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Only One Thing

Luke 10:38-42 and Excerpts from The Essential Rumi, New Expanded Edition

Sunday July 17th, 2022

By Rev. Nicole M. Lamarche

Good morning again! It is so good to be together like this and in all of the ways that we can on this glorious summer morning.

I really do find hope knowing I get to gather each week and hold certain intentions together and put them to our collective action. I also give thanks that we create space built in to tune into a deeper level to whatever word God has for us. So in that spirit, I invite you to join me as you are moved as we feel our heart beat…

Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I don’t know what it is like to sit at the feet of Jesus exactly, but I do know what it is like to find myself in situations that challenge culturally prescribed roles and that is what Mary is doing right here in this story from the Gospel of Luke. Because here she is in the position of the student, in that role of the learner, which in her time, would have been only reserved for the men. As Matthew Skinner writes, “A woman sits and learns at Jesus feet possibly in the process transgressing cultural expectations and Jesus approves, implying that all dimensions of sharing in (his) ministry are open to all...”

And I don’t know what it is like to toil behind the scenes in the kitchen, because my man is the cook in our family, but I do know a whole lot about what it is like to be distracted by many things with all that I feel called to do and all that I must do and all that I need to and I know what it is like to feel angry at those who seem to be just sitting there… And that is what Martha is holding in this story from the Gospel of Luke because she comes to Jesus in protest and says, “But you do not care that my sister has left me to do all of the work by myself?

And I don’t know what it is like to be a prophet, whose very words create a movement, but I do know what it is like to be the one to share words that discomfort and challenge and that is what Jesus is doing in this story because he tells both of them what to focus on and even what that might be hard to hear.

Do you see yourself somewhere in this story too? We don’t see these sisters appear together like this in any other place in the Synoptic Gospels, but we do get a story later in the Gospel of John, but I think this story has something powerful for us.

And with all that we are holding right now, it feels quite useful to hear Jesus on something that we can take in, to give us some wisdom. Because part of this story is about how we are to show up and how we are to use our gifts, where we are to put our energy. And here Jesus kind of gives us an answer. He says to focus on the “better part.” Or put another way, I wonder if he is saying that the richest experience can be found when we are able to let ourselves be focused on this: “only one thing?” Our right now, our this moment, whether it be washing dishes or learning from a master teacher, what if some of how we will feel hopeful right now is being against multi-tasking and being about “one thing?” What if Jesus is inviting us to focus on. Just. One. Thing.

And here’s the second wondering I have right now from this story: What if our wholeness and happiness comes from tending to both our inner and outer lives? Again from scholar Matthew Skinner who wrote, “Neither the narrator in Luke, nor Jesus set’s Marth’s and Mary’s activities in opposition.” So what if they are meant to go together?

It could be easy to reduce this story in such a way that creates a mutually exclusive situation, and I have heard it interpreted that way, so Martha’s doing is pitted against Mary’s willingness to just sit, but if we are only doing, and never sitting to listen, our doing might then be coming from a shallow place, a place that isn’t centered away from ego and if we are only stopping so we can tune out the world, but never taking actions to ease the suffering of others, then our prayers might not make us kinder and it might not gift us with more peace. And our busyness might make us and the world worse off. I have learned that sometimes people mistake being busy for being effective. It seems Americans idolize a full calendar.

Just this morning in the NY times, Tim Kreider wrote, “Everyone is still busy, worse than busy-worse than busy, exhausted too wiped at the end of the day to do more than stress-eat, binge watch and doom scroll- but no one’s calling it anything other than what it is anymore: an endless, frantic hamster wheel of survival.” Yikes.

I confess I got quite far on my spiritual journey before taking the Mary part seriously. I am a Martha! The Martha part comes more naturally to me. There’s too much to do! Stopping to sit and ponder, to quiet my mind seemed like a waste of time. It wasn’t until I hit dead ends with certain dreams that I felt compelled to pause long enough to hear beyond busyness.

