Listen to the sermon from Sunday, July 17, 2016 titled “Prayer-Works” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan we heard last week, Luke gives us the story of the M&M sisters. Mary and Martha, with their brother Lazarus, would become Jesus’ BFF’s. But Luke gives us what seems to be their first encounter, when Jesus comes to their village and Martha invites Him and his entourage to her home for dinner. What follows is an archetypal story of hospitality gone haywire.
Martha was a first century Jewish woman. And the culturally assigned role of women in her time and place was to provide support for the men in her life. Her role as host is to create a space for the men to dine and converse and concentrate on their business.
No doubt Martha feels honored to welcome such an important guest. But we all know hosting is hard work. You have to get out your best dishes, set the table, be sure everybody has a place. You have to plan your menu, procure the ingredients, and prepare the meal so that every dish is ready at the right moment. For such an important guest, Martha must be planning a Mediterranean feast: breads, fruits, vegetables, olives, meats, and wine combined in savory dishes. It’s major multitasking, and I haven’t even mentioned the cleanup chores.
Luke twice uses a form of the word διακονία (diakonia) – from which we get our word “deacon” – to describe Martha’s activity here. The word literally means “waiting on tables” but is generally used to describe any kind of helpful service.
No doubt, Martha imagines herself as the consummate host gracefully achieving perfection in an occasion her guests will always treasure. Instead, Jesus notes, she is distracted and worried. The words literally mean “pulled apart by wild horses,” “anxious,” and “stirred up.” It’s a universal experience. How many times have you seen hosts so distracted by multitasking they aren’t really present to their guests?
Jesus is in the house, but Martha can’t enjoy it. She is too busy. “Busy” is the buzzword of our day. “Busy” is a way we tell ourselves we’re important. “Busy” is a way we avoid dealing with our stuff. “Busy” is the excuse we use to postpone facing the hard questions, having the critical conversations, or engaging what matters most.
Martha is busy doing “woman’s work,” in the parlance of the time. And there sits sister Mary, that little prima donna, listening to Jesus’ Word right along with the men, not lifting a finger to help. Can you blame Martha for feeling outraged by the injustice of it all?
A storm begins to brew on Martha’s face. Jesus should see it coming when Martha sets out the “Angry Bird” fruit plate. As she moves back and forth from kitchen to main room catching snippets of conversation, hearing Mary laugh and ask questions as if she were one of the guys, Martha’s mood moves from irritation to resentment to rage, mainly at Mary, but then at the men, and finally to Jesus himself, who ought to have the sensitivity to intervene.
Finally Martha loses it. Instead of the consummate gracious host, she becomes the frantic, angry interruptor demanding Jesus fix the problem. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!”
Think of it as a prayer, and like so many of our prayers demanding Jesus fix the people who annoy us, a way of avoiding any self-reflection. Martha is not asking “What am I doing to create this?” or “What do these feelings tell me about myself?” That self work is always so hard to do.
Several times in the gospels people try to pull Jesus into family disputes. He is skillful in avoiding such triangles. So here, he doesn’t address what’s wrong with Mary. He addresses what’s wrong with Martha. Jesus has that way of turning our prayers back on us, you know? Maybe that’s why we don’t pray more.
Luke doesn’t tell us what happens after he speaks to Martha. I want to think maybe Jesus turns to Mary and to all the men in the room and says, “Let’s help Martha, shall we?” because there is justice to Martha’s plea. A few people shouldn’t have to carry most of the load while the rest of us sit around and enjoy the show. Elsewhere Jesus calls his followers to help each other, to do their part in the community. And he often breaks through conformity to social rules about roles to treat women as spiritual equals.
But here, since Martha is barking, he addresses Martha first. “Martha. Martha.” He calls her name twice. To express his affection. To focus her attention. To calm her spirit. “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” What is that “one thing?” Some commentators think Jesus is telling Martha they don’t need all these dishes, that one would suffice. It’s that old KISS rule – “Keep it simple, stupid!” which is always good advice. We do tend to complicate things.
But I think the “one thing” needed is more than that. “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus tells Martha, “which will not be taken away from her.”
Luke says Mary has chosen to listen to Jesus’ “word.” And that’s why I think this story is a kind of commentary on the story of the Good Samaritan with it’s emphasis on “go and do likewise” action. Jesus is not opposing service and worship. He is not preferring prayer over action, which would make these stories contradictory to one another. Rather he is balancing prayer and action, and creating the connection between the two.
And this is such an important word for our deacons today and for all the worker bees of our busy Martha church. Listen, all you Martha’s: channel your inner Mary! Don’t neglect your prayer-work. Your service to others should always grow out of your spiritual center in Christ so it will be active and not reactive, discerning and not self-aggrandizing, healing and not divisive.
If you ever find yourself feeling resentful, neglected, unappreciated, burned out, judgmental, and angry in your service to others, chances are you’ve been neglecting your prayer-work.
Prayer is not wasted time, unless it is a quick throw off so you can get busy. Prayer is working on yourself before God, centering in Christ, and discerning the contours of your calling as you are filled with the Spirit of Christ. As Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do, I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
Prayer is the work which informs, inspires, and initiates our service. Prayer is what keeps our service true to Christ. Prayer distinguishes Christian service from ordinary helping by keeping us faithful and loving over the long haul.
Jesus is connecting prayer and service, but even more, he is calling Martha to savor the sacred moment. We miss so many sacred moments because we are busy and distracted, moving dully from one task to the next. I think of a Mom or Dad doing household chores when their child says, “Look at this picture I made you.” The centered parent knows this child is offering a gift and the thing to do is stop, to celebrate and treasure this holy moment. But we are tempted to glance and pass over and maybe complain we’re too busy right now. How many of those sacred moments do we miss with each other because we are too distracted to be present? So we miss what matters most, which is not our self-important work, but each other. Each other.
We are sharing a sacred moment this morning. Today we are ordaining five of our own community as deacons. It is a lifelong call to be servant leaders in the body of Christ. We ordain by recognizing this call in them and dedicating ourselves to their success in this ministry. We are not saying, “You do this work while we watch” but “We’ll do this work together, we’ll serve with you and together model what it means to follow Christ as servants in the world.”
The laying on of hands is an ancient symbol of solidarity for healing, supporting, and commissioning. It has been used in ordination since the earliest days of the church. Because deacons are called not just to serve our church, but to serve the church of Jesus Christ for the rest of their lives, we invite the whole church, including any follower of Christ present to join us in the laying on of hands. In Baptist life, the apostolic succession does not reside in the hands of an elite cadre of already ordained. It resides in the hands of the gathered church.
As they come before us today, you come and place your hand on their head or shoulder and share a brief word of encouragement, scripture, or prayer. As you recognize their calling to be servants of the church centered in Christ, you take up your call to be Christ’s servant, too. Let us not miss the holiness of this moment as we remember in Christ, every moment is holy, filled with meaning and life and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Friends, Jesus is in the house. Let’s pay attention, shall we? Amen. May we pray?
Forgive us when we are busy and distracted, self-important and proud, serving to feel good about ourselves. You are always with us. teach us how to stop and be with you. Humble us to see and serve one another out of the love you have centered in our hearts. And bless us now as we share the sacred service of setting aside these friends as your deacons, servants of Christ and the church. In the name of Christ, amen.