I want to teach you a song. It’s from the day camp First Church hosts with a bunch of partner congregations. Please repeat after me. If anybody asks you who you are, who you are, who you are. If anybody asks you who you are, tell’m you’re a child of God. Here’s the coolest thing about this song. It can be sung as a dialogue. Brad was at camp with us, and he has agreed to help me demonstrate. Ready, Brad? Sing with me, everyone! After the first day of camp, Alice came home singing this song to her other mom and sibling, to the dog and the cats. And by the third day of camp, Alistair was waving his hand wanting to be called on. The kids really got the message of this song.
Jesus, in his conversation with Martha, tells her: “Only one thing is needed.” We readers are pre-disposed to understanding this line in a certain way. Mary chose the better part, which is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Being is superior to doing, stillness and study more spiritual than work and service. Perhaps Martha was stuck with hosting the guests since it was her home. But good for Mary for choosing the better part! This whole interpretation is reflective of the either/or, binary, thinking embedded in our western culture.
What if Jesus meant something else when he said that “only one thing is needed” and that Mary had “chosen the better part?” After all, guests needed to be served. In middle eastern culture and among the first-century followers of Jesus, hospitality was one of the most important values. Early Jesus groups were all about creating new chosen families that bonded by living together and eating together. And someone has to bake the bread, pour the wine, clear the table, and do the dishes. Only one thing is needed. And it’s not sitting down and listening or running around and serving. The “better part” Mary chose, the one thing she prioritized, was paying attention to Jesus. And what kept Martha from doing so (according to both the narrator and Jesus) was not her work, but her state of worry and distraction. In her stressed-out condition, she had lost touch with the core purpose of her work.
I think Martha’s worry is an important part of this story. I have some experience with worry as I’m sure you do. These days I find that when things feel hard—in our family, or at church, or in the world—I am enormously tempted to project that feeling into the future. To think “it will always be like this.” To imagine things getting worse and worse. And I understand, more than I used to, how anxiety affects our brains. We can’t snap our fingers and take away regular worry or debilitating anxiety disorders. We can learn from these experiences. We can hear an invitation to change something. We can be open to help and support from friends or medications or therapy. We can develop coping mechanisms. And we can make space to pay attention to another voice, the Word of the Holy One, who is wiser, stronger, and more grounded than we are.
A few weeks ago, our family went on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. For a day and a half, the sky was filled with clouds. Not puffy white clouds dancing in a blue sky. Not dramatic storm clouds. Dense, unrelentingly mono-color gray clouds. We had intermittent all-day drizzle, followed by an all-night downpour, followed by a second drizzly morning. I was itching to move rather than stay another day in our soggy buggy campsite. The kids didn’t want to paddle in the rain, understandably. I felt frustrated, angry, and worried. Everyone else was in the tent playing cards. Too much tent time makes me feel claustrophobic. So I just sat in the rain on the rocks by the water—there was nothing else to do. I was uncomfortably wet and a little cold, and yet the hour I spent sitting there was such a gift to me. Gradually my negativity ebbed and I began to truly pay attention. I made peace with the rainy day. I noticed such beautiful and interesting things. Three tiny pine trees particularly inspired me, as I studied how they were growing with fierce tenacity in the narrow soil-filled cracks of giant boulders.
One thing is needed. And that one thing anchors all the other things. What we need is attention. Attention to Jesus. Attention to all the diverse ways God’s Word is embodied in the world. Attention to who we all are—children of God. And attention to the question of how this sacred identity can take flesh, in any given moment, within the specific circumstances of our lives and communities. Jesus shows us through his life and ministry that intimate relationship with God is possible. Jesus teaches us that God is not an all-powerful being who imposes their will on us, but a perfectly loving being who yearns to collaborate with us. If we pay attention, Jesus promises, God will make God’s purposes known to us.
We can pay attention in the midst of activity and we can pay attention through quiet contemplation. How we best pay attention depends on who we are and where we are. It probably helps to slow down a bit, to walk, instead of run, as Rob Bell puts it. It may be easier to be more deliberate when we are away from our daily lives. But it’s probably most important to practice this kind of intentional discernment when we are immersed in the everyday muck of things. Jesus’ somewhat sharp words to Martha remind us that sometimes we need feedback from outside ourselves to help us listen well. Sometimes it’s a gentle nudge. At other times, it’s a more forceful word. I’ve been thinking about that in relationship to what’s happening in our city. And specifically about the remarks council member Rainville made after the violence on the 4th of July, implying that we should hold Somali youth responsible. Council member Rainville represents this Ward where First Church is, Ward 3. Here’s what I want to say to him.
Council Member Rainville: I’m glad you apologized for your statement. However, the fact that you made these remarks at all shows a profound lack of awareness. Your words were not simply inaccurate. They were violent. White people are socialized from our birth to have a reflexive fear of people with black and brown skin. Often without even realizing what we are doing, we view people of color as inherently dangerous and violent. Worst of all, we impose this view on children of color, and we do not allow them the space to be children. And ironically, because we blame black and brown youth for violence, they become incredibly vulnerable to suffering violence at the hands of our society. We see this truth in operation with sickening regularity, as police kill young Black men like Andrew Teckle Sundberg. This is a deeply entrenched pattern, and your words contribute to its perpetuation.
As white people, we are the ones who have a violence problem. Our fear legitimizes and fuels the violence of white supremacy, violence that is not only doled out with guns, but also through systemic, generational inequities in wealth, education, housing, and the justice system. How can you effectively represent your constituents if you do not know this? How can you lead our city unless you understand the power your words hold to harm or to heal?
Please commit yourself to a process of deep listening and learning about how white supremacy works in our society. I urge you to meet with members of the Somali community, to attend anti-racism seminars, to get an advisor who can point out these issues to you, to embark on a study of key books and articles about racism; in short, to do whatever it takes for you to be more aware. I’m not singling you out. Every white person needs to do these things so that, together, we can dismantle this deadly system. I myself am on this journey of learning and growth. Our congregation is on this journey. We all make mistakes along the way. We have much to learn and much to repair. I urge you to join us in this humble and transformational place.
Friends: if anybody asks you who you are, whatcha gonna tell them? I’m a child of God! Only one thing is needed. Your attention—your deep attention—to this truth and to how you are called to embody it in your life and to honor it in the lives of those around you. Amen.