7/18/2010 sermon: Attitude Matters

Location:  Goodwin House, Falls Church, VA
Text: Luke 10:38-42
8Pentecost (Proper 11), Year C

Attitude Matters

The five verses that we read in today’s Gospel lesson tell the story of a visit that Jesus made to the home of his friends Martha and Mary. This passage in Luke’s gospel does not say so, but we know from John’s account—which is seventy verses long—that these sisters lived in Bethany, a town which was very close to Jerusalem. They also were the sisters of Lazarus, one of the three people whom Jesus raised from the dead. The three siblings—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus—were all personal friends of Jesus’.

We know from today’s gospel lesson that Martha was the one who owned the house and who welcomed Jesus into it. The gospel story also says of Martha, She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. From this I picture Mary as the younger sister, <pause> perhaps the less responsible one.

The focus of this story is certainly on Martha, and—as an older sister of many siblings, I should tell you (if you haven’t discerned this already) that my sympathies are very much with Martha.

In the first place, Jesus rarely traveled alone, and this was no exception. The gospel account tells us plainly that Jesus had disciples with him. We do not know whether this was the full complement of seventy disciples or whether it was limited to just Jesus and the original 12 apostles. This means that when it came time for dinner, though, that Martha as head of the household needed to feed at least 15 people, and possibly a whole lot more. <pause> Now I don’t know about you, but this would stretch my capabilities as a good host, as well as the capacity of my cupboards. There would be MUCH to do to get such a meal ready.

In Jesus’ time, of course, the requirements of hospitality were very great. We see glimpses of this in our Old Testament lesson for today, where Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers—actually, God in the disguise of three strangers—followed the traditional custom of tribal societies. From this both Martha in Jesus’ time and we ourselves today have inherited the concept of greeting and providing hospitality to those beyond our immediate families. They and we are to see hospitality as holy action, using the best of our gifts to welcome people into our homes …. and into our lives.

Martha’s activities were very much in this sacred vein. We know so because the Greek words that Luke used to describe her meal-preparations are the same ones that we use today for the deaconate, for holy service to others.

Although Abraham did not know, at first, that he was entertaining the divine, Martha certainly did. In John’s account of this visit Martha confesses, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”[John 11:27] Her words are similar Simon Peter’s reply to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” So by all measures, we can see from Martha’s words and actions she was Jesus’ disciple, just as certainly as the ones whom she was struggling to feed.  …   Just as certainly, Mary was also Jesus’ disciple, sitting at her Rabbi’s feet  …   and learning from what he had to say.

But this is where we learn a key lesson for today from the gospel story: attitude matters. Martha became overly focused on the TASKS of ministry, forgetting the REASON FOR DOING MINISTRY.

We see this confusion sometimes in churches, don’t we? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I see this in myself, as well. I get so busy doing God’s work that I look around and see someone who isn’t as busy as I, or who is doing God’s work different than I would do it, and I get cross about it. Perhaps in Martha’s zeal to feed the Messiah and his other disciples, and to be the PERFECT host to them, the focus of Martha’s activities moved from providing for her guests, to herself.

We even see, graphically illustrated, the end result of losing sight of the purpose of service for God. I wonder? Would we even know about this incident if Martha had simply approached her sister Mary, and asked for her help in preparing the meal. Instead, she went to Jesus and asked him to change the situation, to change the person who was the subject of her frustration, perhaps to make Mary over in her own image, instead of asking Jesus to remake herself more in God’s image.

We hear the result in today’s gospel lesson: Jesus mildly rebuked Martha, telling her that she had become distracted from what was important, and that Mary had claimed “the better part” of ministry for herself.

From this story I hear that attitude really does matter. WHY we do something is equally important as WHAT WE DO. Perhaps, God loves a cheerful DOER as much as he loves a cheerful GIVER.

Mary and Martha of Bethany

I think that the Kingdom of God needs both Mary AND Martha. This isn’t a choice between hearing the Word and doing it—we need both hearers AND doers of the Word of God (preferably embodied in the same person, in each of us). Like Martha, we need to be servants, deacons, to others. AND like Mary, we need to learn more about God and how to serve him. But where we must take our departure from Martha’s example is that our focus should be on giving to others, for their sake and in the name of God.

I wonder? Did Mary go help prepare the meal after Jesus had rebuked her sister Martha for her bad attitude? If so, it would be a fitting temporary end to this event: I imagine that Martha would give up her need for perfection and would learn from Jesus, while Mary would take over the meal preparation and thus learn how to serve others. Perhaps it would teach each of them the need to be both hearers AND doers of God’s Word.

I pray that God will help us each to be both hearers and doers of God’s Word.

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