A Sermon for Covenant
“Only One Thing”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
July 21, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“Only one thing is needed.” Wouldn’t it be great if that were true? Only One Thing.
Not all the many things we scurry so frantically to accomplish. Just one. Not everything else. Not exercise. Not house cleaning. Not mission work. Not yard work. Not homemade birthday cake for the kids. Not top grades. Not positions or titles or awards. Not looks. Not brownie points. Not weight loss. Not income. Only One Thing. The One Thing Needed.
But, of course, Only One Thing isn’t remotely practical. Yes, of course, an idolatry of stuff and status can go, but most everything else is here to stay. Practically speaking, someone’s got to put food on the table. Someone’s got to be responsible. Someone’s got to be Martha—at least part-time—or nobody gets fed. The laundry stays dirty and the bills don’t get paid and the grass grows a foot high without a Martha.
It’s a nice sentiment, Jesus, but we know you don’t mean it. If Martha were a Mary, your stomach would start rumbling, and there would be no one to take your coat at the door.
Maybe Jesus’ point is about having balance: knowing when to be Martha and when to be Mary. It is all a matter of discernment, knowing when to flip the switch, flipping our Martha-drive on and off with wisdom and timing.
Of course, to the doers among us, Only One Thing doesn’t sound like good news, even if it were true. To the tired and the over-worked, Jesus’ words may sound too good to be true, but to the fixers and the achievers, Jesus’ words to Martha sound a little harsh and unwelcome. Instead of being a relief, they incite panic. What?? Sit still? Be quiet? (What’s a contemplative community?) We want to be tasked with something. How will we even know who we are without stuff to do? Where will our worth come from? How will we fix things and solve problems and surmount obstacles, survive and prove ourselves while seated cross-legged on the ground?
This will never do, Jesus, this will never do. We need work.
What is Jesus’ point anyway? He can’t really mean that we’re just supposed to sit around and listen and never get to work, can he? What exactly, precisely was the one thing needed that Mary chose, that was better, that could not be taken away from her? And where did Martha go wrong in her efforts to serve? And how can we choose what Mary chose and avoid becoming distracted as Martha was?
And in a contemplative community like ours, isn’t the danger for us sitting too long and never beginning the work of participating in God’s Kingdom? If this is a story about balancing between reflecting and doing, we’re more likely to have tipped the scales too far in favor of contemplation.
But I don’t think this is a story about balance at all. I mean, that’s Martha’s whole complaint, right? Mary didn’t even bother to set the table before she plopped herself down at Jesus’ feet. From Martha’s perspective, Mary is self-indulgent and lazy and totally out-of-balance. But Jesus offers no rebuke of Mary, only praise, while he gently calms Martha down, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things . . .” Jesus isn’t saying, “There’s a time to be Martha and a time to be Mary,” Jesus is saying Mary, not Martha, has chosen what is better.
How can this be practical? How will anything ever get done?
I think this is a matter of output versus input. Somewhere along the way we get this idea that, spiritually-speaking, we are supposed to be all output—imagine being a nursing mother who feeds anybody and everybody, but we’re so busy nursing we don’t even have time to stop and eat, not even the drive thru variety and so we sustain ourselves on ketchup packets. Ludicrous right?
Think instead about someone who eats well. Your body converts what you eat into energy without you even having to think about it. You eat your fruits and veggies and protein and suddenly you can go. You get to make some choices about how to use that energy, of course, but the conversion from intake to output-able energy happens without trying. And the healthier the food you eat, the more naturally you choose good, healthier activity.
This, I think, is Jesus’ point. Feed your soul. Feed, feed, feed your soul. It might feel a little gluttonous at first, because most of us go bustling about with starved spirits. But this connectivity with God, this sitting at Jesus’ feet, this rapt listening, this absorption of the holy, this slowing down, this ignoring of the dirty dishes—this has to be the spring from which all else flows. Has to. We’re not talking about balancing work and rest. Jesus is saying the sitting still is your work, your first work, your real work. It is where you find your heartbeat, it is where you feed your soul, it where you gain the nutrition that turns to energy. Just showing up to church isn’t enough. Martha was in the same house with Jesus, and she don’t slow down a bit. Jesus is here, but that doesn’t mean your spirit is present or attentive.
