July 19, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 10:38-42

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received 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 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 one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."

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This morning I want to try something a little different. It is our custom for the preacher to read a portion from the Scripture and then to comment on it in a sermon. What I want to do this morning is comment on someone else’s comment. I do not call this plagiarism, although I firmly believe that all work and no plagiarism makes Johnny a dull preacher. (Even that joke is plagiarized.) No I prefer to think of this as part of the ancient Jewish practice of midrash, of interpreting not only the text but the rabbi’s commentary on the text.

But rather than explain and justify what I want to do, let me do it. I’m going to read selections from a sermon preached by Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, professor of New Testament at the Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The title is: One Thing is Needful

I love this story about Mary and Martha - partly, I guess, because I have sisters, and what happens between these two sounds so familiar. Martha's the eldest and the mistress of the house. She's invited Jesus over for supper and, as we pick up the story, she's begun making the meal. But. her sister, rather than helping in the kitchen, sits in the living room with Jesus and his disciples. Not only does Mary stick her sister with all the household chores while she talks to the company, but she's really being grossly inappropriate to be sitting in there at all. No self-respecting woman of the first century ought to intrude on the theological conversations of men. If her father had been alive, he would have shoved her into the kitchen, because, as Rabbi Eliezar said, "It is better that a man should burn the words of the Torch than that he should teach them to his daughter." It is not acceptable in first century Judaism that women should discuss theology with men.

So here's Mary, sitting at Jesus' feet with all the other disciples, and Martha's fuming out in the kitchen. They're wealthy women (they own a household) and there are plenty of servants around to do the actual work, but it's the principle of the thing. Mary's not only left the entire responsibility for a big dinner party to her sister, but she's embarrassing Martha as well.

Finally, Martha can stand it no longer, and she goes in to Jesus. "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to serve alone?"' And Jesus answers her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled over many things - but one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken from her.

It seems to me that Jesus does several things here. First of all, contrary to the religious and social custom of his day, he affirms Mary's choice to learn, to be a theologian, and not to be the traditional hostess. I find it comforting to know, in our own time of social change, that hundreds of years ago Jesus was involved with some of the same issues we confront.

Commentary: Let me break from the text and offer a comment. Actually let me give this a setting. This sermon is being preached ten years ago in the chapel at the oldest theological seminary in America, founded by the Dutch as part of Rutgers College in 1784. By the way, the first president of the seminary, who was also the first president of Rutgers, was a man named John Henry Livingston. He was born in Poughkeepsie, then came to New Milford to study with our second minister, Nathaniel Taylor, before going on to Yale. At any rate, this sermon is being preached by the first woman professor in the 200+ year history of the seminary. And she is preaching to a student body that is half women. The question she raises: What does this narrative say about the role of women in society and in the church - would have been missed, or glossed over, in commentaries of even a generation ago and still would go unmentioned in many traditions. But once raised it is an impossible question to ignore, as is the clear evidence of the text in answering it - that in the circle of people who gathered around Jesus, women took on a role which was radically different than what was expected in the larger society. Now, for some, that may be the focal point of the text. For Dr. Johnson, it’s worthy of note, but she moves on:

By the same token, it's also important to me to see that Jesus understands Martha's choice, too - and with thankfulness and compassion he appreciates her hard work and faithful hospitality. "Really, Martha." he says, "all this feast is wonderful, but one thing is needful - a sandwich would have been plenty." Jesus side-steps the issue of artificial social roles for women and men, and goes right to the heart of the matter.

Is it more needful to fulfill a social role or to respond to the call of God? Martha's choice isn't wrong because it's traditional, but because it gets in the way of a better choice.

I think there's something in that for all of us - women or men. We're all faced with countless choices about what to do with our lives - where to work, where to live, how to spend our money, how to raise our children, how to spend our time - and there are equally countless people and ideas and customs telling us which way to go, which choice to make.

One of the most salient features of our 20th-century life is what the sociologists call anomie - a lack of order, a failing of structure, a multitude of options, a dearth of right answers. Parents, teachers, preachers, and friends all tell us what to do and whom to be - and each of them has an equally reasonable justification, an equally good answer. I believe these are confusing times we live in-the plurality that marks our culture easily creates anxiety in our selves.

And that's the most important reason I love this story about Mary and Martha. Jesus says to Martha: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled over many things." The word for anxious that he uses here is - torn in pieces, divided, fragmented, distracted, pulled apart in different directions. What a good description of our lives that is much of the time. How often are we pulled apart in different directions?

Commentary: I would like to jump in again with commentary. This seems to me to be the real crunch in which I meet so many people in their lives. How can the church help? Or at least, how can we do no harm? One thing which I have tried to avoid doing since I became a minister is to give little jabs of guilt to motivate people to come to church. You know, like running into someone in the supermarket who hasn’t been in church for a couple of weeks and ending the conversation with " See you on Sunday" when I know I probably won’t. I don’t want church to become another source of stress for people, another obligation, another reason to feel inadequate and torn asunder. I feel my job is to help people realize that there are 10 million things to do and you simply have to make peace with the fact that 9,999,990 are not going to get done - find peace in the 10 that do get done. And pick the right 10. This is the issue Dr. Johnson continues with:

How many conflicting needs to we balance every day? We need to work, but we need to play; we need to take care of our families, but we need to take care of ourselves, too; we need to keep our spouses, our parents, our children, our neighbors all happy at the same time, and they all need something different. For the rest of our lives we will constantly be juggling needs - our own and those of people we're close to. And often those conflicting needs will make us anxious, pulled apart in different directions.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled over many things - but one thing is needful. Only one thing is needful for any of the rest of these needs to make sense. Only one thing is needful - to be human, to be encountered by God in Christ, to be found by Jesus as one who needs very much and for whom only one thing is needful.

