Updated: Jul 29, 2019
Our times are drenched in loss and fear.
Right, left, rich, poor, immigrant, citizen, young, old—it seems the only thing
uniting all of us these days is suspicion—and anger, and worry.
We're all looking over our shoulder at some threat while we argue with each other about
what the real threat is.
Someone is trying to take something important away from us.
We worry about identity theft, but there is also integrity theft, dignity theft,
autonomy theft, forces trying to take away our family member and voice and vote
and job and money and power and way of life.
Who gets to come to America and who gets to stay and who gets invited to leave saturate
national and social media, while those of us in churches wring our hands about
decline and everything dear that we are losing too.
And how do respond to all this chaos and high stakes fear?
We try harder.
We grip tighter.
We shout louder.
We argue meaner.
We fight like Martha and Mary, maybe because we're all family.
We double down on being right.
Last December I was surprised by a woman I still adore in spite of myself.
I was about 95 percent finished with a long letter I intended to send her, full of my
carefully worded, powerfully eloquent, impressively insightful reflections and
complaints and concerns and hopes and blessings written in honesty and love.
There was a lot of water under the bridge that I was still trying to move upstream, and I
was pretty sure, after several drafts, that I was right about all of it.
But as she stood there in my office with a Christmas gift and a smile for me, she asked
me not to send it, just let go and move on.
I doubled down on being right.
I finished my magnificent letter and sent it anyway, and we haven't spoken since.
Obviously I cared more about being vindicated than I cared about her; shame on me.
Whatever she was hoping for in visiting me that day, I took away from her.
Just like Martha, I had good reasons and I still think I was right.
But I know I missed something more important.
Martha was right too, on multiple levels, for multiple reasons, but I won't get into that,
because that's not the good news.
The world is overrun with people who are right and overwrought with the damage they
Wayne Muller tells story after story in his book Sabbath: zealous champions of
deinstitutionalizing people who then had nowhere to go; generous donors whose
gifts to Africa made conditions worse; a popular teacher of meditation who is too
busy to meditate; an activist who thunders critically about the expensive trappings
in a church ... until an older woman who spent her whole life in its poor
neighborhood spoke up:
This is one of the most beautiful places in the city.
It is one of the only places where poor folks can afford to be around beauty.
All the other beauty in this city costs money.
Here, we can be surrounded by beautiful things, and it all belongs to us.
Don't even think about taking away what little beauty we have.
Muller names his chapter "Doing Good Badly" and writes:
In our frenzy to make the world a better place, it is easy to presume that the romance and
magic of our good intentions will protect us from doing unintended harm....
Our drive to do better faster, to develop social programs more rapidly, to create helpful
agencies more quickly can create a sea of frantic busyness with negligible, even
In our passionate rush to be helpful, we miss things that are sacred, subtle and important.
Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus said.
We do not hear from Mary; we only see her listening, and of course misbehaving.
Only men were permitted to sit at a rabbi's feet.
But there she sits, useless as a man, listening to what Jesus was saying.
She is hot on the trail of the good news.
What does Jesus say?
Maybe he was telling the story from last week, about a helpful Samaritan, which
would surely be enough to trigger an eavesdropping Martha into pointing out how
her sister was completely missing its point.
Luke doesn't tell us what Jesus was saying, however, until after Martha pipes up with
Lord, do you not care?
That's the question, isn't it?
That's the real prayer.
Our house is a mess and our family isn't helping.
The other political party is so wrong.
The other people in church just don't get it.
People who don't think and behave like me keep making things worse.
Jesus, tell them to help me!
Lord, do you not care that I am right?
Now is when Luke masterfully gives us Jesus' voice, full of good news.
Martha, Martha, he says, speaking our name until we hear it.
You are distracted with many things.
I see you, and I will set you free if you let me.
There is need of only one thing.
You do not have the save the world; you only need to trust the one who does.
You do not need, or get, to live other people's lives for them.
You are not expected, or allowed, to judge or rule or change or bully your sister.
Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
The one thing that matters cannot be stolen.
The one thing that matters will not be taken away from us.
Saint Paul is insistent on this point: neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor
anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in
Christ Jesus our Lord.
Knowing that Paul is right, Martin Luther doubles down:
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse, though life be
wrenched away, they cannot win the day.
The kingdom's ours forever.
Jesus loves you, this I know.
Sooner or later, you will lose everything else, but that will never be taken away.