Luke 10: 38 – 42
The story of Mary & Martha is one you’ve almost certainly heard before.
Mary – the good sister, the quiet, prayerful, listening one, come first in the title: and Martha is always second – the fussy one, the complaining one, the one who got it wrong.
Jesus is clear “Mary has chosen the better part”. It is easy to hear this as a reprimand to those who favour practical work (many tasks) over listening quietly to Jesus. Those of us who are active, and sometimes overwhelmed with many tasks, can hear in this story a rebuke – we need to sit more listen more, pray more. And perhaps we do. But this is Not going to be a sermon exhorting you to less activity and more contemplation.
Because Jesus also says to Martha ‘you are distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing’.
We need just one thing. But what? I found myself this week wondering why Jesus didn’t just say what the one thing was. Is it prayer? Is it listening? Is it sitting and not fretting? What is it, Jesus? what’s the one thing?
Last Thursday night I was wondering whether to start this sermon. I had been thinking about it a little on and off – I was still pondering what the ‘one thing’ might be.
After I’d eaten my dinner on Thursday I thought perhaps I had better sit down and start putting some ideas on paper because my daughter was coming home on Saturday for a couple of nights. Or maybe I should go and make up her bed? And the house needed a bit of tidying; and I’d been out all day so the emails were mounting up a bit; but also I felt a bit tired and could use a rest before doing any of those things. What to do? Where to start?
And then the phone rang – my mum (now 90) had fallen at home & was being taken into the A&E unit at Royal United Hospital in Bath. The paramedic said that my dad had decided to stay at home ‘but we’ll take very good care of her’.
It didn’t take me long to decide what to do with my evening: jump in the car & drive to Bath
to be there when my mum was being asked about her medical history & how she was feeling, and to stay while she was put on an antibiotic drip for an underlying infection and then be admitted to a ward for a few days.
‘There is need of only one thing’ said Jesus. And maybe he didn’t spell out what the one thing is because it is different things at different times. On Thursday night it was not the right thing to write this sermon. On Saturday afternoon it became the right time to write, while my brother was visiting my mum!
So back at Mary & Martha. Martha has many things to do, and Mary is sitting doing what looks to her harassed sister like… nothing. But what is Mary doing? She is sitting and listening to Jesus. She is with the followers, the disciples, those learning with Jesus – without moving a muscle she is following Jesus.
And for her, for then, this is the one thing she needs to do.
But, be honest, your heart goes out to Martha, doesn’t it? Jesus and his followers have to eat, the dinner won’t cook itself, and in that culture and time the ‘rules’ are that the men will sit and talk & listen and the women will work and cook and serve. Martha is correct in what she is doing & it’s understandable that she wants Mary to help her. Martha is correct and her feelings are understandable, but she is not right. Mary has chosen the better part, she is breaking the rules of convention, but she is learning from Jesus and being one of his followers.
There is need of only one thing - for Mary - breaking the rules and listening to Jesus.
Now it might be that all us busy sorts are worried that Jesus is favouring passivity over activity.
If we go back just 10 verses in Luke’s gospel we find some other people who keep the rules and get it wrong, while someone else breaks the rules and gets it right, and that’s the Good Samaritan.
Faced with a bloodied body, possibly a corpse, the priest and the Levite do not risk making themselves unclean, they pass by on the other side.
The Samaritan does the right thing, the good thing, the one thing there is need of – he saves a man’s life – but only by breaking rules of what is expected, and risking criticism, and spending his own precious time and money. He doesn’t just pray for the man, or even find someone else to help, he get’s stuck in - he is active in serving and he is right.
This week you begin to celebrate 50 years of this United Church; I know your celebrations continue with Graham Thompson next Sunday.
Have you thought about how much the world has changed in 50 years? In 1966 we were in the ‘swinging 60s’, the Beatles were huge, Star Trek premiered on NBC in the States, Britain has not yet changed to decimal coinage, BBC presenters all spoke with received pronunciation, England won the World Cup, most TVs were still black & white rather than colour, and I was three.
You would have to tell me how Newton Abbott has changed in that time, but certainly the last 50 years have seen more and faster cars, more foreign holidays, unimagined developments in computers, and the wonders (or the tyranny) of mobile phones.
In all this change, what is the church here for? What is the one thing that Jesus would have us do?
It seems from our gospel story that Jesus would caution us not to rush about too much, not to fill our heads and days with tasks and lists and busy-ness.
But the ‘one thing that is needed’ may be different from day to day – sometimes passively listening, sometimes acting for another, sometimes breaking rules.
But always following Jesus.
Following Jesus by listening to him, learning from him, walking his way.
Following Jesus by living his teaching to love God and love our neighbour – all our neighbours.
Following Jesus by asking how this church can give glory to God, make the good news of the kingdom known and follow the promptings of the Spirit for the next 50 years.
There is need of only one thing: follow Jesus.