POEM “Peace of the Wild Things” by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Luke 10: 38-42)
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[a] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
SERMON “Only One Thing”
Listen to the sermon here.
E. B. White writes, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy; if the world were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I wake up each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it very hard to plan the day.”
I think you all know what he means.
It’s summer, and the desire to savor the world in the few weeks left of these lazy hazy days in New England is strong and hypnotic. The world tastes like fresh lobster rolls and vine ripe heirloom tomatoes and butter melting on corn on the cob, and it sounds like waves crashing and motorcycles revving, and it smells like salt water and sunscreen and it looks like sparkling bright sun and blue blue sky.
And there is another truth. It’s a cruel summer, riddled by bullets tearing flesh, police brutality, brutality against police, civil unrest, racism unmasked, an unbelievable and unprecedented political climate filled with hate and division. Terrorist attacks like the one in Nice, France this week that killed 84 people with a large truck turned weapon of mass destruction, and a coup in Turkey, 100 soldiers, 50 police/quasi bodyguards to the dictator, and 50 civilians lie dead in the streets there. 1500 civilians and soldiers are injured, and 3000 soldiers are captured there.
The world may be equal parts brutal and beautiful, but it seems as though the brutal is boiling over.
As the poet Warshan Shire writes,
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Last week, we read the Good Samaritan together, and I told you that we need a love revolution; a revolution of mercy. I told you not to cross the street; that we need to listen for the cries on the side of the road, and bandage wounds.
I told you that we need to love the hell out of this world.
We read Jesus’ words to us last week, and his voice boomed back through the ages, “The neighbor is the one who showed mercy. Go and do likewise.” "You hear a neighbor crying?" he says. "GO AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT."
GO and DO.
I got an email from one of you this week that said, “I found your sermon last week about the Good Samaritan moving, but frustrating. I hear the call to ‘go and do’, but I want more instruction on what to do.”
Lex Thomas of the Sterling Meetinghouse Newspaper came to interview me this week in my office. “Robin,” she said, “I'd like to do a piece in our July 20 issue about how these horrendous events impact our communities. What can we in Central Massachusetts do to respond to the atrocities and violence we are hearing about in the news, now that we know we cannot be separate from it?”
This is all so out of my depth. My job—the one that I usually feel inadequate for as it is-- is not to tell you what to do. Though God knows I wish it were sometimes. My job is to help us to cultivate religious depth and spiritual practice to build strength and foster resilience. To help us make sense of these atrocities from a theological point of view, perhaps. To help us pray about it, and find God in all of the noise.
But beloved, we are such go-ers and do-ers. We want to know what this love revolution should look like, and then we want to put it on our to-do lists and get it done.
I have a colleague who posted on Facebook this week that she feels badly being on vacation right now. With all of the violence and things she could be doing about it, she feels like she should be with her congregation. I totally get that, since I’m about to go on vacation, and I thought the exact same thing. And then I thought “how arrogant for me to believe even for a moment that I have that much effect on the world that my brief absence is going to somehow make a difference.” We should never be so hubristic as to believe that our two- week summer vacations are going to be the one thing that sends the world into deeper, irreparable despair and disrepair.
I need a break, and you need a break, to rest and savor the world. But you and I are such goers and doers, that it’s hard to take one.
And so enter our scripture today with me, goers and doers. It bugs some people; the story of Mary and Martha. It bugs me. Frankly, it seems like a knock on all of us who care about getting things done. Martha is the character in the story who kind of gets the diss by Jesus for being a bit of a whiney busybody. And that seems completely unfair. Jesus is coming to visit her and her sister Mary, and with him he brings his whole Jesus entourage. That’s a big group of people to welcome into one’s home.
And so Martha is doing what you do when special people come to visit. She’s freaking out. She’s cleaning up the way you and I do only when someone’s coming over--to pretend that our houses always look like that. Washing toilets, and getting out the good silverware, and cooking like a mad woman, and putting out scented candles and ironing napkins. She’s throwing all of the random kids toys in the bathtub and shutting the curtain, hoping no one will snoop.
