Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Better Part

Mary and Martha, He Qi (China), 2001.

Genesis 18: 1-10a; Luke 10: 38-42
First Congregational Church of ******

Each of us has in our memory someone who was the one who made everyone feel at home. It could be a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, or a family friend. I say these are women because usually they are. But they could also be men or couples—people who make it their mission to fill their homes with yummy smells, home-cooked food, comfortable places to sit, and the aura of conviviality, that of in the act of joining together for a meal, life and spirit are increased. In short, they are gifted in the art of hospitality.

Giving hospitality and serving others can often put the host of the party on the outside. It is difficult to be fully invested in the conversation while thinking about what needs to be done next or what had been forgotten. We can be so focused on the preparations for the meal that we forget the reason why we were cooking so hard in the first place: to welcome guests and to create a space where something special can happen. I know I can get a little testy myself when dinner is about to be served on a weeknight. I have given the five-minute warning and have called three times for everyone to come to the table; still there are times I am (or my husband and I) the only one standing by the plates on the counter, ready to take them to the table. I get frustrated when here I’ve spent all this time making this delicious dinner and there’s no one coming to eat it when it’s hot. I’m more focused on my efforts rather than on my family’s enjoyment of them.

Martha seems to be in a similar frame of mind in this morning’s gospel lesson. Now we’ve all probably heard this story before. Those of us who are like Martha (Martha Stewart notwithstanding) feel rather singled out as being obsessive-compulsive. Those of us who are like Mary know that we really should get up and help, but God love him, we have Jesus on our side. This story is not intended to be a judgment tale but one of the nature of God in the person of Jesus and how he relates to us. In this story Jesus is pulling the focus off of us and onto him.

In a way Martha reminds us of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, or of the early workers in the vineyard who got paid the same amount as those hired at the end of the day. “Hey,” they say, “I’ve been here all day, I’ve been here all my life, I’ve been in the kitchen all day, I’ve done what I’ve supposed to, and this brother, this sister, this Johnny-come-lately gets all the goodies?! Why, God?” Those of us who are older brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, long-time employees or church members, we hear ourselves in those words of justifiable complaint and resentment.

Let us remember though what the “goodies” are: forgiveness, love, compassion, and in this Scripture lesson, Jesus and the gospel. It’s not Mary’s behavior that Jesus justifies; it is himself. In Eugene H. Peterson’s paraphrase The Message, Jesus says: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

Jesus isn’t only the better part but the main course, one part of an entire meal. The point here is balance rather than judgment or which way is better. We need to balance our Christian doing with Christian being. We need to learn again and again from Jesus and the gospel what it means to be loving, forgiving, and compassionate so that we are strengthened in our service to others.

In Giuseppe Belli’s 19th century sonnet about Martha and Mary, Martha snaps back at Jesus after he tells her that Mary’s choice is more important: “So says you, but I know better. Listen, if I sat around on my salvation the way she does, who’d keep this house together?” Those of us who are like Martha might be chuckling to ourselves at the sound of this. She’s right; we can’t just sit on our salvation. We have to get up at some point and do what is necessary.

In our society, though, get up and do is more than it used to be. We are overwhelmed with choices as to what we can do in a brief 24-hr. period. Work (including commute time), pick up dry cleaning, drive children to and fro, take the dog to the vet, take an exercise class, go grocery shopping, cook dinner, weed the garden, mow the lawn, fix that hanging gutter, read the paper, check e-mail, open the snail mail, call the doctor to make an appointment, call the pharmacy to renew a prescription, volunteer at church, at the hospital, at the local food pantry, at the senior center, and on and on. Oh, and eat three meals and sleep. In recent years it has been suggested that married couples schedule a night for sex because otherwise it might get forgotten in the midst of all this doing. We even have to schedule church because of Sunday morning sports and the need to have just one day to sleep in and spend the day with family. While resting and being with family is in keeping with the biblical understanding of Sabbath, when we miss worship, we miss the opportunity to rest at the feet of Jesus in the company of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

A few years back my home church had its very first adult mission trip. Six of us traveled to Pipestem, West Virginia to work for a week at the Appalachian South Folk Life Center. We were sent to Miss Margaret’s house that needed scraping and painting, a new set of stairs and stoop at her back door, and a new tarpaper roof on her garage. The first day we started it was about 85 degrees. The air was also a bit thinner at about 3000 feet above sea level, and I had forgotten that I need time to adjust to it. I wound up on the ground under a tree trying to slow my breathing. After resting for a while I was feeling rather useless and somewhat guilty because of it. I should be up and doing. But we weren’t there just to slap on some paint and then go home. So I went over to where Miss Margaret was sitting and sat with her and listened to her tell stories about her family and the places where she lived.

I could have just stayed under that tree. But then I would have missed out on the main course: what Jesus had to teach me through Miss Margaret. In the story about Abraham, Sarah, and the visitors, Abraham could have served his guests the best that he had and then left them alone, but he stayed while they ate and heard the better part, that he and Sarah would have a son. With God’s commandments, as in “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”, there comes a promise. Obey the Sabbath, worship the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall be rooted in Christ and thus be more able to serve, to love, to forgive, to be compassionate, to serve your neighbor and the stranger.

I once saw a poster in an elementary school that read, “The more you read, the more you know; the more you know, the smarter you grow; the smarter you grow, the stronger your voice when speaking your mind or making your choice.” The more we spend time with Jesus in the company of one another, the more we know about love, forgiveness, compassion. The more we know of these things, the more we will become these things. The more we become these things, the stronger our voices will become when speaking our minds or making our choices, especially the choices about how we spend our time and what kind of people we will be, what kind of church we will be. Jesus is the main course of our lives and won’t be taken from us if we would but choose it above all else.

Not only can we choose to sit with Jesus but the wonderful thing is that Jesus chooses to sit with us. Jesus chooses to sit and listen to what we have to say or not. When we have suffered long enough under the oppressor’s voice of perfectionism, of having to do in order to be worthy, Jesus grants us permission to just sit and be with him, to unload our guilty burdens, and leave the chaos alone for a little while. It isn’t going anywhere. But for the time being, neither is Jesus. He stays with us until we have what we need from him.

So, First Congregational Church of ******, who are the people ‘behind-the-scenes’ in this church, who make much of its ministry, including hospitality, possible? What are some ways of being hospitable as a church that you would like to see develop here at 1st Church? What kinds of hands-on mission would spark your interest and your participation? What do you feel you would need, both as a church and as faithful persons, to be able to engage in mission activity? When was the last time you spent some time in quiet with your Bible, learning at the feet of Jesus? In what ways do you as church and as Christians need to have the focus pulled off you and put onto Jesus? What helps you to feel peaceful, open, and loving? What makes it difficult to slow down? And if you are slowing down, whether by choice or not, how does that feel to you? How could your relationship with God and with each other help you?

We who have been tempted to think we must do in order to secure our salvation and that of the world have been reminded by Jesus that he is the One who saves. We join in his work and ministry as his Body but the Body needs nourishment in order to serve. Jesus is the host of this holy banquet who has become the main course. In the words of the theologian Gerhard Forde to his students, “What are you going to do, now that you don’t have to do anything?” Now that we do not have to serve and work in order to be considered good and worthy, we are free; free to not be frantic, frustrated, or resentful. We are free to worship, to praise, to give thanks, to receive what we need in order to serve what is needful. And what is needful? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Amen.

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