Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The One Thing Needful (Luke 10:38-42)

In the Name of Jesus

Dear brothers and sisters baptized into Christ:

Last weekend, at the annual congregational retreat, many of us here gathered around the campfire and the night sky to sing those vacation Bible school songs we first learned as small children. And after several verses of "Father Abraham" and "I Will Make You Fishers of Men," we sang about a sycamore tree and a wee-little man named Zachaeus, repeating the refrain with loud voices and joyfully clapping hands; echoing the words of Jesus himself: "For I'm going to your house today."
The coming of the kingdom of God to the house of a repentant, believing tax collector is something every true Christian should sing about with heart-felt joy. This is the same spectacular advent announced by the seventy-two disciples. This is the same amazing epiphany portrayed in the parable of the good Samaritan. The holy one of God — sent and baptized into his unique mission as the spotless sacrifice for sin and the victor over death and the grave; the very Son of God — comes under the roof of the house of Zacaheus to proclaim salvation for sinners and restore a wandering sheep to God's dear flock. And now he comes under the roof of the home of Mary and Martha.
Now as they [the disciples] went on their way, he [Jesus] entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. (Luke 10:38 ESV)
In the eyes of the unbelieving, Jesus does the unexpected and the unacceptable. The crowds had been taken back when Jesus, that promising young rabbi from Nazareth, had invited himself to the sinful house of a sinful tax collector named Zachaeus, judged by most as not only a sympathizer to the pagan Roman empire but as a traitor to his own people. And that crowd around the sycamore tree would have had a very similar reaction as Jesus now accepts the invitation of a woman to enter her home. A woman approaching a saintly rabbi and taking him into her house? Didn't she know that kind of thing was just not done? What would the neighbors think? Doesn't he know what staying in the home of two unattached women will do to his budding career? Doesn't he have a reputation to keep clean?
Nevertheless, before the disapproving and disappointed crowd, Jesus receives the invitation offered and — without first asking about the quality of awaiting amenities and the quantity of the cuisine — enters the private residence of these two sisters who, as in the case of Zachaeus, may have very well been suffering under a less-than-spotless reputation.
And she [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and kept on listening to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. (Luke 10:39-40a ESV)
Two sisters prepare themselves to receive the Lord, but in very different ways. Whether Mary began to straighten the linens on the table and peel the potatoes before she found herself sitting at the feet of Jesus we are not told. But, soon, Martha realized that she was left shouldering the weight of all that needed to be done to properly receive such an important guest, especially the preparations for a proper meal. Ordering out for pizza was simply out of the question. This wasn't uncle Fred come to socialize. This was the Lord, God's own anointed, the One she believed was the hope of Israel. Frantic, she began to get everything ready for her great service to this, the greatest guest that would ever venture under her roof. And very quickly she realized that she couldn't pay attention to the words Jesus was announcing in the front room while running around the kitchen chopping up meat and vegetables, kneeding the bread and mixing the sauces that would accompany the meal. With all her works of service, she became distracted and diverted — from the word of Christ, from the greater service he was doing through his word. In her attempt to first serve Christ, she had distanced herself from the very gifts Christ came to graciously give her. She didn't mean to, but, even with the best intentions, she put the cart before the horse. For you see, when Christ comes under our roof, he wills that even the hostess of the house come and allow him to do the unexpected, but that one thing required: to serve us.
The first thing presented in any Christian study of the God-pleasing, the Biblical, the Lutheran understanding of what goes on here on Sunday mornings is a review of the little word "service." To many, Sunday morning is all about the service of our worship. Too many of us approach Sunday morning service — and our entire Christian life — busy accomplishing this and doing that in a frenzied attempt to make things just right and proper for Christ and his Church. We assemble the homeless food bags on Monday, we clean the refrigerator in the congregation's kitchen on Tuesday, we chair the meeting to decide which contractor will re-surface the parking lot on Wednesday, we plan the Thanksgiving golf outing on Thursday, we sort the preschool crayons on Friday, we polish the sanctuary piano on Saturday, and we sleep through the alarm on Sunday.
Martha's distractions are our diversions. Martha's fallen nature is our fallen nature. Martha's temptation to first serve Jesus, and then, if there's time left over, to let Jesus say a few words is our danger as well. The devil, the world and our own sinful nature love nothing more than keeping us busy with saintly things to do that will drown out the voice of our Good Shepherd and bring us outside earshot of his redeeming word.
What Christ deigns for Sunday morning as he gathers us under this roof, is — first and foremost — his precious, life-giving service for each of us. He comes to feed and nourish us with his food as the Bread that came down from heaven.
It is Christ and his Word that makes a Church. It is Christ and his Word that makes a family and a Church family. In the same manner as the Gentile man rescued from demon-possession, Mary has begun to trust in Jesus as the Lord who redeems through his Word, and finds herself a disciple of Jesus, being found where a disciple of Jesus should be found: at his feet, that her ears might quickly receive what his mouth so graciously offered.
But back in the kitchen, things are really heating up.
And she [Martha] went up to him [Jesus] and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40b-42 ESV)
Tormented Martha is at her wit's end. "How shameful." she thinks. Not only has her younger sister abandoned ship, but Jesus continues to give Mary his undivided attention as Rabbi and Teacher and Lord instead of allowing her to do what she should be doing: serving him his portion of the cheese and crackers and wine and coleslaw and rolls and potatoes and gravy and roast.
The great thing we celebrate when Jesus came a knockin' at the door of Zachaeus is not his great promise to make things right by writing a big check for the poor. It is Jesus' greater promise to make things right by the giving of his very life for scoundrels like Zachaeus.
Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 document the purpose for which Christ came as we hear from Jesus own lips: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.” Jesus said. (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45 ESV)
The great thing we celebrate when Jesus entered the house of Mary and Martha is not their great work of serving a six course meal. It is Jesus' greater work as the Suffering Servant who carries us to table, sits us down in our chair, and serves us with his Word. His Word with water. His Word with bread and wine. His Word through the Prophets and Apostles.
God-given faith trusts that with Jesus it's a one course meal — and he gives us himself.
May God in his grace open our ears and sit us down at the feet of Christ and his Word, the one thing needful — the one thing that can never be taken away.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen