Only One Thing

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You might remember, from some time ago now, that comic film "City Slickers." It was about three men ~ old friends from way back, and now approaching middle age ~ who spent some vacation time each year doing something daring that would pose a profound contrast with the button-down yuppie lifestyle they lived most of the time. The plot of the film revolves around their decision to spend a vacation together going on a cattle drive ~ helping a bunch of seasoned cowboys move a herd of cattle across the big plains of the West with the hope that, in the process, they might get in touch with their more primitive selves, and find out something useful about the meaning of life.

The boss of this cattle drive is a leathery old cowboy named Curly, who lives up to all of our stereotypes about cowboys. He's mean and he's tough, and he can do anything with a rope or a whip or a knife. But in his tough and rugged way he's also very wise.

In one of the more serious scenes of this comedy, Curly is riding alongside one of the city slickers ~ a character played by Billy Crystal ~ and their conversation turns philosophical.

Against the backdrop of an open sky and roughhewn mountains and clear streams and jaggedly beautiful scenery, the man on vacation turns to Curly and says with longing, "Your life makes sense to you." To which Curly replies: "You city folk. You worry a lot. How old are you? 38?"

"39," the man says.

"You all come up here about the same age. You spend fifty weeks getting knots in your rope and you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it."

He pauses a minute and then he goes on, "You know what the secret to life is?"

"No, what?" says the man.

And then Curly says, "One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don't mean nothing."

"That's great," says his companion, "but what's the one thing?"

Curly looks at him for a minute, and says, "That's what you've got to figure out."

Maybe I'm catching you, in this summer season, after your own two weeks away during which time, you got some of the knots untied in your own rope, and now you're ready, once again, to dive into the rhythm of work by which you and I order a lot of our life. Or maybe that time hasn't opened yet, but you're getting closer and closer and you can't wait for the chance to focus on that one thing that matters the most in your life.

What do you suppose that one thing is?

When Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, stops in to visit with Mary and Martha, and when he gives to her the same advice: "Really Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing." ~ the one thing we tend to suppose he had in mind is time. Time for reflection upon life and what it all means; time for stopping to smell the roses; time for leaving the chores, like Mary did, to sit at the feet of Jesus. If that's the opportunity that presents itself, time for taking time. And a peculiar sort of time at that ~ "kairos" time instead of "chronos" time, to use two Greek words for time. In other words the fullness of time instead of the mere ticking and keeping of time. "Martha, Martha, there is need of only one thing," says Jesus, and what we tend to do with these words is to assume that they are encouraging us to soak ourselves in the fullness of time.

And on the face of it, that's not a bad interpretation.

Admittedly, we could all stand to do more of that. Certainly, with the schedules we keep, there is a danger of getting so caught up in the busyness of life that, like Martha, we miss the essence of life.

A man goes on vacation with his family. It's been a long year, and he is looking forward to this suspension in the normal routine of things. He is ready to put away the calendar and to get beyond a telephone and to do different things for a little while. But, without his noticing it, the to-do list for his vacation is as long as the to-do list back at the office. Read these novels go to this museum, take this hike, eat at this restaurant, get these chores done on the mountain house, buy and absorb these journals and newspapers. Until one night, early on in the two weeks away and soon enough for him to catch himself, his little four-year-old says, "Daddy, will you read me my stories tonight?" He stretches out on the bed next to her, and they read. And, because she's tired, he knows that as soon as this last story is finished, he can get back to his novel and begin planning the events of the day tomorrow.

But here is what happens instead. When the last story is over, she says, "Daddy, will you just sit here until I fall asleep." And so he does. And with the light out while she sings herself to sleep, he listens to her voice fade quietly away, and then to her breathing, and then to the curtain rustling quietly as a soft breeze ushers cool night air into the room, and then to the holy sounds made by wonder itself. He is aware of the fullness of time and the keeping of time is not as important and he is thankful.

People need more of that kind of time.

