Sermon: 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 17th July 2016

 St. Alban’s West Epping, 17th July 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver


(Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42)

“Who’s helping with the washing up tonight?” comes the call from the kitchen. After a period of meaningful silence, the question is asked again, louder this time. Answers start coming from different parts of the house, usually at least one from the vicinity of the TV. “It’s not my turn.” “I did it last night.” “I’ve got too much homework.” Perhaps someone says: “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Usually the old chestnut pops up from somewhere: “It’s not fair. I always have to do it. They never do it.”

Those of you who had children before you had a washing-up machine will be familiar with the script. The only really variable part is the ending. Sometimes it’s the grudging co-operation of the one whose turn it actually is. Sometimes the supposed martyr comes and helps to keep the peace. For variety there can be a major battle, or the parents decide it’s not worth the battle and do the job themselves. When that happens, usually one of the children comes in to help just as the last dish is being put away.

As a parent of three wonderful but normal daughters, I have a lot of sympathy for Martha in the gospel story we just heard. There she is: Martha the hostess, with a very honoured guest in her house – Jesus, no less. She mightn’t be aware of those extraordinary things that Paul writes about in today’s reading from Colossians: she mightn’t know that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God dwells bodily; she mightn’t realize that Jesus reveals God to her, not simply because he is a great teacher and a miraculous healer, but because he is God himself sharing our human life: the very visible presentation of God, the heir and Lord of creation. But she is determined to give Jesus the special treatment she knows he deserves. She’s not going to put a cheap frozen meal in the microwave and heat it up. She’s going to do things properly.

But doing things properly requires effort. Time and work are involved in preparing a meal that is fitting for such a special visitor. And so of course Martha will need help from her sister Mary, especially since some of the disciples are there are well, which is pretty likely

But what is Mary doing? She’s just sitting there at Jesus’ feet with the other visitors, listening to what Jesus is saying, as if she is one of the disciples. Oh sure, Jesus tolerates women doing that, even though no self-respecting rabbi would admit a woman as a disciple. But surely Mary can see that there’s work to be done! Surely she can recognize that she should be helping, not just lounging around as if she has all the time in the world. If she wants to be with Jesus, there will be time for that later.

And so Martha fusses around, glaring sometimes at Mary, who seems to be totally oblivious to Martha’s frustration. Finally Martha can stand it no more. She comes across to Jesus. “Lord you must see that my lazy sister has left me to do all the work myself. Won’t you tell her to help me?” Oh yes, I’ve got plenty of sympathy for Martha – and so actually has Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that he is going to respond in the way she wants.

“Dear Martha, you’re so uptight about all those lovely things you are trying to do for me. But there’s only one thing that really matters.”

I don’t think he’s arguing about the virtues of a single course versus a banquet. He goes on: “Mary has chosen the most important thing on offer, and we mustn’t take it away from her.”

Martha wants to make an elaborate meal, and that’s very nice of her. But I suspect she hasn’t come to any particular arrangement about that with Mary. Martha has chosen to do things for her guest: Mary has chosen to be with her guest. And as things have worked out Martha has become too busy being busy. She is actually missing out on something more important.

Out of this little story, Luke wants us to learn something important about Christian priorities. To be a faithful follower of Jesus is not simply a matter of being a busy active follower.

Helping the needy and being involved in church activities and doing good deeds are all good and important things for us to be doing as Christians, but they are not the be-all and end-all of Christian discipleship. For fundamentally, being a Christian means being in relationship with Christ: and that relationship is not expressed simply by a catalogue of good deeds.

We know that, don’t we? Relationships are built on more than simply doing things for one another. Many wives and partners have walked out leaving the man mystified. He has been faithful, he’s never been violent, he’s worked hard to get money in to feed and clothe and house the family and even get a few extras, and he even does a few jobs around the house. “What have I done that’s so terrible?” he asks. And back comes the answer too late: “You don’t talk with me; you don’t listen to me; you don’t give me your time and your attention. I don’t feel that you are interested in me: there is no real relationship!” And of course there are many similar stories of estrangement between parents and children: parents doing so much for their children, but not actually relating to the children. The children so often feel unvalued, and from there unloved.

We can treat our relationship with Jesus in a similar way. The Gospel tells us that our acceptance is based on God’s forgiving grace: it is not our performance that brings us into relationship with him, but God’s love and forgiveness which we receive by faith. It not all about what we do for God. God calls us not only into service, but into relationship with him.

To take on board the lesson that Martha had to learn, we need to make time to give our personal attention to Jesus. We can do that through making time to read and reflect on the scriptures, and to lay our hearts before him in prayer. We can do that personally and individually, perhaps on a daily basis, which I still believe is a very helpful thing for us to be doing. There are any number of helps available to help us in our scripture reading and reflecting and praying. And of course we have our parish monthly sheet for prayer and reflection. We can also deepen our personal relationship with Jesus through our involvement in study and prayer and meditation groups, and by the personal way we take part in our services of worship. Jesus wants quality time with us, and he knows that such time will benefit us spiritually.

However, we need also to remember the context of this story of Martha, Mary and Jesus. Immediately before it we find in Luke’s Gospel the story of the Good Samaritan. The ones who failed in that story were the religious practitioners, the priest and the Levite. They did not show love to the one in need, quite possibly because it would interfere with their religious service, their devotion to God. But they missed the point. Worship means loving service, not just liturgical correctness.

I’m sure it is no accident that these stories are side by side in the scriptures. To those who are tempted to fill their lives with religious activity or perhaps religious inactivity, the message comes that we are all called to love our neighbour in genuine practical service, as the opportunity or the challenge presents itself. To those who are tempted to rush around busily doing things for God, the message comes: stop! Give yourself time to be still, to listen, to pray, to reflect, to personally develop your relationship with the one who loves us beyond our understanding.

So it’s not one or the other: it must be both. There is a balance within the Christian life, a balance between what we might call the devotional side and the practical side. If we neglect the personal side of our relationship with Christ, we are in danger of becoming like over-busy Martha, or like that pompous older brother of the prodigal son, who did much for his father, but hardly knew him at all. But there will always be the call to loving active service: the form it takes will vary from person to person. It will reflect our circumstances, our opportunities, our gifts, our stage of life. But there will always be ways in which we can positively serve Christ and our neighbour.

There is a genuine rhythm of life for the follower of Christ: indeed this might be the relevance of the fourth commandment for us today, with its call to do our daily work and fulfil our responsibilities, as well as the call to make time for the Sabbath rest, to pray, to worship, to personally give our attention to the Lord. In the midst of our day-to-day activities or even busy-ness, as well as our times of rest and relaxation, let us remember our need to make time to sit at the feet of the Saviour and receive the spiritual refreshment he offers.  Amen.

 Paul Weaver