6th Sunday After Pentecost
- Pentecost 6.22 “A Sensible Paradox” Gen. 18:1-10, Luke 10:38-42
Martha often gets a bad rep for demanding Mary’s help in the kitchen in our Gospel today. It wasn’t a good choice. The Lord makes that clear. Be careful what you wish for! But, I wonder: maybe we praise Mary too much and fail to see Martha’s real problem?
Service or worship? What’s more important? This is a much more complex issue than a simple reading of our Gospel today might suggest. Of course, worshiping the Lord, hearing his word, having our sins forgiven thereby is essential, the one thing needful. If you don’t have that, no service you render will be anything but idolatrous. So, sitting at Jesus feet in “something very like adoration, some kind of quite disinterested self-abandonment to an object which securely claims this by simply being the object that it is” (as C.S. Lewis marvelous defines worship in Surprised by Joy) is the one thing needful. And that good part, which Mary found that day in Bethany, will not be taken from her or any who are drawn into it by the Lord’s word.
But the relationship between service and worship is even more complex. Because the standard word for the divine liturgy is service and any act of service (even just taking out the trash at home or doing the dishes) if it’s motivated by faith in Christ is truly divine; it’s an act of worship—as Jesus says in Matthew 25 to the faithful, that whatever we did (in faith, as his faithful) for others we really did for him; which is to say: it became an act of Christian worship if there was a speck of faith in Christ moving us.
John Kleinig, an Australian Lutheran theologian, a student of Hermann Sasse’s, notes in his book Grace upon Grace that Martha’s problem was not serving; it was distraction—that is, she wasn’t doing it in faith. Sitting at Jesus feet isn’t meritorious all by itself. It was Mary’s focus on Jesus that made it holy. When the property chair’s repairing the roof, the altar guild’s caring for the altar, the secretary’s ordering supplies—when they’re moved by faith in Christ—then it becomes as much an act of worship as our singing the Gloria in the Divine Liturgy.
True; when we sing the Gloria, listen to the sermon, attend bible study, we are more being served by God than when we are writing a sermon (if we’re the pastor) or setting up the vessels for the Lord’s Supper, or fixing the roof. But the difference is not, I think, as great as sometimes we make it out to be. Kleinig helped me see this years ago. In Ephesians 2, vs. 8-9 we read “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Salvation is all God’s doing—but so are good works! Vs. 10 continues: “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Distraction I take in our Gospel as synonymous with loss of focus, loss of faith. I assume most days Martha served faithfully, like Aimee signing checks on short notice, Amanda setting up for communion, or Jason fixing the roof, Zach and Matt ushering (all of which we greatly appreciate!): it’s not really Martha, Aimee, Amanda, Jason, Zach, or Matt doing it but, rather—when it’s done in faith!— it’s not us, but God it doing it through us—like the Divine Service bouncing back off us to to the One who works all in all. As Paul said of his ministry: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.” Even the holy apostles were just tools—God’s hands and feet.
But such divine service is not possible without faith. Without faith, it is impossible to please God or do anything truly Good. So the relationship of service and worship is more like two sides of the same coin than it is entirely our doing on one hand, or God’s on the other—God works all in all, but he is pleased to work through us. If it’s Good work, thank God. If it’s bad, then you can say: “that was me! I built that!” Like they say: “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Faith does that to us: makes us love what Christ does in us, and makes us see ourselves as unprofitable servants—nothing meritorious here!
Abraham gets the balance between service and worship just right in our Old Testament lesson, showing that it can be done! The LORD appears to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, incarnate, the Lord Jesus, with two other “angels” who seem to be men with superpowers. I’ve always said Jesus must have been wearing long sleeves, but if you pulled up the sleeves, you’d have seen nail holes in the wrists, and a spear wound in his side…
Abraham sees this is the LORD, though no one else in his house seems to see this. And this vision is important and we’ll get to it in second. But seeing this is the LORD, Yahweh, come in the flesh, Abraham begs him not to pass by, but to allow Abraham to bring him some water, wash his feet, and rest awhile; enjoy a morsel of bread, and refresh their hearts. The LORD allows this.
And, look! Abraham races into the tent and tells Sarah to make her world famous pastry and apple pie, while he runs to the herd, picks the best, the fatted calf, and orders his servant to prepare it—because veal parm, you taste so good! So, Abraham brings the feast to the three and stands by as they eat, attending to the LORD, attentive to his word in adoration: the perfect balance of service and worship.
Now, this story of Mary and Martha has a sequel, in John 11. After Lazarus got sick and died—because Jesus lolly-gagged around a couple days doing nothing, Martha and Mary hear that Jesus is (finally!) coming to town. But, now it’s Mary who sits in the house, distracted, refusing to greet the Lord or sit at his feet. And it’s Martha who goes out to meet Jesus, focused, slightly vexed, but saying: “even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” And Jesus gives Martha a little lesson on the resurrection of the dead: that whoever believes in Jesus, even though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Jesus will never die. And when asked by the Lord if she believes this, Martha says, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Which tells me that we can be sitting at Jesus’ feet one day, focused, faithful, in adoration of Him, and, a couple months later: we can be sitting at home distracted instead of caught up in the Divine Service. The balance between service and worship is never stable for sinful folks like us.
Abraham got the balance right—which is why he is the father of faith for us all. But, like we said, it was Abraham seeing what was right in front of him that made the service, the worship, the adoration, the wonders, possible…
Jesus hides himself in order to reveal himself—a sensible paradox. Since God’s unveiled glory would kill us, he conceals his Divine Presence under human flesh, words, water, bread, wine. By the Spirit, he grants us faith to see him; and voila! The whole world changes in that instant; and all our service turns into adoration, worship of Christ. May he grant such vision to us, always. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.