July 17, 2022, Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Giving Christ His Due"

Jul 17th  |  Rev. Wendy VanderZee |  Luke 10:38-42

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   Steve Goodier tells the story of a young ensign who had nearly completed his first overseas tour of duty when he was given the opportunity for the first time to prepare his ship to "set sail." With a stream of crisp commands, he had the decks buzzing with sailors all doing their assigned duties, the engines were fully engaged, and soon the ship churned slowly out of the channel.

   The ensign’s efficiency was remarkable. In fact, the talk was that he had set a record for getting the ship underway. High-fives were celebrated all around.  A considerable achievement, indeed.

   But his captain was not as pleased. A message delivered to the young officer read, "My personal congratulations upon completing your underway preparation exercise according to the book and with amazing speed. But next time, you might wait until your captain is aboard before setting off." (Cf. Steve Goodier, First Things First, 2012)

   What good is a ship without the captain? The ensign did all the right things, but he never did the most important thing. The captain of the ship was not given his due.

 

   When Jesus decided to drop in on his good friends, Martha and her sister Mary, Martha’s first impulse was to hit the kitchen, dig up her most popular recipe and put a meal together for their guests. In doing this she was faithful to an ancient Hebrew tradition of hospitality begun long ago by Sarah, when Abraham invited three rather peculiar guests to his tent with an important message. Just as Abraham turned to Sarah to assist in the duties of hospitality, Martha expected Mary to help do the same. Those expectations did not include Mary plopping down at Jesus feet taking in his every word, and letting Martha do all the work.

   But that’s exactly what Mary did. Martha didn’t like it at all, so she let Jesus know about it. In so doing she never did the most important thing. Mary received Jesus’ commendation, but more importantly, she benefited from his spiritual teaching.

   That’s the gist of the story, but there is a lot going on here than what first meets the eye. In preparing a meal, Martha fulfills her socially mandated role. But Mary, in assuming the role of a student sitting at the feet of her teacher, challenges some socially prescribed rules and boundaries.

 

   Most biblical scholars believe that Mary doesn’t co-own the home with Martha and is portrayed as the lesser sister. It’s apparent that Martha, who owns the home, is in charge and tells Mary what to do. In other words, in all rights, Martha is doing what Mary is supposed to be doing!

   Mary has no power in her society and no voice. Then here comes Jesus into Martha’s home. What an empowering statement for Mary to intentionally shun the duties assigned by Martha and sit at the feet of Jesus? Even though it appears Mary doesn’t speak with Jesus, she sees him as worthy of her time - and even worth a rebuke from Martha. Mary decided her place was with Jesus.

   Interestingly, although the narrative does not reveal who else may have been present, we can probably correctly assume that since Jesus was teaching, there were others - undoubtedly all males - and Mary was risking rebuke and scorn. But Mary had probably learned enough from Jesus’ preaching and other activity to know that for a new kind of rabbi like Jesus, social boundaries are never totally secure or inviolable. In fact, she had seen Jesus violate them left and right: healing and plucking grain on the Sabbath, touching unclean lepers, eating with outcasts and undesirables. Considering all of that, Mary felt that she was where she needed to be.

   In our fast-paced, digital society there are all kinds of cultural norms, distractions and even some important concerns that might hinder us from being disciples of Jesus Christ. If we are not busy with this or that people think that we are not being responsible and accountable. We need to be continually busy to know our worth.

   Try it sometime. Next time someone asks you how you are or what you are up to these days, say “Oh, I’m just trying to spend more time sitting at Jesus feet, learning what it means to be faithful.” See where that gets you. More often than not, the conversation will end right there. But sometimes, if you’re fortunate enough, someone might ask you what that means exactly or what you may have learned. That would be a gift of grace for both of you.

   Anyway, back in the kitchen we have a very unhappy Martha. What does Martha do with her frustration? Rather than take Mary aside and work things out directly, she triangulates - putting Jesus on the spot.

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”

   Jesus does not criticize Martha because she chooses to offer diligent service for him and the other guests. Such acts are not only called for in the Law of Moses, but they are part and parcel of what it means to serve others as Jesus serves.

   Rather, Martha’s problem comes in succumbing to distraction while doing her commendable tasks by comparing herself to what someone else chooses to do. It is not her desire to offer hospitality through service that is the problem for Martha, according to Jesus. It is her frustration and her judgment of Mary. Martha criticizes Mary, and, indirectly, Jesus as well. Martha insinuates value judgments toward Mary who chooses to follow her own heart and her own way of serving Jesus. What this shows is that Martha’s anxiety and worry and frustration is getting in the way of the very form of service she chooses to do which is not under question. And Jesus takes her to task for it. 

