Sermon: One Thing is Needful

“One Thing is Needful”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 22, 2015


Choir Anthem: “It is Well With My Soul”

In our continuing consideration this Lent about what it takes to make changes in our lives, last week we looked at making choices. We make choices every day, some for the good and some for the not so good. But if we have a foundation for our individual choices, then it is clearer – not always easier by a long shot – but clearer which path to take. Moses encouraged the Israelites to “Choose Life” as they entered into the Promised Land, and Jesus reminded his disciples that He is the way, the truth, and the life, so if we choose life patterned after the life and example of Jesus, then we have a basis for the subsequent choices we make and for the reactions we have as life inevitably causes us to adjust and change course from time to time. But whatever complications, disappointments, or surprises along the way, there is that North Star, that unchanging bedrock decision we have made that keeps us pointed in the way that leads to the life that really is life.

Today’s gospel reading is one of the most famous stories in the bible. Jesus comes to the home of his good friends Mary and Martha to spend an evening relaxing with them and the disciples before he continues on his way to what he knows will be confrontation, hostility, and death in Jerusalem. It is an oasis for him of peace and tranquility.

Mary and Martha may be sisters, but that doesn’t mean that they are clones and can read each other’s minds. Those of you who have siblings can attest to the fact that you can grow up in the same house, eat the same food, go to the same schools, and even sleep in the same bed, but still be as different as day and night. Both sisters understand hospitality, but they act it out in different ways: Martha by cooking a wonderful dinner for her dear friend, and Mary by sitting quietly with him and listening to him intently. Both good food and listening ears are gifts of love. You can tell that knowing Jesus has changed these women; his presence brings out the best in them; his friendship means the world to them both.

But then their loving gifts of quiet listening and creative cooking are hijacked by some very human emotions. Martha is busy in the kitchen preparing a meal worthy of her friend, and it’s quite a task to prepare a meal, not just for Jesus, but also for his 12 disciples, herself and her sister. Back in those days there were no microwaves, no double ovens, no food processors, or refrigerators, much less cake mixes, hamburger helper, or salad in a bag. This meal is made from scratch! And understandably, the task that started with such love and gratitude, quickly becomes ridden with anxiety and stress. Martha needs another pair of hands to help in the kitchen.

The logical helper is her sister, but Mary is in the front room, sitting with the disciples at Jesus’ feet, wrapped up in every word he’s saying. Her mind is fixed on the conversation and she is oblivious to what’s going on in the kitchen. It’s not that she is lazy or uncaring about her sister’s predicament; she is simply unaware of anything other than listening to her guest and her friend.

Can’t you just imagine Martha spotting her sister just sitting there, doing nothing, as her anxiety quickly morphs into anger. Perhaps her eyes began to narrow, and her shoulders stiffen, as she thinks of the injustice of it all. The weight of this entire dinner is on her shoulders, while her sister, the one who should be helping, is hanging on Jesus’ every work, oblivious to the clattering of pottery or her sister’s frustrated call to her.

Bless her heart! Her righteous indignation and sense of frustration gets out of hand, and she does the least hospitable thing possible. She marches into the midst of the gathering, interrupts the conversation of her guest, and then demands that he help her to get Mary out to the kitchen where she belongs.

She must have been surprised by Jesus’ response. Instead of supporting her request, he speaks to her with kindness and compassion. First, he identifies her situation accurately, “you are troubled about many things.” In Greek the words for “anxious” and “troubled” have the meanings of “being drawn in different directions” and “making a disturbance or an uproar.” Jesus can see that Martha is troubled with cares, drawn in different direction, simultaneously wanting to concentrate on preparing a wonderful meal but also angry that she has no help from some she trusted would be there for her, so she makes an uproar because she’s tired, angry, and disappointed. And maybe feeling a bit left out of that great conversation going on in the other room.

Jesus doesn’t criticize the work she is doing or the way she has chosen to demonstrate her love for him, but he is concerned about her attitude of heart and mind. And when he says, “Mary has chosen the good portion, and it shall not be taken away from her,” he doesn’t mean that Martha, by default, has chosen the “bad” portion. He’s not saying, as is so often suggested about this story, that the quiet life is better than the active life. Martha and Mary have each chosen different “good” portions.

In response to Martha’s request to make Mary do what she does, Jesus tells her “no.” Mary is her own person just as Martha is her own person. It would make any more sense to send Mary to the kitchen than it would to send Martha to sit quietly in the front room. Mary can’t be Martha, and Martha can’t be Mary. I can imagine Jesus speaking to her in a quiet, gentle voice – and the louder Martha gets, the softer Jesus gets, and pretty soon Martha can her herself – can hear the noise she’s making, and can then begin to settle down.

Then Jesus’ message can work its way into her heart. Her anxiety and her anger towards her sister have overshadowed her love for Jesus and taken away any joy she might have had at serving him that day. Her service was no longer a gift to him, an opportunity for hospitality, but had dissolved into a desire to justify herself and judge her sister.

Martha’s top priority was meal preparation, so she thought it should be Mary’s as well. When she made her demand of Jesus, she was acknowledging that even his teachings, as important as they were, were not at that moment for her the foremost event of the day because they were interfering with her work. She lost the meaning of the hospitality she meant to convey; she lost her concern for the comfort and the needs of Jesus and her other guests. The love which had gotten her into the kitchen in the first place, was replaced by her anger. Her service was no longer about others and meeting their needs, it had become all about herself and her own needs. And so she justifies herself and blames her sister, and her original loving and generous gesture is forgotten in the power struggle to have her own way.

All of us have Martha days, and will have them in the future too. There are those days when we feel all the hard work has been left to us and no one will help. Days when, like Martha, we find ourselves over our heads in the kitchen, or the office, or the classroom, and somehow what started out to be a gift of our love, a fulfillment of our decision to choose life, to model our lives after Jesus, becomes drudgery, and we before we know it we get annoyed, frustrated, angry, full of righteous indignation, convinced that what we are doing is more important that anything else. And maybe in there with all the anger, is also a little bit of fear – fear of failure, fear of being thought inadequate or incompetent, fear of disappointing or of not measuring up to the expectations of those we most want to please. Is Martha your middle name? Some days I think it’s mine.

That’s when we need to remember this story. Jesus is able to hold a mirror up to Martha; his words are healing. He doesn’t criticize her for cooking or for her hard work or for not sitting at his feet. He does not object to her being busy. In fact, he’s probably looking forward to his dinner. But he is concerned about her attitude. She’s lost all sense of why she’s cooking in the first place. She’s lost all sense of joy in her service to him, and what had begun as a sweet gift for Jesus has turned in to a bitter opportunity to judge someone else.

Knowing what we do of Jesus’ teachings, it is probably a good guess that while Martha was busy in the kitchen, he was teaching Mary and the other disciples that afternoon in the living room that if they love him, they must show it by their love for one another. It’s not about being contemplative rather than active. Jesus likes busy people! Just before coming to Mary and Martha’s house, he’d told a lawyer the story of the good Samaritan, and encouraged him to go and do likewise. “Don’t just stand there, do something” is a great gospel truth.

It’s work done with the wrong spirit that troubles Jesus. If we’re keeping the main thing the main then, that whatever work we are doing – at home, in our public lives, wherever, will be done with a quiet sense of joy that comes from serving him, and demonstrating our love for God and neighbor. Love always comes first; we are to love God with all our hearts, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Love is the one necessary thing for a disciple. It is the one necessary thing for Martha. It is the one necessary thing for us.