Only One Thing

St James Fordham • Proper 11c • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said to Martha, “One thing is necessary…” +

Have you ever been a dinner guest in someone’s home, only to find that your hosts are so busy tending to the cooking, the serving, and the cleaning up that you feel as though you might as well have gone to a restaurant without them? In spite of their good intentions to make the meal pleasurable, your hosts have missed the point of your visit: you were there for them, not for the food, however good it might be. The meal was only the vehicle for the real purpose of your visit, your fellowship and friendship your time of sharing, the companionship of company.

Well, this misplacement of the purpose of hospitality is what happens in our Gospel reading for today. Martha, dear, eager, hardworking Martha, taking pains to please her special guest, gets distracted from the guest himself, caught up with the many details of first-century Palestinian cuisine. This is long before the gas-range, and the refrigerator, to say nothing of the microwave and Wonder Bread.

We get a glimpse of the meal preparations needed in the reading from Genesis, a detailed description of just how much work was required when you had a dinner guest in the ancient Near East. If you want bread, you have to bake it — you don’t just run around the corner to the Associated. You want beef stew? Well, the recipe starts: “Run to the herd, take one calf, tender and good…” I guess the closest we come these days to that sort meal preparation is when we go to Red Lobster and get to see our future dinner swimming in a tank in the lobby! However, back in those days — little changed from Abraham’s to Martha’s — every aspect of meal preparation took much longer, before all our modern appliances.

So we can be sure there is plenty of work for Martha to be distracted by in preparing a meal for her special guest; and one can easily understand the testiness in her tone when she complains that her sister is just sitting there while she does all the work. Jesus, however, gently reminds this hard-working woman, that in the midst of all her busyness, she has neglected the one thing that is really important: his presence there in that household.

+ + +

All preparation has a purpose, though it can be difficult to keep our eyes and hearts on that purpose. How do we remain attentive to Jesus in the midst of our all-too-busy lives? How do we find the time to sit at his feet while all around us there is so much to do?

I believe we will find the answer in that reading from Genesis. All the preparation that Abraham, his servants, and his wife make for the trio of guests — whom Abraham rightly recognizes as no ordinary visitors — all of these preparations lead up to an announcement. And the announcement is so off-the-wall, so unexpected, that Sarah literally laughs out loud when she hears it.

It is a birth announcement, among the strangest ever heard: this ancient couple — Abraham nearly 100 years old, and Sarah in her early nineties — this aged pair will soon be the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy. No wonder Sarah laughs! How could a child come from the withered loins of an old man, the dry womb of an ancient woman? Lift the tent-flap and peek into the tent: You can picture the grin spreading on those parchment cheeks, the desert-engraved fan of laughing wrinkles spreading from the corners of her eyes, over the blushing giggle: “Now that I’m old, and he’s even older, shall I have pleasure from the old fellow still!” This was, after all, long before Viagra!

But the Lord is more miraculous than any modern pharmaceutical, and he gently chides her, having heard every word even though she is in the tent. And, ever considerate, the Lord even misquotes her, when he speaks to Abraham, — who, we must assume, is a little hard of hearing — to forestall Abraham taking offense at the suggestion he might not be up to the task of fathering a child. So, instead of God saying, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I have pleasure?’” God asks, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child!’” But then God goes further and says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Sarah shall have a son!”

Of course, Sarah hears all this through the tent-flap. And does her laughter stop then? Does she choke for a second on a sob or a gasp, a hope she’s long forgotten? Sarah has grown old — old and childless. Desperate for a son, she’s already taken what she thought was the last resort: allowing her husband to sleep with her slave girl, hoping to experience surrogate motherhood through someone else. But now, now the Lord is promising that from her own womb a son will be born. She herself will give birth, and her dream and Abraham’s dream will be fulfilled.

This is, for Abraham and Sarah, the one thing necessary: an heir of their own flesh and blood, who will fulfill God’s promise already made to Abraham, the promise that with their son God will establish an everlasting covenant.Gen 17.19

All preparations, you see, have a purpose; and God’s preparations were far longer in the works than even those for the most elaborate banquet. Think of it: All of God’s work in creation, and then the Flood that wipes it all out to start over, after the massive cleanup; all God’s patient care for Abraham as he wandered far from home; and human labor too: all their work to prepare the meal for the divine visitors, all the hustle and bustle and to-ing and fro-ing that Abraham and Sarah undertake; all of this work, divine and human, crystallizes in this revelation of God’s promise, this one necessary thing, this one precious piece of news, this announcement of a new birth.

+ + +

All preparations have a purpose. When Jesus gently chides Martha, he is helping her to see that the generous purpose for all her work was to allow him to sit, and then for her finally to sit down too, at her sister’s side, to focus on the one necessary thing: the one great and wonderful piece of news: Jesus is here.

So too, all our labor of worship and devotion is of no use to us at all unless Christ is born within us, unless we too can say, Jesus is here. Our labor to bring Christ to birth in our hearts is like the labor of a woman in childbirth. It is this labor that Paul describes in his letter to the Colossians. He rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of those for whom Christ will become present by means of that pain, bringing to birth the mystery hidden for ages and generations but made manifest to the saints, which is, as Saint Paul says, “Christ in you.”

+ + +

All preparations have a purpose. All labor and pain and suffering can lead us to consciousness of the presence of Christ with us and in us. Each of us bears Christ, in our own flesh — completing what is yet to be completed, each suffering and labor pain we feel joined with the suffering of Christ himself, Christ made present, Christ born in the midst of pain, but revealing glory and mercy in that very birth.

All preparations have a purpose, and God’s purpose for us, through our whole life long, through all our busyness and occupation with many things, through all our labor and work, through our devotion and praise, through our suffering and pain, and even through our doubts and fears — as Sarah doubted, and the disciples feared — God’s purpose is that Christ himself be born in each of us: and that we be with him where he is — he, who is himself the one thing needed, the good portion, and who can never be taken away from us. And so, as Phillips Brooks wrote in his immortal hymn, “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We heard the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!”+