The Better Part

READING            Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 

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.”  But the Lord answered her, “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.”

READING  From C. Kavin Rowe, “Leadership and the Discipline of Silence”
Rowe quotes the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who in 1851 wrote:

“(We seem) to have become sleepless in order to invent ever new instruments to increase noise, to spread noise and insignificance with the greatest possible haste and on the greatest possible scale.”

The result is that “everything is … turned upside down:     communication is … brought to its lowest point with regard to meaning, and simultaneously the means of communication are … brought to their highest with regard to speedy and overall circulation;  for what is publicized with such hot haste (?)  and … has greater circulation (?) than -- rubbish!”

Rowe says, “Kierkegaard’s remedy to the noisy and speedy spread of rubbish is silence: ‘Oh, create silence!’  (And his) outburst … was far more prophetic than he would ever have been able to imagine.

Truth telling in difficult situations, for example, often requires silence. This is so not only because it can be just plain hard to get the truth out but also because it can be even harder to tell the truth wisely.  Silence is the name for the time it takes to see the path of wisdom when truth is hard to tell.

Columnist David Brooks observed that the world of fast and loud often prevents us from hearing the quieter sounds from the depths.  But these sounds are often those that we most need to hear….[i]

NOTE:  “Yellow” and “Pink” refer to characters in a story by William Steig.  You can find a synopsis here:

“What is publicized with such hot haste (?) and … has greater circulation (?) than -- rubbish! …  Create silence!”  Kierkegaard wrote that over 160 years ago.  He was not talking about Twitter.  He was complaining about the telegraph. 

Webinars, posts, podcasts, a barrage of emails from worthy organizations.  How do we sort through the noise to find the truth – to find our own truth?  Our theme for February is the third principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations:  “We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”

That principle might originally have been a reminder to Unitarian Universalists to respect and honor one another’s different theological opinions.  Yellow asks Pink why they are arguing on such a fine day.  The mission statement of this congregation says that we support one another on our spiritual journeys.  I hope and believe that we do that pretty well.  Because we’re living in a different time. 
This is a time for sustained witness and action.  We need it also to be a time for spiritual growth.  One in which we really encourage and support one another on our spiritual journeys, as well as our justice-making.

Among the email barrage I got this past week was one with the heading, “We’re in a marathon, not a sprint.” It came from UU Mass Action, which organizes and participates in rallies and teach-ins, especially in the Boston area.  UU Mass Action is a good source for information about state legislative activities that address a whole range of social and climate justice initiatives.

I also get updates from a blog called “The Lively Tradition.”  It’s shared by a few UU ministers, including Cynthia Landrum.  Her latest, which I posted on our Facebook page, is “Ten Actions for Avoiding Protest Burnout.”

And I get a lot of email from the UU Service Committee.  On Monday I joined a webinar they sponsored about sanctuary congregations.  Being a sanctuary congregation means being ready to shelter an undocumented immigrant who is under a final deportation order, someone who will be arrested and forcibly removed from the country if he or she does not take refuge in a safe place.

Before we began, the facilitator acknowledged the pain, fear, intensity of feeling and desire to help that had brought a hundred of us from across the country to this online meeting.  She reminded us of the “grounding power of stillness among so much movement.”  She invited us to breathe together.

She then read excerpts from a poem by Warsan Shire.  Shire’s family is originally from Somalia, and she grew up in London.  Her poem is well known in circles of people serving and advocating for refugees and immigrants.  Here’s a excerpt:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

You might be wondering what the story about Mary and Martha has to do with the grounding power of stillness?  Or witness?  Or refugees and immigrants oppressed by discrimination and fear?

Their story is an odd little episode in the gospel of Luke.  It is stuck in between the story of the Good Samaritan, and a passage in which the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. 

The Samaritan is a stranger, an outsider from the wrong tribe, who does what the priests and privileged do not – he goes out of his way to save the life of a traveler who has been mugged.

 “Which of these,” Jesus asked, “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The man answered him, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 9.36-38)

The prayer Jesus teaches his disciples is a simple one:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
Forgive our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.  (Luke 11.1-4

If you grew up Christian, you learned a longer, more poetic version – that version is in the gospel of Matthew.

In Luke, just before the Lord’s prayer, and just after what has become an iconic teaching on the golden rule, there is a little story in which Jesus visits Martha.

Let’s imagine:  Martha has gone and waited her turn at the village well three times already that day.  It’s hot, but she has a fire going.  In one pot she’s making a stew, in another she’s heating water so that Jesus will be able to bathe.  She’s thinking about how she might manage to wash his cloak.  The goats need to be milked.  The hearth needs to be swept.  And someone needs to go to the well again, for drinking water.

And what is Mary doing?  Mary, her sister, is sitting at Jesus’ feet doing nothing.

Martha is enterprising, a woman of some means:   She has a few goats.  She owns two cook pots.  She is Jesus’ friend and a loyal disciple.  She has noticed, on this visit, that his sandals are more hole than sole.  She knows he hopes that she’ll slip a few coins in his pocket when he leaves, so that he can buy himself a new pair.  And she’s worried that the things he is saying and doing are dangerous.  It’s fear – fear for him – that trips her anger.  She speaks to him, sharply.

And what does Jesus do?  He tells her “Martha, calm down.  Mary knows what she’s doing.  She has more wisdom than you do!”  

What’s going on?

