“One thing is needful”
This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, July 30, 2017, the Eigth Sunday after Pentecost. The title I’ve given it here comes not from today’s readings but from the episode with Mary and Martha. They’re putting on a dinner party for Jesus, but Mary has left Martha to do all the work while she sits with Jesus. When Martha speaks up about this, Jesus tells her that “only one thing is needful” – and that what Mary has chosen will not be taken away from her. What is the “one thing” that is “needful”? Today’s sermon is in partial response to that question, within the context of the appointed readings and various events and occurences throughout the parish week.
Collect: O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy, that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Well here we are, this week with the last section of Romans 8. We’ll continue hearing Romans on Sunday mornings for the next month or so. But this marks the end of our especially detailed consideration of these two central chapters, 7 and 8.
It’s one of those moments, when once the reader has said, “The Word of the Lord” and we all reply, “Thanks be to God,” apreacher hardly dares say anything at all; the lesson preaches itself. The final few verses are an especially magnificent cadenza read frequently at funerals: they are a manifesto of sorts, astronghold of hope, the banner of victory to wave in the face of death itself: ‘Neither life nor death, angels nor demons, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Cling to these verses, hold them close, because in a world as challenging and confusing as this one, they offer some very strong medicine against the temptation of despair. They throw our focus onto the cosmic dimension of the Gospel: that even though it appeals to each of us individually, the victory of the cross is the victory of life over death, light over darkness, good over evil. No matter what may afflict or confuse us, one thing remains true, one thing remains clear: that Jesus who died is Jesus who rose from the dead, and sits now at the right hand of God, where he rules over all creation, seeing to the government of even the stars and galaxies.
But manifestos notwithstanding, I get it, there’s still plenty to worry about, there’s still plenty to grieve. Day after day I hear about lives cut short, struggles with addiction, financial disaster, disease, unfaithfulness, estrangement, abuse, depression. Not just as a priest, but as a human person in this world, it’s impossible to escape the continuing litany of bad news, cold shoulders, grudges, selfishness, distraction, and refusal to take personal responsibility. Kids, young people, grown-ups, every one of us labors to one degree or another under an umbrella of possible doom — or at least it can feel like that a lot of the time.
And so we worry, and so we grieve: every disappointment becomes for us further evidence that hope is either out of reach or impossibly naive, every loss becomes for us further evidence that life is tenuous, fragile, and not to be taken for granted. St. Paul’s great cadenza can fall flat in such circumstances as these, a nice thought, but reality is cruel. We put aside our hope, our Gospel confidence, in favor of being so-called “realists.”
But why do we allow death to have so much power in the first place? I submit to you, that perhaps we ought to start taking life for granted more, and not less. Romans 8 presents a view of the universe in which Christ has conquered every power, every death, every demon, and has done so with the express purpose of uniting us to the Love of God forever, even planting the Spirit himself, “The Lord, the Giver of Life” as we say in the Creed, within each of us.
If that’s really true, and not just a religious flavor of wishful thinking, we have to conclude, that most of the time we worry about the wrong things; we have to admit, we generally think life consists in all the wrong places: in safety, security, health, and knowledge; in reputation, regard, honor, and influence; in rank, or image, or grandeur; in civilization, law, normality, even sanity. And so, naturally, we become Very Serious People when we perceive any of these things are on the line. Obviously they are all good things and worth pursuing. But if we pursue them for their own sake, we hit a dead end. Life does not finally consist in any of these things, and so we will always be fighting for them, they will always be on the brink of disappearing.
If you want a simple test, ask which of them successfully survived the cross: which of them did Jesus successfully take from the cross to the grave through the resurrection and into heaven? None of them survived intact, none of them made the journey without being surrendered, and then transformed. The only thing that did remain, the only secure place where life was unconquered by death, was the Son of God’s complete surrender to God the Father, in love for Him, for the human race, and for all creation. And because life consists in that one place, it also consists everywhere his rule touches — which is to say all creation, and especially the parts of it we might think most fragile.
So what if the stock market crashes? So what if I suffer some enormous betrayal? So what if I don’t get it right this time, or lose my last chance? Christ has taken every loss, every grief, every moment of suffering, into the grave, where it is transfigured by his resurrection and resides now with him in glory.
If any pain or loss or confusion troubles you in this life; if you find yourself the unwilling subject of any height or depth, power or principality, angel or demon, nakedness, peril, sword, or death, draw near to Jesus. Whether at rock bottom of the deepest dry well, or at the height of worldly splendor, draw near to Jesus, and find life shining fresh from every wound, every crack, and every heap of rubble.
I love our passage from the Gospel today, because it illustrates exactly the point: light-hearted affection, taking life for granted, winning out over worry about Very Serious Considerations.
In addition to being the conclusion of our trek through Romans 7 and 8, it is also the end of a series of weeks for us considering a range of parables. And, just as we’ve been hearing them week after week on Sundays, they come one right after another in the Gospel of Matthew too.Remember, Matthew writes his Gospel based on five great sets of addresses Jesus gives to the people; Matthew wants us all to recognize in Jesus the new Moses, and greater than Moses because he lays his life down and takes it up again.
But all the same, the particular address we’ve been reading over the last few weeks is long. The disciples have tried their best at paying attention. They’ve asked several times now for Jesus to explain some of the more inscrutable parables to them. And now, towards the end of it all, they’re tired, they just want to go home.
Jesus gives a rapid-fire series of new parables, verse after verse, about mustard seeds, bread-making, pearls, fields; fishing, angles, and the end of the world. All of them no doubt very important, very meaningful; but right now they’ve got information overload, they’ve had as much as they can handle. Maybe they’ve lost their focus, maybe their eyes are glazing over a little. Jesus turns towards them as he carries on, and notices that their attention is flagging. Probably he’s a little annoyed, this is a brilliant speech, what’s the matter with them? So he teases them by saying “Have you understood all this?”
Of course they haven’t understood all this, it’s late, it’s been a long day and a long journey. They don’t want to be rude, but they do want to shut him up so they can go to supper already. So they say, “Yes!” to all of the above, like the tired students they are.
It probably catches Jesus a little off guard, just as his question caught them off guard. But he gets their point, and finishes the speech — not without a parting shot for good measure. “Therefore the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” And then they finally go home, at long last.
I love how human this is. “Yes Jesus, we hear what you’re saying, we love you, we’re sure it’s brilliant, we’ll make sense of our notes later; but right now we’re pretty tired, and we’re hungry. Please, let’s just go already.” What makes the difference in all this is not that they understand, it’s not that they’ve got it all figured out. Frankly, they probably have no better idea which of them are good fish or bad than you or I do about our own day; at this point they’d rather eat fish than think about them.
And so they go: to share a meal together, to take their rest, and to continue on their way the next day.
So it is with you and I. We are not somehow lesser disciples or beyond the pale if we are confused, tired, struggling or don’t have all the answers. The one thing that mattered for Mathew, Peter, John, and all the rest, was that they loved their friend. And they learned, firsthand, that all the powers of death and hell, betrayal, sin, and abandonment, could not finally keep him from them. That persistent love of Jesus, beyond all loss and logic, set them free from all that bound them, making them heirs with him of eternal life: life even in the midst of uncertainty, opposition, loss, and later their own deaths as martyrs.
Let that same Spirit dwell in us, setting us free from all our own bonds and worries, transfiguring our life and our vision to behold nothing but Love, reigning from the Cross, calling us into his marvelous Light.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.