I have shared some before about the experience of being a part of a new church. It’s called Urban Sanctuary San Jose and it’s a beautiful church. There were times in that process that I was so frustrated and infused with worry that I needed to build a new kind relationship with myself and also with a chair in the garage that became a companion for a needed adventure into my inner life. I had thought things would go a certain way but they weren’t, but I was basically still just doing, doing, doing because I didn’t know what else to do. And then it was all so crushing, so maddening, so chaotic and uncertain that I had to do something else and here is what it was: I had to stop doing.

My old patterns weren’t working and I was forced to start sitting in silence, for just a minute or two and then two or three and then 10 and then longer… I set a timer and I sat there and slowly, one day at a time, it turned into another beginning, an awakening, and a deepening, that is of course ongoing. From that place, I began to feel this sense that some of the way religion is presented is performative and wide, but not very deep and I found that instead of liturgy I needed silence, I needed it. And it led me to such different places. I see now I was just getting going on what Jesus calls “the better part” or the ability to let myself be present with the now, and what Jesus calls “only one thing.”

Douglas John Hall writes that “… most liberal and moderate Protestants in the North American context need most to hear Jesus’ commendation of Mary, who did ”the one thing needful.” On the occasion at hand, she did not immerse herself in the activity but in the necessary business of listening to Jesus’ words.” He goes on, “Activism without contemplation ends in aimless doing that usually aggravates existing difficulties…”

How we show up and whether it’s rooted from a certain kind of place matters. And I have seen how different the results can be when faithful people are rooted in something other than just doing.

During that same season of all kinds of new beginnings and of old patterns dying, I was desperate to meet people trying new things and living into the new paradigm and over that time I got to meet and learn from Episcopal priest, Becca Stevens. She lives and works in Nashville, but she came to Berkeley in 2012 to teach a small group of us. After experiencing the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was 5, Becca longed to open a sanctuary for survivors and to offer a safe and loving community for women who had been victimized. So in 1997, Becca opened the first home that was to serve as a sanctuary for 5 women survivors. When we met with her, she told us that they made sure the beds had high quality sheets and nothing that was hand me downs. She wanted the women to feel seen and deserving of beauty. Four years later, the women were making huge strides in recovery, but struggling to become financially self-sufficient. And as Becca watched this, she along with residents and other volunteers began making candles in a church basement. Then in 2001, a new social enterprise designed and driven by these women was born and it is called Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is about healing and housing women. The women make candles and oils, jewelry and more and the items are sold online and at Thistle Farms café that serves up delicious food in Nashville, TN. Instead of replicating what was, Becca tuned in and dared to taste a new thing.

In her new book Practically Divine, Becca writes, “Now, I can see that one loving gesture is practically divine. We have to do small things and believe a big difference is coming. It’s like the miraculous drops of water that seep through mountain limestone. They gather themselves into springs that flow into creeks that merge into rivers that find their way to oceans. Our work is to envision the drops as oceans. We do our small parts and know a powerful ocean of love and compassion is downstream. Each small gesture can lead to liberation. The bravest thing we can do in this world is not cling to old ideas or fear of judgment, but step out and just do something for love’s sake. . .”

Maybe our one thing is simple but not easy? We need to tune into our “powerful ocean of love and compassion” so our decisions and our doing add goodness, not less. And in doing our inner work we are able to as Becca says, not cling to old ideas, which allows us to be unattached, and makes space for new ways of being.

Beloved of God, if you are doing, doing, doing and not happy and wondering what else to try, maybe stop? Take it from me! Maybe it’s time to sit in silence, literally and see what happens, I guarantee you will have different results. And if you are checked out and in a silo privileged to avoid all that is wrong, maybe your silence needs to be transformed to do one thing that eases the pain of the whole and shifts us toward what is right, you will have different results. If you are a Mary, look to Martha’s and if you are a Martha, look to Mary’s here!

We can’t be everything and we can’t do all the things and never stop and neither can we be about tuning it all out and turning in. It is both/and, inner and outer, daring to stop and listen and daring to keep on when people need to be fed, it’s all of it, but not at the same time. Jesus invites us to focus on the “better part” which is to let ourselves be focused on “only one thing.” Let us be about just one thing. That’s how we will keep going in hope and joy. May it be so. Amen.

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