First things first

An approaching vacation brings to mind the words of Pogo, the cartoon character who’s been one of my longstanding spiritual advisors. “Important work,” he said, “like sittin’ around fishin’ remains to be done.” I’m not a fisherman, but I do enjoy “sittin’ around” occasionally. And I recall the words of William Henry Davies (1871-1940), the so-called “poet of the tramps,” who in his poem “Leisure” observed, “A poor life this if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.” So in a couple of weeks I’ll take some time to stand and stare.

And I’ll ponder again a couple of questions Thomas Merton planted in my head long ago. “If you want to identify me,” he wrote, “ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” And that reminds me of Jesus’ comment to Martha when she complained about having to do all the household work while Mary sat around listening to Jesus (Luke 10:38-42). “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are worried and distracted by many things; only one thing is necessary.”

That comment of Jesus takes some unpacking in an age when we’re more conscious of the prejudicial roles traditionally assigned to women and of the limitations those roles carry for all of us. The real issue in the story is not who does the dishes or whether they even get done; it’s whether we recognize what’s important in life and make what’s important the first priority in our daily living. As Steven Covey wrote in First Things First, the main thing in life is keeping the main thing the main thing. It’s not a matter of one occupation being better than another; it’s a matter of how, in the midst of whatever occupies us, we can remember and be present to the one thing necessary in life. It’s true whether we talking about an individual or a congregation.

For us as a congregation, the issue is not how we take care of all the tasks involved in running the church, and it’s not who does those tasks. The real issue for the congregation is whether we recognize the most important reason why we are here, and whether we make that the first priority in our life together – whether we keep the main thing the main thing. That issue came up last week in the Church Council’s discussion of the reduced number of pastors available to serve congregations today. It’s a number that has been declining for a generation and that has fallen significantly since the pandemic began. Who’s going to do the work of ministry and church administration?

When Luke wrote his gospel somewhere around the year 85, there was growing separation between the ministry of priests – the ministry of word and sacrament – and the ministry of deacons – the ministry of service. (The tasks that so distracted Martha in today’s story are described by the Greek word for waiting tables, diakonia, from which we get our word “deacon.”) The church was struggling with the question of what’s more important, contemplative attention to the word of God or practical service to the needs of the church. Would they follow a “Martha” or a “Mary” as a leader of the church in the generation ahead?

Neither Luke nor Jesus would say that practical service was unimportant, but it seems pretty clear from the way the story is told that the one thing necessary to the life of the church – and necessary to the life of every one of its members – is a fully attentive and receptive relationship with Christ. To those who are feeling overwhelmed by all they have to do in their personal lives, Jesus says: Come, sit with Mary, and listen to me before you do anything else. As Martin Luther said, “I have so much to do today, I’d better spend an extra hour in prayer.” It’s like the advice Parker Palmer gave to those considering a vocational choice. “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it,” he wrote, “listen for what it intends to do with you” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation). That advice also applies to us every morning when we rise from bed and  consider what we have to do during the day. Before deciding what we’re going to do with our life, spend some time in prayer listening for what life intends to so with us.

And to those in the church who ask, “How are we going to get people to do all the work that needs to be done around here?” the story of Martha and Mary provides an answer: Begin by attending to your relationship with Christ, and the work will take care of itself. If we listen with genuine openness to what God says to us, God will let us know what our real priorities in life are, what we are to do and what we can well leave undone. God will let us know, of all the things we might do, what will make for life in all its fullness, what will bring us the abundant life Jesus said he came that we might have (John 10:10), and what things are merely worries and distractions.

In today’s multi-tasking world, don’t be so concerned about doing more and more things, don’t let yourself become worried and distracted by the many things that clamor for your attention. Choose to do fewer and better things and to do the one most important thing in life first. And don’t wait to do it. Don’t wait until all the details of your life are nicely arranged before doing what’s really important. Don’t wait until the chores are finished, or the kids are out of college or out of the house, or your retirement is secure and you can comfortably step away from your job. Later may be too late. Give your best attention now to the one thing that can transform your life. Choose the better part. It will never be taken away from you.

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