Saturday, August 23, 2008

Life's Most Important Things

Luke 10:38-42

Michael Phelps won 8 Olympic Gold Medals last week. That’s a pretty amazing fete. It took a lot of hard work and determination to reach that level of success, and he’ll be well rewarded for his efforts. Of course there have been a lot of other athletes who have devoted long hours and hard work to their efforts but came up short. Consider for a moment the hurdler Lolo Jones. She’s the best in the world, and she had the lead with just two more hurdles to cross.

Unfortunately she hit the ninth hurdle, lost her balance, and stumbled across the line out of the medals. She’d worked hard too, but her reward will be different. In the Olympics there are far more stories about falling short than winning gold, but whatever the case, the basic story is one of commitment and dedication to the important things in life.

Speaking of important things – Last weekend Cheryl and I finally got to celebrate our 25th Anniversary. We were thinking about Hawaii, but ended up in Frankenmuth for the weekend. Marriage might not be an Olympic sport, but being married for 25 years or 50 years takes quite a bit of dedication and hard work. And sometimes it doesn’t work out the way we hope.

So, what is most important to you? What are you willing to dedicate your life to? Is it family, a job, success, friendships?

1. The Seeming Priority of the Mundane

One day Jesus came to town and knocked on the door of a woman named Martha. In good Middle Eastern fashion, she invited him and his companions in for a meal. She did this because hospitality was and is a central cultural value in that part of the world. If strangers knock at the door, you can’t turn them away. But, as everyone knows, entertaining guests can be stressful, especially when they show up unannounced.

On this day, Martha didn’t have time to clean the house, go shopping, or even prepare the meal ahead of time. Jesus just showed up – with his entourage. But like a good host, she was determined to do the best she could to set out a good table. And so off she went, working feverishly to get the job done. The only problem was that she assumed that her sister Mary would be there to help her out with the meal. But when she looked around the kitchen, Mary was nowhere to be found. When she finally found her sister, she was surprised to find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him talk.

Now, in the first century, sitting at the feet of the master was a mark of discipleship. But Mary was a woman, and a woman’s place was in the kitchen! Obviously, Martha knew her place, but Mary didn’t. This angered Martha, but as Jesus pointed out, Mary had heard the call to discipleship and had taken up her place among Jesus’ followers. This wasn’t normal – that is, back then women didn’t normally participate in theological discussions. But when Jesus was around, things changed – including priorities!

2. The More Urgent Priority of the Call to Discipleship

When Martha angrily challenged Mary, Jesus responded by commending Mary for her choice. He didn’t dismiss Martha’s act of hospitality, but he wanted Martha to know that as gracious as her hospitality was, Mary still chose the most important thing. The meal could wait, but the teacher’s words couldn’t. I think he also wanted Martha to understand that cultural barriers cannot keep the faithful from service in the kingdom of God. And so, Jesus said to his friend:
"Martha, 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."
Yes, there’s a time and a place for everything, just as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes suggests (Eccles. 3:1ff). There is a time for acts of hospitality, but ultimately the greatest act of hospitality is sitting attentively at the Master’s feet!

3. Finding the Proper Rhythm

Life is full of choices and we must prioritize our opportunities. In many ways, life is a bit like a piece of jazz music. Each piece has its own sense of rhythm, and we must discover that rhythm to enjoy it. And when we do, there is great bliss.

And so there’s a time and a place for everything – a time for hospitality and a time for listening, a time for doing and a time for being. In this story, Jesus commends the one who took time out to listen. But, in the story of the Good Samaritan, hospitality has priority over traditional religious duties. In many ways, for the Samaritan, hospitality was an act of discipleship.

When we read the story of Mary and Martha together with the parable of the Good Samaritan, we discover that following Jesus is a very complex thing. As Fred Craddock has said:

“Both the Samaritan and Mary are examples, and both are to be emulated. The burden lies in discerning when to do the one and when to do the other. The Christian life involves, among other things, a sense of timing."1

So, as we think about our priorities as individuals and as a congregation, we need to find that sense of rhythm. That’s because more often than not, we’ll be forced to choose not between good and bad, but between two very important opportunities. Making such a choice can be difficult and even stressful, but if we can learn to listen for God’s still small voice, then we’ll begin to feel the rhythm and find the balance, and we’ll know what to do at that moment in time. Indeed, there’s a time to pray and a time to take care of a homeless person. There’s a time to worship and a time to learn about the ways of God. So, once again the question is asked: What is most important?

Several years ago, when Dick Hamm was still General Minister, he shared his vision for the Disciples as we moved into the 21st century. He called it the “20/20 Vision.”2 And, in this vision, he outlined three priorities: True community, a deep Christian spirituality, and a passion for justice. He said that if churches are going to experience renewal, they must incorporate all three priorities. That’s because they are for us the most important things. Whatever we do in our worship, in our study, and in our service must be guided by these principles. In them we find our sense of balance and rhythm. And so, together we will seek to live out these priorities and values as followers of Jesus. With that, I once again ask: What is most important to you? And for this congregation?

1. Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year, C, (TPI, 1993), 345.
2. Richard Hamm, 2020 Vision for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), (Chalice Press, 2001).

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
15th Sunday after Pentecost
August 24, 2008

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