Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/21/2019

I ended last week’s Good Samaritan sermon touching briefly on the deeds vs. creeds thing; is what you do more important than what you believe? I wish I could say that I did that knowing that I was going to continue that discussion this week, but that would be a lie; I’m not that organized. This chapter of Luke though invites that continuation as the Good Samaritan story and Jesus’ call to “go and do likewise” is followed by this week’s gospel, the Mary and Martha story.

The context is different, it’s not a life and death situation, but Martha could be understood as someone who is “going and doing likewise” as she welcomes Jesus and extends hospitality; and yet…it’s Mary who doesn’t do anything except to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he says, it’s Mary who is commended. Last week there was no follow up to the “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength and soul” part of the lawyer’s response to Jesus, only to the “Love your neighbor as yourself” part; that’s what the Good Samaritan parable was about. But maybe Mary and Martha is the follow up to the “Love the Lord your God” part.

It’s always kind of a tough text because every church, including this one, has a good share of Martha’s and, in the interest of gender equity, a good share of Marvin’s or Martin’s whatever the male equivalent is. They are the doers who largely work behind the scenes, doing what needs to be done, and without whom the church wouldn’t function; and yet…in this instance, Jesus seems to devalue such doing.

It’s another case though of you can’t expect one text consisting of five verses to serve as a comprehensive theology that addresses every question concerning faith and the proper way to respond; no one text or story does that. An individual text says what it says but you can’t try and make it say more than that without winding up with some pretty bad theology. Because of that, you can’t set Mary and Martha up as an all inclusive either/or that says one way of approaching your faith journey is better than another.

In considering this story, you have to remember that there are plenty of places where Jesus does praise the doers, not just in the Good Samaritan story but think of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats where those who inherit the kingdom are the doers; those who feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, who welcome the stranger, care for the sick and clothe the naked. Think of Jesus himself who effectively acts as host in the feeding miracles, providing for the 5000 and the 4000. There are plenty of cases where Jesus is a model of one who welcomes others and serves them, plenty of cases where he, like Martha, is a doer.

Martha was being faithful; she was being faithful to the religious tradition of hospitality that you could say was established by Abraham when he and Sarah welcomed and prepared a meal for the three mysterious strangers who visited them. You really can’t blame Martha for being upset with Mary for not lifting a finger to help her; you can’t blame her for being upset with Jesus for not suggesting to Mary that she might be able to use a little help. You can’t blame Martha, because she was doing a good thing!

While this story has often been set up as prioritizing a contemplative life, Mary, over an active life, Martha, that’s not what is really going on. What confuses things is Jesus’ statement that “Mary has chosen the better part.” A better translation of the Greek though is Mary has chosen the good part,” a translation that might lessen the desire to make this about comparisons. Mary was being faithful, taking time to be with Jesus to listen to him and learn from him, but as I said, Martha was also being faithful in observing the tradition of hospitality. They were both on a journey of faith, just in different ways and at different places.

Common sense says that both the contemplative approach to faith and the active approach are of value and that some kind of balance between the two is desirable. Common sense also says that most people are going to be inclined in one direction or the other and that would seem to be the case with Mary and Martha. Whatever the inclination, when it becomes too much of one and not much of the other, there can be the need for a prophetic word to be spoken, not so much as harsh criticism, that’s what Amos dishes out in abundance in today’s first reading, but more as a reminder that something is missing, that a life lived in relationship to God includes both a contemplative and an active dimension. That’s the kind of prophetic role that Jesus plays in this story.

What he calls to Martha’s attention is the fact that she’s distracted; that’s the key word: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” Because of her distraction, you could say that Martha winds up doing a good thing for the wrong reasons. She is doing a good thing, welcoming and serving Jesus; what could be better? But in her distraction, in her being bothered by the fact that Mary isn’t helping and that Jesus doesn’t seem to care, she’s missing something; she’s missing out on the joy that serving others can bring.

I can relate to how Martha feels and I’ll bet most of you can too. I think about my relationship with my mother these days. I wish I could say that it’s with great joy that I go over to Mill Creek and take her out for a ride and hear her repeat the same things that she always says, over and over and over again. But I mostly don’t do it with great joy. It feels like an obligation with the words of the Fourth Commandment haunting me, “Honor your father and mother.” I resent the time it takes, distracted as I think about things I’d rather be doing, or about doing nothing at all. What I do is still a good thing; for my mother it’s definitely a good thing as she gets a ride that she thoroughly enjoys. A lot of the time though, I’m mostly distracted and again I’m pretty sure that most of you can relate; you have or have had your own situations to deal with.

We do what we have to do though, and there’s a lot to say for that even when we’re distracted and our motivation is less than admirable. Maybe that was the case for Martha, just doing what she thought she was supposed to do. It’s not bad though, that the words of the commandments or other words haunt us a little bit. Properly motivated or not, those words help to put us in situations where we can do good, where we can serve the neighbor, distracted as we may be. Still, it would be nice to think that we could get to a point where the distraction was gone and we were truly present, serving for the right reasons, joyfully being a blessing as we have been blessed.

When Jesus praised Mary for having chosen the better part or the good part, the usual interpretation is that he was referring to himself and the fact that Mary was focused on him, not distracted by anything else. I find it too simplistic though, to say “Just focus on Jesus and all your motivations for serving will become pure.” However…I do think that spending time focused on Jesus does change us and form who we are. It’s a process; it’s a journey and Bible study can be part of it, prayer can be part of it, worship is a big part of it.

Worship is about being in the presence of God and being formed by that presence. It’s the whole experience of what we do as the word is proclaimed in the lessons, in the hymns, in the sermon, in the liturgy, some parts that we repeat week after week. All of that though is sitting at Jesus’ feet as Mary did. It’s not entertainment and it’s not supposed to be. It’s ritual and symbol and rituals and symbols form who we are when we are fully present. Remember that liturgy isn’t the work of the pastor, it’s the work of the people; that’s what the word liturgy means.

At the center of our worship is the celebration of Holy Communion by which individually and collectively the real presence of Christ forms us as the body of Christ sent into the world to serve the neighbor. Worship isn’t a magic bullet that removes all distractions and resentment and causes us to serve with joy but by the power of the Holy Spirit it does change us as we dwell in Christ. The gift of grace we’ve received in and through Jesus becomes part of who we are so that welcoming and serving and caring for others becomes more of joy, less of a chore.

Worship does put us at the feet of Jesus thus empowering us to be the hands of Jesus as we serve, sometimes…without distractions, sometimes…with joy.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
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not me
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