The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Mother Imogen Rhodenhiser
As many of you, if not all of you will know by now my husband, Giles, and I are in the midst of moving, at some point in the next few weeks, to North Carolina at somewhat speedier and shorter notice than either of us was aware of. And in the midst of all the moving parts that need to be taken care of, I’m thankful to say that there have been some bright spots in the midst of all this change.
And one of those is the fact that over the last couple of days my father has been visiting, primarily to lend another pair of hands for a still young family with a toddler, which is always useful. And it’s just such a pleasure that he’s here. And if you’ve not met him before in his other visits here, at George’s baptism, at the beautiful shower you all had before George was born – even if you’ve not met him before, you can credit him with all the 70s lyrics/quotations that have been thrown at you in different sermons that I’ve preached over the past three years.
I have him to thank for my deep knowledge and ability to call to mind many of those from memory. But one of the things that I don’t think I’ve ever shared with any of you is that he also possesses a very rich knowledge of Disney films such that when I was a child, one of the go-to games that we had was that when we were in the car we would play Disney questions which was exciting and elaborate as the title suggests. It was simply that for the most part it would be my father – he would be asking me questions to see if I knew.
For example, if you wanted to know the names of the two eels in The Little Mermaid, he would be able to tell you. Flotsam and Jetsam, exactly, Pastor Manisha gets ten points. She would be an excellent player at Disney questions, we should challenge them to a fight. Maybe we’ll do that afterwards. At any rate, it’s no surprise then that at one point in one of the moments where George was being a little more tested, my father, unprompted, found his phone and then pulled up the video of a song that he thought might soothe and distract and help George.
And this video was of a bear singing the following words:
Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That’s why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life
Now as it turned out, I don’t think the video was actually that comforting to George. And I’m also almost certain that he missed the deeper meaning that I’m suggesting we might find in those words this morning. But suffice to say, even in our collect today, isn’t there just that helpful reminder, and needed one, of how much of our prayer life entails asking God for what we need when we don’t have the foggiest idea what that is.
Such that this eloquent prayer book that we worship from, that has all the words to go to, all the eloquent terms – at a certain point in this collect all I can say is those things, we don’t even know how to name them. How to ask God for what we need without knowing what that is? Part of that, I think, part of the difficulty that this collect raises up for us is that eternal question, that eternal comparison between what do I want and what do I need? How on earth do I tell the difference?
And it strikes me that the other thing that makes it so hard and so humbling to have to keep going back and asking God again and again for what we need without knowing what it is, is that the bare necessities change. And one moment just as you think you’ve found what it is you really need, a prayer life to anchor you, a spouse to love and support you, a church community to bear witness to you; something shifts, somebody loses their job, somebody gets sick.
Something happens where suddenly we’re not sure anymore what the bare necessities are today even if we thought we knew what they were yesterday. So I think the collect is very kind to us in giving us a rich and challenging question to take into our worship, our readings in the hope and trust that God will show up with a word for us.
Abraham, in the reading from Genesis, he seems very much like the kind of guy who’s got his priorities in order. And he seems almost to have this God-like attribute where he knows what these three travelers need before they even ask for it. He says, Let me bring you a little water, a little rest, and a little bread. And if we have Abraham who seems to have the bare necessities in view, the short comparison can seem to be that Martha in the Gospel is the perfect pairing with Abraham to show us if Abraham does what we ought to do and models it well, then Martha shows us what not to do.
We can think on the face of it the way this account in the Gospel of Luke, it becomes larger than life. There are only five verses in Luke, but we can fill them all with these details. Martha’s in the kitchen – never says she’s in the kitchen, but we can practically see her there. She’s got five pots on the stove, etc., etc., use your imagination, fill in the other details of what constitute the many things. And we can find it all to be a cautionary tale of how to be and how we ought to be less like Martha and more like Mary.
But in fact, I don’t know if that’s what really happens in this account. Has she actually lost sight of the bare necessities? Or is something different taking place? The first thing we hear about Martha, besides her name, is that she welcomed Jesus into her home. What greater commendation could you have as a person? So at the beginning it seems like Martha and Abraham are actually tracking together. They are both committed to these practices of hospitality and welcome, whether it’s to people they know or people they don’t know.
