, Martha kept her other eye focused squarely on her sister, sitting there coolly at Jesus’ feet, soaking up every word and never lifting a finger to help out in the kitchen. Finally, after several failed attempts through body language and disgusted stares to get either Mary’s or Jesus’ attention, Martha
comes to Jesus to voice her concern: “Lord,” she says, “in case you haven’t noticed, I’m doing all the work here while my sister sits on her duff. Tell her to get up and help me.” But, instead of scolding Mary, it is Martha whom Jesus gently rebukes. He tells her that she worries too much, that she is distracted by too many things when there is need of only one thing: Hospitality. “And by her presence and availability to me,” he says, “your sister Mary has chosen the better part.”

It seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? It seems a bit unfair and unkind of Jesus to say such a thing to Martha. After all, her service and activities were borne out of friendship and love for Jesus. She recognized the importance of this man in her life, and she wanted to respond in a way that would leave no doubt that her loyalty and her servanthood belonged to Jesus.

Mary, she thought, was being both selfish and negligent.
But, Martha, consumed by her anxiety over the occasion, failed to see her own pride in wanting to put on the perfect dinner party. She was blinded to the most important quality of both hospitality and servanthood: Availability; being present with God and with one another; to listen and then to respond; to give and receive comfort; to equip oneself for the work one is given to do. Mary had chosen the better part.
Jesus rebukes Martha, not for her service, but for fussing and fretting over details. For spending too much time with elaborate preparations and not enough time participating in the event itself. Mary has chosen more wisely than her sister
because she took the time to “be” with Jesus. Martha, on the other hand, in her busyness and zeal to “do” for Jesus, lets the opportunity to “be” with Jesus slip away.

Luke is the only one of the gospelers to report this story of Martha and Mary. And, it’s interesting to note where he places it in the text. It comes immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan; and just before the account of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray. On the one hand, a story of ministry in action – of doing; on the other, a story of prayer and contemplation – of “being” with God.

It would be a wrong assumption to believe that Luke’s or Jesus’ intention in this story of Mary and Martha is to exalt the life of prayer and contemplation over the life of active service and ministry. Both are equally important, and, in fact, both are essential if we are to truly live our lives as witnesses and examples of Christ.

But the prayer life, our contemplation, our being attentive to, available to, our being present with God must come first. For until we take the time to hear God’s Word, until we have some understanding of God’s will for our lives, there’s no way we can be about the “doing” of God’s work in the world.

That’s why coming to church is so important. We come here to collect ourselves, to focus to center ourselves completely on our relationship with God. It is here that we come to worship together and to receive Jesus Christ as our guest. We act as his hosts when we open our hearts to him through prayer and praise and sacrament.

I often think of church or corporate worship as a kind of “filling station” for souls. That analogy always displeased my theology professor, but I continued to use it and still do because, in my own experience with church, the analogy seems to fit very well.

It is her, in this place, that we come to be renewed, refreshed, revitalized for our ministry. It’s here that we come for our sustenance, to receive and be fed with the word of God, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus Christ; to strengthen one another through love and fellowship

in the name of Christ. It fills us up – enables us – to go from here to do the work we have been called to do – to be Christ in service to others.
–And when we don’t come to church, we miss that. It affects us. Spiritually, we kind of run out of gas, don’t we? I do.

A couple of years ago, when we were on vacation, we went to an 8 A.M. Baptist Church service. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Baptist Church, but it’s not what I’m used to, anymore. At an 8 A.M. Baptist service, there’s no communion, no music. About all we got was a 10 minute greeting and a 30 minute sermon & that was it. Later, on another vacation, when we were in Florida, we didn’t go to church at all – on purpose! In both cases, the whole next week, I kind of felt like I was running on two cylinders –running on empty, and I couldn’t wait for the next Sunday to come. I need this.–We need this, I’ll argue, if we’re going to be effective in our Christian ministry.

Each week (after we’ve come here and after we’ve been “refilled”), the last charge we are given before we leave is to go . . .; to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord;” –to “go
forth in the name of Christ;” –to “go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit;” But go! Go – out there – beyond those doors. Because, once we’ve been filled, that is where our service to God and God’s people lies.

But, it has to begin here. It has to. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried it both ways. I used to think that church – corporate worship – wasn’t all that important in my relationship with God.
Now, I know that it’s absolutely essential. Communion, community, worship, prayer and contemplation are the motivation for the everyday service and ministry we undertake.

The first commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart. It’s that love for God that empowers us also to love our neighbors. But we can’t love God in the abstract. Again and again, we must find ourselves sitting and listening at our Lord’s feet. The precepts of the Church can set guidelines for our behavior; the Creed, and the theological definitions drawn from it, will show us the direction in which our understanding of God must go. But it’s only in the time that we ourselves spend with Jesus, pouring out our hearts before him and listening attentively as he makes himself known to us and fills us back up, it’s only in the time spent with the Son that we will come to know the Father more truly and experience the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then, the divine presence within us will not merely prompt us to a life of self-giving service, but will so guide that service that it will glorify God and truly benefit the people to whom it is offered.

We are called to a life of worship as well as practical service.
May the Christ who knew and loved Mary and Martha show us the way of balance.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.