VII Pentecost, Year C
Am 8:1-12 or * Gn 18:1-10a
Ps 52 * Ps 15
This is what the Lord GOD showed me–a basket of summer fruit. He said, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A basket of summer fruit." Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day," says the Lord GOD; "the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!" Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.
* (Genesis 18:1-10a)
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes. " Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There, in the tent." Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son."
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him– provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We readily acknowledge that real Christianity is active Christianity. The question posed for us today is what constitutes real activity. Like Martha, Christians of all sorts have become active in service to their Lord. From Sunday School teachers to missionaries, from deacons to food pantry directors, Christian servants come in all shapes and sizes. Every pastor knows that their congregation could not survive without them. Service is a hallmark of Christian faith and life. So what is wrong with Martha serving Jesus and asking for help? Didn’t he say, “Pray the Lord of the Harvest..”? We think that mimetic theory allows us two ways to approach this pericope.
The first focuses on Martha’s anxiety.
Why is Martha serving? Isn’t she just being hospitable? Isn’t hospitality a theme that runs through Luke and Acts? How about Jesus’ eschatological, jubilary hospitality? The apostolic breaking of bread house to house? Yet in this scene, Martha has not understood that cultural customs, even when commanded by law, are to be set aside and not fulfilled in order to listen to Jesus and what he has to say. Jesus did not come to sanctify our social/cultural mores.
Martha wants Jesus to draw Mary into a mimetic doubling of her own service, going so far as to question Jesus’ concern for her work and commanding him to get Mary to help. Martha is annoyed because her ‘good’ or ‘righteous’ fulfillment of the social/biblical hospitality requirements does not seem to impress Jesus. “Don’t you care…”
The doubling effect is evidenced when Jesus repeats her name twice, “Martha, Martha.” Why is Martha worried and upset? Obviously there will be guests at dinner that night. Martha can’t get a big dinner ready all by herself, she needs help. Her request is reasonable. She desires Mary to mimetically double her as a servant, to share her desires to meet those cultural norms. She thinks Mary should be carrying her fair share of the load. Remembering that mimetic doubling results in initial pleasure for the model when the “rival” first mimics the model’s desires, Mary’s failure to mimic Martha calls into question the value of Martha’s choices.
The second route into this pericope focuses on Martha’s doubling of Mary.
In Martha and Mary we have something of a Cain/Abel set of doubles already. What they desire is the same, Jesus’ attention/approval. Mary’s gift seems to be more readily accepted/approved than Martha’s. Martha’s frustration doesn’t lead her to murder, but it does lead her to demand that Jesus reject Mary’s gift, her singular attention to his words, his presence.
What is different between the two? Primarily that Martha has permitted herself to become distracted by her tasks. She has lost sight of their purpose, to render service to Jesus. Rather than serve him, she has begun to serve him “in order that…” The tasks and their anticipated reward have taken the place of the One whose attention and love she already has.
No matter which of these two routes we use to find our way to the center of this story, they both lead us to understand that it is the distraction that is the problem, not the activity. Jesus does not say that Martha’s problem in her busy-ness, but her worry over it all. Had her attention during her preparations been as focused on Jesus as Mary’s listening, Jesus would never have commented.
Stalking Wolf, one of our favorite mentors, referred to distraction as one of the three principal demons along with ego and self-doubt. We are tempted, though, to confuse activity with distraction. We have many demands on our time/energy. The difficulty lies not in our response to these demands, but our forgetting that we do all in the service of the One in whom all our “demanders” also rest. We become distracted when we serve for the sake of the rewards (approval, paycheck, affection?) rather than out of love for the one who created us all.
Some of our recent conversations have been around the potential sublimation of the Johannine tradition in Luke-Acts. We mention this because today’s story of Mary and Martha is a key text in our discussions. The Lukan doubling of Jesus/Paul (Luke-Acts) and Peter/Paul (Acts) is a hermeneutic tour de force. This also goes under the rubric of the Lukan view of ‘salvation history.’ But where is the Johannine community in the Acts? What would be some of the reasons for and marks of its sublimation?
We believe there is some evidence to suggest the so-called Johannine community of Asia Minor, more specifically Ephesus, was highly developed by the time Paul (Luke’s hero) gets to Ephesus. We have begun to see I and 2 Corinthians as letters that reflect the problem created when the Pauline, the Petrine and the Johannine traditions all came together at Corinth. How the story of Jesus was told, and who Jesus was, became very important. It was a significant mimetic crisis for the Corinthian church.
We think the Fourth Gospel uses anonymity as a literary device for literal reasons: the author’s life was at stake. So the so-called Johannine community remains quiet about itself and its apostolic figure’s name, address and telephone number. But it is strong enough and has enough authority to compete with the Synoptic tradition; we can trace the Peter/Paul emerging synthesis in the Synoptic tradition. We wonder why Luke is so critical or quiet about figures from the Fourth Gospel or figures in the Johannine community? Yet he chooses themes, details and directions from the Johannine tradition.
We recognize Luke’s hand in this pericope, but it is a hand that we by now appreciate. Luke is extolling the practice of positive mimesis, the imitatio Yeshua, everything else can wait.
People need Jesus, people desperately need what Jesus has to say. We need Jesus more than we’ve ever needed him before. Now is the time to evaluate our lives, look at our possible preoccupation to the “service” of our society’s norm and our easy willingness to mold ourselves to the expectations of our culture. Are these pursuits necessary in regard to the value of the kingdom or are they the insidious control of our lives by the powers and principalities of this age? Can we find our way clear to make the choice to chose the very best? May we hear your voice and learn from you, Lord Jesus.
Some Sermon thoughts…
How many of us, as pastors, have watched our most valued parishioners work themselves to the bone, only to become bitter and disillusioned by the apathy and inactivity of other members of the church? I’ve read too many useless chapters on preventing church “burn out” myself.
The reality is that service in Christ’s name is often unrewarding, often unappreciated. Those of our folks who become “distracted” by their tasks, that is, those who perform them for the hope of approval or gratitude will soon find that bitterness raising its ugly head. (Through which, Hebrews reminds us, many will be defiled…)
It is probably better to turn people from the attempt to serve than to allow them to go on too long in “distracted” service. As preachers, we have the opportunity to ask our folks to examine their purpose in serving, their focus as they work.