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Let’s be honest: Most of us in this room, male or female or gender queer, are Marthas.
We are doers. We are activists. We are pretty darn good at hospitality, and we are forever taking care of someone or trying to do justice for huge groups of people.
And yet it is poor Martha, and countless women like her, who have taken the bad rap from Jesus and a male-run church for two thousand years.
Poor Martha-Martha-Martha, who is actually doing what the women of her time and place (and many times and places) were both expected and required to do. Poor Martha-Martha-Martha, who—until she gets understandably cranky—is modeling good Christian hospitality, something all Jesus followers would do well to practice.
But I am less interested in some of the standard, dualistic interpretations of this story—doing versus being, activism versus contemplation, and the like—than in what Jesus might have to teach us about how to live in a time and a world that can feel downright overwhelming.
Because who among us is not worried and distracted by many things? Who among us has not felt overwhelmed from time to time—or all the time—by everything from the endless joys and demands of raising children and running a household to the simultaneous challenges of raising children and caring for aging parents to the constant barrage of soul-crushing news, people-and planet-destroying policies, hateful name-calling, and blatantly racist and sexist political tactics that seek to distract us, divide us, and pit us against each other?
Who among us does not multitask, wrongly thinking we are getting more done? And who among us, running as fast as we can and still drowning in the overwhelm, has not criticized people who are differently wired? Who among us, exhausted and at the end of our rope, has not lashed out inappropriately at the unlucky person or persons who happened to be closest to us at the time?
“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus tells the distracted, resentful, and honorably dutiful Martha.
Mary, Martha’s sister has found it, apparently: Sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teaching. It is a rare opportunity, and she has decided that the hummus-making and the hungry men can wait. Jesus himself—beloved healer, awesome miracle worker, controversial teacher, possible messiah—is holding forth in her own home, and duty itself can wait.
Mary allowed herself a freedom that her sister Martha, probably the first-born, apparently could not.
But before we all pile on against poor Martha, let’s remember: Most of us are Marthas. Many of us aren’t sure what contemplation means. Others are us feel we are too busy to pray—or we think we don’t know how. Some of us would feel guilty if we stopped doing long enough to worship or pray or meditate, to listen or just be, to simply notice and delight in the many gifts we’ve been given, to let ourselves be loved and blessed and healed.
Many of us have forgotten all about freedom, how Jesus came that we might fully live.
“There is need of only one thing,” says Jesus, the human image of the God who is love, the one in whom all things hold together, the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
“Keep your eyes on the prize,” he might have said.
The prize is the one who is the ground and source of our being, the essence of love, the wellspring of hope, the fount of blessing, the promise of healing and wholeness, the means of reconciliation, the Prince of Peace.
There is need of only one thing, which is to become who we were created to be, which is to know that we are loved beyond measure, which is to give ourselves over to our innate longing for that unconditional and tender love, which is to surrender to our need to praise that all-encompassing love, which is to stay grounded in that transformative love.
There is need of only one thing, which is to let ourselves be so renewed and fully realized by that extravagant love that we become a channel of it.
There is need of only one thing, which is to pay attention, which is to praise.
All the rest will follow.
The dirty dishes will still be there. Our messy world will still be there. Our beloveds—who may actually support our efforts to stop and breathe, especially if it means we are less likely to blow up at them in exhaustion and frustration—will still be there.
And the dear ones who are lacking in boundaries and don’t understand our need of only one thing, the ones who blame and goad and are forever telling us what we should be doing—they, too, will still be there. The suffering that breaks our hearts and keeps us awake at night, the responsibilities that threaten to overwhelm, the never-ending to-do lists, all that will still be there, too.
There is need of only one thing.
“Pay attention,” says the poet Mary Oliver. “Be astonished. Tell about it.”
But Jesus and the disciples are hungry—and Mary’s not helping, Martha says.
But the world is going to hell in a hand basket, we say, and what if I don’t go to that meeting or this march? The church needs my help, and what will happen if I don’t step up to host coffee hour or do some other needed thing? we say.
There is need of only one thing, Jesus says, which is to love and serve and live with all our hearts and souls, with freedom and in love.
The writer C.S. Lewis knew something about living in ominous times.
“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb,” he said, “let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
God knows there are many things to be distracted and worried about. But let us not let ourselves be undone by every racist tweet or dehumanizing chant. Let us not allow the world’s countless injustices to rob us entirely of the peace that the world so desperately needs.
Let us choose the better part.
“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says.
Do we know what it is?