Proper 11 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Have you ever had ‘one of those weeks?’ You know the kind I’m talking about, where everything goes a little south, where everything that can break does, and everyone seems to need something all at the same time? That’s the sort of week it’s been for me. This week we had the new printer delivered to the office, but of course it doesn’t quite work the same way as the old one. A few of our St. Andrew’s family are unwell or in the hospital so I want to get around and see them, and then people in need start calling the church looking for all sorts of things, even a ride to Yellville.
On Friday as Franny, Jeff, Annie and I stood in the kitchen here, prepping a stack of thirty onions, thirty bell peppers, about 7 bunches of celery, eighteen pounds of andouille sausage, and twenty five pounds of red beans for the Diversity Ball Fundraiser on Saturday night, I realized that I hadn’t really had any time to focus on preparing a sermon, or reflecting on the Gospel lesson for this week. Followed quickly by the realization that Saturday night, usually when I put my finishing touches on my sermon, I’d be at the event helping to serve the red beans and rice and supporting the Ozark Diversity Coalition’s annual fundraiser. I was so exasperated that all of these tasks had gotten in the way of my sermon preparation. Cooking, printer wrangling, juggling people in need. So when I finally sat down and reread and thought about our Gospel reading today, you can imagine I had to laugh a little bit.
Jesus arrives at this house of Mary and Martha, and is welcomed as a guest. Even today there are often cultural expectations with welcoming someone. Perhaps offering someone a glass of water or tea, or if they are staying with you, a meal. Jesus settles in, perhaps in something like a living room, and I suspect he has others with him. One of the house’s owners, Mary, stays near Jesus, sitting at his feet and listening to him teach. After awhile, Mary’s sister Martha, who has been toiling away probably in the kitchen working to prepare refreshments or a meal for these guests comes out and is just beside herself with all the work she’s been doing, and there is Mary hanging out with Jesus. Martha tells Jesus to send Mary back to work. Jesus replies, ‘Martha, you are worried by many things’.
One can certainly read this passage in a few ways. One such understanding would be that, as Mary (according to Jesus) has chosen the better path, then we are supposed to sit around listening to Jesus and not do any work. But that’s just not an interpretation that I can accept. I don’t think the Mary versus Martha debate has much to do with works in that way. What I see in this is that Martha’s exasperation and statement is truly where the problem resides. Martha says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Everything Martha has to say is about herself. She refers to herself three times in that statement to Jesus. So the question becomes whether her reason for hospitality is more about being loving to the guest or about making herself look good.
Perhaps instead Mary and Martha exemplify equally important sides of the same coin. Hospitality is important. Tending to those in need, welcoming the stranger, treating everyone as your neighbor are things Jesus teaches. These are important values of the Kingdom of God. Likewise is proclaiming the Good News of that Kingdom as it draws near. It is when we separate out the two activities, or lack one from the other where we find ourselves running down the wrong path. Cynthia Jarvis writes in her exposition of this passage that, “A church that has been led to be “worried and distracted by many things” inevitably will be a community that dwells in the shallows of frantic potlucks, anxious stewardship campaigns, and events designed simply to perpetuate the institution. Decisions will be made in meetings without a hint of God’s reign. Food and drink will appear at table without Christ being recognized in the breaking of bread. Social issues may be addressed, but the gospel is missed in acts that partake of politics as usual.”
Churches have to be especially careful that they do not turn into social clubs. We are here for a far greater, deeper purpose. We are here, as followers of Christ, to hear the word of God and to partake of the blessed sacrament. We are here to renew and refresh ourselves and to revitalize that call to go into the world and make disciples of all people. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t do good. Everything we do should be a reflection of the Kingdom of God. We don’t raise money for Kindness or Gamma House to make ourselves look better. We didn’t prepare the dinner for the Diversity Ball so we could get more people walking through these doors. We do these things because it is our duty as followers of Christ to help those in need. It doesn’t come with any strings attached, it doesn’t make us more saved. We should be a little bit Mary and a little bit Martha.
Sometimes people’s gifts lean them one way or another. Some people are better at cooking red beans and rice for 150 people, some are better at managing the facility and keeping an eye on those roofing nails, some are better at praying with those in their darkest hours. Some, like the Roman Catholic nuns arrested this last week for protesting the concentration camps are better at standing up to the Empire and calling out evil. Some are better at helping the vestry interpret the financial statements for the month. Every gift has its place. Every one of us is called to work for the Kingdom of God in word and deed. These two cannot be separated out without detriment to the other.
Above all that, first and foremost is our commitment and call to follow Christ. We are given clear instructions about what should matter and how we should live out that call. We cannot be anxious or overly focused on how our work plays out. What matters is that we put ourselves to the task. If our only focus is how well we play the host, then we forget why we are called and in whose name we serve to begin with. So find in yourself a bit of Mary and a bit of Martha. Remember to learn from Jesus, to listen to what he teaches, to let it really sink in. Remember also to do the work Christ calls us to, without expectation of reward. Otherwise, we run the risk of forgetting the One whom we have gathered to serve.