Sermon: “To Do or Not To Do”

July 17, 2016: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 8:1-12
Luke 10:38-42

Jesus could spot a trap. We see it often in the Scriptures; somebody, one of his opponents, will come up to him with a question designed to discredit him. Time after time, Jesus turns the tables on them. The gospel writers seemed to find a lot of joy in telling these stories, which is no surprise.

But there may be no more dangerous trap in the world than getting co-opted into a conflict between two siblings, like these sisters Mary and Martha. When Martha came up to him to get him to intervene, I can almost hear Jesus thinking, “No. Oh, no. How do I get out of this one?”

Strangely, this family conflict between two sisters has fed a spiritual conflict within the Christian Church for centuries. On the one side we have the contemplatives, those who love silent prayer, insisting that only earnest, solitary devotion brings one closer to God. On the other side are the activists, the charitable workers, the givers, likewise insisting that their path of work and service is the only true path to God.

Every last one of them, of course, is trying to enlist Jesus on their side.

And I can almost hear Jesus thinking, “No. Oh, no. How do I get out of this one?”

Of course, the news this week argues for an active faith engaged with the world, doesn’t it? The world needs us in the face of the violence in Nice, and in Turkey, and in Baton Rouge. We need to build a more loving world.

But: When Martha came to Jesus, she came with this request: “Tell Mary to help me.” Tell Mary what to do. Tell Mary.

That’s precisely what Jesus wouldn’t do. Jesus gave plenty of good advice during his ministry. He had ideas about what people should do all the time. But he wouldn’t tell Mary what to do in this instance. And he didn’t tell Martha what to do, either.

There are many ways to express devotion to someone; many ways to express devotion to God. The sisters embodied two of those ways in Martha’s house that day. As Saint Ambrose wrote:

“Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God.”

For Martha to insist that Mary serve Jesus as she, Martha, did, simply wasn’t going to work. For any person to insist that somebody else worship, or pray, or seek God in one absolutely right way, at best, will simply fail. Each person is unique. Each person comes to God in their own way. I could know a person for years and years, know them very well, and still not know enough to say, “This is the way to God for you.” The best I can do is ask, “Have you tried this?” “Have you considered that?” “What happened when you did?”

Worse, I’d be stepping into the space between this person and the God they’re seeking. I’d be standing right between them, interfering with the communications, blocking the way, hiding the light.

I don’t want to stand between someone and God any more than Jesus wanted to stand between Martha and Mary, and I don’t want to stand between someone and God any more than Jesus would allow Martha to come between Mary and himself.

Jesus’ words for Martha didn’t condemn her activity or her attention to her tasks. Instead, he observed that she was worried and anxious about all she had to do. He didn’t criticize her hospitality. He didn’t criticize her hard work. He didn’t criticize her motives: he just lamented her distraction.

Matthew Skinner writes: “’There should be only one thing’: this does not mean one form of devotion, but one object of devotion. To be genuine, acts of discipleship – whether contemplative, active, or anything else – need to maintain such a focus. Martha’s problem is that her service strays from attending to its rightful object of devotion, the Lord Jesus.”

I’m not basically a detail person; I tend to look at the forest rather than the trees. But I’ve certainly done what Martha did: become so caught up in the details that I lose track of the goal. It’s a hazard of human life as well as of a faith of active service. It’s a hazard of weekly worship planning, in fact. I’ll grit my teeth over the selection of one hymn – is this the right hymn for this part of the service, does it match the theme for the day, do I like the tune, do I know the tune, does anybody know the tune, does the tune match the text, does it belong at this part of the service – and so on.

Which means, by the way, that I’m the one to blame, not Rachel or Kayleen, if I get any of that wrong…

In those small details, however, I may lose track of the real purpose of all this activity: to praise God in song.

To praise God in song.

As you get immersed in the details of your days – forms to fill out, shopping to do, work before you, work waiting for you, work behind you, people you need to help, waiting for people to help you, cleaning the kitchen, cleaning the church, paying the bills, depositing the checks – all the busy-ness of our lives: Do you lose track of the One who loves you, who loves you best?

Yes. I do, too.

But as Jane A. Wallace said, “[Jesus] is not going after Busy Martha, but Worried and Distracted Martha.”

Worried and Distracted You. Worried and Distracted Me. Jesus is going after us to relieve us of the worry, and the distraction, and the separation from God.

I don’t forget Mary, however. Her intense attention to personal devotion has its hazards, too. You can become so concentrated on Jesus that you lose track of those whom Jesus loves. You can lose touch with the real needs of the world. If Mary had been as aware of those around her as she was of Jesus, she would have seen her sister’s distress. She might have stepped up on her own to help her. She might have given Martha her place, and the space to listen to Jesus, as she met the real needs of Jesus her guest.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews writes: “The story about the Good Samaritan taught us about loving our neighbor, and scholars say that this week’s story – this is so simple that it’s beautiful – is about loving God.

“Part of the irony here is that the lawyer asked what he needed to ‘do’ to ‘inherit eternal life,’ but in this little story about two women, both of whom loved Jesus, Jesus says that all our efforts and deeds are to be balanced and even nourished by times of doing absolutely nothing but sitting and being with God.”

We’re not asked to be Mary or Martha. We’re asked to be ourselves. We’re asked for our devotion to God and God’s people, to express our love for God and God’s people in the ways we’re best suited for at the moment. We’re asked as well to feed our spirits at Jesus’ feet when we have the need, and when we have the chance.

Kathryn Matthews asks: “How can we tend our internal lives like careful gardeners who spend time nurturing new growth, pulling weeds when necessary, and gently showering the thirsty green plants with refreshing water?”

How, indeed?

So love your sister, your brother, your neighbor, by showing them the mercy of the Good Samaritan. As you love them, never forget that in loving your neighbor, you love Jesus as well.

And when you need to, and when you can, do not fear to come to the quiet place, wherever it may be, where Jesus speaks to you, embraces you, holds you, comforts you, strengthens you.

That is your good part, and it will not be taken from you.

The image is by Владимир Шелгунов – фотографии переданы представителем ИППО, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on July 17, 2016

Social Networks: RSS Facebook Twitter Google Stumble Upon Digg Reddit

Leave a Reply

close window

Service Times & Directions

Sunday School Classes

Sunday 8:45 am

Sunday Worship Service

Sunday 10:00 am

Adult Bible Study

Monday 6:30 pm, Wednesday 9:00 am

(International Young Adults Association)
Bible Study

Wednesday 7:30 pm

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

(The Rev. Tevita) Sunday 1:00 pm Wednesday 7:00 pm (Sanctuary)

The United Church of Christ, Pohnpei - Hilo

(The Rev. Ichiro) Sunday 10:00 am (Bdg. of Faith)

The Samoan Church

(The Rev. Sunia) Sunday 4:00 pm (Sanctuary)

440 W. Lanikaula Street
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-1283