Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

At our last meeting of VBS, they began to assign roles to the volunteers. Amy, the organizer and chair of the VBS board, announced the need for crew leaders. The role of the crew leaders is to shepherd a small group of children to each of the stations throughout the evenings.

Before Amy even finished, the woman’s hand shot up. “Oh no,” she blurted, “don’t make me a crew leader. I cannot bear the thought of spending the entire evening with rowdy children!” At this, Pastor Josh, from the Well across the street, playfully asked, “And why are you here tonight, at a meeting for VBS volunteers?”

The rest of us laughed. The woman was as committed to ensuring the success of the event as anyone there. But she saw herself playing a role behind the scenes, where she was not in direct contact with the children.

No doubt the woman would have identified with Martha, who appears in our Gospel lesson today. Martha is not the one in the foyer, taking Jesus’ coat. She’s not the one escorting him to the living room, telling him to make himself at home. She’s not the one who asks him if he had trouble finding the place. Instead, she’s in the kitchen, making meal preparations, so that they can eat at a decent hour (always important when you have guests).

Fortunately for Martha, there’s someone else at her house. We refer to her sister Mary. Mary sat down in the living room with Jesus to talk with him. Only she doesn’t so much talk as listen.

Luke’s intentional about the kind of listening Mary is doing. He says that she’s sitting at the feet of Jesus. That’s s a euphemism, or a figure of speech, that indicates that she’s a student.

But she’s not a student like most of the students that I taught when I was a university instructor. She listens to her teacher, hanging on his every word.

And how could it be otherwise! “When your words came, I ate them. They were my joy and my heart’s delight,” declares the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 15:16). Even though it’s close to dinner time, and Mary too is hungry, she realizes that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut. 8:23).

It’s a beautiful scene; contemplating it brings us peace.

But this peace is suddenly disturbed when Martha storms out of the kitchen and demands Jesus to tell Mary to help her. This is a tense moment! What will Jesus do?  Will he defuse the tension? Or will he add to it?

There’s a long tradition of interpretation according to which Martha and Mary represents two types of the Christian life. Martha, who is busy making preparations for the meal, represents the active life. Mary, who is sitting before the Lord, listening in rapt attention to what he is saying, represents the contemplative life.

Each of these types is good and necessary, but the contemplative life is superior. After all, when Jesus scolds Martha, is he not putting her in her place, a place inferior to that of her sister Mary, who has chosen the better part?

But this would hardly defuse the tension. Martha could just as easily have responded in protest: “The meal will not make itself. If there’s no one behind the scenes making preparations, then there’s no dinner engagement at all. And if no dinner, then no guests.”

Our VBS volunteer would presumably agree with Martha.

And they both have a point, don’t they? But surely Jesus is not denying any of this. He’s not belittling Martha’s service. He’s not saying that Martha’s service is of lesser value than Mary’s devotion.

His concern is less with the kind of activity than with the condition of the heart. The British Bible scholar R.W.L. Moberly states that the Bible offers a vision of the world in which the heart matters far more profoundly than our successes or failures.

That is certainly the case here. But unfortunately our translation doesn’t help us to see it very clearly. Luke the narrator makes a statement of fact: “Martha was distracted by her many tasks” (Lk. 10:40). Then Jesus observes, “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things (Lk. 10:41).

The problem here is that the English word “distract” is used to translate two different words in the original. Martha is indeed distracted by all the work that had to be done. But that’s not really the issue for Jesus. It doesn’t identify what’s really going on in Martha. That’s why he uses a different word than the narrator. That word is better translated as “troubled” or “agitated in mind.”

Jesus doesn’t want Martha to cease from her labors, join her sister Mary, and let the food burn. He wants her only to guard her heart against all the busy-ness that’s robbing her of her peace. He does truly care about her. Repeating her name a second time suggests that he is trying to slow her down. He doesn’t want all the stress to deprive her of the satisfaction that comes from fellowship with him and with those who love him.

Think about what you have to do in a typical day. You have calls to make, errands to run, grandchildren to babysit, neighbors to help, meetings to attend, reports to write—we do all these things. These activities make up what we call the active life. But they should not make up the whole of life. If they do, it will only be a matter of time until we get exhausted and spiritually burn out. We can’t give more than we take in.

