Only One Thing is Needed (Luke 10:38-42)

(A sermon preached at Grace Anglican Church in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 17, 2022, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. Access the original sermon audio, with slight differences, here.)

Scripture: Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”

Introduction

You can almost smell the bread burning. You can hear the pot of lentils bubbling on the fire. Martha’s rushing around, room to room, trying to make sure everything is perfect for her special guest and, oh yes, the dozen or so guys he happens to have brought along. Did they have to go everywhere with him? And where’s Mary? That’s right—sitting there, on the floor, at Jesus’ feet, while her sister singlehandedly keeps house and makes dinner like the good Jewish hostess her mother taught her to be. Who can blame Martha for being somewhat peeved?

As a historical aside, no extra charge: sitting under a rabbi’s teaching was something only men could do in this time, and sitting at the rabbi’s feet was the place of the foremost disciple. But we don’t see Peter, John, or James sitting there in this situation. It’s Mary at Jesus’ feet, absolutely destroying the proverbial glass ceiling. (The non-proverbial ceiling was probably thatched straw. Turn to chapter five to see one of those breached for Jesus.)

But back to Martha, left alone to make dinner while her sister subverts both social order and good housekeeping. What could be more important than serving Jesus? Mary knows the answer: Jesus himself.

Let’s look at what Jesus says to Martha in this scene to see where she has gotten a bit off track and where we often do the same.

Worried and Distracted by Many Things

Jesus calls Martha out, saying, “Martha, Martha.” I love that he says her name twice. It has such a sense of intimacy, and I think even pity. She has missed the forest for the trees. Martha, he recognizes, is “worried and distracted by many things.” Does it sound familiar?

It does to me. I think I’ve been a performative person my entire life. I’m a doer. I get a lot of self-worth out of the things I do; I have often found my identity in my performance as a student, a writer, an artist, an employee, a minister, or any other role I’ve held over the years. And, the thing is, none of these things I have been in life are bad things to be. But whatever role I’ve held, I’ve often let the doing take over my life, and I’ve lost sight of the being.

Martha is being hospitable, which is a good thing much commended—even commanded—in scripture, yet she’s lost sight of what is truly important. Have you ever been in Martha’s position, where you are so busy with the doing that you neglect the reason you’re doing it? I know it often happens when we coordinate events. When I worked in hospitality, I would see it constantly. And at 38, while I’ve never been married, I’ve been in many a wedding party— “always a groomsman and never a groom,” you might say. More than once, I’ve encountered the bride and groom (particularly the bride) so wrapped up in the execution of the day that they don’t end up enjoying the time with their family and friends or even each other.

And this is symptomatic of our society, particularly in modern America. We work and work and work to support our families and ourselves, only to shortchange these loved ones or our own well-being with our time. Of course, we need not be doers to be “worried and distracted by many things.” Fear not, my friends! If you’re not a doer—if you’re a couch potato par excellence, our culture still offers plenty of other idols to which you can sacrifice your eyes, ears, hearts, and minds. We are a society so hungry for the next blurb of information, so addicted to the next hit of instant entertainment, and so obsessed with demonizing the “other” (whoever your favorite enemy of the moment is) that our minds, and even our souls, never find the peace and quiet to commune with our God. St. Augustine says, “Unquiet people love quarreling. They love argument. In their restlessness, they do not allow the quiet of the Lord’s Sabbath to enter their lives… Quieten the uproar in your minds. Let go of the idle fantasies that fly around within.”

But that is where we may be most neglectful. I even constantly feel pressure to rush through my prayer times, knowing that there are a dozen things I need to get done in the day or knowing so much has happened in the world in the last eight hours that I feel the need to “catch up.” It’s so easy to get on with the day and plunge head-first into the hustle. With the demands of today’s world, are we doomed to be “worried and distracted by many things”?

