The Gospel lesson from Luke this week is remarkably well known. I say that because the passage is only five verses long, and it is only related to us by Luke. The other three Gospel writers do not include this scene in their books. Usually, when people talk about the passage, it is in light of one of two perspectives. There is the perspective of Martha. She is dutifully playing the role of hostess, just as her society would have expected. She complains to Jesus that Mary is not following societal norms, expecting Him to side with her and order Mary to get to work. There is also the perspective of Mary. Mary has been afforded the longed-for opportunity to meet the messiah of God. Rather than fulfill her duties as a hostess, she chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him. And let’s face it, the most important thing we can do each day, as one of His disciples, is to worship and pray and learn from Him!
Now, my guess is that a lot of your friends who go to church will hear a sermon on either one of these perspectives or on the “appropriate role of women” in the church. I won’t waste time on that latter possible sermon because we have far too many women and men who have figured out one of the underlying themes of Jesus’ teaching in this passage. We live in an age where our church, and some in the wider Church, celebrates that both men and women have roles to play in the building up of the kingdom of God. I am not naive about the fact that the role of women is limited in some denominational expressions of our faith, but my job is not to exhort or to afflict or to comfort them. It is my job to encourage, to afflict, and to comfort you, however.
The low hanging fruit of that affliction side of preaching would have been the perspective of Mary. Mary sets a wonderful example for us that the worship and learning from the Lord is our most important duty as Christians. If anything else holds priority in our lives instead of God, then we are, indeed, falling short in our Christian duty. But such a sermon would have been literally preaching to the choir. Most of us gathered here this morning understand that call and its proper priority in our lives. How do I know? We are celebrating a combined Rite One service this week with no music. Is there anything less appealing to the normal 10:15am crowd? But why do I say most? It is entirely possible that one or two of us just stumbled in here or just got dragged here by a loved one. It is possible that one or two of us have lost our motivation or joy to worship God. It is entirely possible that one or two of us have given other parts of our life priority over God. And if we have, we need to repent and get our priority straight.
But for those of us here, I felt a bit more called to talk of another part of this passage and some of the preaching that flows from it. The passage occurs in Luke as Luke is teaching us about discipleship. We just read about how our relationship with God through Christ ought to inform our relationships with others, especially our neighbors. Now we get this section. Next week, at least I hope so but confess I did not read ahead, we will learn how to we are to converse with our Father in heaven. Discipleship is presented in these three settings as a bit of a balancing act. Our relationship with God must be our priority, but from that relationship flows our willingness and effectiveness in serving others in His name and our confidence to entreat Him to listen to us as we make intercessions. Notice how Jesus does not condemn Martha for her ministry of hospitality. Jesus does not say that her service is unimportant. He does gently chide her that Mary has chose the better part, but that does not make her part bad, only less good. The fact is a lot of our ministry can be a difficult experience in prioritization. Although we are being transformed to see as He would have us see, to hear as He would have us hear, and to love as He would have us love, we are not yet entirely the new creation that we will one day be. We still sin and we still make mistakes when we try and discern His will for our lives. The trick is trying to figure out when we are wrong and need to re-prioritize and when we are correct. The hard part is our efforts not to judge the ministries of others or ourselves as being significant or a waste.
What do I mean by that? An easy example that fits today’s reading will be our upcoming celebration of the lives of Bob & Mary Lea. Most of us will gather in hear to thank God for the being the Good Shepherd who leads us through the valley of death to His presence. We will remind ourselves of His promises both in the readings for that day and in the songs that we sing. Most of us will still mourn their passing, especially their family and close friends, but most of us will be comforted by the Holy Spirit in the fact that we can sing an alleluia at their grave, knowing that one day we will be re-united with them for all eternity.
Yet in the midst of that service, some will have other duties and ministries. Some will have been worried about the altar and the service itself. Their efforts will result, hopefully, in us meeting God and being comforted in His presence. Still others will have been about the business of hospitality, setting the tables and warming the food for the reception afterwards. Whose ministry is most important? Clearly, those who help make it possible for others to be reminded of God’s presence in their loss. Whose ministry is good? They all are. Combined together, we hope that such an event affords us an opportunity to grieve their passing, to reflect on our own future passing, and to be reminded of His promises to all who call upon His name. Given that ultimate goal, is the ministry of all the “Martha’s” in our midst any less significant that the ministries of the “Mary’s” in our life together? Of course not. So long as each is called to the task which he or she has chosen, all are important, all are significant, and all are blessed by God. Buried in this short story of only five verses is an example of the Church, the Body of Christ, functioning well. Martha’s hospitality makes it possible for the other disciples to soak up the teaching of the Lord Christ. Her only fault is assuming that Mary’s choice was somehow wrong.
