Texts: Luke 10:38-42;
Col. 1:15-28; Gen. 18:1-10a
THE ONE THING MOST NEEDFUL IS . . .
Jesus tells Martha to not be so distracted with many tasks but to settle on the one thing needful — which Mary has apparently done by sitting and listening to Jesus. I don’t know about you, but if I was Martha, I would have wanted to speak up and perhaps even object. Let’s remember, too, what has just happened in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ story. He has blown us all away with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where a Samaritan has crossed ethnic boundaries to lovingly serve a fellow human being in need, and the conclusion is, “Go and do likewise!” Well, that’s what Martha is doing, right?! She’s lovingly serving in the manner of the Samaritan. So, if I had been in Martha’s sandals, I might have spoken up: “Wait a second, Jesus. In that Parable you told us the other day, it seems like loving service to others is the one needful thing. Isn’t that what I’m doing? I don’t get it.”
We can only guess what Jesus might have answered to such a response. In preaching this text over the years, I’ve suggested numerous answers. This time around I’d like to begin with something that makes sense to me only in the last few years of my life, as I’ve begun to learn ancient practices of silent prayer. It goes by many names these days: meditation, mindfulness, contemplation, or contemplative spirituality. The best places to go to learn this revival of ancient practices is usually your community’s Catholic retreat center.1 But one of my main teachers in learning this has been Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who lives in New Mexico.2 He has one of the most helpful centers for Christian renewal in today’s world.
The name of Father Richard’s retreat house is the Center for Contemplation and Action. Center for Contemplation and Action. And he often says that the most important word in that the title is “and.” We might say that the most needful thing is neither contemplation or action. Rather, the most needful thing is contemplation and action. Here’s the question, then: do you suppose that this is what Luke has in mind when he tells us these two stories back-to-back? One in which action is featured, and then the next one quieter contemplation seems to be featured? Do you suppose Luke is trying to tell us that the most needful thing is neither action or contemplation, but action and contemplation?
The key to reading these passages in this fashion is to understand a bit more about contemplation or mindfulness, and then to understand how that makes for not being distracted. Because I think that’s Martha’s problem in this story. Her problem is not that she chooses lovingly serving, in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan. It’s that she’s distracted by too many things.
So what is mindfulness, or contemplation? It has a much wider tradition than just Christian prayer. It is a way of sitting with silence to help your mind focus better. In fact, the sad truth is that, in the rich tradition of Christian prayer, this way of praying has become too rare. We stopped teaching it for a long time. And so our prayer life has become more like Martha’s serving: too distracted by many things. Our prayers have become a stream of jumping from one subject to another, one person to another, one deeply held concern to another. This is not necessarily bad prayer. But it can be somewhat unhelpful if it is not balanced by this other form of silent prayer, known as mindfulness, meditation, or contemplation.
When I say that the tradition of silent prayer is wider than the Christian tradition, we might think of something like Buddhist meditation. But the funny thing is that these practices were very much Christian, too, until it nearly dropped out of use by Christians the last couple centuries. Now, we’ve needed to relearn it with the help of our Buddhist friends (but also traditions of silent prayer in all the other major religions — Sufism among Muslims, Cabalism in the Jewish tradition, and so on).
But such practices are even making a big comeback in our secular world. Do you know that the Seattle Seahawk football team employs a mindfulness coach? Or that many major corporations have meditation rooms in their corporate offices and encourage practices of mindfulness for their employees? A wonderful book on this subject comes from a very secular source: ABC news anchor Dan Harris, and his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story. Harris advocates that even as little as five minutes of silent prayer per day can work wonders for one’s mental hygiene. He believes that it will soon become like brushing our teeth is for dental hygiene — the most important thing we can do for healthy minds.
So what is mindfulness? It’s hard to describe, especially since I’m still rather new to it myself. But here’s the basic premise: spend a few moments a day working to quiet your mind from it’s usual racing thoughts and feelings. Sound impossible? Well, until you have years and years of practice, it basically is impossible to totally quiet one’s mind. But that’s OK, because the results are not the most important thing; the process is. As the usual flow of thoughts and feelings come to you, you gently try to push them away, to unhook from them, to become an observer of them, rather than simply fully into the flow of them. It’s like the difference between being in a river carried along by the current, and being able to stand up in the river and not go with the flow for a while. You’re able to observe the flow, without being carried along.