So maybe we appreciate this interpretation of these words of Jesus to Martha: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing." Time, we say. Time to smell the roses. Time to just be as well as to do.

But as compelling as this approach to the text is, there's a danger to it as well. And I, for one, am uncomfortable with our tendency to beat up on Martha too much. I think she's gotten a bum rap. Too often, in approaching this story, we diminish the importance of Martha's busyness, while at the same time romanticizing Mary's reflectiveness, until we turn Martha into a cartoon. We show her up to her elbows in soapsuds, while Mary sits in rapt attention on a stool in the den. We conclude that Jesus came to justify nothing more profound than letting the dishes pile high in the sink. And if we're not careful, we arrive at an ethic of inactivity.

And just there is the danger of this interpretation. "If we sensor Martha too harshly," says Fred Craddock, "she may abandon serving altogether. And if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do. There is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment."

In spite of our popular interpretations, it is precisely such discernment, rather than time, that I think is key to this text. The one thing that Martha needs more acutely than more time, always more time, is the ability to discern the time.

This is a theme that appears over and over again in Luke's gospel ~ this theme that the Kingdom of God, in the presence of Jesus or of his disciples, is continually drawing near. And when it draws near, we have the timely opportunity to receive if we only discern what it is. A little earlier in Luke, Jesus tells his followers that when they enter a place, like laborers entering a harvest, the Kingdom of God has drawn near. When it is welcomed and discerned for what it is, that's great, and "blessed are those who receive you." But whether it is received or not, the fact remains the Kingdom of God has drawn near. And discerning it is the crucial issue. Being able to discern the time of your visitation by the Kingdom of God, and knowing in that moment what matters the most.

Sometime, what matters the most is an activistic response ~ like that of the Good Samaritan who, in the presence of one in need, recognizes the moment in which the Kingdom of God is breaking into his life, and responds by "going and doing." Sometimes, what matters the most is the contemplative response ~ to do what Mary did in this story, which immediately follows that of the Good Samaritan (as if one is Exhibit A and the other Exhibit B); to step away from the routines of life and to do.

Nothing except wait expectantly for what happens next. One response is not better than the other. What matters most is the ability to discern what to do on each moment.

Just here is where Martha's busyness is ill-timed. It's not the busyness by itself that's the problem, but the timing of it. Paul Tillich once put it this way. "There are innumerable concerns in our lives and in human life generally," he says, "which demand attention, devotion, passion. But they do not demand infinite attention, unconditional devotion, ultimate passion. They are important, often very important, for you and me and for the whole of humankind. But they are not ultimately important...."

Figuring out what is ultimately important and putting that first ~ that's the challenge of the Gospel. And nothing is more important than receiving the Kingdom of God, wherever you are, when it comes near.

Sometimes when we discern that it is near, the faithful thing to do is to drop everything and sit still and listen ~ like Mary.

Other times when we discern its presence, the faithful thing to do is to get busy and to commit to some important task ~ all of the organizational drive and ability and passion we can muster ~ like Martha.

But if we were to ask Jesus which of these two things we need more of ~ Mary's reflectiveness or Martha's activism ~ he would probably say yes.

The truth is that both of these attributes have their time and place; and the burden lies in discerning when to do the one and when to do the other.

So be watchful for the ways in which the Kingdom, even now, is breaking around you. Stay alert to how it might be drawing near to you, in the form, perhaps, of some person in need this week whom you might meet in a chance encounter. Or of some mighty injustice which has gotten your attention and which begs for your energy and passion. Or of some spiritual awakening which has put you in touch with a beating heart that you had forgotten you had. Or of some thing of beauty that reminds you that the world is more, for sure, than just collective ugliness.

Who knows what form it will take, this Kingdom of God that is ever drawing near and coming among us? Just be watchful for it. Look for it in the midst of the routines and tenure of your life; and pray for the ability to discern it when it draws near.

Then, having discerned its presence, the rest is easy. You'll know what to do next ~ only one thing. One thing!

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