July 21, 2019

Pentecost 11C

To Listen at the Feet of Jesus

GOSPEL
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a
woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary,
who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was
distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But
the Lord answered her, “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.” Luke 10:38-42

SERMON
Some of the most interesting moments in the ministry of Jesus happen when he visits his friends Mary and Martha in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.

It was there that Jesus called their brother Lazarus out of the tomb and into new life. And it was at a dinner at their house, just before Passover, that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of costly perfume. And the next day, a crowd shouted “Hosanna!” as he entered Jerusalem and made his way to the Temple and to the cross.

In this morning’s gospel the sisters once again welcome Jesus and his disciples into their house with generous hospitality, preparing a meal and serving them dinner.

One can well imagine that hosting Jesus and his twelve disciples was no small feat. When was the last time you prepared and served dinner for a sixteen people? And did so in a kitchen that had no running water and no electricity? Yet in the face of this large task Mary doesn’t lift a finger to help.

Mary it seems is too focused on Jesus and too enthralled with his teaching to pay any attention to the culinary business at hand.

Rather she is more invested in the dinner that precedes the dinner. She sits with the disciples at the feet of Jesus to devour His words and to drink in his wisdom. She joins the twelve at the feet of Jesus and assumes the posture of a disciple.

In the face of this, Martha makes what seems like a very reasonable request of Jesus, that He direct Mary to come and help her. But instead of sending Mary to help, Jesus lectures Martha about being too anxious and so distracted.

This story is a universal story. Everyone can see themselves in one of these two characters. Are you Martha? Are you more at home with worrying and fussing and fretting and staying busy? Are you Mary? Is your preferred zone being lost in thought and reflection, but a bit oblivious to practical matters? Maybe we inhabit both roles, at one time or another?

What Jesus says to Martha is, of course, true: she is anxious and distracted, with the supper that needs to be served and all the cleaning up afterward. But is Jesus being completely fair to Martha? Or is he merely expressing the biases of the unquestioned patriarchal culture in which He lived, that made sure that He never had to see the inside of a kitchen?

Mary may have chosen the “better part,” but without Martha’s fussing, there would not have been a dinner table for the disciples to gather around and an opportunity to listen to the teaching of Jesus.

The stuff Martha is doing — it certainly needs to get done: cooking the meal and cleaning up the kitchen and so forth. This is not the problem.

The problem is that Martha wants to be recognized for her hard work. She wants someone to say thank you for once, and maybe take notice of all the thought and effort that goes into pulling something like this off.

Wanting to be recognized for all that we do is understandable and very human, but in this context, it’s the wrong motivation. Doing the work and expecting to be recognized is usually a recipe for disappointment.

Martha doesn’t get the help she wants from Mary nor the recognition she wants from Jesus. Instead, Jesus invites her to slow down and go deeper. Slow down and go deeper. Slow down and go deeper.

Busyness, even the legitimate busyness of our own lives and daily routines, can be used as distraction and as a way to avoid dealing with a problem or attending to critical problems. We can substitute busyness for real transformation.

Maybe Martha didn’t really want to sit down and listen to what Jesus was saying. So often, Jesus said things that were challenging or difficult or even annoying. Better to spend one’s time in the kitchen than have to re-think your opinions about those loathsome Samaritans or those vile tax-collectors. How willing are we to re-think our opinions about others – others who are different from ourselves? And we a certainly living in a time where differences are being magnified not to be appreciated for their enriching possibilities but to serve as a dark animus to reject and expel the different other.

Jesus is very clear that there are only two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your will, and love your neighbor as your self. And in last week’s parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus also makes it very clear that Neighbor means the different other – the stranger we meet on the road.

Interestingly, even though God’s people claimed a country as their own and the scriptures make a point of highlighting the significance of the land to which God has brought His people, there is not a third commandment that says, “Love your country above all other countries.”

To make one’s country an idol upon whose altar the requirements of human decency and the commandment to love our neighbor are to be sacrificed is to sin and to sin grievously. It is to violate the two great commandments. One’s country is merely to be the stage where the two great commandments are observed and lived that all may know that we are His disciples and not the disciples of some demagogue.

History has borne witness to the regular emergence of demagogues. A demagogue is a political leader who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions and prejudices of the people.

Demagogues manipulate issues by obscuring with lies, distorting with cheap emotionalism, and stoking fears, rather than by using rational argument. There has never been a demagogue who has not revealed himself to be the devil’s spawn.

Whatever she really wanted, what Martha needed was to just stop. Sit down. Listen. Sometimes, whatever we are doing, even if we’re trying to do good – God really needs us to stop. Stop doing so much, stop trying so hard. Stop trying to fix everything. Stop trying to justify yourself by looking busy. Stop doing and start listening. Sit down at Jesus’ feet, and try to hear where God’s Spirit is moving — in your life and in the world around you.

The world we live in is full of problems, problems we all want to fix. But sometimes we want to fix problems more than we want to understand them. The problems we are facing today don’t have easy fixes: how best to protect the environment? How to distribute resources fairly? How to insure public order while staying open and welcoming? All of these issues require careful, prayerful discernment — at least, they do if we are going to respond from a place of love and not fear.

Jesus’ call is to come more and more into the way of love. But finding love amid the fear that surrounds us takes some work on our part. We have to seek out God’s presence. We have to set aside the noise and distractions of the world before we can best hear God’s voice.

Where do you hear God’s voice? Each of us might answer that differently. If you’re having a hard time finding God, go to those places where you know God lives. Come to church, sing the hymns, take communion. Go outside and try to remember how beautiful the sky is, or the ocean, or the trees, or the hills. Say thank you, even if you aren’t feeling thankful. Act with love, even if you aren’t feeling the love. And love will come to you.

But never forget that in addition to the sanctuary that is the church and the sanctuary that is nature, there is another sanctuary where we know, based on the testimony of Jesus and the choices He made, God lives. The most important sanctuary and place to hear God’s voice is in the cry of the poor. Finding God among the poor is perhaps not as easy as in the beauty of nature or the peace of worship. But finding God among the poor is certain: for we know that God is always alive in the struggle for justice. We know that God lives among the marginalized, dispossessed and the discarded and that God fights for the poor and upholds the weak. We go to be among the poor, not to fix them, but merely to listen.

If we abide with one another, build community and keep our heart open, and we will hear God’s voice there. Jesus sought out all kinds of people with whom to share his message:
tax-collectors, Pharisees, Roman soldiers. Not all of them were poor. But Jesus felt most at home in Mary and Martha’s house in Bethany. Bethany, means “house of affliction.” Bethany was a leper colony outside the city walls. Bethany was a place for the homeless, the lonely, the destitute. This is where Jesus’ closest friends lived, his chosen family. If we want to be his disciple, we will find Him there still. Let us sit at his feet with Mary, sit at the feet of the poor, the marginalized, the frightened and terrified stranger among us, and be schooled in how
God’s love can change the world.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
July 21, 2019