I have come to recognize in my seven years here that we often emulate that fault. We emulate that fault, however, in the estimation or valuation of our own ministries rather than that of the others in our lives. What do I mean? If I had a dollar for every time one of you said to me “I just ________”. Many of you around here are amazing to me at how little you value your ministries. I just give faithfully, Father; I don’t really engage in ministry. I just pray, Father; I don’t really do much ministry. I just (fill in your blank). We are absolute professionals when it comes to disparaging our own ministries compared to others.
A great example is the Community Meal. For 47 years, you as a congregation have been committed to feeding the homeless and hobos and hungry in our community a sit down meal. Each month, the coordinators choose a meal or a theme and then recruit people to make it happen. Most months there are at least three entrees, a couple vegetables, a couple other items, dessert, bread, and drink. If that’s all we had to do, that is about a dozen contributors. But we also serve. We need people to spoon out the food and people to pour the drinks. Oops. Now we are up to about 20 people contributing to the ministry. Ooops. Wait! We forgot that not all of us are blessed with the resources to make the extra food required, and we forgot that not everybody has the time to prepare an extra item during the busy work week. That’s right, some people contribute funds. Those funds are used to buy stuff for others to cook or others to serve, like chocolate milk. This is a very simple ministry in one sense. We are feeding the hungry. But whose ministry is the most important? Mine? Who would come and think to ask me whatever questions about God they might have were we not feeding them? Is it the the servers’? If there was nothing prepared, what would they serve? The coordinators? If we did not contribute funds, prepare the food, buy the drinks, and serve the food & drinks, would their coordination mean anything? You get the picture? Even something as silly as the fluff each month is of incredible worth to those who are eating. Pauline is great at making fun of that “easy to do” dessert. Can I tell you how many oohs and ahhs I have heard over the years thankful for the dessert that “mom used to make” or “grandma used to make.” To Pauline it might not be a big deal. To the one enjoying the food, it might remind them of sown seeds in their life, of one who may have loved them dearly, providing me or others who serve drinks an opportunity to remind them of God’s love for them as well.
Discipleship, good discipleship, is very much like that meal at its very best. Without each person doing their part, the meal is diminished. True, the hungry will appreciate whatever we do, but we know better. We know what God has called us to do. We know that the meal we provide is meant to be the barest, absolute almost shadowiest reflection of the feast hosted by our Lord. The same is true of all our ministries. Nearly everything that we undertake in His name involves the Body working together. Nearly everything we undertake in His name involves the Body picking up various tasks and doing them to the best of everyone’s ability. And that brings us back to our passage. Martha was spending time worried about what Mary was doing. How often do we do that ourselves? How often do we waste time evaluating the ministry of others or of ourselves relative to that of others? How much more effective could we be, could this body of believers at St. Alban’s be if we spent more time prioritizing God in our lives and discerning our walk with Him in prayer and conversation? We do amazing ministry, to be sure, but how much more amazing could our ministries be if we took the individual responsibility of prioritizing God in our lives and prayerfully evaluating His call on each of our lives? How many more people would be drawn into that right relationship with God through Christ if we modeled the behavior He teaches in this passage? And how many more Martha’s and Mary’s would feel like their efforts and ministries had meaning?
So, what if you have experienced that spiritual wedgie this morning? What if you know realize that part of this reading was for you? What do you do? As always, the solution is simple. Confess your sins and ask God for the grace to hear His call on your life. He died even for these sins. If you have been a Martha, repent and give thanks to and for the Mary’s in your life. If you are a Mary but have taken the Martha’s in your life for granted, repent and give thanks to and for the Martha’s who have made your ministry possible. And, just as importantly, ask God for the grace to keep Him as the priority in your life. The more you are able to focus your life on Him, the greater your impact will be on the lives of others and the more fulfilled you will be.