Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Proper 11, Year C (RCL) notes

[Luke 10:38-42]

Now, if you've been going to church for any amount of time, you've probably heard a sermon or two about slowing down and making room in your life for prayer. Such sermons seem to crop up like mushrooms during seasons of special devotion, especially Lent.

And it's a good message, one worth hearing, the "Mary & Martha sermon." It usually goes something like this: "Balance your Martha side with your Mary side; Don't bustle around so busily that you lose track of Jesus. Don't be so 'anxious and preoccupied with many things' that you miss out on the 'one thing [that] matters.'"

Alright. That's all well and good.

But here's the thing: Every preacher who's ever preached this is a hypocrite.

Oh, to a lesser or greater extent, to be sure. Some clergy balance their spiritual lives with their work more gracefully than others. But every clergyperson has, at some point or another, become so preoccupied with the bustle of ministry, with its conflicting and often urgent demands, that they find themselves drifting away from their relationship with God-- praying less often, sitting with scripture less often, simply being still in the presence of God less often. The whole busy-ness of ministry can become just a business, a daily grind. People who once vowed at their ordinations to "persevere in prayer, both in public and private," can find themselves just a functioning religious professional. Who has time to pray when they're running around like a chicken with its head cut off?

In fact, there's a whole niche in the church-publishing industry that focuses on clergy burnout. More than a few trees have given their lives for books counseling clergy how to stay connected to God, how to keep their spiritual lives healthy in the midst of work. There are seminars and conventions teaching ministers how to keep their focus on God, discipline their prayer life, stay spiritual. And many clergy see Spiritual directors, people who help other believers stay focused on their spiritual journey.

All of this is just to say that no one is immune from the busy-ness and bustle of the world. Whoever we are, wherever we are in our faith journey, and whatever sort of work we find ourselves doing, everyone can become "worried and distracted by many things." In fact, perhaps it's when we engage in some sort of ministry that it's more likely to happen. We know we're up to something good, and that it's important, and that it needs doing now; it's probably that much easier to forget to take the time to pray, or to take a mental step back from our anxiety to ask God's presence in our work.

Take Martha, for instance. Martha is busy and preoccupied, to be sure, but she's doing good. This isn't a self-serving rat-race, or a petty scrabbling after riches, that she's engaged in; she's welcoming and serving Jesus himself. That almost sounds like the textbook definition of doing good to me-- serving Christ to the best of one's abilities.

Before we go much further, let's give Martha her props. What she's doing is good. She's serving Jesus Christ. That's good. But there is a greater good right in front of her: Jesus himself. Somehow, all the "good host" activities she's up to, getting out the fine china and refreshing his drink and getting the hors d'oeuvres out of the oven, all of this is distancing her from Jesus himself.

That's the problem: not that she's serving Jesus, but that her service is actually keeping her from truly being with Jesus, and from listening to him. Notice that she actually interrupts Jesus to complain about her sister's behavior! Mary was listening to Jesus when Martha comes up to them, so Martha is probably interrupting.

The problem isn't one of activity, but attention. Martha is "worried and distracted" away from paying attention to Jesus. No matter that what she is busy with is good-- showing generous hospitality-- she is turning away from a greater good towards a lesser good. It is like turning from light of a lamp to a piece of paper is it illuminating.

In today's Epistle, Paul says that "Christ Jesus 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-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." All things are already being reconciled to God through Christ. As Christ's body, the Church, we take part in that reconciling action-- but first we ourselves are reconciled to God.

But we don't even have to choose. It's not an either/or proposition. We are called to both: Love God and do good. We just have to remember to do them in that order-- "Love God and do good." It's when we try it the other way around-- "Do good, and love God when things slow down," that we get into trouble. First, love God. This is the better part Mary chooses, and it will not be taken away from us.


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