Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mary and Martha

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 21, 2013 (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)

Martha had welcomed Jesus into her home and was fixing a nice meal for Him, and generally doing those things a good hostess will do for her guests.  And that’s great.  Martha wanted to show how important Jesus was to her, and making Him a nice meal was certainly a good way of doing so.  But in the heat of all her busy preparations for the meal, she ends up snapping at her sister Mary for not helping her.  She accuses Mary of not doing anything for Jesus, of not doing good works for her God.  Not only, that but she criticizes God Himself for allowing her to get away with it, and even blasphemously suggests that God Himself doesn’t care about her.  What Martha seems to have forgotten is that Jesus never commanded Martha to make all these elaborate preparations for His meal, but He did command through His word that His people listen to Him and receive His Word.  Martha was, in effect, telling Mary to stop doing something God had told her to do in order to start doing something God had not told her to do.

Do you want to do something for God?  Do you want to show Him how much salvation means to you?  Do you want to praise Him with all of your being because of what He has done for you?  Good!  Wonderful!  This shows that you truly have a heart that has been recreated by God to love Him and your neighbor.  But what is the highest and best service you can perform for God?  Something you yourself choose to do for Him, or what He has asked you to do?  Certainly there are a lot of things we do for Him, such as maintaining and improving this building, which exists for the purpose of His coming to us in Word and Sacrament, having various Bible studies as well as the Cross and Crown Society, supporting a Lutheran grade school and a Lutheran high school, working in partnership with a Hispanic congregation, having a quilting society, and many other things that are done in connection with the Church.  And there is nothing wrong with those things, in and of themselves.  But when we put those things ahead of what God does for us, if we regard our busy-ness, our activity, our involved-ness in the Church and its activities to be more God-pleasing than the ordinary duties toward our neighbor that God gives us in our everyday lives, or worse yet more important than what God does for us in His Word and Sacrament, there’s a problem.  It’s called idolatry of yourself.

This is a point Luther brings out in his Large Catechism.  Simple fulfillment of the Ten Commandments, when it is done in faith, is a higher and more holy good work than any extraordinary act of service to God.  In Luther’s day it was the monks in the monasteries who were constantly trying to please God through their own busy-ness and activity.  Today it is tempting for those who are especially active in the church’s organizations and programs, or those who have devoted their lives and careers to church-related work, to think that this makes them somehow better or more holy than those who are only able to come to the Divine Service and then go home immediately afterward in order to take care of their families and go earn a living in the world.  But, as Luther points out in the Large Catechism, a child who simply obeys his father and mother performs a higher and more holy good work than any “good work” that someone chooses for themselves.  To simply obey the Ten Commandments is greater and more holy than any amount of participation in Church activities, it is more God-pleasing than any amount of telling other people about Christ, even though all these things are good in themselves.

But when we look at these simple, ordinary, everyday works God has asked us to do in the Ten commandments, we begin to realize what we are up against if we want to please God.  The commandments are memorized and recited easily enough; grade school children are capable of memorizing them, along with Luther’s explanations.  But saying them is one thing, doing them is another.  Our sinful flesh would rather do the most difficult and spectacular self-chosen good work than simply obey the Ten Commandments.  It’s part of the pride built into our nature.  We can’t, by nature, choose the humble, selfless works of the Ten Commandments.  There is no glory in simply obeying the commandments.  By nature, we want to do something impressive.  But the Commandments are humble, everyday good works, or so we think.  And they are very difficult, requiring us not just to show love to our neighbor, but actually to love him, something we simply cannot do, because love is only love if it isn’t forced.  No wonder we by nature choose other good works that we have invented rather than the humble life of an ordinary Christian.  It is actually easier to be a spectacular, holier-than-thou person than it is to be a sincere, humble, Christian.

And the hardest good work of all is the one which at first glance appears to be the easiest.  The highest worship of God, the highest expression of appreciation for what He has done for us, is to obey the First Commandment.  Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.  Easy as cake, we think.  We don’t worship idols.  But what does it mean to have a God?  Again from the Large Catechism, a God is whatever or whomever we rely on to give us everything we need.  In other words, to have no other Gods before the true God is to rely patiently on Him to give us everything we need, not only for this life, but especially for eternal life.  The highest, most holy, most blessed worship of God is not found in good singing or heartfelt expressions of emotion or anything else that we do in the worship service, let alone how much time we spend in church-related activities and programs; to worship God means to let Him serve us, to let Him give us eternal life and all the blessings that come with that, through the hearing of the preached word, through the daily renewal of our baptism, and through the eating and drinking of His body and blood.  Our pride may not like it, but the highest worship of God is to sit at His feet and let Him do all the work, to let Him be the host and we the guests.  The Divine Service is not just another program of the Church.  It is not merely another opportunity to learn information about Jesus Christ and His salvation.  The Divine Service is the center of the Church’s life.  If we had Lutheran schools and bible studies and Cross and Crown and spent all sorts of extra time maintaining this building, but didn’t have weekly services, we would be a religious club, not a Church.  But if we had only the Divine Service and not any of those other things, we would still be the Church of Jesus Christ in this place.  The reason is that the Divine Service is where Christ actually comes to meet His people in His Word publicly proclaimed and in His body and His blood.  Here things are backward.  We would expect Him to be the honored guest, and we the hosts who have to do all the work.  But it’s turned around, just like it was with Mary when she sat at Jesus’ feet.  Here we are the guests, and He is the host who graciously provides us with everything we need.  And “everything we need” really means everything, by the way.  He gives us nothing less than the chance to live forever with Him, forever receiving His gifts of life and salvation, free from any pains and sorrows because He bore them for us.  He gives us nothing less than to sit at His feet and to love Him by receiving His gifts forever.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

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