One love

I wonder if you recently had that moment when you looked at the flag flying at half-staff and you didn’t know why it had been lowered: was it to honor the police officers who were shot and killed in Dallas or was it to honor the victims of the attack in Nice? Or had there been yet another terrible event that you hadn’t heard about? It seems the president could simply order the flag to be flown half-staff until further notice, since every day brings more stories of violent deaths abroad and here at home that weigh heavy on our hearts and minds. We hear the stories, we mourn and pray and ask, “What can we do? What must we do? What can anybody do?” Charleston, Ferguson, Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, South Sudan, Baton Rouge, Baghdad, Falcon Heights, Dallas, Nice – a torrent of stories of violent death touching countless lives deeply, and we boil it all down to the name of a city or a hashtag. This has become our way of bringing order to the chaos of our days. We hear a story and it breaks our hearts, and we feel the need to sit with it for a while to let it sink in and talk things through with friends and strangers, and we want to move from only reacting to terrifying events to proactively engaging with the issues in order to break bad patterns and prevent more of the same, but the world is relentless and the torrent won’t stop and tomorrow we will be flooded from every screen with by-the-minute updates of yet another incident, or at least so we have come to expect by now. For some of us, today’s news simply replaces yesterday’s and our attention quickly jumps from one thing to the next; for others, the stories pile up and we struggle to find a way to hold it all together and find an angle to respond in a meaningful way; and then there are those among us who tune out entirely and go shopping or watch the game, any game, anything to distract us from the claims the people in these stories make on us. What are we to do?

Luke tells us that a lawyer, an expert in Jewish law and scripture, asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And he already knew the answer. You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. You are to love God and neighbor. The lawyer knew the answer. But knowing the answer is not the point; living it is. Loving God and neighbor is the point.

Jesus told the story of the man who was beaten, stripped and robbed on the Jericho road to help us see that “neighbor” doesn’t define a particular group of people who are recipients of our love at the exclusion of others. We become neighbors when we show mercy to another. We become neighbors when we let another make a claim on our capacity to empathize and care. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus told the lawyer and us who have listened to the story.

After this, Luke opens for us the door to Martha’s house, where Jesus is a welcome guest. Martha is a woman who goes and gets things done, and she goes and does a lot, in fact, she keeps going and doing. Luke tells us she is distracted by much serving, and it’s not just housework, it’s everything she does in loving response to the needs of others. She’s being a neighbor to all who’ve come to her house. She lets them each make a claim on her capacity to care and she responds with kindness and grace. But between one thing and the next, she stops briefly and with resentment in her voice she tells Jesus to tell her sister to help her.

Mary, of course, has been sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he says. In your imagination this may trigger images of a star-struck teenage girl sitting on the ground, gazing with dreamy eyes at Jesus who looks the part of the boy celebrity – if that is what you see, move on quickly and try to forget it.[1] Sitting at the feet of someone is an expression for being the disciple of a master.[2] Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus means she and Jesus are both acting against widespread gender expectations where women are the ones who always go and do while men sit at the feet of wise teachers drinking of their words.[3] Perhaps Martha is a little resentful because she too wants to sit and drink of that wisdom. Or does she think there’s nothing wrong with the traditional gender roles and that Mary should be doing women’s work? And aren’t both of them welcoming Jesus?

The little story is big enough to contain our wondering and it gives us room to explore various answers and implications. I am drawn to the word “distracted” that is used twice in this passage.[4] Luke portrays Martha as distracted by many things and Mary in contrast as centered in the Lord’s presence and word. Martha is drawn away by many things that demand her attention much like we are in the daily torrent of stories that demand that we dismantle racism, that we bind up the wounds of those who are hurting, that we hear those who cry out in pain and in anger, that we show our solidarity with victims of terror, that we go and do the things that neighbor love demands. Jesus tells 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.” We know about being worried and distracted by many things, and Jesus tells us that there is need of only one thing.

The lawyer knows the right answer, but he has trouble living it. Martha knows how to go and do and her day is never long enough for the many things that need doing. What does Mary know? Mary knows the Lord; she has found the defining center of her life.

It’s tempting to read this story in the good sister/bad sister mold, but I don’t want to read it that way. To me it’s a story of belonging. The two belong together like loving God and loving neighbor belong together. The one thing necessary is not one or the other, but one love unfolding in countless ways. And so the one thing necessary doesn’t make the many things obsolete, but rather unifies them like many rivers that flow from a single source: one love flowing from the heart of God, awakening every act of compassion, inspiring every step toward justice, and driving out every fear. We still differentiate between love as the divine reality that faithfully holds us and love as human action, between seeking to find the face of God in the face of the other who is in need and seeking to see the face of God by studying God’s word, but there is only one love desiring to fill all things completely.

We live in the constant tension between focus and distraction, between being drawn in and being drawn away. The story of Mary and Martha captures a moment when the two sisters find themselves on the opposite poles of this tension; that doesn’t mean that this is who they are or where they always are. But it reminds us that the unity of love we seek to know and live is found in Christ and what he has done so we would inherit eternal life.

So what do we do when the world floods in on us and every day brings yet another story of violence and terror and fear and confusion without end? Mr. Rogers taught us to tell our children to always look for the helpers when something terrible has happened. Look for the helpers. Look for the men and women who follow love’s lead by acting with compassion. Look for the people whose actions tell a different story than the one fear wants to write. Look for the people whose lives are grounded in God’s love. Let your life be grounded in God’s love.

I invite you to sit in silence for a moment. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders and let your hands rest. Be silent. Be still. Alone. Empty before your God. Say nothing. Ask nothing. Be silent. Be still. Let your God look upon you. That is all. God knows. God understands. God loves you with an enormous love, and only wants to look upon you with that love. Quiet. Still. Be. Let your God—love you.[5]


[1] There is a particularly fine example of a particularly bad illustration at

[2] See, e.g., Acts 22:3 (Paul at the feet of Gamaliel)

[3] See, e.g., the tractate Abot 1.4-5 of the Mishnah: “… Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah would say: Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words. Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. And do not engage in excessive conversation with a woman. …”

[4] In the NRSV translation of v. 40 and v. 41; in the Greek text two different words are used.

[5] Edwina Gateley, In God’s Womb: A Spiritual Memoir (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009), 59-60.

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