Sermon: We’re So Vain (We Probably Think This Sacrament Is About Us)

Sunday, July 21, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
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Many years ago now, when I was in college, I spent a couple of summers working as a camp counselor at Camp Carol Joy Holling. I remember my very first summer at camp; I was a nervous wreck.  I just wanted so badly to do a good job and to make the experience as special as I possibly could for these kids.

One of my first weeks at camp, I was placed with a very special little tribe of seven campers, whom I counted like this: three girls, three boys, and Kenny.  Kenny was a sweet boy who had some attention and learning difficulties. He tried to stay focused and sit still, but it was hard for him, especially during bible study and worship. But Kenny brought two important gifts to camp with him: immense creativity, which he liked to express through drawing, and a passionate, undying love for the Lego story franchise Bionicle.

When it came to be our little group’s turn to plan evening worship, I was a little bit nervous about how exactly this was going to go.  Our planning session was all over the place – just pure chaos.  But somehow, things started to click for us when Kenny started making connections between our gospel story for the evening and, amazingly, the stories of Bionicle.  We had been assigned the parable of the four soils, and with the help of the other kids, Kenny found examples for each of the four kinds of soil in the stories of Bionicle.  And based on all this, the kids came up with this wonderful skit for our message.

Thursday evening came, when we were set to lead worship. And as I sat down for the service, I realized – to my absolute horror – that I had been so worried about getting the kids ready for worship that I had completely forgotten several of the things that I  was supposed to do for worship.  I had forgotten things like: making sure we had a guitar player who knew the songs that we had picked, or bringing the big plastic container that was one of the main things we needed for our confessional rite.

I was so embarrassed that I had forgotten such important things, and felt so worried that I had let these kids down! The week had just been so crazy.  After worship, I apologized a million times to my site manager – especially since he was the one who ran to get the guitar and the plastic tub I had forgotten!  I told him I just felt so bad.  And I remember, as we walked back up the path toward camp, he stopped and said to me, “Day, what are you talking about??  That was one of the best camper gospel messages I have ever heard.  Your kids really got it.”  And I realized that he was totally right.  My campers were so excited to share the gospel message and so proud of their work – and you could look around at that evening worship and see that all of the other campers there were deeply engaging with these stories as well.  It was an incredible, precious moment of pure gospel goodness that had unfolded right in front of me – and I was so wrapped up in what I  was doing that I had almost missed it.

I think Martha is having a similar issue in our gospel reading for this morning.  She is so wrapped up in the importance of the tasks that she is doing that she almost misses out on the amazing thing happening right in her own living room. Mary, on the other hand, is totally plugged in and absorbing every minute of it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean to say that the things that Martha was doing don’t matter – far from it.  Plenty of preachers have been critical of Martha in their sermons, but I don’t think that that’s totally fair.  Just like my campers needed a guitar player and a big plastic tub of water for their worship service, Martha was carrying out the necessary tasks of hospitality for her guests.  We see again and again in scripture that hospitality is a really core value for God’s people – and that is what Martha is all about.  Even in our first reading for today, from Genesis, we see Abraham being lifted up as a positive example of hospitality.  He welcomes his guests and goes about making preparations for them, just like Martha does in our gospel reading.

But I do see one important distinction between these two accounts of hospitality.  In Abraham’s story, it says that the Lord appeared to Abraham, in the form of three men. Abraham runs out of his tent and falls down at the feet of these three men.  And from that point on, his service is totally focused on them:  “My lord, if I find favor with you,” “Let water be brought to wash your feet, and rest yourselves,” “you have come to your servant,” and so on.  Abraham’s hospitality is about receiving God in the form of these three men.

Martha likewise welcomes God in human form: she welcomes Jesus as a guest.  But we see in her words that her focus is a little different from Abraham’s.  “Lord, do you not care that my  sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!”  Martha is doing her best to be a good host, but unfortunately, she has gone and made it all about herself instead of making it about Jesus.  One of my pastoral colleagues joked this week that we think of Stephen as the first martyr of the church, but Martha was gunning for that position long before him.

Joking aside, it does seem pretty clear to me that Martha is kind of miserable.  She has taken the weight of the world on her shoulders and feels like she has been forced to carry this burden, this responsibility, by herself.  But Jesus gently pulls her back to see the bigger picture, and helps her to focus on what really matters the most.  I can imagine him catching her calloused hands in his, still smelling like dish soap, and Jesus gently saying to her, “Martha, Martha, slow down.  Dinner is important, and we are hungry.  But be with me now.  You are working hard to provide us food and comfort and shelter.  But I have come to bring you healing and forgiveness and everlasting life.”  Jesus makes clear that he is the true host.

I don’t know about you, but I find Martha’s struggle deeply relatable.  It is so, so easy to busy ourselves with the business of ministry – to talk all day about God without taking the time to talk to God.  It’s easy to get trapped into thinking that it is all up to us to do ministry – easy to think that the future of the church depends on us.  We fall into thinking that it’s our ministry that God is part of, when really the opposite is true: we  are part of God’s ministry.  We are part of something much larger than ourselves.

Church is so much more than just the tasks of ministry.  Everything we do is meant to point toward God.  We have been caught up in a tidal wave of God’s love and mercy that crashes over the world, and our job is to go and tell others what we have seen and heard.  And there is no better reminder of this than what we are doing today.  Today, we get to celebrate the baptisms of two of God’s beloved children: Riah and Evan. In baptism, we are reminded again and again that it is always God who is at work in us.  It is always God who draws near to us and claims us in love.  It is always God who is welcoming us into God’s life and into God’s heart.

And yes, there is work that we are called to do. Even in baptism, there are promises made.  Evan and Riah will make these promises today – promises that were made over many of you when you were small, promises that you affirmed in your confirmation:  to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.  This is the vocation, the ministry, to which we have all been called.

But we must never forget that all we do is held in God’s hands.  Our ministry is just one small part of the wonderful things that God is doing in the world, through and among all God’s children.  We are like raindrops in that tidal wave of love and mercy washing over the earth.  And we are called to go out into the world soaked and dripping with God’s grace to pour out on others the love that we have so richly received.

So as we celebrate the gift of baptism today, we remember that it’s not all up to us.  We have been made part of God’s mission and ministry in the world.  God has chosen us so that we too might choose the better part.


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