Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Luke 10:38-42;
Col 1:15-28; Gen 18:1-10a
THE ONE NEEDFUL THING: BEING FULLY PRESENT
Coming right on the heels of the magisterial Parable of the Good Samaritan, this little story of Martha and Mary can seem a letdown. It can even seem confusing. “One most needful thing,” Jesus says to Mary. Hadn’t he just shown us the most needful thing in the parable? To a question from the lawyer about nothing less than salvation, Jesus had shown the world the compassion of the Samaritan who crossed bitter ethnic boundaries to serve the person in need. “Go and do likewise,” he said. Yet in this little story to follow, if there’s anyone who’s serving folks in need it’s Martha. Martha is being the good and proper host . . . to their Lord Jesus, no less. (Jesus is referred to as “Lord” three times in this short passage.) Martha is serving, doing, like the Samaritan. Then why does Jesus imply that Mary is doing the one most needful thing? Confusing, right?
I think I’ve finally come to understand what’s happening in these two stories, but it’s only come from having undergone the final piece of my own conversion. I’ve shared with you that my thirty-five years as a pastor has basically been one long process of conversion, one that I’ve come to see as a key for the church in these challenging times. We need a serious upgrade of our articulation of the basic Gospel message. And my own conversion process has graciously helped me to learn what’s at the heart of that message. We need to be preaching not just about going to heaven when we die, and how to behave on the way. No, we need to be preaching about the New Creation which God launched on Easter two thousand years ago and how we are called to participate in that. In order for us to do so, in order for us to participate, we need to understand how God is calling us to be new human beings, to see ourselves as living by the goals and values of God’s kingdom, God’s culture, not by human cultures. Last week, I put that in terms of nothing less than a re-enculturation. We all need to undergo the conversion that happens when we are re-enculturated into God’s culture.
This week, I’m able to say more about that with the one most needful piece of that conversion. It happens to have come last in my own conversion process, too, so let me tell you that story. About a dozen years ago, our synod in North-West Lower Michigan elected one of the most visionary bishops I’ve had the pleasure to serve under. And probably the most underrated thing he did addresses what I believe is the most needful thing which Jesus proclaims to Martha in today’s Gospel. Our bishop (John Schleicher) hired a Catholic sister to lead continuing education for the synod. And a couple years later I took her basic class. For one Saturday a month for nine months, we gathered to learn about the Christian mystics through the ages.
It begins, of course, with Jesus himself, and St. Paul, who both made central times of silent prayer. Jesus began his ministry by engaging in such prayer for thirty days in the wilderness — what we today would call a silent retreat, but not just for a weekend or a week but a whole month. Then we learned about the desert mothers and fathers who created the monastery movements of the early centuries. Then there was one of the towering giants of all time, St. Francis of Assisi, whose name the current Pope has taken. In the medieval times there was Meister Eckhart, Thomas á Kempis, and Martin Luther’s favorite, St. John of the Cross. There were great women, too: Hildegard of Bingen, Theresa of Avila, and Catherine of Sienna. But with the Reformation, the voice and practices of the mystics were pushed to the background, which is another story in itself which I can’t cover this morning. Basically, after Martin Luther, we had to skip ahead to the 20th century when the ways of Christian mysticism have seen a revival, not only in the church but even in secular society. Millions are once again learning the ways of silent contemplation. It’s often called mindfulness, when taught in schools and workplaces. The main practice revolves around sitting in silence for ten, twenty, or thirty minutes. It’s a practice I’m still learning and want to share with you in the months ahead.
But first I need to tie the link to ‘the most needful thing’ which Mary is doing in today’s Gospel, and which Martha isn’t. The main practice which helps to cultivate this most needful thing is silent prayer, called contemplation in Christian circles, but that itself is not the most needful thing. Contemplation is the main practice to cultivate this most needful thing, but it’s not the thing itself. The most needful thing is: (drumroll, please) being fully present in each moment, no matter whatever else it is that we’re doing.
In today’s Gospel, Martha is serving like the Good Samaritan, and Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. But here’s the key: It’s not what they’re doing which is the most needful thing. It’s how they are doing it. Twice we are told that Martha is distracted. In other words, she’s not fully present in the moment. She’s thinking about so many other things as well as what she’s doing. Apparently, one of those things is even comparing herself to her sister and becoming resentful about it, because that’s what she finally voices to Jesus. It’s not sitting at the feet of Jesus which is more needful than serving like Martha or the Good Samaritan. It’s how we do whatever we do that’s most needful. Martha is serving like the Good Samaritan, but she is doing so distractedly. She’s not fully present to what she’s doing so it gets her off-track into resentment against her sister.