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.

   Again, there is nothing insinuated here that Martha’s choice of service is the wrong one. Rather it’s her anxiety, distractedness from her own duties, and her judgment of Mary’s choice that prompts Jesus’ response.

   Let’s imagine that Mary and Martha’s roles remained the same, but it is Mary who is the anxious one.

Lord, I am sitting here at your feet dutifully taking in every word and trying to apply it to my life. And look at Martha over there, busy with cooking and cleaning and trying to make things just right for you, but she is missing out on your life-giving words. Tell her to stop being such a busy-body and join us here.

   This is only conjecture, of course, but I think Jesus would take Mary to task, not over what she is deciding to do with her time but being anxious and distracted and judgmental about Martha’s choice.

   Our tendency is to polarize Mary and Martha’s choice of serving Jesus, putting them over against each other and making one right and the other wrong; contemplation over against action. That is not the point.

   The story is not meant to reinforce the Martha/Mary dichotomy but calling for a recognition that God is both inside and outside, sustaining us while summoning us to work and, through our service, to bring about a world of justice, mercy, and peace.

   It is not an either/or message but a both/and message. (Cf, James A Wallace, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 3, p. 267).

   When Jesus commends Mary for having chosen “the better part” he refers to her singular undistracted focus on Jesus himself. When Jesus says “there should be only one thing” that does not mean one form of devotion, learning on the one hand or serving on the other, but one object of devotion and that is Jesus.  

   Once every few years or so I try to spend some time with the monks at the Abbey of St. Gregory near Three Rivers, Michigan. One of the things I admire most about the monks is their singular attention to whatever duties they are performing as part of their responsibilities to the community.

   When they are convened together in worship and prayer, their full attention is to worship and prayer. When they are cultivating crops in the field, they commit themselves fully to that task. When they are making wine or other spirits to provide for their income, they attend to the task of making a quality product from the harvest of God’s creation. When one of them is providing counsel to a retreatant, their full attention is to the spiritual concerns of that person. When they are alone with God in private meditation, their focus is that relationship with the Divine.

   I’m not saying that the monks of the Abbey of St. Gregory are always perfectly focused on their endeavors. They would be the first to deny it. What I am saying is that whether your service to Christ is feeding the hungry, or witnessing your faith to those in prison, or crafting or restoring things with your hands, or teaching children about Jesus, or doing your day job with mindfulness and proficiency, one is no better than the other if your focus is on serving Christ and doing our best for him. It’s a matter of knowing who we are in our relationship to Jesus Christ and our place in the world that he called us to serve.

   The theologian and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote that:

“. . .although each Christian has a common destiny in serving Christ, each individual also has to work out their own personal salvation for themselves in fear and trembling. We can help one another to find the meaning of life no doubt. But in the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living their own life and for ‘finding themselves.’ If they persist in shifting their responsibility to somebody else, they fail to find out the meaning of their own existence. You cannot tell me who I am, and I cannot tell you who you are. If you do not know your own identity, who is going to know who you are?” (Cf., No Man is an Island, p. 12. Male pronouns changed to they/them).

   Merton seems to be saying that the Martha’s of the Christian community are needed in Christian mission much as the Mary’s and vise versa. No one has it over on the other. Our task is to find out for ourselves who we are and not be distracted by any sense of superiority or inferiority about how we or others serve Christ.

   We make that choice not only in what we eventually do with our lives professionally, but every day in the choices we make and the actions we do. Martha’s choice to serve Jesus by providing a meal was a perfectly good one, but she lost focus. When Jesus told Martha, ‘there is need of only one thing” that means giving Christ his due. What does it mean to give Christ his due? It is giving him first place in everything.

   Paul, in his letter to the Colossians offers, I think, the most fittingly glorious description of Jesus, the cosmic Christ, and his relationship to God that you will find anywhere in Scripture:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him and through him and for him all things have been created. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

   Paul, in the way he knew how, through his writing and preaching and teaching, was giving Christ first place in everything.

   Ezra Taft Benson wrote that “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of Jesus will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities.” (Cf., found in Quotable Quotes, source unknown).

   What does it mean for you to give Christ first place in your life which is his due? It means “finding your own life,” as Merton called it and not letting yourself be distracted by comparing yourself to others. By knowing who you are and whose you are, you are giving Christ his due, and it will not be taken from you. In doing so you will make sure that your captain is aboard.

   To our almighty and merciful God be all honor, glory, and blessing.  Amen.