Proper 11c, July 21, 2013

July 22, 2013

What One Thing?
Luke 10:38-42
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this line, but I’ve heard it on more than one occasion, and I’m guessing you’ve heard it as well. Maybe you’ve even delivered this line. It’s the one that goes like this: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. It’s a good line, and in the right context it could be a great line. It’s not hard for me to imagine that this line could bring a sense of calm to people who were feeling overwhelmed by detailed instructions.

I’m imagining a scene where the pilot of a small plane has had a heart attack, and the control tower is trying to coach an untrained passenger on how to get the plane safely down. It’s an incredibly tense situation and there are all of these dials and pedals and levers and lights and the person who’s trying to figure out what to do is feeling totally overwhelmed and is about to totally freak-out when the voice over the headset says: Ok-listen. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. In a crisis saturated environment I think these would be good words to hear. Calming words – reassuring words – inspiring words.

But I’m sure I heard this line delivered by someone who was connected to the church, and I’m sure we were all supposed to understand what that main thing was. And I never react well to religious people who seem overly sure of what that main thing is. It’s not that there isn’t a main thing for us to be focused upon. Jesus himself points out that there is only one needful thing, but that one thing isn’t always immediately obvious.

I’m not opposed to keeping the main thing the main thing. In fact I aspire to keep the main thing the main thing, but I don’t think it’s so easy. And I can generate a bad attitude toward people who think it is.

Now I hope you know that I’m not lumping Jesus in with the other religious people who give me a bad attitude. In fact I like the way that Jesus responded to Martha. He didn’t give Martha what she was looking for, but he didn’t rip in to her. She had made a bad assumption about how Jesus viewed the situation, and many of us react really badly when someone makes bad assumptions about us, but that isn’t what Jesus did.

He didn’t belittle her for assuming that he would feel the same way about the situation that he did, but he did make it clear that he didn’t share her view of the situation. In fact he had an opposite view of the situation. He didn’t shame her for feeling the way she did, but he did point out the problem with her perspective, and he pointed out the value of Mary’s choice. Martha was distracted by many things – while Mary was focused on the one needful thing.

It’s probably worth noting that this turn of events happens right after Jesus had told the story of the good Samaritan who went out of his way to help his neighbor. That’s the story of a person who DID the right thing. He didn’t sit and ponder the situation – he sprung in to action, and that was shown to be the right response. The Levite and the priest who passed by the injured man were probably very focused on high minded concepts of how to maintain their spiritual purity, but they were shown to be in contempt of God by refusing to act.

So in this next scene – today’s scene, Jesus becomes the traveler who is in need of hospitality, and Martha sprang in to action to provide it, but in this case she became the lesson on what not to do if you want to find eternal life. She got real busy trying to make sure everything would be good for her revered guest, and in her busyness she ended up in a bad place. Whereas her sister, who didn’t lift a finger to provide for the physical needs of Jesus, was shown to be the one who had done the right thing – the one thing needful.

This one thing is an illusive thing. Are we called to engage in action or are we called to engage in contemplation? Obviously the answer is that this one needful thing can require us to spring in to action or it can require us to step back from what we are doing and to listen. I think we all know this to be true, but we don’t all know when we need to do the one and not the other. What we know from the previous episode is that the one needful thing is not to act or to listen but: To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

This one thing manifests itself in many different forms, and it’s easy to get it wrong. We take action when we need to listen, we are quiet when we need to speak out, and we sit down when we need to stand up.

I went over to my daughter’s house the other day to let Knute out. Knute is an English Bulldog. My daughter, Liza, and her husband, Joe, had left for a few days, and we had offered to help take care of Knute while they were gone. I got to the house and I had the key to the kitchen deadbolt, but the door knob was locked as well, and the key didn’t fit the knob. I tried the front door but the key didn’t work there and neither Knute nor I were happy about this. We could see each other through the kitchen door, but I couldn’t get in.

I called Sharla to bring over an old credit card, which I felt sure I could use to slip in with, and she did. I won’t say any more about why I would know how to get in a locked door with a credit card, but in this case it wouldn’t work. I felt really disappointed in my inability to get that door open, and I was honestly contemplating the best way to break in. Should I force the old door knob to turn with a pipe wrench, or break one of the panes of glass? I thought these were my only two options, but I must say that my thinking was clouded by the incredibly odd and anxious sounds that Knute was making.

Sharla suggested I figure out how to open the back gate and check the back door, and while I didn’t think that would be of any use because they always keep their back deadbolt fastened I did follow her advice. I figured out how to open the back gate, which wasn’t obvious, but I got in to the back yard and discovered that the back door was in fact unlocked.

This brought great relief to us all, but I was primarily relieved that I didn’t do what I was moments away from doing. I was convinced that I only had two options – when in fact there were three. I’m so happy I listened before I acted. I don’t always do that, but I hope I will – unless love requires me to act immediately.

Life comes at us fast and it’s not easy to know how to react to many situations. I dare say we are often more inclined to over-think our options than to take action. The church is certainly more known for being overly cautious about taking action than for stepping out in front of questionable situations. Or maybe the pattern of the church is to be like Martha and to be so occupied with trivial matters that we are unable to listen for the voice of truth.

Perhaps the choice for us is not so much the difference between engaging in action or in listening, but who it is we choose to hear. The truth is that Mary didn’t make the choice to not do anything – Mary actually engaged in a very bold act which was to step out of her assumed role as the provider of hospitality and to embrace the role of a disciple. She chose to ignore the voice of society and of her sister and to listen to Jesus.

We make a lot of choices about who we listen to. A lot of media attention has been focused lately on the George Zimmerman trial, and I think it’s good that it’s gotten a lot of attention. It’s a terribly tragic story, but it’s not an uncommon story, and you can find someone giving voice to whatever perspective you choose to have. But what I this is is the story of what happens when people act with preconceived notions of what other people are like.

Jesus made no such assumptions. Jesus didn’t listen to the voice of his culture to tell him how people were to behave and what they were to do. Jesus listened to voice of God to define the world in which he lived, and he shared that voice with us. Jesus didn’t sort people out according to their skin tone, their heritage, their gender, or their occupation. Jesus recognized the oneness of us all, and he cherished the people who understood and who acted to create that sense of oneness among us all.

If Jesus were to be questioned by a religious expert today and if he was pressed to define a neighbor for us I don’t think he would tell us the story of a Samaritan who did the right thing. He would probably tell us the story of a young dark-skinned man wearing a hoodie who stopped to help a stranger after the preachers had passed by. And then when Jesus got to the next town he would correct the attitude of the restaurant manager who got upset when their undocumented worker who left the dishes in the sink and came out of the kitchen to listen to him.

I believe this is that main thing that we are called to maintain as the main thing. Jesus wanted us to see one another as brothers and sisters and as equal children of the one God. It’s actually not so complicated, but it isn’t easy. There are a lot of voices in this world that seek to highlight the divisions between us, but there is one voice calling us to hear this one thing: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

This is that one needful thing.
And by the grace of God we will continue to discover how to do it.
Thanks be to God.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: