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One Thing’s Needful
Luke 10:38-42

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost—July 18, 2010

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Our sermon is based on today’s Gospel Reading from the tenth chapter of St. Luke, the story of Mary and Martha.  “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Doesn’t it seem like Martha is getting a bum rap?  After all, another name for this story could be, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  Jesus and his twelve disciples, that’s who, at least 13 guests for dinner at Mary and Martha’s table.

That would be like you having the President and his Cabinet as dinner guests your home.  But, Mary and Martha don’t have a well-stocked deep-freeze or a cupboard full of canned goods.  Nor do they have a miraculous microwave or a modern electric range.

Everything on the menu had to be prepared that very day, totally from scratch.  The traditional round, flat loaves of pita bread were baked that day in an oven called a tabun, also known as a beehive oven, a contraption shaped like a beehive and stoked with a fire.  Because there was no refrigeration, the meat served that day was freshly slaughtered, the fruits and vegetables just picked.  Pampered as we are by all our modern conveniences, I doubt most of us would even be able to feed ourselves under such primitive conditions, let alone host a banquet for 13 honored guests!

So, is it any wonder that Martha was busy?  But, according to the Gospel Reading, the problem is not that Martha was busy.  The problem is that she was consumed with busyness. The Gospel says she was “distracted by all the preparations,” and Jesus tells her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things.”

Think of your own family dinners.  There often comes that time when the table is set and the food is ready, and then you wait a few moments for the appointed hour or for some other guests to arrive.  Martha’s sister Mary had no doubt already done her part preparing the dinner earlier in the day.  Otherwise Jesus would not commend Mary, but chastise her for laziness.

So, it seems all is now in readiness, waiting for the meal.  During these quiet moments before the meal begins, Mary joins the other guests and sits listening at the Lord’s feet. 

What was Jesus talking about that day?  Mary and Martha lived in the village of Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem.  So, perhaps Jesus was again telling his friends how very shortly in nearby Jerusalem he would be put to death.  As he tells the disciples later in the Gospel of Luke, “"We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.  He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him.  On the third day he will rise again.”

Perhaps Jesus was again announcing that he is the promised Messiah, the Savior of all humanity, who with his life, death, and resurrection pays for the sins of the whole world.  As he says later in the Gospel of Luke at another dinner party, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Perhaps Jesus was again telling some of his fascinating parables, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which drives home the point that, like the father in the parable, God forgives all your sins, and lovingly welcomes you back with open arms.

Perhaps Jesus was again proclaiming that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

What an opportunity, what a privilege, for them to listen to the Lord.  But, Martha thought she had no time to waste sitting with Mary and the other guests at the feet of Jesus.  She was consumed with busyness, “distracted by all the preparations,” “worried and upset about many things.”

It seems that even though the meal was in readiness, Martha just couldn’t sit still.  She was fussing over the food and fidgeting with the table.  And, how could her sister Mary just sit there doing nothing while there were important things to do? 

“Lord,” she said, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

We behave like Martha when we put a low priority on time spent at the Lord’s feet.  We behave like Martha when we are so consumed with the worries of this world that we neglect our Lord and his word.  We behave like Martha when we fill our lives with so much busyness that we have no time to pause and listen to our Master’s voice.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

How did Martha react to this gentle rebuke?  The Gospel doesn’t tell us, but don’t you suppose that when she heard the Lord’s loving words, Martha realized she wasn’t really busy, she was consumed with busyness?  Suddenly seeing that her fussing and fidgeting were unnecessary, she also sat at her Lord’s feet and listened to her Master’s voice.

There was another guest for dinner that day, Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus.  It was just a few days later that Lazarus became ill and died.  Immediately the sisters send for Jesus.  And when Jesus arrives, it is Martha who confesses her faith in him: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  And, in her sorrow, Martha was comforted by the certain hope of her brother’s resurrection to eternal life.  “I know,” she said, “that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Maybe that is what Jesus spoke about for a few quiet moments before dinner that day, as Mary and Martha sat together at the Lord’s feet.  Perhaps he was preparing them for the sorrow that was to come, strengthening their faith in him.  Perhaps he spoke to them in advance that day the words he proclaimed when he miraculously raised their brother Lazarus from the dead: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, yet shall he live.”

There is of course important work that must be done: for yourself, for your family, in your home, with your employment, in the community, for your church.  It is good to be busy.  But, do not be so consumed with busyness that you forget to sit at your Lord’s feet.  Do not be so distracted and worried and upset about this world that you neglect time spent with your Lord and his word.  As Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”  “Life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.”  “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

“Mary . . . sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.”  Just as Jesus sat that day in Mary and Martha’s house speaking to the disciples gathered there, he still speaks through his word to his disciples gathered here in his house.  What an opportunity, what a privilege, for you to listen to the Lord.

Just as Mary and Martha prepared a feast that day in their house for Christ and his disciples, Christ invites you to the feast which he himself prepares for his disciples here in his house. 

Just as Mary and Martha sat at the Lord’s feet that day listening to their Master’s voice, sit at the Lord’s feet in your own life, listening to his voice in personal devotion, Bible reading, and prayer.

Just as Jesus strengthened Mary and Martha’s faith to prepare them for the unexpected tragedy of Lazarus’ illness and death, as you sit at your Savior’s feet in worship, word, sacrament and prayer you also will find comfort, strength, and peace to help you face the troubles and tragedies in your life.

“Mary . . . sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.”  Do be busy with the work of this world, it is important.  But, like Mary reserve time in your life to be busy also with the better thing, sitting at your Savior’s feet, in worship, word, sacrament and prayer. “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”


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