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Sermon (7/18): Martha, Martha… Episcopalians, Episcopalians…

July 19, 2010

I think the story of Martha and Mary is very confusing—even, maybe, kind of annoying. Especially to us Episcopalians. After all, we have a way of getting awfully busy and involved in our tasks when we prepare for our Eucharistic meal every Sunday.

We don’t bake cakes and slaughter a calf, but we do carefully pour wine and count out wafers and wash our hands and set the table. And we do it all very carefully and seriously. Because as Episcopalians, the Eucharist is one of the primary ways we welcome God into our midst. And like Martha we want to do it as well as we can.

It’s part of our tradition. It’s part of our tradition to perform all those ritual actions with great precision. And we do so to help us more fully see and know God among us. Hard work, attention to detail, running about, busy-ness—as Episcopalians, all that stuff is important to our sense of our relationship with God, all that stuff is crucial to our sense of how we feel called to welcome God into our lives.

But in today’s Gospel story of Martha and Mary, I think Jesus is asking us to reconsider all that. When Jesus confronts Martha, he might as well be talking to all of us.

“Episcopalians, Episcopalians,” Jesus seems to say, “you are worried and distracted by many things—hymnals, prayer books, bulletins, lectionaries, when to stand, when to kneel, cruets, chalices, purificators, sanctus bells, candles, incense—but there is need of only one thing.”

 There is need of only one thing.

Would Jesus rather Martha not do any of the work she’s busy doing to serve him and take care of him? Would Jesus prefer us Episcopalians to become Quakers?

(click below for the complete sermon)

Today, we hear two stories about welcoming God into one’s home. They are stories about hospitality in general, about how we are called to extend hospitality to one another, but they are also stories about a more particular kind of hospitality, about how we are to receive God—God’s very self—into our lives.

 

So I think they are stories about more than hospitality. I think they are stories that get to the sacred heart of our relationship with God.

 

First we hear of Abraham and Sarah, who glimpse the Lord amidst three strangers standing outside their tent. Upon seeing these three Godly men, we are told that Abraham runs to meet them and then makes himself very busy welcoming them. Abraham brings water for them to wash their feet. Then he instructs Sarah to take flour and make cakes for the men. We are told that Abraham again “ran” to his herd of cattle, chose a calf and gave it to one of his servants to prepare for dinner for the three strangers. And meanwhile, Abraham also gathers up cheese and milk to serve to the men together with the cakes and the meat of the calf.

 

Finally, Abraham does not sit down and join his guests for dinner. Instead, he stands attentively, off to the side, awaiting any requests or instructions, should his guests need anything more from him.

 

The story ends with the three men predicting that Abraham and Sarah will have a baby, even in their old age. And that baby will of course be Isaac, who will in turn father Jacob, who will eventually be called Israel and have 12 sons, who will become the 12 tribes of Israel.

 

So there is a sense that Abraham and Sarah have done well in the way they have busily received these three men, that they have found favor with God because of the way they received God into their home.

 

Now compare that to today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, the story of Jesus visiting the home of two sisters named Mary and Martha. In this story, we are told that Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to what he is saying. But that Martha is famously distracted by her many tasks. And when Martha gets annoyed with Mary for just sitting there and doing nothing and listening to Jesus, she complains and asks Jesus to tell Mary what-for. But Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

So in the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three Godly strangers, we see busy-ness and hard-work upheld as important and good when it comes to welcoming God into our lives. Abraham and Sarah do not sit at the feet of the Godly strangers and listen to them talk. They actually run about—our translation uses the word “ran” two times and “hastened” another two times—preparing and serving food and bringing water for washing and so on and so forth.

 

I assume that Martha was busying herself in much the same way when Jesus visited her, bringing water for Jesus to wash his feet, preparing food and drink for his meal and so on. But Jesus doesn’t reward her or complement her for that. Instead he says her work is of little value compared to what Mary is doing—just sitting there, listening.

 

I think this story of Martha and Mary is very confusing—even, maybe, kind of annoying. Especially to us Episcopalians. After all, in a little while, we’re going to start busying ourselves to prepare for our Eucharistic meal. We’re not going to bake cakes and slaughter a calf, but we are going to carefully pour wine and count out wafers and wash our hands and set the table. And we’re going to do it all very carefully and seriously. Because as Episcopalians, the Eucharist is one of the primary ways we welcome God into our midst. And like Abraham and like Martha we want to do it as well as we can.

 

It’s part of our tradition to perform all those ritual actions with great precision. And we do so to help us more fully see and know God among us. Hard work, attention to detail, running about, busyness—as Episcopalians, all that stuff is important to our sense of our relationship with God, all that stuff is crucial to our sense of how we feel called to welcome God into our midst.

 

But in today’s Gospel story, I think Jesus is asking us to reconsider all that. When Jesus confronts Martha, he might as well be talking to all of us. “Episcopalians, Episcopalians,” Jesus seems to say, “you are worried and distracted by many things—hymnals, prayer books, bulletins, lectionaries, when to stand, when to kneel, cruets, chalices, purificators, sanctus bells, candles, incense—but there is need of only one thing.”

 

There is need of only one thing.

 

Would Jesus rather Martha not do any of the work she’s busy doing to serve him and take care of him? Would Jesus prefer us Episcopalians all to become Quakers?