Listen, regardless of all the tasks that face us, regardless of all the preparations that have to be made, it’s never God’s will that we should be troubled or agitated in mind. God gives us his peace, which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). When our mind is fixed on this one thing, that is, Christ and his care for us, then the rest falls into place. This is what Mary realized. For she chose the one thing which will never be taken from her.

The need to work from a place of calm is well-known in the secular world. Pandit Dasa, a monk from India, is one of the world’s foremost speakers on mindfulness and mental health. He regularly visits the largest companies in the world, where he speaks to thousands of employees and business leaders every year. He has found that an increasing number of executives and business leaders are searching for practical, real-world advice to increase mindfulness, reduce stress, and gain greater clarity and focus. His services are very much in demand today, aimed as they are to help people to achieve greater tranquility in their work and home lives.

People will pay large sums of money to a man like Pandit Dasa to learn how to practice mindfulness. But in Christ we have the source of peace. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, do I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:26-27).

But we have to be in a place in which to receive that peace. This is where Mary’s example helps Martha, and helps us. In this regard Bible student Francois Bovon explains that “priority should be given to listening to the word of God, to taking time out, to the act of sitting down; it consists in not wishing to go ahead of the Lord; [it consists] in consenting to be served before serving.

Mary has it right. We have to set aside time, maybe late at night, when all our chores are finished, when the rest of the household is in bed, or early in the morning, when it is still quiet, to listen to the word of Jesus—that word that “illuminates and supports all that we are and all that we do” (Pope Francis).

For this we need to develop our contemplative side. That is, we need to develop a habit of being still before the Lord. We have to learn to empty our minds of all that worries and troubles them and focus them on Christ. He is the object of our contemplation. But at this point, someone may ask: “How exactly do we contemplate Christ?”

Our epistle lesson taken from Colossians can give us guidance.

At first glance, it appears that the material that begins at Colossians 1:15 consists in a series of complex statements that’s hard for the ordinary Christian today to grasp. And if’ it’s hard to grasp, of what use can it be for our contemplative practice?

That’s a fair question. But what we find here is meant not only to expand the mind, but also to encourage the heart. Are we distressed because it seems that our political system is unraveling before our very eyes? Then we should contemplate Christ, in whom all things hold together.

Are we troubled because it seems that race, gender and class wars continue to divide people against one another, more now than in recent memory? Then we should contemplate Christ, through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, making peace through the blood of his cross.

Or are we fearful about a diagnosis of a disease that is potentially life-threatening? Then we should contemplate Christ, who is the firstborn from the dead.

The apostle Paul paints a picture of Christ on a very wide canvas here. This is a Christ for whom he was willing spend his life, even to the point of suffering for him. This is a Christ whom he was willing to preach to every creature under heaven. He wants us to contemplate the mystery of Christ that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but now has been revealed.

This is the Christ who far exceeds what our minds can grasp, the Christ in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He is all-sufficient; he is the one thing needful. Contemplating him stills the heart, and quiets the mind. It helps us to see our life in proper perspective, it reminds us why it is that we serve him in the first place, providing us with the energy and motivation to do so.

Recent history prompts us to ask: “What does it look like to serve Jesus in the church today?” It’s worth noting that Mary and Martha do not go to the synagogue to see Jesus. They receive him into their homes. One of you recently said that people are extremely reluctant to come into a church. It’s intimidating to them. One woman I met recently said she has not been inside a church since before Covid. She added that she feels she should go back, but that the prospect gives her high anxiety.

Patterns of church attendance have changed dramatically in the wake of Covid. These changes have impacted the small churches in the old mainline denominations especially. But if people are not likely to come to church to hear about Jesus, he can still come to them to meet them in their homes.

Each of his disciples today, provided they belong to him in virtue of baptism and faith, carry Jesus within them. When they accept invitations into the homes of neighbors and friends, they can show them Jesus.

Perhaps in the future, especially in the old mainline churches, Christians will meet less in their buildings than in the homes of people, as their guests, or, conversely, in their own homes, with people as their guests. And even if they still meet in their buildings, they will find that their ministry opportunities will take place outside their buildings.

Are we prepared for this? Let us take to heart all that this scene of Martha, Mary and Jesus has to teach us today. Amen.

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