Sermon Preached by the Rev. Colin H. Williams
Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, 19 July 1998
"You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing."-Luke 10:41
The tension between the practical and the idealistic as presented in this morning's gospel from Luke was illustrated for me most clearly in the Spring of 1990. It was during this second semester of my Sophomore year of college that I was called to serve the most important elected office of my college fraternity, the most noble office, the sine qua non office of responsible house government. Atop the highest hill in upstate New York, for a building whose architectural style was comparable to that of Calvary's Ralph Adams Cram, I was the House Manager of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. The House Manager-the head sexton, as it were-was responsible for organizing house clean-ups and maintenance, which after our week-end social events was not an unsubstantial task.
Although Alpha Delt didn't cost over $3000 per day to operate like Calvary does, the grand edifice required careful attention to cleaning, repair, and preservation if we wanted it to continue as our shelter from the stormy blast and our hope for years to come. College life in upstate New York can be cold and lonely in both the physical and metaphorical sense, and someone had to tend to the non-glamourous but essential tasks that kept the house running.
Saturday mornings were house clean-up days, and for every brother who woke up bright and early to wield mops and brooms and cleaning solvents, there was a Howie, my roommate Howie, who usually snuck out the back door. And late every Saturday night, Howie would inevitably show up with some bizarre entourage of new friends, all recounting stories of the evening's adventures. Upon entering, our guests would exclaim, "Oh what a lovely house you guys have!" And Howie didn't miss a beat: "Well, we do try our best to keep it up..." I cringe. Like Martha protesting in the gospel, I take Howie aside to ask if he even cares that he left the other brothers to do the work by ourselves. If it were not for the practically-minded of us, there would be no house left standing to come back to. Howie's response was like Jesus' to Martha: "Colin, you are worried and distracted by many things...Do you really want to look back on four years of college and see only a clean fraternity house, the status-quo preserved, never a chance taken or your circle of friends expanded? More than this, I think we should do all we can to overcome our reputation as a beautiful but closed and elitist house." You can imagine what kind of house this was to live in!
Practical versus idealistic. From the Luke's gospel this morning we have a story that is somewhat different from Jesus' usual parables with their hidden meanings. Rather, this story of two sisters is about real life, plain and simple. Here we meet two very different personalities: the practical Martha and the idealistic Mary. Imagine what kind of house this was to live in! The ever-hospitable Martha is quick to welcome Jesus into her home, as he makes his journey down to Jerusalem. Then Mary, Martha's sister, sits down at Jesus' feet-the traditional position of a student to his (his!) teacher-to listen and to learn. Don't forget that for Jesus to sit and teach among women was completely counter-cultural, spending time with lowly Samaritans, lepers, tax-collectors, non-Jewish gentiles, and all the other second-class citizens of the ancient world.
Martha, worried and "distracted by her many tasks," or "worried with much serving" as another translation says, protests to Jesus, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all this work by myself", "to serve alone." The actual greek word for "work" and "serving" is diakonia-from which we get the word "deacon." As Martha is consumed with the very practical necessities of good housekeeping or house managering, there is her lucky sister, off enjoying the ideal-exploring fresh ideas, learning new things, using her creativity and imagination as she is challenged by Jesus. Jesus responds to Martha, "You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." Martha must have been livid-just as livid as if Howie would have said to me, "Colin, you obsessive-compulsive no-fun busybody; I have chosen the better part!" More than this, just as no one kept me from joining in Howie's adventures, nothing prohibited Martha from joining her sister at Jesus feet, to explore her own creativity and ideas. Nothing was stopping Martha from joining Mary except Martha. Imagine what kind of house this was to live in!
Practical versus idealistic. Still being a house manger at heart, I cannot fathom that Jesus actually believed that the idealistic was more important than the practical, that Mary had indeed chosen the better part and that Martha's practical concerns were unimportant. If hospitality was one of the most noble customs of ancient culture, how could Martha's concerns be so easily dismissed? And was it not Jesus himself who commanded us not to fritter and waste our time gazing up to the heavens, but rather that if anyone wanted to follow him, he or she must be servant-diakonia-servant of all, like Martha?
Perhaps such strong language was exactly what Martha needed to hear, just as we need to hear such strong language in our personal lives when we become overly concerned with self-protection and not with growing, learning, and adventure. One of my favorite sayings is, "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." We need to hear such strong language as a culture when we become too concerned with maintaining the safe and solid but static status-quo, and not with putting power, possession, and skill to good use for the welfare and benefit of all. We need to hear such strong language as a Church when we become overly concerned with self-preservation, taking care of and nurturing only our own house, and not reaching out to others. For those whose own house is in order, even grander and greater should be our emphatic gestures of faith be that seek to serve the world around us.
Practical versus idealistic. In the end, the strongest person is he or she who never allows worldly concerns to supersede transcendent aspirations, and vice-versa. The strongest relationships are those in which we appreciate our different personalities and strengths, appreciating both the Colins and the Howies, the Marthas and the Marys. Such relationships pull us in directions that are not always easy or comfortable, but they ask us to grow. And finally, the strongest church-that which is well-equipped to endure stormy blasts and yet still offer hope to all for years to come-the strongest church is the practical one that takes care of her foundation, while remaining ever-mindful of the ideals to which her spire directs: mission upward and outward into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, blessing the Lord, and going forth in the name of Christ. Thanks be to God.
Please feel free to contact Fr. Williams if you have questions or comments about this or any sermon.
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