Only One Thing Is Needful

Sermon for July 21, 2019 at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal
Vivian Lewin

Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Today’s scriptures offer us two pairs of readings which show salvation in action.

Working backwards… the story of Martha and Mary is perhaps the one we know best.

Luke tells many stories of banquets and dinner parties in his Gospel. Here, we’re taken behind the scenes. Mary and Martha are the sisters of Lazarus—they appear in all four of the Gospels with the same names and the same personalities. Mary (not to be confused with Mary Magdalene) is devout, hungry to hang on Jesus words; Martha is “out there,” freely speaking with and even challenging Jesus.

The pair are icons of the contemplative and the active lives. Together, they show our full life in Christ. The fact that the story sparks what Annie Lamott calls our judginess… well, that kind of proves that we’re still sinners. Sinners in pews.

I know that Jesus tells Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part.” This sets US up to make a choice, doesn’t it?

And I have to say, whenever I hear the story, I’m with Martha. At best, ready to bring a homemade quiche or a salad or pack up a tin of cookies. At worst, worn out to the point of crankiness when I discover that all those wonderful intentions take time to accomplish. And there are SO MANY good things to be done, coming at me from all different directions.

When am I going to live a balanced life? Set a better example? “Only one thing is needful,” eh? Worst of all is the dread that if I do find out what this one thing is, it will just be one more demand on my precious time?

I’ve caught myself more than once whining at God: So okay, what IS this one thing, the real priority among all the good and even holy things that pull on me? And honestly, by showing hospitality, wasn’t Martha, like Abraham, acting upon perhaps THE fundamental tenet of Middle Eastern culture?

Apparently the Greek word translated “distracted” in the New Revised Standard Version literally means pulled in different directions.

But distraction is the opposite of hospitality, isn’t it?

Eugene Peterson in The Message translates Jesus words like this:

“Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

The main course—what nourishes. What provides.

And who IS the host, here? Who’s providing the main course?

I propose that we step back from these two personalities for a moment–stop playing two holy women off against each other. This is not a presidential primary in the country next door! If it is good news, it’s also a revelation. So, what is being revealed here?

Consider, for a moment, our reading in Colossians.

On the surface, we’re worlds away from that little house in Bethany. Paul is writing to a group of mostly Gentile converts to Christianity, and he starts by drawing them into the central revelation of the faith:

Jesus is the image… that is, the IKON, of the holy God. This means that when we gaze upon and through his holy image we SEE the reality of God.
Jesus is the firstborn of all creation.
In Jesus all things in heaven and on earth were created…
In Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…
And through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things… making peace through the blood of his cross… so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.

When we understand Jesus as the Alpha and the Omega–the beginning and the end– the author and finisher (the perfector) of our faith—we find the answer not just to the WHO and WHAT questions we have about God, we can also answer the question HOW.

James Dunn writes,

“What is being claimed is quite simply and profoundly that the divine purpose in the act of reconciliation and peacemaking was to restore the harmony of the original creation . . . resolving the disharmonies of nature and the inhumanities of humankind, that the character of God’s creation and God’s concern for the universe in its fullest expression could be so caught and encapsulated for them in the cross of Christ.” [Note 1]

In other words, ‘Jesus made it all and then Jesus paid it all’ so that we can have a relationship with the living God.

By his incarnation—coming near to us, in time and space, Jesus embodied the capacity of God and humans to draw near to each other. And this term, “drawing near,” is a technical term used in Leviticus for one group of important sacrifices. Sacrifice was understood primarily as a way to come close to God—a closeness God has always desired, from the moment when our ancestors Adam and Eve were hiding in the garden. All our scriptures today show instances of drawing near with God: from the first lesson where three heavenly beings visit Abraham and Sarah; to the psalm, “Who shall ascend your holy hill?”; to the dazzling high theology of Colossians; to the humble home of Martha.

Our goal is to come into what Paul says is “the glory of this mystery which is Christ in you, the hope of Glory.”

You can recalibrate your own closeness with a simple form of the Ignatian prayer practice, the Examen. Once or twice a day, centre or ground yourself. Reflect. For what moment or experience today am I most grateful? Least grateful? [Note 2] Doing this on a regular basis, you’ll see a pattern. As individuals, or as community, this allows us to serve “in all quietness.”

If we have experienced “drawing near”—become aware of this relationship–our job is not to “repair” our relationship with God but to live into it– live not the life we aspire to or strive to fix or reform, but the life that is already given to us and that by God’s spirit is sustained and continually renewed.

Dear Martha had the creator of the universe in her house and was fussing about the food. What she had was a kind of spiritual anorexia. As I thought about her predicament, George Herbert’s poem Love came to mind:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful Ah my dear
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.

And communion, of course, is also a form of sacrifice and a way of “drawing near.”
So, in the words sometimes used before our eucharist:

“Come to this table, not because you must, but because you may. Not because you have all faith, but because you have some faith and want to grow. Come because you love the Lord a little, and want to love more…. Come because all is ready, and we are his Body…”

Thanks be to God. Amen.


1. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Com¬mentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 104.

2. Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. (Mahwah NY: Paulist Press, 1995).

Also consulted:
Christopher R. Seitz. Colossians. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014).

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