What is Needful?
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

July 21, 2013


Psalm 15
Luke 10:38-42

Grace and Peace this morning. Grace and Peace.

Last week’s Gospel lesson ended with a commission: go thou and do likewise. This week’s story follows immediately after. Here we find ourselves in the home of Mary and Martha, sisters, followers of Jesus.

Martha is busy serving, while her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. We might hear echoes of the Prodigal son story here, one sibling doing all the work, while the other is getting the glory even after squandering his wealth, or in Mary’s case, her time.

Let us stay close to the text. It was strange, if not unheard of, for a woman to sit a man’s feet and listen. That is the role of a disciple, and men did not have women disciples in that time. But Jesus is known for ignoring such important social barriers. It is not just that she is listening to him, she hears his word. The word used here for hearing is the same word as Jesus’ admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15) Mary is not just listening, she is learning as the disciples do.

We often read this story as Martha being busy serving Jesus and the disciples, fixing the meal, setting the table and all of that. And that makes sense on one level. She is the hostess and these are honored guests. But the words here invite some imagination. It does not say that she was busy, it says that she was distracted. The word used for service here is the same word used for ministry in Acts and the letters. When they need to find a twelfth to replace Judas among the Apostles, they pray for God to choose for them someone to share this ministry and apostleship, then they cast lots and it falls on Matthias. (Luke 1:24-26) The word ministry in this prayer for the new twelfth Apostle and the word for the service that Martha is rendering is the same word. (By the way the word for this service, this ministry, is where we get our word Deacon.)

So, on the one hand we have the story of siblings like the ant and the grasshopper with the moral reversed: one is working hard and is jealous of the one who is just sitting there, and Jesus sides with the one just sitting. But there is more here than meets the eye. Luke is telling us a story about Jesus and about service and ministry and Sabbath and prayer, and setting it not among the men but among the women. It is a subtle stab at the roles assigned by gender in their time (and ours).

It is a lesson about doing and being. One is distracted by so much ministry, and is jealous of the one who is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, sharing in his presence, just being.

It is an important reminder that ministry is too important to leave to the professionals. Ministry, service, is the calling of all the baptized. The priesthood of all believers, as our Protestant forebears called it, is clearly laid out in the Gospel. All who follow Jesus are called to service: Male and female, been in the church their whole lives or newly arrived, deeply faithful or full of doubts.

We might expect after the last Gospel story of “go thou and do likewise” that Jesus would side with the one who is busy. Instead he says,

Martha, Martha,
you are anxious and troubled about many things;
one thing is needful.
Mary has chosen the good portion,
which shall not be taken away from her.

She is not just busy, she is so busy she is distracted, anxious and
troubled. Anybody else relate to this? Busy, distracted, anxious and
troubled? We each have our own stories of these, don’t we?

  • Health, our own, or that of a loved one;
  • Work, either too much or not enough;
  • Running out of money before we run out of month
  • Relationships,
  • Aging parents, growing children, getting older ourselves
  • Doing more and more and getting less and less done
  • Loved ones in jail or prison
  • Our constant state of war and living at heightened alert conditions and wondering who the drones are hitting or whose email is being read

Feel free to add your own to the list.

Maybe that could be our new bumper sticker: First Congregational Church, a refuge for the busy, the distracted, the anxious and the troubled. That is the message of this morning’s reading. We ARE called to service. But if that is all we do, we burn out, we get distracted, we forget that Sabbath-keeping made the top ten list. We lose focus on our calling because we forget to sit in prayer and worship and let the Spirit tell us what we need to be about and give us the energy and the inspiration to be about it.

Our psalm this morning could easily be a source of anxiety.

O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?
[The one] who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
and speaks truth from [the] heart;

Anybody here been walking blamelessly lately? Anybody here avoided all gossip this week?

My friend Cliff DiMascio used to say, Who can stand on God’s holy hill? Nobody. Except that Jesus opens the way, and because of him, all of us can stand there.

It is not through our busy-ness, our distraction, our anxiety or our worry that we find peace in the presence Lord. It is in the presence of the Lord that we find peace.

Mary has chosen the good portion,
which shall not be taken away from her.

May it be so for us.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.