There Is Need of Only One Thing
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 28, 2019
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 138; Luke 11:1-13
Last week we heard the story of two sisters, Martha who was stressed in the kitchen cooking for Jesus and Mary who was sitting at Jesus’ feet immersed in his loving presence and taking in his every word. Martha insisted that Jesus tell Mary to help her. Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” That was how the passage ended last week.
“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” We know what that means within the context of the story, but what does the one thing needed mean in our daily lives, and what will that better part do for us, and why does it matter?
The Gospel goes on to give us answers to those questions. The very next verse says, “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Teach us to pray.’”
Prayer is the one thing needed. Prayer is our way of sitting at Jesus’ feet like Mary, opening our hearts wide to his presence and taking in the Spirit’s word that is flowing through him.
I should say certain kinds of prayer—not prayers like Martha’s where we barge in and tell Jesus to make someone shape up, not prayers where we think we know everything and spew our personal agenda toward heaven. Human wisdom and God’s higher power come through the humility of quieting our ego’s ambitious, anxious thinking so we can hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit within us.
It feels counter-intuitive to resist taking immediate, aggressive action, and it is difficult to break the addiction of compulsive thinking and reacting, but the greater the challenges we face the greater the benefit from what looks to the ego like doing nothing. Prayer is the door that opens onto the sacred way—the best way—through whatever situation lies before us.
What Martha needs is a 12 Step program for worried, distracted, compulsive people. The 12 Steps are designed to give us the one thing needed, the better part, the higher power that comes when a Martha humbles herself like Mary.
The first step is
to admit that we are caught up in something that has become unmanageable and we need help—for Martha that would be the stress itself, the anxiety and anger, the insanity more than the stressful situation that is driving her insane. The second step is to believe that a higher power exists that could restore us to sanity. The third step is to decide to hand over our will and our life to that higher power’s control. The eleventh step is to seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious connection with that higher power, praying only for the knowledge of its will for our lives and the strength to do it.
The prayer that Jesus taught comes from that same humble place where we recognize and honor God’s higher power and our need for it. The prayer is very short, very basic. Give us daily bread, keep us from straying into trouble and forgive us when we do. Jesus spends much more time talking about how to pray than what to pray. He tells us to have a persistent practice even when it feels fruitless. He says that prayer is a relationship and a quest, asking, searching, knocking, and we can have faith that if we practice this kind of prayer, God will give us our daily bread. But the kicker in Jesus’ teaching comes at the end:
“If you…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Jesus has been talking about bread throughout the passage, but suddenly the crust of that bread is broken open and there inside is the core of what Jesus has had in mind all along. The one thing needed, the better part, the one thing for which we should be asking, searching and knocking, is the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that guided and empowered Jesus. At other times, daily bread was a matter of social justice or pastoral care to Jesus, but here it is a symbol for the Spirit. Psalm 138 says, “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” Spiritual guidance and strength make up the daily bread that we most need and that all true prayer brings.
Think of Jesus praying on his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood in his extreme anguish as he sees two paths ahead one of which leads to his death. Jesus asks that the cup be taken from him, but adds, “not my will but thy will be done,” and suddenly angels appear and the Spirit’s wisdom and power come upon him to increase his strength of soul.
Picture Martin Luther King Jr. sitting all alone in his kitchen one midnight in his first Civil Rights campaign. He is being harassed by the police, his phone rings morning, noon and night with death threats against his beautiful wife and new baby, and for all their efforts the African-Americans of Montgomery seem to be making no headway against systemic racism and the white supremacists. King is exhausted, he feels he can’t go on. He humbles himself in prayer, asking, searching, knocking for guidance and help. He surrenders and waits in silence. Finally, he feels an upswelling of the Spirit and hears a voice telling him to get up and serve. It increases his strength of soul and enables him to work the miracles his people need.
Picture an addicted person who has been using the 12 Steps to crawl back on hands and knees to health and sanity. Through her pursuit of conscious connection with God she has gained the strength of soul to stand again. By quieting her loud impulses, domineering desires and anxious insecurities she is able to hear the Spirit talking, giving her a sense of what her gifts are and how she is being called to use them.
She has found the one thing needed and knows full well what it means and what it is doing for her. It is saving her life every day, every moment. It is giving her wisdom and an intuition of what her work is. It is giving her the powers and gifts she needs to do that work. Like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and all the sponsors of the 12 Step movement, at least part of her work is to help others along the path to wellbeing and meaning.
Why does this matter? I find it helpful to think about the journey of the universe and how we fit into it. The creative force of love and life and light brought into being a hundred billion galaxies whirling through space, each with its hundred billion stars. The closest star to our sun is trillions of miles away. So far we have found no sign of consciousness like ours anywhere in the universe but here.
Earth was a barren watery rock for our first billion years. Then miraculously life came into being there. Over the next three billion years single cells gathered into more complex life forms, reptiles evolved into mammals. Rapid climate change wiped out almost all life on earth five times, but it kept surging back until finally human consciousness awoke only a blink of an eye ago in the history of the earth, a new life form able to create amazing structures and systems and yet also able to be undone by the simplest living virus or bacteria or by something even less substantial, a mere idea translated by technology into a contagion of extinction.
Human consciousness evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to arrive finally at the age when Jesus and the Buddha and spiritual masters around the world emerged teaching about this one thing needed: to turn our consciousness toward the sacred way, toward the Spirit, opening to the source of love and life and light that created us, the source of sanity and health, the source of the oneness and way of being those teachers had attained.
Why does this matter? Because clearly the universe wants life to flourish and evolve into ever more abundant, complex and beautiful forms. The force of love and light fills adults with care for children, it fills churches with care for communities and the earth, it fills artists with inspirations that inspire others. The universe moves consciousness through human history and through individual lives in the direction of Christ and those who have shared his ability to see and love all as one. This progression clearly matters to the universe and its creator.
Our gifts are not for ourselves alone. God gives us our daily bread so that we may give daily bread to others. God gives us the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit may flow through us, using our gifts to bless the world in various ways, helping life flourish by promoting compassion, justice and peace and a sufficiency for all.
It matters that we dedicate our lives to the better part, that we take the time to pray and learn how to live contemplatively and heartfully in the midst of this insanely self-destructive world. It matters because this Mary-like prayer is the one thing needed for humanity to move to a new level of consciousness in our culture that can create the realm of God on earth. It matters because this spiritual daily bread will always lead us to help others have the material daily bread they need. It will lead us to social justice based on the oneness we see.
So let us practice it now, opening our hearts as if we are sitting at Jesus’ feet, praying and waiting for the Spirit to show us what we can do in our life right now to serve the love and light that created us…