And Mary, Martha’s sister, is just sitting there at Jesus’ feet looking up at him all moonfaced and hanging on his every word. She has the gall to do that while Martha cleans in front of her. She’s just sitting there. And Martha, flitting around the house dusting and worrying about whether they have enough wine, says to Jesus, “um, a little help here?” As my daughter, Eloisa, says when we are all sitting around and she needs something.
And Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
I bet Martha wanted to slap Jesus in this moment. So does every head usher and faithful coffee hour server, and Sunday School volunteer and outreach committee member in every church in America right now. Here we are doing the work of hospitality and feeding the poor ON BEHALF OF JESUS LIKE HE ASKED US TO, and Jesus says that Martha’s doing the right thing by just sitting there and listening.
Not to mention, it seems like such a 180 from his command last week to “go and do.” This week, he tells us to sit and listen. That’s the only needful thing, he says.
I just gotta say, “Well, which is it, Jesus? Are we supposed to go and do, or sit at your feet and listen? What do you mean, “there is need of only one thing?” That’s not what you said last week.”
I don’t really know, but I’m guessing Jesus is trying to suggest that when we are making ourselves busy because we are worried and distracted, that is exactly when we need to just stop, sit and listen.
And we hate that message.
Like Martha, when we are worried and distracted by the news on our twitter feeds, we want to get busy instead of quiet. We want fast answers and quick responses instead of time and analysis and prayer. And we get whipped up into a frenzy of anxiety. "Don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING," we are saying. “RESPOND!” “WRITE LETTERS! IGNORE! SIMPLIFY THE PROBLEM AND MOVE ON! FIND EXACTLY THE RIGHT MEME TO SHARE ON FACEBOOK, or the right person to vote for.”
And Jesus is saying to us, “don’t just do something, sit there. Listen at the feet of God. There is need of only one thing.”
We are such goers and doers. But sometimes we need to sit and listen. It matters what we listen to. Nadia Bolz-Weber said in her sermon last week about the Good Samaritan that the news cycle is dominated by acts of evil, but there are 10,000 acts of good for every one act of evil that doesn’t make the news. Evil may have won the news cycle, she said, but it doesn’t win in the end.
So sometimes, we need to turn off the news because that’s not where God is speaking. God is speaking everywhere else. Come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. Sit at the feet of God. Come sit beside still water, where the Lord leads us, and restores our souls.
We are not sitters and listeners, beloved. We are goers and doers. But it’s hard to love the hell out of the world, if you haven’t found a reason to love it in the first place. You can’t destroy pockets of hell, if its been awhile since you’ve discovered oases of heaven here. If you are going to get around to saving this world, you need a deep and abiding love for the earth and the people who inhabit it with you. And we all need rest if we are going to be able to find and cultivate that love again.
We are such goers and doers. But beloved, if you haven’t eaten your fill of Rota Springs Ice Cream, or spent your days lying in the sun, pregnant with the possibility of nothing to go and do, staring up at the clear blue sky, reading trashy magazines and watching your children and grandchildren playing in water, oblivious that the world is anything but beautiful; it’s going to be hard to get back to the work of creating heaven on earth.
We are such goers and doers, but it may be time for us to sit and listen at the feet of Jesus. If you are quiet enough you can hear him saying, “Come, you who are weary and find rest. Your yoke is heavy but my burden is light.”
I don’t say all this because I think we should hide from the world, or retreat into the privilege of ignoring it. But we worship a God who created the world in 6 days, and then rested.
Ann Lamott says: “There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. it will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does--and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.”
Love is sovereign here. You can rest in that knowledge for now, if you need to. Stop going and doing and instead sit and listen at the feet of God, beside still waters, if you need to. Take a break; rest in the grace of the world and be free, if you need to.
The rest of it will still be here when you come back. The dust will settle, which it does, and Love will still be sovereign.
I love you. God loves you. God loves everyone else, too.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.