And we’re told that she’s got a sister named Mary, who’s sitting at Jesus’ feet listening. And then it says that Martha was distracted and troubled by many things, in the Greek, by much service. The same word where we get deacon from, by much deaconing. Martha was distracted and troubled, and Jesus doesn’t say anything at this point. The next person to speak is not Jesus, it’s Martha who goes and says, effectively, my sister isn’t doing anything, tell her to come help me.
And how does Jesus reply? Two replies that He doesn’t give are, firstly, there, there, dear. You are worrying too much. Why don’t you have a sit down? Why don’t you take a chill pill, Martha, because you’re just letting it get to you. The other thing He doesn’t say to Martha is, Martha, I’m absolutely ashamed of you. I cannot believe that at this moment that’s how you’re behaving. I’m thoroughly disappointed in you. You need to stop what you’re doing and go sit down next to Mary who’s got it figured out. He doesn’t say either of those things.
What He does say is, Martha, Martha! He says her name twice, isn’t that beautiful? He slows it down, Martha, Martha! You are distracted and troubled by a lot of things. And in that we see Jesus almost lifting up this mirror to Martha, so that she can see herself more clearly in a moment when she’s being overwhelmed. And something has happened between this beautiful welcome of Jesus into her home, and the moment at which something comes out of her mouth that is less than welcoming.
Jesus doesn’t correct her. Jesus doesn’t try and fix whatever’s going on with her. He simply seems to say let me help you see what’s going on, what’s driving you right now. And the gift for us it seems to me to be is that when – if we’re faithful Christians, at some moment we too will be distracted and troubled by much service. There is much need in the world, in us, in one another – and if we’re responding to it we will be distracted and overwhelmed and troubled.
And when we are, it will be harder to spot and to look for what is really necessary in our lives. And when we are troubled and distracted by much service, we will be tempted not just to look away from our necessities, known or unknown, but will also be more tempted instead of doing that to rather look at how we might control other people. That when we feel we’ve lost control of something, something’s going off kilter, the tendency will be as it is with Martha, not to over perform per se, or over function, but to come out and say, Mary needs to be doing what I want her to do, and Jesus needs to be saying what I want Him to say.
And Jesus doesn’t criticize her for this. He doesn’t tell her what she should do instead. He simply says, there is need for only one thing. Mary has chosen – in fact in the Greek, not the better part just the good part. And somewhere within that seems to be not a dictation to Martha of what she should do, but a reminder to Martha that she too has a choice. Even in that moment that just as Mary has chosen to do one thing, Martha gets to choose too. She gets to choose how she will speak, how she will live and move in that moment. And that’s where the account ends.
I’ve been thinking about what this one needful thing might be. And the closest I’ve come up to it, and as much as it may change, and my perception of it certainly will – the closest thing I’ve come to is that the one needful thing as I would hazard a guess is that we need Christ to keep showing up in our lives. And we need the grace to notice and to respond when Christ does.
But as I thought about that more, I realized that that’s actually rather a selfish sense of what do I need? I need Christ, I need to do certain things, and it all revolves around my needs getting met. And this is where I think Paul is extremely helpful in this beautiful reading from Colossians. He talks about the commission he’s been given. And it is to make the word of God fully known. And so in as much as that’s a bit of a braver need and can seem rather a tall order, that may very well be the one needful thing at this point in my life.
At least that wherever I went, wherever I was, however anxious or distracted or troubled about any number of legitimate and worthy causes, I – we might have the presence of mind to ask God, Lord, what is the one needful thing? What’s the thing you need from me right now? What do I need to be doing? And if it is to make you fully known, fully at everything that I am and have and do, fully known to as many people as you possibly give me the opportunity to share your love with, tell me Lord, how I do that? And help me to listen so that when you show me I will notice. And I will respond.
It has been my total pleasure to be with you all for the season that we have shared. It’s been a pleasure to stand in this extremely large pulpit and to preach here. And I can’t think of a more fitting way than to close with some words from the somewhat unorthodox preachers, The Rolling Stones. For any length of time that you’ve lived or been a Christian, you will know that:
You can’t always get what you want
No, no, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you find
You get what you need