Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 11C, preached on Sunday, July 21, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
Today we hear the familiar story of Mary and Martha. These two sisters lived in the village of Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. As Jesus was passing through with the Twelve, and possibly with other unnamed followers, Martha invited Him into her home. This was no small invitation. She was now responsible for feeding at least 13 hungry men, along with everyone else who was there. No wonder she was upset when she saw Mary doing nothing.
Being completely honest, most of us would be right there with Martha, complaining about how Mary wasn’t helping, leaving us to do all the work. But Mary wasn’t ignoring her serving responsibilities. She too was serving the Lord, just in a different way. Mary was serving the Lord, by being served by the Lord.
There are two ways to serve, Martha’s way, active service, and Mary’s way, passive service.
Active service is what we think of the most. It fulfills God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:39). When we help those in need, we’re serving the Lord. When we donate food and volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, we serve the Lord. When we visit the sick and pray for those in the military, we serve the Lord (cf. Mt 28:31-46). When we hold leadership positions in this congregation and help with VBS, we serve the Lord. Actively serving the Lord is a good thing and all of us need to find a way to actively serve. But like all good things, our sin touches active service, and leaves its mark.
Sin touched Martha’s service. First, she became upset with her sister. We too become upset when we think others aren’t helping. We get angry with people when they don’t pull their weight, whether it be at work, school, at home, or even here at church.
Secondly, Martha was sinning because she tried to stop Jesus’ service to Mary. When we refuse service and help from others, we’re denying Christ’s service to us. God works through means. He serves us through others. When children refuse care from their parents, they refuse Christ’s care. When parents in old age deny help from their children, they deny Christ’s help. When we refuse help from friends when we’re in need, we’re refuse Christ’s help. Christ serves us through the hands of others.
Sin also skews our service by turning it from being about the benefit others into being a source of selfish pride. Serving others is another way for us to stroke our ego. We enjoy being told we’re a good person because we help. We like getting titles and awards for donating money and volunteering. What’s even worse, we can become confident in these accolades and believe we’ll be rewarded with salvation for them. But no matter how many people you help, nothing you do can save you from your sin.
Finally, because of sin, any benefit that active service produces is short lived. Nothing lasts. The hungry we feed will become hungry again. The sick we visit and nurse back to health, they’ll get sick again. Active service takes care of earthly necessities, and there are many. But because sin has broken our world, this life can’t last forever. All will die, no matter how much active service we do. For eternal life only one thing is necessary, and passive service fulfills that need.
We see passive service with Mary. As Martha was running around, actively serving, Mary was quietly sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to everything He said. But how is that service? Just like Martha who was served the Lord by fulfilling the commandment to support her neighbors in their physical need, Mary was serving the Lord by keeping His commandment to remember the Sabbath day. By sitting and listening to Jesus speak Mary was keeping the Lord’s commands. She was not despising God’s Word but holding it sacred and gladly hearing it and learning it. What better way to serve the Lord than to follow His command and listen to His Word?
When Mary listened to Jesus, she was serving Him. You too serve the Lord by hearing His Word. You’re serving the Lord right now. Every Sunday when you come here to hear God’s Word preached, you’re serving Lord. Whenever you open your Bible for devotions, you’re serving the Lord. And at these times you aren’t just serving the Lord, but He is serving you.
We hear from Jesus’ own lips that He came not to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45). This service is ultimately seen on the cross where He gave up His life to pay for your sins. Christ shed His blood so that you would be forgiven and have everlasting life. But Jesus’ service didn’t end with His death. It didn’t end with His resurrection and ascension. Christ continues to serve you today, and He’ll continue to serve you until He comes again.
The Lord serves you the same way He served Mary. When you hear God’s Word, He works faith within you (Rom 10:17). This faith is a service from God, it’s a gift from God.
God’s serves in His Sacraments. At your Baptism He placed His name upon you and claimed you as His own. At this altar He gives you Christ's body and blood that nourishes and strengthens your faith, preserving you unto life everlasting. God serves you here. That’s why we call worship the Divine Service. In it God serves you, through His absolution, through the preaching of His word, and through His Sacraments.
We saw Martha running around serving Jesus and everyone else. When she came to Him upset, He gently told her that one thing is necessary. That one thing is faith given through the hearing of His Word. Through passive service to the Lord you receive what’s necessary. And this will never be taken away from you. God will continually serve you through His Word and no one and nothing can stop Him (cf. Rom 8:38-39).
Through Martha and Mary, God shows us that active service shouldn’t take place to the neglect of passively serving God. This doesn’t mean active service is bad. Active service is good, and it flows from passive. Through passive service, God creates faith, and then with this faith, we go out and actively serve our neighbors. All service comes from first being served by God. Because Christ died in our place and because He’s given us faith we can do nothing else but serve others. So serve the Lord today. Be served by Him here, and then share that service to others. In Jesus’ name… Amen.