 

I don’t really think so, but I do think there’s something lurking in this story that we’d do well to think about.

 

The Episcopalian writer William Stringfellow is a favorite of mine. And he has written very forcefully about what he calls “religion” in contrast to what he calls “the Gospel.” Religions, according to Stringfellow, include all manner of Christian denominations, including, of course, his own denomination, the Episcopal Church. And Stringfellow holds those in stark contrast to what he calls the Gospel. Because for Stringfellow, the Gospel is the true message of our scriptures, the true message of Jesus for all of humanity.

 

On the surface of things, all Christian denominations, according to Stringfellow, tend to “consider religion as the human quest for God. All religions,” he writes,” have confidence in the capacity of people, or, at least, some people, to breach the mystery of God. All emphasize human initiative in establishing relationship with divinity.”

 

But, says Stringfellow, in constrast to this, “the theme of the Gospel from the first moment of the Fall is God in search of humanity. The emphasis [of the Gospel] is upon the initiative God takes toward humanity in the world. God volunteers relationship with humanity. God gives God’s self for all humankind. What people may know of God is only that which God discloses for people to know.” What people may experience of God is only that which God offers to people to experience.

 

And thus faith is not something each of us somehow acquires. Faith is a gift. A gift of God, not something that can be earned by our own hard work, our own busy-ness. As Stringfellow puts it, “faith is that most peculiar gift of God acting in this world which is offered to every human… No person may receive that gift who supposes it is, in any sense, deserved.”

 

“No person may receive that gift, the gift of faith, from God, who supposes that it is, in any sense, deserved.”

 

So I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with Martha’s busy-ness, our own peculiar Episcopalian busy-ness, nor Abraham and Sarah’s busy-ness as we all welcome God into our midst. The problem, the trap, is to believe that all that work, all that busy-ness somehow earns for us God’s favor. The mistake is in assuming that God somehow grants us more love and care because of all that hard-work, because of all that busy-ness.

 

After all, do you remember what prompts Jesus to make his famous statement to Martha about being “worried and distracted by many things,” when “there is need of only one thing”? Jesus is responding to Martha’s irritation with her sister, Mary. When Martha asks Jesus to rebuke Mary for just sitting there, Martha seems to expect Jesus to play favorites. But God does not play favorites. No matter what, God does not play favorites.

 

God does not love and care for priests and deacons and altar servers and choir members anymore than God loves and cares for anyone else. God does not love and care for weekly church-goers anymore than God loves and cares for those who only come on Christmas and Easter. God does not love and care for Christians anymore than God loves and cares for all people.

 

As Episcopalians, we see it as helpful to attend church, to participate in worship services, to go to Christian adult education classes, to have our children attend Sunday School. And so on. And there is nothing wrong with any of that. Jesus just wants us to remember that in the eyes of God, all that work doesn’t make us any better, any more worthy of God’s love and care than anyone else.

 

As Jesus says, we are “in need of only one thing”—and I think the one thing he is talking about is faith. And faith is a gift, a free and unearned gift from God by which we see and feel and taste and know that life is good, that death is merely a part of life, not the end of life. Faith is the knowledge that we have been fashioned and placed on this planet to experience wonder, love and joy.

 

As William Stringfellow puts it, to live the Gospel life, all we need to do is “enjoy God’s presence here and now, whatever the circumstances.”

 

“Enjoy God’s presence here and now, whatever the circumstances.” I think that is what Mary was doing in today’s reading from Luke. And Martha, meanwhile, in her busyness and in her annoyance with Martha, was failing to enjoy God’s presence.

 

As we prepare to share in our Eucharistic feast and as we go about our busy lives outside the walls of this church, let’s try to make sure that our busyness, our hard work is not something we are doing to establish our worthiness before God. Because God gives us love and care regardless of anything we might do to earn those gifts.

 

So let’s celebrate! Let’s celebrate the Eucharist, as an expression of our enjoyment of God’s presence, right here and right now.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzie Babcock permalink
    July 22, 2010 4:40 pm

    Blog is a great idea and a good way to keep Sunday’s sermon alive during the week. Am now going to Google Stringfellow! A list of inspirational books, submitted by clergy and/or members of the congregation might be nice. Well done!

  2. Suzie Babcock permalink
    July 22, 2010 4:41 pm

    What on earth is moderation?

    • jamiemcelroy permalink*
      July 22, 2010 5:00 pm

      I need to change the blog settings so that comments get posted without need for “approval.” Thanks for posting! – Jamie

  3. Michael Cassels permalink
    July 22, 2010 7:11 pm

    Moderation can be a good thing. Then again, life is short.

    I also checked out (in a literal sense) Stringfellow. The St Pete library has three or four books in its collection. For those who want easy library access it’s available online. You can order books, CDs, movies and have them sent to your branch (Mirror Lake, for example). Amazon has a selection of Stringfellow’s books. And he’s on Wikipedia.

    The blog is a good way to follow up on sermon references. Some of Benhase’s sermons are available online. And I’m waiting for Mickey Rouke and Marisa Tomei to come over and party.

  4. Suzie Babcock permalink
    July 22, 2010 9:59 pm

    Wow! This is fun. Who knew? And at Mirror Lake Library, when your book is in you can go to drive up window to pick it up.

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