That’s an oversimplification, but I think it begins to give you an idea. And the payoff is being better able to unhook from your flow of thoughts and feelings at crucial moments throughout your day. For example, we sometimes say things like, “Yea, he really pushed my buttons.” Well, what if we could train ourselves to not let people push our buttons. That’s what this is about. Being able to step outside the usual flow of our thoughts and feelings enough so that we can choose our responses to what’s happening to us more often. It’s the difference between simply reacting — having our buttons pushed — and choosing a more measured response. If you spend a few minutes a day in silent prayer, in which you practice doing this with your own thoughts and feelings, then you are able to do it more readily at other times of the day.
But there’s many more benefits. Another aspect is that our normal flow of thoughts and feelings is a torrent of so much more than what’s happening to us at that moment. Our normal flow includes still being obsessed with what our co-worker said to us yesterday which hurt us. It includes worrying about that important conversation you need to have with your spouse at a time together in the near future. It includes all kinds of things from our past and all kinds of anticipations of our future. That’s who we are as human beings. We are able to live in the past, present, and future all at the same time.
So mindfulness is also about being able to focus more on the present moment. It’s about being able to slow down the usual torrent of thoughts and feelings. What is the most needful thing? I think that one answer we might give is simply this: be more attentive to the present moment. Martha is distracted by too many things. Mary is more fully focused on the opportunity she has in that moment to sit and listen to Jesus. It’s not that there is one category of activity that’s always the “better part.” It’s not that loving service is always better than learning at the feet of Jesus, or vice versa. It’s about learning to respond to the most important thing at that moment.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when the priest, Levite, and Samaritan come upon a man in dire need of care, the priest and the levite apparently were too caught up in other things to respond to the need of the moment. The priest and Levite were too distracted, while the Samaritan was attentive enough to respond compassionately to a neighbor in need right in his path. When Jesus comes to visit Mary and Martha, Martha is too distracted by many things to enjoy the opportunity that that moment brought her. Mary is more mindfully in the moment of being in relationship to their guest.
In other words, the most needful thing is contemplation and action in the sense that better mindfulness, better being able to live in the moment, helps us to choose our actions more deliberately and fruitfully. It especially helps us to enjoy and appreciate the life and lives that God sends our way each moment, even when those other lives are suffering. We learn to cherish life as something lived more fully in each moment, as we especially learn to cherish all other lives. Does that make sense?
One final step in seeing the most needful thing as disciples of Jesus. We can no longer host the incarnate Jesus like Mary and Martha. But Jesus has promised to present with us always. So mindfulness, contemplative prayer, can help us to be attentive to Jesus’ presence with us wherever we are. Most often, Jesus comes to us through the person in need at any given moment, even when that person is us.
I wish we had time to get into today’s Second Reading, too, because I think it is all about the mystery of Christ’s presence in all times and places that makes it possible for us to be attentive for Jesus’ presence with us all the time. The introduction to the reading in our “Celebrate” insert3 says that “Paul offers a mystical teaching, that the great mystery of God is ‘Christ in you.’” A mystical teaching. That’s what contemplative spirituality is about. Generally, we imagine that mystics are monks living in the Tibetan mountains. But St. Paul is implying here that Christ’s incarnation makes the mystery accessible to all people. Followers of Christ can all be “mystics.” In fact, we are to be “teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28).
What is the most needful thing? To be attentive to Jesus being with us, to guide us, to comfort us, to challenge us, to call us to serve. Amen.
Addendum for the situation at Faith:
During a time of a pastoral vacancy, you do things like fill out surveys of what skills you want to see in your next pastor (adapted from the ELCA’s Ministry Site Profile). How did you respond in the recent survey? Based on the sermon today on the revival of contemplative spirituality, would you consider something “Spiritual formation/direction” as perhaps the most “needful thing” in your next pastor — and something like “Social Action” or “Strategic Mission Planning” as its companion (Contemplation and Action)?
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, July 17-18, 2016
1. A retreat center in Saginaw, for example, is Queen of Angels. There are also programs and events through the diocesan Center for Ministry.
2. At the time of writing this sermon, I was listening to/reading Rohr’s book Immortal Diamond: Searching for Our True Self, which was a big factor in my taking this approach to reading the text.
3. “Celebrate” inserts are published by Augsburg Fortress for bulletins in ELCA congregations, containing the propers for the day: Prayer of the Day, all scripture readings, and intercessory prayers. The full intro for the Colossians reading is: “Sometimes Paul preaches with great attention to theological concepts. Here, however, Paul offers a mystical teaching, that the great mystery of God is ‘Christ in you.’ Because Christ is present in the church, Christians share in his life, suffering, and glory.”