Commentary: If you wanted to put this part of her sermon into traditional categories, Dr. Johnson is addressing here the subject of salvation - encountering God in Christ. But she does it without first saying much about sin. What she doesn’t say - the typical evangelical exhortation that seeks to convict us all as sinners - is as telling as what she does say: that we need to be human and to be encountered by God in Christ. In some ways this is the great divide in modern church life - are playing off guilt, or hope? Are we seeking conformity, or freedom? You’ll find that Dr. Johnson goes radically in the direction of freedom - even freedom to pursue the path away from God. Let me read on:

But the need to be a whole, free, human person is perhaps the most frightening need of all. One thing is needful - and we try so hard not to need it. We substitute all kinds of other needs - frantic attempts at meaning, at belonging, at life as we wish it were. Only one thing is needful, and we'll so often take anything except that. Only one thing is needful - to give up all the secondary needs and confess the only ultimate one - our need to know God. Only one thing is needful - to be centered, to be grounded (not in faith, but in Christ), to be met and known and forgiven and healed and loved. Only one thing is needful - to be human before God so that for God's sake we can be human with one another.

Commentary: Perfection here is not the goal; sinfulness is not so sinful. It is the ebb and flow of grace and forgiveness that gives us our center and identity. That’s why she says we must be centered in Christ, not in faith. Faith is a quality we have - we can measure it and find it wanting or we can measure it and take pride in how great we think it is - it can be taken as an achievement or a failure; worn as a badge or a shroud. But Christ is Christ - we can neither take credit nor blame. Christ was before us, Christ will be after us, Christ is other than us, the other who waits to encounter us in love. But Dr. Johnson has more to say about the psychology of how we avoid being our own human selves.

But we generally cannot tolerate that vision of ourselves coram deo - in the face of God. It is alternately absurd and terrifying to see ourselves as God sees us - as foolish, pretentious, divided and distracted, pulled apart in different directions. It is a painful flight from the one thing that is needful - the running and hiding and pretending and denying - all our earnest attempts to disguise who we are in the fervent hope that God won't recognize us as the same fools who pulled that trick the last time.

Commentary: I need to warn you that the sermon is about to take a turn. I must admit that the first time I heard this sermon I didn’t understand this part. Then, upon reading it, I thought I understood it but disagreed with it. Then, after reading it several more times, I think I get the point.

The flight from the one thing that is needful, ironically, thrusts us closer and closer to it. To run from life, of course, is to run toward death - and beyond it to resurrection. But most of us stop just short of death itself, we put on the brakes on the brink of being human, grab hold of ourselves, straighten our ties and fix our hair, and pretend that nothing's happened and that no one's noticed. We need so desperately to be right, to be correct, to be successful, that we refuse to be who God created us to be. We refuse to die - we run from the cross - and so we deny ourselves the resurrection life that is ours. We are very fond of Jesus’ cross, but so skittish about our own. Because, I suspect, we believe Jesus’ resurrection and aren't so sure about ours.

In our frantic attempts to keep away the death of our self-created selves, our busy, needy, desiring selves, we work even harder to escape the one thing that is needful. We create marvelous myths about how we deserve life and happiness and love ... and we work very hard, and are anxious about a great many things - and all along we are fleeing the one who alone is needful, and who alone gives so freely everything else that we need.

Commentary: I want to interpret this part of the sermon in the light of the parable of the prodigal son. You remember how he ran away from home, ran from life to death, but in the end that was his authentic path to coming home again and really finding life. If the prodigal had stopped short of his wastrel life, if he had buckled down and succeeded in his work as a pig farmer and come home rich and happy, would he have ever understood the love and forgiveness of his father? And the older brother, by contrast, who never left home, he never could understand the love of the father for the prodigal or for himself. There are famous lines from TS Eliot that describe this pilgrimage:

With the drawing of the Love

and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

But back to Professor Johnson, and I will allow her to finish this sermon in her own words:

I promise you, my friends, that what keeps us from abundant life, what holds us back from the grace of God is not our wrong decisions, but our fear of them; not mistakes, but our need not to make them; not sins, but sinful resistance to the grace of God in Christ. Only one thing is needful-and God in his limitless mercy has done it once and for all at Calvary.

The rest of the world and the church will tell you what is needful, will exhort you to succeed, to make something of yourself, to be good, to be right, to win ... to build bigger barns and reap more glorious harvests. And you can do those things. The possibilities are literally endless for the people of God. The psalmist promises that those who wait on the Lord shall mount up with wings as eagles. But I invite you to discover - so close at hand - the one thing that is really needful. I invite you to be human, to fail, to risk even the most costly love, to die. Because it's only there that Christ will meet you, stripped as you will be of your pretended needs and supposed desires. He'll find you as you are, without your billfolds and belongings, success and salary. And he'll love you - despite your good deeds, regardless of your religious piety, and because of your humanity.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled over many things ... But one thing is needful.

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Let us pray:

Gracious God, we have gathered in your house today to worship and praise you, to seek your presence in prayer, and to learn from your word and your wisdom. Some of us come to this hour like Martha, anxious and troubled over many things. May we experience the balm of your Spirit quieting our minds and soothing our souls, helping us to move from anxiety to peace, from fragmentation to wholeness. Help us to center our lives in your love, to accept your spirit of forgiveness, to be reconciled with ourselves and our frailties, our families and their failings, our world and it’s troubles. May we then be transformed as instruments of your peace and bear effective witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen

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