One summer when I was a college student in New Jersey, my family went to the family farm in southern Illinois for a visit. My aunts Chloe and Ruby, and my Uncle Ray and his family from Missouri all stayed in the old farmhouse. They would all get up early in the morning and sit around the kitchen table and visit. It was the 1970s right in the middle of political turmoil Vietnam, black power, hippie movement. I think my Uncle and I had a few political discussions and differences of opinion. My Uncle was very suspect of those college students back East. As the older folks were drinking coffee, I got up and started cooking scrambled eggs, deftly one-handedly cracking eggs into the skillet for breakfast and frying up the bacon. My Uncle said, “Will you look at that, the college girl can cook.” I tell this story to talk about balance. My parents wanted me to be a good student, but they also wanted me to grow up to be a competent and hard worker. Our work is important, but so are our relationships, with God and with others. Healthy people find a balance between work and rest, learning and doing.
Cartoon character Homer Simpson didn’t quite understand this when he said, “If you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Then he added, “now quiet, they’re about to announce the lottery numbers.” (Source unknown).
Focusing on our work is important as long as it does not replace our primary relationships with other people and with God. There is time for work and a time for growing in our relationships with God and others.
When I read today’s gospel lesson, I thought, the Gospel writer is balancing the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard last week, about being diligent in helping your neighbor. In the story of the sisters, Mary and Martha, this week, Luke is conveying the value of a balance between a time for good works and time to spend with God. Was Martha the bad sister, working when she could have been sitting at the Master’s feet? Was Mary the bad sister for not helping feed the hungry disciples?
This gospel story was written down several years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and perhaps Martha did not realize how deeply the lives of Christ and his disciples were going to change. Martha is following Jewish cultural norms. Women’s work was preparing food, doing the household chores to care for and feed the hungry disciples. Mary, going against the expected role of women in those days was sitting at Jesus’s feet learning from him. Jesus says she has chosen the better way. Jesus is not simply telling Martha to take a break. Mary was not just resting. She was sitting at the feet of Jesus to learn something very important that she and the other disciples would be sharing with others in the future.
Perhaps the author Luke, wanted his readers to know that something very important was going on and that they, like Martha, should not miss out on the golden opportunity to learn from Jesus. Surely Jesus’ ministry relied on the help and practicality of disciples like Martha for food, housing, and money. But Jesus did not want his readers to focus on just the practical and miss the good news .
Perhaps, the story is not so much about one sister being better than the other, or sibling rivalry, than it is a call to balance work time with God time.
So how can we find this balance in our lives? It is not always easy. One of our favorite answers to “How’re you doing?” Is “I’m busy.” It’s one of our usual self-descriptions. When asked how we’ve been or what we’ve been up to, we like to stress our high activity levels. It typifies American culture, which has always placed great value on initiative, hard work, and getting things done. Sociologists have coined a new term for the our culture called “workism.” They say that most people find their main identity in their work. Many people delay or never retire and do not find enough time to relax or get away from work. Technology enables this by making us almost always accessible to the outside world. We are seldom “off the grid.”
Even work that is good work can get to be too much. In the midst of all these New Testament stories about doing good work like the Good Samaritan comes a reminder story to tell us that we need to take a break on a regular basis and sit at the feet of Jesus.
Goodson Dahl in his book, Work, Play, and Worship in a Leisure Oriented Society said, “most middle-class Americans tend to worship their work, work at their play, and to play at their worship. As as result, their meanings and values are distorted. Their relationships disintegrate faster than they can keep them in repair and their lifestyles resemble a cast of characters in search of a plot.” It’s a strong statement, but probably at least partly true.
In her book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, Jewish/Buddhist author Sylvia Boorstein talks about how, when life gets overwhelming and she takes on too many things, she needs to increase her time in prayer and meditation. This seems incongruous, but when bad things happen, when we are stressed, the prayer life is often one of the first things to go. Prayer strengthens not only the mind, but our whole selves.
Mary, more deeply aware of Jesus’ true situation, sits at his feet to learn how to live. Jesus encourages both sisters to be disciples.
The Christian life is lived in the companionship of Christ. The core of our existence is our life with God. Jesus is present with us today, at work, at play, at home, and on vacation. He is as close to us as the air we breathe.
Mary got it, early on. She understood early on that her time with Jesus was very important. At some level she understood that what he was teaching was critically important. Does the life of devotion outrank mission to the needy or Christian action? Hardly, but it focuses the attention, so that the outward journey, the work of the Samaritan, is rooted in and sustained by the inward journey of prayer. Our life in Christ, our grounding, our strength, is the basis for our life in the world. Our life in Christ is not about checking in with God once in a while. It is grounded in total orientation of our connection to God.
Everyone is different and there is no formula for creating this connection to God. You have to find what works for you with regard to the time, place, and activity of your devotional life. Some people read spiritual books, use different forms of prayer, pray while exercising or gardening. I pray and read the Bible in the morning looking at a mountain. Some people are night people and get the most out of their time with God by looking back and praying over their day each night. People use different prayer forms, bibles, devotional books and magazines. Some people pray together, some pray alone. Just as Martha and Mary are different, we all are different, and we all need to find what spirituality works for ourselves. Summer time with longer daylight and different schedules, is a great time to experiment with what spiritual practice works for you.
In addition to our personal time with God. We also need time with others to worship god. We need to keep our work life and our worship life in balance. We need to work, but we also need worship. The church of Christ is a community of faith – followers who can encourage and support each other in good times and rough times. Christ calls us to regularly spend time with others at worship. We do this not because God needs us to worship, but because we need God.
And so today let us fondly remember both sisters, Martha, the worker, and Mary, the listener, both of whom loved Jesus and wanted to spend precious time in His presence.
“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus tells us. If we will open ourselves to the word of God in prayer and the call to discipleship as a community, we find that the rest of things will fall into place. Amen.