Only One Thing— Rev. Chelsea Page
July 17, 2022

There are a lot of different Mary’s in the Bible. It makes sense; some scholars estimate that 1 in 4 females in Palestine during the time of Jesus were named Mary. It was like the name Jennifer in the 1970s.

But today I want to talk to you about just one Mary in particular, actually two. Mary Stromer Hanson holds an MA in Biblical Studies from Denver Seminary, and she did the original Greek Translation of the Mary and Martha story we read today. She argues that Martha’s sister Mary, also known as Mary of Bethany, was likely among the many women who traveled with Jesus.

Who is this Mary? The text simply says she is Martha’s sister who, like Martha, was “also” one who followed Jesus, “a sitter at his feet” being a metaphor for the disciple of a teacher at that time.

For those of you who have heard today’s story many times, can’t you just picture Mary with her long hair, sitting at Jesus’s feet at the dinner table while her sister works her butt off in the kitchen? News flash, there is actually NO mention of food prep or even a dinner occasion in this story. Martha’s frenetic activity is described as diakonos, which includes serving in many different capacities, and is better translated as “deacon” or minister. She is doing community organizing, not the dishes.

Besides getting Martha out of the kitchen, Mary Stromer Hanson cleared up something for me that has bugged me about this story for a long time. Why did Martha complain to Jesus rather than take her complaint about Mary directly to Mary herself? Even our church’s communications covenant clearly states that we agree to face conflicts openly and with respect. And I quote:

“I will take my questions and concerns directly to the person or persons involved rather than allowing anger and frustration to build amongst a small group of people. I will not “let it slide” or “brush it under the rug” when a problem needs to be openly discussed. I will respectfully decline participation in conversations which tear another down or assign blame to someone not present.”

I’m not saying this guideline is easy, but it is simple. It makes so much sense. Talking about a conflict to others magnifies and enables misunderstanding and anxiety, and does nothing to create resolution. The only way to get resolution is by going directly to the person who can give it to you. Was Martha really making this classic mistake?

Well, according to Mary Stromer Hanson, Mary was not necessarily even there for Martha to talk to, so we can let her off the hook a little.If you look closely at the text, only Jesus is described as coming into town. Mary may be outside the village, waiting with the other disciples who could also be called students or “sitters at his feet.” When Jesus shows up alone to pay Martha a visit, she is upset, not about housework, but about the much more understandable concern that her sister ditched her to go out on the road. So she tries to give Jesus a message to take back to Mary, saying “will you just tell her to come home?”

Here we have two types of work, two callings, two ministries that were both equally open to women in Jesus’s movement. That’s really cool. But I want us to see this from Martha’s perspective. She feels alone and abandoned. She cares about her ministry in the village, but she does not know how to do it without Mary. Her work life has changed significantly, and she does not know how to continue it without the one thing she knows she needs, her sister by her side.

And in the face of this overwhelming loss, of suddenly having to shoulder all the responsibilities she once shared equally with a partner, Jesus tells her, no. No, I will not give your message to Mary. Mary has chosen a different kind of ministry. Not in the village, but on the road. Mary has chosen “good,” and it will not be taken away from her.

But Jesus doesn’t stop with setting a boundary. He also cares for Martha by reminding her that she already has all she needs. He gives her permission to deemphasize her work and put the heavy demands weighing on her into a different perspective, declaring that “only one thing is needed.” What is the “one thing” Martha needs? I’ll give you a clue. Unlike Mary, it’s standing right in front of her.

Jesus is saying to Martha, “You’re mad at your sister because she has left you alone. It’s hard to be alone. But I’m here now. I came to be with you. Instead of thinking about her, why don’t we spend the time that we have talking about how you’re doing? Let’s talk about us, about you and me. Because I see all the work that you’re doing here for me, for my people in this village. You are following me, right where you are. I see your heart for God. And that’s all I want.”

Who is this Jesus, who cares more about us than about the things we do? A leader who won’t take away the work we have chosen, but who also won’t rearrange everything to ensure our success in our chosen field? Who is this leader, who asks us to take time to reflect on WHY we do what we do, and permits us to simplify if needed?

With all the ongoing logistics of the busy life of an itinerant movement of this ragtag group of disciples supporting a radical country preacher, it’s pretty amazing that Jesus never lost sight of what really mattered. As a more modern rabbi said, in the words of Abraham Heschel, “Just to BE is a blessing, just to live is holy.”

In our current national moment, we see Christians in the United States doing untold damage to the rights of others by striding forward with their misguided notions of ministry, all the way through the Supreme Court and the Capitol. Christian Nationalism, as a movement, is different than being patriotic or loving your country, which is fine; Christian nationalists believe that America is ONLY for Christians. As we watch the TV hearings and see that Christian Nationalists on January 6th attempted to overthrow democracy itself, it would be worthwhile to follow Jesus’s advice to Martha and take a pause.

Are all the busy things we are doing in the world really for God? Are we promoting things that God actually wants? And which God are we talking about, exactly? A God who drives and judges us, or a God who already loves us unconditionally, as much as She already loves everyone else?

My sister Gennie, who was born in the 1970s but is actually not a Jennifer, rather a Genevieve, told me a great story recently. She was nervous about volunteering at her local Pride festival as a dispenser of free “mom hugs.” She didn’t know if she would be able to offer all that unconditional love to random strangers. As she was amazed to discover how easily the divine mother love flowed through her to sustain this hugging ministry, she noticed a group of Christians nearby hoisting some hateful protest signs into the air. She told me later she felt sorry for them. It struck her as deeply sad and ironic that here she was, not a professed Christian, doing a better job at God’s work than they were. They were clearly trying so hard at all the wrong things.

It is likely that none of us here are so far off the mark that we are wasting our faithful efforts in actively promoting hate. But like Martha, we are still invited to pause now and then, to spend some time getting reacquainted with God’s heart. Because in God’s heart, there is only “one thing” – and that’s love. So no matter your current responsibilities or the directions you feel called in, don’t forget to keep love as your guide. Amen.