Our One Important Thing

The Rev. Mary Groeninger

Our One Important Thing

The Rev. Mary Groeninger of St. Mary's in Ely this week shared a beautiful reflection on the Gospel in St. Mary's weekly newspaper. With her permission, we have shared it here.

by Mary Oliver
Today I'm flying low and I'm
not saying a word.
I'm letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the gardening rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

In the first lesson this week, three strangers wander by as Abraham and Sarah shelter from the heat of the day just inside their tent. Abraham jumps up and implores them to stop for a bit of bread and rest.  When they agree, the whole household springs into action, Sarah making bread, Abraham and the servants preparing a calf, which they serve, Little Miss Muffet style, with curds and milk.  As the visitors get ready to leave, one of them tells Abraham the time has finally come: Sarah will soon conceive a son.

Then, in the Gospel, we hear the story of Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teachings as Martha frantically takes on the tasks that come with many guests in the house. In this story, Martha, who doesn’t have Abraham’s authority over her household, works alone.  Finally, frustrated, she asks Jesus (who carries enough authority to cast out demons) to at least make her sister help her.  Instead, Jesus tells her to chill. Mary--sitting and listening with the other disciples--is doing the right thing, exactly where she is.

If this story makes you itch with irritation, you’re not alone. Isn’t Martha just doing what we are supposed to do when guests arrive at our door?  Abraham hustles to prepare a meal, then stands beside his guests while they eat, ensuring they have all they need, and he gets rewarded with a son.  Martha also works at being a good host and gets rebuked by Jesus.  What’s fair about that?

And yet. I got my inner Martha adjusted last week, and I feel nothing but relief.  Here’s my story.

Last Sunday, four people showed up for church.  I’m not casting stones here; my family was among the missing.  It’s summer. I get it.  

Still, I had been there since 8, setting up tables, making coffee, hauling out cords and electronics, wiping dust off the tables.  It was the usual Sunday morning routine, but in that moment, for the first time, I wondered whether it was all worth it. 

I’m wondering if, like me, it wasn’t the work itself that was bothering Martha.  I’m guessing that she went straight to Jesus instead of quietly asking her sister if she could set the table or peel the potatoes because Martha wanted to know whether what she was doing mattered,  and she knew just where to go to find out.

Jesus’s answer, gotta be honest, would have made me want to punch the wall.  Fortunately, in my story, here’s what happened instead. 

First, everyone grabbed some coffee and circled up. Eunice’s brownies got their own chair.  

Nicole quietly looked around.  “This is really a lot of work, isn’t it, Mary?” she said.

I admitted it was kind of a lot.  “It’s fine when lots of people are here, but . . .”

We talked a little about summer—how people are traveling, at cabins, working weekends.  It’s more difficult for the summer folks, who used to fill those seats, to get to church these days.  It was hard, we all agreed, to know what to do.

And then, the Jesus followers of St. Mary’s did something that Jesus in the Gospel didn’t do (at least in print). They acknowledged the problem and paused, letting it sit, giving this Martha a better way forward.

“So what should we do? What’s most important?” I asked.

It didn’t take long to figure out: it felt most important to each of us to listen to the Word, to ask questions, to learn from one another. Which also seems a lot like that one thing that Jesus tells Martha matters most.

Just then, Julie arrived, bearing her honey cake with berries (alone, worth coming to church for, just saying).  As we dug into the cake, washing it down with second cups of coffee, I thought about how every week at St. Mary’s, communion happens as much in the sharing after worship ends as it does when we pass the bread and wine.

And so, with our one important thing in mind, we thought about what we could let go of this summer while we’re gathering outside.  Electronic devices involving many wires. Most of the before-church set up. Communion on days when there are just a few of us.  We could Zoom through the phone, put out just what we need that day, and share food and drink together while we discuss the readings.

Last Sunday, even though we never opened the service bulletins, church happened.  We listened, we cared for one another, and we broke bread together. We figured out how to be God’s people, just as we are.  It mattered.

And that’s why, when I read the end to the Mary and Martha story this week, I heard something different. The story in the Gospel is written to emphasize that Mary has as much right to be a disciple as the men in the room, and that no one should take that away from her.  I’m good with that. But it’s also true that Jesus knows people have to be fed.  He fed 5000 of them in the previous chapter. Jesus sees and values what Martha is doing too.  

The story in the Gospel ends right after Jesus speaks, but now I imagine a new ending. I see John nudging Peter to move over, smiling at Martha, and patting the seat between them.  Everyone nods happily as she wipes her hands and shyly sits down.  And after they’ve finished listening, asking questions, and talking over what Jesus has said, he looks around and says, “Okay, let’s get something to eat.” Together, they rise, and the loaves and fish multiply again.  And Martha, like Mary Oliver, just sits there in the bustle and thinks, 

I’m barely moving 
though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.