One Thing; Rev. Dee Ledger, March 24, 2019

Martha and Mary.  They would seem to be opposites.  In some ways, they are presented as such.  Martha is the one stirring the pots, setting the table, answering the door, and attending to the needs of the moment.  Can’t you see her wiping her hands on her apron as she rushes to open the door?  Can’t you see her with her surveying the cupboards to decide what to serve?  A guest is coming to dinner and she will not be caught short-handed.  She’s the one counting how many biscuits need to be made.  She’s the one making sure that the dishes are clean, the floor is swept, and someone remembered to pick up the wine, cheese and hors-d’oeuvres.  Martha’s the one that we count on not to forget, or to call at the last minute begging off a task.  She’s the one who has it all under control, busy and with her list in her hand.

But there is one thing that isn’t under her control: her sister.

Her sister, Mary, is lounging at Jesus’ feet and listening.  Mary isn’t in the kitchen.  Mary doesn’t appear to be helping with the extra helpings or the extra work.  Mary isn’t setting the table, or fetching drinks, or counting how many minutes until the chicken comes from the oven.  Mary doesn’t have a list in her hand or a gripe on her tongue.

Mary is just sitting and listening…and smiling.  And there isn’t a darn thing that Martha can do about it.

But Martha tries.  Wouldn’t you?  Especially if you’d been left to do all the work by yourself, and you can hear the raucous sound of laughter drifting in from the living room?

I grew up in a household that hand washed dishes.  In fact, my parents have never had a dishwasher that wasn’t actually human.  I don’t know how many nights my mother scrubbed dishes while we laughed and played.  I am chagrined to think about it.  My job was to dry the dishes, which I would do, for the most part, without griping…but I think that I was probably somewhat delayed about it.  Dad and my brother were likely watching t.v., enjoying some program or something downstairs.  My mom missed out on joy many nights while we played and relaxed.  What about you?  What is the one thing that you are missing while you are distracted by your many tasks?

What is this passage about?

What is the “better part” to which Jesus refers?

What is your relationship with joy in your life?

We can probably empathize with the writer of Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White, who reportedly once confessed, ‘I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.’ [1]

Do you feel that joy and your many tasks are mutually exclusive?

Are they?  Or is this the result of our being so overly focused that we refuse joy, even when it is sitting, like Jesus, right in front of us?

As preparation for sabbatical, I have been reading and making “Joy lists.”  It doesn’t escape me that I have to make a list to remember my joys.  But I recommend the practice to you.  There is something to it: almost every book and blog that I have read recently on slowing down and figuring out what is important in your life has suggested a joy list in one form or another.

So, okay—I want to try this today with you.  Without overthinking the exercise, jot down 10 things that bring you joy on your worship bulletin.  Try it.  (pause)

Do you know the one thing that brings you joy?  Do you give yourself to it?  When is the last time that you did any of these things?

What would it take for you to set aside some time today to do one thing on that list that brings you joy?

Can you gently set aside any guilt that you might feel in taking your joy seriously?

Can you imagine Jesus encouraging you to prioritize joy as readily as you prioritize doing the laundry, going to the grocery store, finishing your report for work, and being a well-informed citizen?  If we don’t plan for joy, anticipate it, and invite it into our lives, how will we recognize it when it comes?

The truth is: our habits of workaholism, perfectionism, and productivity can scare joy away.  Martha and Mary have invited Joy into their home with the presence of Jesus, but Mary is the only one who realizes that their many daily tasks can wait.  She chooses the main thing, the better part, the moment of present joy.

Now, there are scholars who will tell you that this passage is about making room for God’s word in your life and making room for God’s inspiration.  And that is true, to a point.  We do need to make room for God’s arrival in our lives, to clear a space, so to speak.

But when did understanding God’s word become separated from or devoid of joy?  The things that Mary and Jesus discuss are not of such heavy import that they cannot also experience warmth, love, laughter, and joy in the moment at hand.   To be in the presence of Jesus is to be in the presence of joy.   True, the cross rises in the distance which serves as an ever-present reminder of evil and the powers of destruction.  We have only to turn on our t.v.s or social media to see the cross.

Yet, Jesus was joyful with his friends despite the oppression of the Roman Empire, despite being misunderstood, despite the rampant racism of his day and time, and despite the everyday hardships of famine, misfortune, and tragedy.  Jesus loves Martha too, and he redirects her attention to Mary’s need for joy—and her own need– rather than to a heavenly or earthly taskmaster.

Some of us have trouble rejoicing.  Some of us may no longer know the joys that quicken our hearts or make our lips curl into a grin.  Some of us are weary of burdens of life: caregiving, working off our debts, and the seeming monotony of our days and nights.  Perhaps this story is the affirmation we need to take our human, and earthly, capacity for joy seriously.  God’s word isn’t a dour affair, devoid of joy.  It isn’t something to constrain our lives into submission or to a sparse diet of moral perfectionism.

For some of us, it is difficult to rejoice for other reasons.  The poet, William Blake, has written that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, only a green thing which stands in their way.”  Some of us can’t experience the joy that is readily available to us because we are prone to comparisons, and comparison is the thief of joy, as Theodore Roosevelt once commented.  And some of us miss out on joy because we struggle  to accept our lives just as they are, and not as we would have them to be.  Brother Curtis Almquist suggests that our embrace of joy is related to our acceptance of what is.  He writes,

“To rejoice is to say yes to what is there. I would say that without that quality of acceptance of what is there, those unmet desires of the future will never become present, can never become present. Without that quality of acceptance and thankfulness, those unmet desires will always be elusive. In God’s good plan, there is a reason why today is not tomorrow. In some deep sense we need the provisions of today to prepare us to receive the promises of tomorrow. It seems to me that joy requires a posture of acceptance, of saying “yes” to life: not the life we could have had or feel we should have had, but of saying “yes” to God for the life that God has given us… which is the only place where there is life for us.”[2]

Sisters and brothers, where does joy factor in your life?  Do you know what delights you and lessens the fears and burdens of time?  Have you made space for joy like Mary?

At Carnegie Mellon University, community members have access to something called a Mindfulness Room.  Located on the ground floor of West Wing, the Mindfulness Room is open 24 hours a day during the fall and spring semesters. This is the one space on campus to simply rest, breathe and relax with no agenda.
According to the description on their website, some of the relaxation features of this room include “plants, a soothing waterfall wall, yoga mats, meditation pillows and comfy seating.” They specifically ask visitors to not bring homework or technology, and to just visit this room in a state of being present. “The Mindfulness Room is not be used for meetings or for work, but to recover and inspire yourself. It is not a reserve-able space.”

“The inspirational part of the room includes the books and the whiteboard walls. There is a bookshelf filled with favorite books from professors and faculty members. There are letters from alumni and upper classmen in big scrapbooks filled with stories of love, laughter, failure, and more. Finally, white board walls are filled with notes from current students and members of the community, supporting and inspiring each other.”[3]
Sisters and brothers, I find it striking that this Mindfulness Room is part of the ethos that Carnegie Mellon—a university—wishes to cultivate.  I wonder if we could cultivate that same ethos in our lives, by designating a space and time that is free from work, technology, and meetings.  I wonder if we could cultivate it here and post to our community letters or scrapbooks filled with love, laughter, failure, and more.  I wonder if we can do this both internally and externally, as Christians dedicated to improving the quality of our life together.

I wonder, and wonder if you wonder too.

Wonder is a place to begin, is it not?


[1]  Quoted in profile by Israel Shenker, “E. B. White: Notes and Comment by Author”The New York Times (11 July 1969).


[3] From the website of Carnegie Mellon University.


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