The Good Samaritan, on the other hand, is an example of being fully present in the moment when he encounters the man half dead in the road. The priest and Levite were no doubt distracted by other matters, like Martha, when they passed by on the other side. But the Good Samaritan is fully present to the moment of encountering a person in grave need, so he is able to have the most appropriate, needful response. He is filled with compassion, and so he is able to spring into action in doing what needs to be done to attend to the man’s healing. The fact that he’s a Samaritan underscores this fact. One of the most common ways of being distracted in our human cultures is to pay more attention to the ethnic prejudices that we are taught. The Samaritan is so fully present in the moment to the dire needs of the man, that he doesn’t let those ethnic prejudices sidetrack him. Fully present to the situation of the moment, he doesn’t see an ethnic enemy before him. He simply sees another human being in need.
So my proposal to you this morning is that the most needful thing Jesus is talking about is being fully present in the moment to what we’re doing, especially when we are seeking to serve others like the Good Samaritan. And the most central practice to learning how to be fully present is silent prayer, contemplation. I mentioned that silent meditation, or mindfulness, is even being taught in the secular world — in schools, in workplaces, in places of mental health. As we learn more about the brain and how it works, such practices are being called things like “mental hygiene.” We will say more about the practice next week, when the Gospel Reading is about prayer. And we are also devoting our midweek summer worship to learning the practice of silent prayer. Please join us this Wednesday at 6pm and the third Wednesday next month.
Today I want to wrap things up by making clear how important this is — why I believe it to be the most needful thing that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. I need to finish my story about the synod class I took ten years ago. We left off with how the practices went away after the Reformation and hasn’t seen a revival until last century. The main person credited with the revival was another great mystic saint in the Catholic tradition, a priest named Thomas Merton. But we also learned about a very important figure in the Lutheran tradition: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Pastor Bonhoeffer is most famous for trying to stand against Hitler right from the very beginning in the early 1930’s. He was eventually imprisoned by the Nazis for the last couple years of the war and finally hanged, tragically, just three weeks before the war ended. One of the ways he tried to resist Hitler was by starting his own seminary to train Lutheran pastors not just to be pastors but to also be resisters to evils like Nazism. In January 1935, he wrote to his brother Karl-Friedrich,
The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.1
“A new kind of monasticism,” he called it. And, sure enough, he made learning practices of silent prayer a main staple of the seminary routine at Finkenwalde, the seminary he started later that year. Such practices were not part of my seminary training; I didn’t begin to learn them until I took the synod class ten years ago. But Bonhoeffer knew that it was necessary in their situation under the shadow of Nazism. He knew that human beings are, as we talked about last week, enculturated to form their identities in opposition to other groups of people. And so we can be easy prey to someone like Hitler, whose main message taps into that identity formation. He was able to feed into the resentment of the German people for the way in which they had been beaten down by the rest of Europe after WWI. But instead of focusing on those other Europeans, he first found another people to blame, the Jews. And it worked. Just like Vladimir Putin is now trying to place the blame on LGBTQ folks right now in Russia. He’s tapping into homophobia as a way to blame their enemies as the ones who throw gay pride parades instead of holding the line against this supposedly terrible foe. Hitler did the same thing with the Jews, and it worked, tragically, to the tune of six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust.
What is the first line of defense against such evil? Bonhoeffer knew that it involved a conversion to nothing less than a different way to see and experience the world, the kind of way exemplified by the Good Samaritan. When the latter first saw the man half dead in the road, he was able to be present in the moment in a way that bypassed any prejudgments he may have been taught about his ethnic rivals, the Jews. He was able to keep ethnic hatreds and resentments in the background. Fully present in the moment, he was able to see a fellow human being in need. Bonhoeffer knew that to stand against Hitler, his fellow Germans needed to learn how to be fully present in the moment in ways that kept the hatreds in the background. Hitler was trying to teach them that when they encountered Jews they should immediately be filled with hatred and resentment and fear. It was what made it possible for German soldiers to herd millions of Jews into gas chambers. But Bonhoeffer tried his best to teach his pastors to teach their members how not to do that. He needed to teach them how to be fully present in the moment so that when we encounter people different from us we may simply see them as fellow human beings in need, and not so immediately as an enemy.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do we live in another Bonhoeffer moment? Are there prominent political leaders among us right now who are trying to engage our hatred and resentment toward other groups of human beings? Do you see why it might be important for us to learn this most needful thing from Jesus? How to be present in the moment to fellow human beings so that our compassion has a chance to be engaged instead of our hatred? Please, please join me this Wednesday and next Sunday as we continue to hear about the one most needful thing from Jesus. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, July 17, 2022
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London, 1933-1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 13 (Fortress Press, 2007), page 285.