The readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost are
Old Testament & Psalm, Option I
Old Testament Amos 8:1–12
Psalm Psalm 52
Old Testament & Psalm, Option II
Old Testament Genesis 18:1–10a
Psalm Psalm 15
New Testament Colossians 1:15–28
Gospel Luke 10:38–42
For a dozen years I was part of the very effective staff of Grace Lutheran Church in Fremont, Ohio. It was a big congregation, and it got bigger, I believe, in numbers and in heart, because the senior pastor and I were so different.
Paul was what the personality-type book, Please Understand Me, calls a “field marshal.” He had big dreams to add members, add worship services, buy property, host the big annual convention for all the Ohio churches, and more and more. And he had the drive to push through his plans for all his dreams.
Paul used to compare himself and me in his presentations to the church council. We had finished refurbishing the heating and cooling, the slate roof, the fabulous stained glass windows; and were then transitioning to adding mission and staff. I was put in charge of a program to involve all the members in reflections on Scripture, prayer, and making choices on goals and strategies. But just as we were finishing all our house meetings and discernment process, Paul stood before the council one night and said, “John is a process person. I’m a results person.” He then laid out his own goals and strategies and a detailed plan for them all.
In other words, Paul got impatient. He ignored my work, along with the suggestions the members had come up with.
I was so mad I walked out of that council meeting in a bit of a tizzy.
But, the president of the congregation and other council members knew I was mad. They chased me down and talked to me. They managed to bring Paul and me back into a room to talk our differences over.
We moved forward—awkwardly—but forward nonetheless. This big church enterprise needed a results person…a doer. But the church needed me as a listener—a process person—as well.
Fred Craddock, the professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, made some observations about our Gospel Lesson for today. And he sees all of chapter 10 of Luke talking about two kinds of people the church needs.
Jesus has just met a man skilled in Scripture who had trouble hearing the word of God, and Jesus offers him an model–a Samaritan who outdoes a priest and Levite in putting love into action.
Now, in the very next story, Jesus visits with a woman so busy serving she does not hear the word, and Jesus offers her an example, her sister.
To the expert in Scripture, Jesus said “go and do”; to the busy woman, Jesus said “sit and listen.”
Only Luke relates this episode just as we have it, but John’s Gospel too tells us of Martha and Mary. John adds that they are sisters of Lazarus, and live near Jerusalem. But again Martha is active, and Mary seems to sit and do almost nothing. Martha goes out to meet Jesus, while Mary, at first, sits in the house (John 11:20). Later, at dinner, Martha serves and Mary anoints the feet of Jesus (John 12:1–3).
Here, in Luke’s story, everything focuses on Martha. It’s her house. She receives Jesus. And Mary is there, but doesn’t speak, doesn’t anoint—doesn’t do anything but listen.
First we must see that this is a radical, counter-cultural story, because Rabbis didn’t allow women to “sit at their feet.” To this day many people, from the Taliban to our homegrown Fundamentalists, don’t especially like the idea of women scholars. They would rather all women be food service Marthas, and surely not scholarly Marys. But Mary is a scholar by her listening. She is taught by Jesus. And Luke pointed us in this radical direction by noting a couple chapters earlier that Jesus had a number of women among his followers—women he had cured, and women who were prominent. More than followers, these women even financed and provided for Jesus’ mission.
Yet, you would think Jesus would thank Martha for the hard work and hospitality she has put out. We just heard him say in the previous chapter, “whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” But to welcome Jesus with true hospitality Jesus isn’t easy. He comes with big bunch of others. And when Martha makes a reasonable complaint about needing help, Jesus seems to scold her. “One thing is needful,” he says.
And Jesus even seems to pile on the insult by adding that Mary, by just sitting there and listening, has done something heroic: She has “chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
But this is precisely where this passage goes beyond “Dear Abby” style advice that “sometimes, workaholic people should just chill out.
What is the One Thing?
The Lawyer of last week’s Gospel was told to do something—to be like the Good Samaritan who showed mercy.
Martha is told to stop doing so much and listen.
But what is the One Thing Needful that ties them both together. What is the One thing that has eternal significance—that gives us eternal life: It’s the word of God. The Word of God that Jesus says can be summarized by “Love God with your all, and Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Mary, here, stands for someone who takes listening and responding seriously: For “we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” So says Deuteronomy 8. And so says Jesus as he quotes Deuteronomy to the Devil in the wilderness in Luke 4. And Jesus says it again in John 6 when he warns people not to think God performs miracles just to fill our stomachs and fulfill our desires. Don’t work for the food that perishes, but the food that endures for eternal life.
The great good news is that Jesus blesses doers so that they can listen too; and at the same time he blesses listeners to be better doers.
If Grace Lutheran Church in Fremont Ohio had only me as Pastor, they would have perhaps had great Bible Study. I think I’m pretty good at that. Maybe. But they may have never gotten their roof fixed.
They may have had better sermons than Paul preached. I think he barked out field-marshal-orders even in his sermons. But they may not have raised a million bucks to fix beautiful stained glass and buy a new parking lot.
I’m thankful that church council members calmed both Paul and me down and had us confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. And so, God got us to love each other and work together. Paul got off his high horse a little and realized that he had to listen better to God’s Word and to his own parishioners, and even to me. Off his high horse he made a much better pastor. I had to learn how to voice my criticisms more clearly and above board. I had to learn not only toteach God’s word, but to put it to work in better organized mission. I too had to become a better pastor.
Imagine what we would have if all we did was to criticize the Marthas of our churches—if we told them we didn’t need the food for the fellowship hour, or the toilet paper filled in the restrooms or the budget balanced.
There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing how to keep these things together so that we are not attending to the things that are fleeting, but are eternal—that give eternal life—that are worth ultimately more than everything else—that’s the One Thing Needful.
The toilet paper, the tasty treats and coffee at fellowship time, the budgets and the fund raising; what are they for? They must always serve the one thing needful in this world: Love. Love of God, and love of neighbor.
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