Proper 11 2021

As many of you probably know by now, Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite shows. Besides just being entertaining, it gives us a glimpse into the common life of a pre-modern Jewish family.  I suspect much of the social etiquette described in that show was in place in Jesus time.  Everyone had their place.  Young, old, male, female, rich, poor.  It is probably why Joel, Peter, and Paul make such a big deal out of saying in the fullness of the kingdom, those labels did not matter.  Understanding other people’s perspectives helps us put other stories in perspective and imagine what was going on in the minds of people in other situations.

This morning we heard the brief story concerning friends of Jesus and their different response to him.  One sister, Martha, is doing exactly what most people would have expected of her. The rules of hospitality were very important in the Middle East during the first century.  For one thing, it could be a matter of life or death as there were not a lot of public resources for food, water, and shelter and especially in a harsh desert climate, these were very important.

It is believed that Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Jesus’ friends in Bethany) were at best working class and perhaps not even that.  Bethany was not an affluent town.  Lazarus is looking after two spinster sisters which means they probably had no dowery to enable them to marry.  They do not appear to have any servants.

Jesus shows up, possibly unannounced, with twelve hungry dirty men who have been traveling in the area.  Martha is frantically trying to put together a meal for thirteen extra people and see to their comforts, such as providing them water to wash their feet.  Mary has forgotten all her manners and is sitting with the men at Jesus’ feet listening to him tell stories while Martha is doing all the work by herself.  In her exasperation, Martha goes to Jesus and accuses him of not caring about the fact that she is overworked and Mary is sitting there not lifting a finger to help. She asks Jesus to make Mary get up and help her. Jesus’ reply probably does not comfort Martha.  He tells her that she has her priorities confused and that Mary has made the better choice. We in the church have spent the last 2000 years trying to justify Martha’s position rather than seek Mary’s. 

It is a delicate balancing act and I don’t think it is a matter of either/or but a matter of prioritizing our time and making sure we don’t let the things of lesser importance take priority over the things of greater importance.

I would like to look to Jesus, himself, to see how he ordered his priorities to give us some idea of how we should order ours.

Jesus did not neglect public worship.  Luke tells us that according to Jewish law, Jesus was brought to the Temple when he was eight days old to be circumcised and named and that his parents offered the appropriate sacrifices at the time. (Luke 2:21-24).  Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  When Jesus was twelve, he was accidently left behind because he was actively engaged in discussion about the scriptures with his elders in the temple and missed the caravan back to Nazareth and did not appear to notice for three days that he had been left behind.   (Luke 2:41-52) As an adult, he continued to attend the important festivals at the Temple. (Passover – John 2:13, an unnamed festival – John 5: 1; Sukkoth – John 7:1-14; Hanukkah- John 10.22). The gospel of John carefully points out the various festivals that Jesus attended in Jerusalem.  When he was away from Jerusalem and the temple, Jesus appears to have faithfully attended the synagogue on the sabbath and took a teaching role. (Mark 1:21)

Jesus did not neglect private prayer.  Mark tells us “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1: 35)  This was a common occurrence for Jesus.  He took himself off to a quiet place on a regular basis and spent time in prayer with God, whom he called Father.  Public worship and private prayer are not an either/or.  They are two separate but necessary aspects of building our relationship with God.  One united as the body of Christ and the other developing a personal relationship with God.

Jesus primary ministry was sharing the Good News about the coming of God’s Kingdom.  When Peter found Jesus praying by himself, he told him “Everyone is searching for you.”  [Jesus] answered him “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” It was St. Francis, not Jesus that suggested we share the gospel through our actions, only using words when necessary. Jesus was a man of many words. Jesus was a teacher. Jesus’ acts of healing and feeding were the natural extension of who he was and the compassion he felt for the people, but the message is what drove his agenda.

Even Jesus did not work alone most of the time.  Jesus called first twelve companions and began to teach them both publicly with the crowds and privately. At times he took the group off on retreat such as when he went to Caesarea Philippi when he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9: 18).  Sometimes, he took only Peter, James and John such as at the Transfiguration. (Luke 9:28-36) On another occasion, Jesus appointed seventy and sent them out two by two into the neighboring towns and villages and he gave them the authority to heal the sick and preach the gospel. (Luke 10: 1-12)

Public worship takes a lot of preparation. Prior to my ordination I sang in the choir, I taught children’s Sunday School, and I served on the Altar Guild, and served as Lay Reader and Eucharistic Minister ( at various times, not all at once). I know how much effort goes into preparation for a Sunday morning service. Every week we have housekeeping staff who come in and vacuum and dust.  The altar guild polishes our vessels, prepares the bread and wine, sets the table, maintains the linens and the candles just to name a few things.  Our musicians select music, and practice throughout the week to lead us in our singing and give us music to help us focus on God.  Our vestry and administrative staff make sure our building is cared for, bills paid, and bulletins are printed as well as many other things. Giving of our time, talent, and treasure to ensure others have access to meaningful public worship is important and I am acutely aware of the sacrifices made to this purpose.  Jesus is not saying we should neglect them.  What Jesus was doing was giving Mary permission to step out of the role that society had put her in so that she could experience a part of the worship experience that she had previously been denied.  We just need to balance service in the church with finding ways to nurture our relationship with God and not get too caught up in being Martha that we forget the importance of being Mary Also, not trying to tell others how God is calling them to serve. I think we have been very welcoming of including others in our ministries.  This story is just a reminder to continue doing so.

Education is a lifelong experience, especially religious education. We send our children to pre-school to get a good foundation in reading and math. Then twelve years of school to learn the basics of how to function in society. Then college and perhaps graduate school in the hopes that they succeed financially and fill fulfilled in their vocation.  How much time do we spend on theirs or our own education when it comes to understanding the scriptures, understanding how we have come to believe and behave as a faith community, understanding how to best nurture and care for our own and our neighbors spiritual health and well-being?  Jesus was a teacher.  One of his great frustrations was that people did not take the time to understand what he was trying to tell them. How much effort do we put into understanding Jesus and then helping others understand?One of the reasons I am such a proponent of small group work is that it allows us to study the scripture, bouncing questions off one another, learning from one another and in the process strengthening relationships.   

Finally, none of us are in this alone.  Paul talks about Christians forming the “body of Christ”.  He talks about how we all have roles to fulfill.  Anytime one part of the body is injured or in pain, the whole body feels it.  Anytime one part of the body is not fulfilling its role it affects the whole body.  When Jesus sent out the seventy, he did so two by two.  This both protects the individuals and holds them accountable. For every job in the church, we should have at least two people who know how to do it.  In many situations, we should have two people there at all times.  Ideally, we have one or more persons who is already trained and experienced and someone who is learning and preparing to step into the role. I know this is hard in a small congregation.  Many people already wear multiple hats.  What I would challenge you to do this week is think about your interests, your knowledge and skills.  Are you offering them to God?  Is there something you would like to see us do, that we don’t have anyone doing at this time?  Do you have any knowledge or skills that could be shared to help us realize this dream?  Do you want to know how to do something that others among us seem to know how to do?  How can we partner with each other to make us stronger and more effective as a group than we are as individuals?

The story of Mary and Martha is tricky.  We don’t want to be justifying Martha’s position at the expense of Mary’s, busyness even at good things at the expense of relationship with God is self-defeating, but we don’t want to use Mary as an excuse not to do things that will further God’s kingdom and claim we are focused on our personal spiritual growth. How well are you balancing your priorities?

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