My favorite explanation of the actual biblical version is that it is a criticism of female leaders in the early Christian church.  The gospel of Luke was probably written 50 or 60 years after Jesus was killed, when Christianity was spreading around the Mediterranean.  Some of Jesus’ active followers had, like Martha, been women.  This was unusual, even scandalous. 

Some of the founders and leaders in the early churches were also women.  This was a source of friction and dissent.  So Luke sticks in a story in which Jesus tells the active woman to calm down, and praises the one who shuts up and listens as having “chosen the better part.”[ii]

That’s a late 20th century feminist interpretation of the passage.  Many, many commentators have said it’s about spiritual practice.  It contrasts two ways of being religious:  Martha’s is the active way, tending the sick, feeding the poor.  Mary’s is the contemplative way.  Early mystics, the desert fathers and mothers of the third and fourth centuries, used the fact that Jesus praises Mary to justify their solitary devotion to non-stop prayer. 

A thousand years later Meister Eckhardt, another mystic, argued that Martha is the more spiritually mature because she balances action with contemplation.  Martha, he says, asks Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help because she’s worried that Mary is spiritually immature.  When Jesus tells Martha she worries too much, he is really reassuring her that Mary will “get it” eventually.  Eventually, she’ll develop a mature spiritual life that balances doing and being.[iii]

It’s astonishing what different commentators have gotten out of a half dozen bare lines of story.  But I think Eckhardt is right in his larger point:  we need to act and we need stillness. 

We need to stick out our necks to help our neighbors and our planet.  And we can become overwhelmed, like Martha, understandably distracted or made frantic by everything we see that needs to be done.  We might also need to learn how to pray.

This was another awful week in Washington.  We are in a series of marathons, not a sprint.  We need to tend ourselves and each other – to tend our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.  Cynthia Landrum’s blog has some good suggestions.  Number ten is “engage in a spiritual practice.”

What would it mean – to learn how to pray?  My spiritual mentor Margaret Benefiel says, “pray as you can, not as you can’t.”  Prayer comes in many, many forms.  There are prayers of lament (protest), petition (a call for help), intention, praise, gratitude, and more.

You can begin with a reading.  Or you can set words aside:  chant, or focus silently on a syllable or the breath.  Walk in the woods or park, with an intention to let your mind be still.  Prayer is permission to let sequestered feelings leak from their strongholds, and to name them.  To let muddied waters clear.

There are a number of meditation groups that meet here and elsewhere in the community.  Having a community is a huge support when you want to make a practice regular – when you want to make it a real practice.  I have a small group of women with whom I meet monthly, by skype or phone.

My solitary practice is simple.  I sit.  I light my chalice.  Often, I sit in silence and try to focus on my breath.  Sometimes I say the prayer of St. Francis, or my own version of the Lord’s prayer, between the lines of the one I learned as a child.

Our Father…         Un-nameable Source of love
Thy kingdom come   May goodness be greater than evil
Thy will be done… 
  May peace and hope prevail
Give us this day…    May I receive what I need
And forgive us…      May I be forgiven for my failures, the hurt I cause
As we forgive those…    May I forgive others
And lead us not…    May I know and do what is needed

Sometimes I need a name for the un-nameable.  I might choose Ashera, an ancient Canaanite fertility goddess.  She has a beautiful, sing-able name.  She is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes in obscure references to poles or groves of trees.[iv]  I think of Ashera especially in winter when the trees are bare.  I let her connect me to a sisterhood of women across countless ages.

Always there is breath, a settling in, a coming into awareness that my head is not the center of my body. Often I end with a loving kindness meditation.  I know, even in the physical solitude of the moment, that I am connected.  I am not alone.  I am held, in the silence.

I let my discipline get derailed more often than I’d like.  Sometimes, when I’ve been away for awhile, I begin with chant.  “Oh God I have been distant from you.  Have you been distant from me?”  I’ve stopped worrying about what this makes me.  Some pink, and some yellow, some off-white.  A beautiful pale apricot!  In and of stillness.  Needing the steadying, centering strength of silence.

“Silence is the name for the time it takes to see the path of wisdom when truth is hard to tell.”  “In silence we may hear the quieter sounds from the depths, sounds we most need to hear…”[v].

Let us be silent then, for a moment now, and end with the prayer from Maureen Killoran that we heard at the beginning of the service:

As we weather winds of change,           
May we have wisdom to cherish moments of stillness.

As we recollect times of challenge and of pain,
May we remember also the graceful blessings of our lives

As we look to future unknowns,

May we have the boldness to trust
    that there is an unimagined Goodness yet to come[vi]

And may we lend our hearts and hands to make it so.


[i] C. Kavin Rowe, “Leadership and the Discipline of Silence,”

[ii] Warren Carter, “Getting Martha Out of the Kitchen, Luke 10:38-42 Again” Catholic Bible Quarterly, I, 58, 1996, pp 264-280.

Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, “A Feminist Critical Interpretation for Liberation:  Martha and Mary:  Luke 10:38-42,” Religion and Intellectual Life, 3 no 2, Winter 1986, pp 21-36.

[iii] Blake R. Heffner, “Meister Eckhardt and a Millennium with Mary and Martha,” Lutheran Quarterly, ns 5 no 2 Sum 1991, pp 171- 185, page 179.

[iv] William Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

[v] Rowe, in his own words and quoting David Brooks.

[vi] Maureen Killoran #107 in Lifting our Voices, UUA, 2015.