Only One Thing is Needed

Here Jesus reminds Martha of what Mary has uniquely understood: only one thing is needed: him. Jesus assures us, in this way, as he does in the Sermon on the Mount, that God is our ultimate provider. “Do not be anxious,” he says as he preaches on the hillside. Our God, who feeds the birds of the air and arrays the flowers of the field in their splendor, provides for us. Our God who, in the Old Testament reading for today, fulfilled his promise to provide a son to elderly Abraham and Sarah and grow a great nation from that child, provides for us. And more than material needs or earthly dynasty, God has provided Jesus himself, our source of eternal life, and the promise of a perfect kingdom breaking into this world that will never end. 

What our good works and abilities could never do, what we could never live up to, Jesus Christ accomplished and gifted to us. Out of that, for certain, our good works will come. However, this is not out of exhaustion from vainly trying to earn the favor of God, but from the overabundance of mercy and grace that he has granted us through Christ. The Gospel itself empowers and inspires us to go about his kingdom mission in the world. We are no longer constrained by guilt but liberated by grace.

How, though, do we reorient ourselves to the truth of Jesus’ goodness in the raucous world that amplifies our insecurities? How do we cut through the noise? We follow Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet.

Sit at the Feet of Jesus

And how do we sit at the feet of Jesus? Unlike Mary and Martha, we don’t have Jesus making himself at home in our den. Or do we? It’s easy to forget that Jesus has promised to be with us always, even unto the end of the age, and that he makes himself available to us. And to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear his teaching, we have only to open the sacred teaching he has left us and, enlightened by the Holy Spirit he sent to dwell within us, be open to the life these scriptures give. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who died for opposing Hitler, wrote in his book Life Together, “The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love.”

As Anglicans, we owe a tremendous debt to those who first spread the Gospel in the British Isles. When St. Aidan brought the Gospel to the Anglo-Saxons of northern England from Ireland in the 7th Century, he settled on an island called Lindisfarne and started a community. Lindisfarne was connected to the mainland at low tide and separated at high tide. This natural pattern created a rhythm for the monastic community, where there would be a time to go out, preach the Gospel, and practice benevolence for those in need. Then, there was always the time when they needed to return to Lindisfarne to rejuvenate, pray, and meditate on the scriptures. Their approach resembles that of our Lord, who, after a day of teaching and miracle-working, would often pull himself away “to a lonely place” for rest and communion with his Father.

Earlier this week, Anglicans and other Christians around the world commemorated St. Benedict of Nursia, the 4th Century Italian monk considered the father of Christian monasticism. He developed a rhythm, a “rule of life,” that broke up periods of work and other activity with eight prayer times throughout the day, during which scripture—and particularly the Psalms—would be said and sung. The ancient rhythms of monastic communities inspired Thomas Cranmer, the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, to create two daily times of scripture-reading and prayer, pared down from Benedict’s eight, in the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s lectionary for these daily prayer times was designed so those who used it could cover the great majority of scripture in a year and the Psalms every month. His goal was to have an English populace saturated with the Word of God.

It is essential that we take the time to step back, retreat from the noise, from everything our world tells us about itself and ourselves, and listen to Jesus, trusting in what he tells us about himself and us. We must allow that truth to mold us into his image. As Geoff Chapman of the American Anglican Council writes, “An extended time alone with the Lord, quiet and attentive before him, makes you able to hear more clearly. When you come out of the silence, you will speak more kindly, more wisely, and more deeply.”

It Will Not Be Taken Away

Finally, Jesus says that the portion Mary has chosen—that of sitting under his teaching—will not be taken from her. Of course, he means that, in the moment, she’s not to get up and grab the bread from the oven while Martha’s stirring those lentils. However, there’s more truth here than that. What she is doing is absorbing eternal knowledge. It will not be taken from her, and it will not be taken from us. Time with Jesus—time in prayer and in scripture—is time not wasted, not lost, but will stay with us even when the pages of our bibles are not open. And, further, the promise of Jesus that we find in scripture will not be taken away. 

Jesus invites us here. He invites us to relax, to sit at his feet and listen to his teaching. He invites us to remember that he is the only thing we need and that, unlike the demands of this world, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Only when resting in that, and only from that, can we go out and do, as our Prayer Book says, “all such good works as [he has] prepared for us to walk in.” 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Cover image: detail from William Blake, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, c. 1827)

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