Engaging with God, listening to God—these are not luxuries or optional activities for the disciple. Engaging God is at the core of everything, and it will produce the right work, in the right time, in the right way if we trust it. Here is what we believe as people of faith: that God has the real power to transform our lives. We are like the bleeding woman who reached out to touch the hem of his garments—we know there is an electricity there that changes things as soon as we let it into our bodies. But it is hard work just to get to the hem of his garment. Crowds push in from every side—duties and demands distract us, loud voices drown out his, doubt creeps in that something so silly and simple as grabbing the edge of his clothes will make a difference, there are so many other things we could be, should be doing with our time rather than hunting down the Son of God in a crowd. We stop believing we need the electricity of God to hit our blood stream the way we need food, the way we need oxygen. We start thinking we can sustain ourselves on less-than-God’s-Spirit—we grasp at the ketchup-packet version of nutrition and go about our days and wonder why we are so tired and cranky and incapable of the love we long to give.
I think we need to stop trying to achieve balance and let our souls gorge instead. They are malnourished, and Jesus says when we feed our souls, that can’t be taken away from us. Of course he isn’t talking about sitting around all day and never working. The attentive heart can absorb God with mop in hand, and the distracted heart can be a couch potato. It’s an attitude more than anything else: a posture of the heart.
Just how do we practice sitting at his feet, then? The good news is there are a thousand ways to sit at the feet of Jesus. For example:
Practicing gratitude. Gratitude is one of the simplest ways to wake yourself up to God, and it is just about the only way to make it through seasons of grief and sorrow. Gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring pain, but just remembering to also pause and say thanks when something beautiful shows up, be it small and fleeting.
Another example: doing something concrete to remind yourself that efficiency is not your highest value. Walk somewhere instead of driving. Bake a loaf of bread instead of buying one. Take your time savoring your lunch instead of shoveling it in. There are a hundred ways to slow down—pick one.
You see, we can make spirituality out to be complicated, but it isn’t. It is often intuitive if we pause long enough to listen to our spirit. If you listen, your spirit will make suggestions: Why don’t you write a card instead of sending an email? How about you savor one cookie instead of gobbling up six of them? How about you take a deep breath before entering this stressful meeting? How about you say, “No, I can’t commit to one more project right now”? How about you say Yes to that things that’s been tugging at your heart? How about you say a prayer for the person who is driving you nuts? This has nothing to do with getting busier for God, though it may involve getting less busy with things that matter little, and taking our time to relish and live life rather than making it through life. It’s about reaching out to the touch the hem of his garments as many times a day as you can, about scanning the bustling crowd of your active thoughts for any sign of his face and making eye contact throughout the day, again and again, over and over.
Here’s how you know whether you’re being a careful listener versus a paranoid perfectionist, a Mary versus a Martha: the spirit life isn’t stressful. Yes, stressful things crop up all over the place but the listening-to-God-part is the oxygen flow, not the restriction on your lungs. When your religion makes you scurry, you know you’ve quit hearing the voice of God and begun to tune in to something else instead. In the book we are reading for Sunday School, there was a quote a few weeks back that said, “The Biblical, as well as the practical, cure for ‘worldliness’ among Christians is so to fill the heart and life with the eternal blessings of God that there will be a joyous preoccupation and absentmindedness to unspiritual things . . . a dead leaf cannot remain where a new bud is spring, nor can worldliness remain where the blessings of the Spirit are flowing.”[i] I love that. If we fill our souls with God, we become absentminded to the worldly stresses that otherwise drain our energies.
It is simpler than we think to feed our souls, and it is more crucial than we can imagine. There’s a story I read in one of my prayer books that has stuck with me for quite some time:
A rich industrialist was horrified to find a fisherman lying leisurely beside his boat. ‘Why aren’t you fishing?’ asked the industrialist.
“Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman.
“Why don’t you catch some more?”
“What would I do with them?”
“You could earn more money,” was the reply. “With that, you could fix a motor to your boat, go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats . . . maybe even fleet of boats. Then you would be rich man like me.”
“What would I do then?”
“Then you could really enjoy life.”
“What do you think I am doing right now?” said the fisherman.[ii]
Friends, feed your soul every time. Do the thing that fills your heart. Choose on behalf of your soul, trusting that it isn’t selfish to eat; it is necessary. Always eat enough, when possible. When it doesn’t seem possible, stop everything to find your soul food. Amen.