One Thing Needful

Pentecost 9 – July 17, 2016 – Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” -Luke 10:38-42

It is not by accident that this story comes directly after the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.  Do you remember Jesus’ concluding words in that story?  “Go and do likewise.”  Go and show mercy to everyone you come across.

In the story of Mary and Martha, it appears that Martha was doing just that. She was taking Jesus’ words to heart. She invited the traveling Jesus and his disciples to her home for rest and a nice dinner.  We can imagine all her preparations—cleaning the house, going to the market, as well as preparing the dinner.  And it seems Martha’s sister Mary was of no help at all.  While Martha conscientiously went about preparing things and serving everyone who had arrived, Mary continued to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.

It is easy to sympathize with Martha.  It doesn’t seem fair or right does it?  …That Martha should do all the work while Mary sat with Jesus?  Martha loved Jesus too, and she would have liked to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to  him, but there were many things that just had to be done.

Finally Martha, “distracted with much serving,” went up to Jesus and  blurted out, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.”  With the Good  Samaritan  in mind She thought to herself, “Jesus, here I am doing what you said— working hard to serve other people, and yet my sister Mary won’t lift a  finger to help.”

Jesus lovingly, gently rebuked Martha.  “You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary, and Mary has chosen that one thing.”  Martha learned a valuable lesson that day.  Hearing Jesus’ teaching and taking it to heart is more important than serving the physical needs of others.

That’s a critical truth for us today.  Our understanding of this story must avoid making a caricature of Martha as a frenzied housewife preoccupied with pies and casseroles, completely disinterested in Jesus’ words. Martha’s difficulty was a flip-flop in her priorities.  For the moment at least, serving Jesus took precedence over sitting at his feet to hear his word.  Mary had the same priorities as Martha, but in the right order.

We Christians can so easily become so frantically anxious and busy with all the business and activities of the church that the “one thing needful” ends up on the back burner.  Like Martha loved Jesus, so we love Him and His church and we dive into our committees and offices and tasks and responsibilities.   In an effort to get more people involved and to attract new people, church leaders busily design new programs and initiatives and committees and efforts.  We want people to see that we have a lively, vibrant church, so there are dinners and camps and children’s programs and fellowship events and youth gatherings and charity events.  Like Martha, our zealous service in the church can easily distract us and obscure the one thing needful, which is quietly sitting and taking in Jesus’ word.  Our congregation leadership must always keep this in mind so that the people do not become overwhelmed with calls to service over the call to worship.

Jesus no longer  walks among us or stops by our homes for dinner.  We can’t literally sit as his feet and listen to him like Mary did.  We sit at Jesus feet  when we gather in his presence in the worship services, and Bible classes  of  the congregation.  The call to worship, to hear the Gospel, and to receive the sacrament must  be heard above and beyond  the call to join, participate, work, serve, etc.   In worship God comes to us to serve us.  He feeds us the  bread of his word. He gives us the water of everlasting life.  Through His Gospel he calms our fears and soothes our worries.  By his forgiveness he empowers us to forgive our brothers and sisters— which is the greatest service we can offer anyone.

What is the sign of  a truly spiritual,  relevant congregation? Many would point to full parish schedule of  activities, programs, self-improvement classes, and service opportunities.  A few weeks ago a new HyVee supermarket opened not far from our church.  It is a gorgeous, fabulous store.  When you walk in the main doors the first thing that catches your eye is the bakery department.  Gleaming glass cases display a mind- boggling variety of beautifully decorated and colorfully frosted pastries, cakes, and donuts.  If you can summon enough will power to walk by, you will find the produce department, stocked with more necessary things.  You can’t be healthy on a diet from the bakery department.  You will have to overcome the temptation and proceed  to the necessary and healthy produce.

The marketing department at HyVee headquarters is genious, They know how to attract customers by any means, healthy or not. But the church must not be that way.  The congregation’s concern must not be to fill the pews at any cost by any means, but to serve thirst and hungry souls the bread of life and the water from the well of salvation.

Some churches will do anything to attract prospective members.  The Cowboy Church of  Santa Fe County New Mexico[1] ha a chuck wagon and a rodeo arena. In 2014 a nondenominational group began raising funds to purchase a franchise and open a McDonalds inside the church.[2]  In Portland, Oregon at the stately old First Christian Church the parish hall is opened on Saturday nights for “Beer and Hymns.”  Attendees swig homemade stout from plastic cups and sing hymns from a projection screen.[3] , Grace-Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis “anoints” bikes each year on Memorial Day weekend. The anointing service is followed by a lakes bike ride, finishing with mugs of Flat Tire Ale at the finish line.[4]   The usual defense for such outrageous “worship” events is the philosophy that the end justifies the means.  “You can’t share Christ with them if you can’t get them through your front door.”  But even if Christ is shared- and that is questionable-  is the message really heard by folks whose attendance was motivated by free beer, rodeo, or a Big Mac?

In these circumstances outrageous attractions have become the new sacrament through which- or so it is imagined- people are converted to Christ.  Sadly, though those who offer such things are no doubt sincere, their philosophy of bringing people to God’s Word actually distracts people from the divine message which alone can save and satisfy them.  This philosophy is also a form of “bait and switch” marketing.  The customer is lured by some tantalizing offer, only to realize that the real intent is something different.

The message of Christ alone draws and satisfies those who are seeking truth, redemption, forgiveness, peace, hope, and assurance.  The Psalmist compares the sinner’s earnest desire for God to a deer that pants for streams of water.  The wounded soul seeking to be right with God will be attracted only by the message of hope in God’s Grace in Christ.  Only the message of the cross of Christ- the One Thing Needful, will satisfy and save him.

[1], Sept. 1, 2013

[2] – Nov. 28, 2014

[3], Nov 3, 2013

[4] Star Tribune, May 12, 2015