Simplicity, or focusing on what is important and cutting back on all that is not, is an important spiritual discipline and one that is exemplified by today’s story of Mary and Martha. Martha here is “worried about many things”. Mary sits and listens. Martha is doing everything that is not simple and clear and full of purpose (though it feels important at the time - and the importance of that cannot be underestimated) while Mary is paying attention to what Jesus has to say. We can see that listening to Jesus was more important. We can honor what she chose to do.
And yet the reality is that Martha’s behavior made sense. It went back to the cultural expectations of men and women at the time. Women were not supposed to sit with the men to listen and learn. They were supposed to be serving. They had their own sphere of existence – a very specific sphere, out of which they were not supposed to travel. To do so would be shameful, would be “unrighteous”, would be “sinful”, would be wrong. Martha is upset not only because Mary is not helping Martha do what they have been told all their lives they are supposed to be doing, but also because Mary is breaking the rules by sitting and listening and learning at Jesus’ feet. Mary does not have a place in that society to sit at Jesus’ feet. Her job is to be behind the scenes, as is Martha’s. Martha is doing what she is ‘supposed’ to do. She is trying hard to do right, to do good, to serve God as she knows she is supposed to. That work is not unimportant work. Someone needs to care for the men and children. Someone needs to be feeding and serving and providing for folk. Someone needs to offer hospitality to those who are gathered. What she is doing is worthwhile work.
But Jesus challenges her, as he challenges many of the notions of the time about what was “proper”. First and foremost, he doesn’t uphold the rules about where women were supposed to be when men are talking. He doesn’t support the idea that women aren’t to learn and sit and listen. Second, he also doesn’t praise Martha’s service or her busyness, even as she was busy in order to serve Jesus and those men gathered there listening to Jesus. Instead, he praises Mary’s choice to step out of the norm, step out of what was expected, to take the time to do what will feed her soul most – listening and learning from Jesus. He praises her choice to be with him and to be forming deeper relationships with God and with Jesus, despite what other people would say about that, despite the fact that she was going against the cultural rules of the time. He encourages her in her non-service and non-busyness in that time and place. His encouragement was radical, again, not just because he was saying, “there are times and places to be busy and this is not one of them” but because he was going against everything the culture said was supposed to happen in this scenario. He was challenging the most deeply engrained norms of the day.
While we don’t have those same expectations of the roles of men vs. women anymore, this is still a radical and challenging story for us as well. We, too, have ideas that tell us what we are supposed to be doing with our time. We, too, have thoughts about what makes us good and right and proper. And specifically we, too, are supposed to be busy, active, “doing” as much as possible. Like Martha we, too, are “worried and upset” about many things. Our jobs, our children, our health, our families, our bills, our vacations, our cars, our houses, our gardens, our friends, our church. But beyond these things as well, if we pay attention to the news, there is much to be done and much to worry about. There is hatred, and fear, and anger and killing. There is violence within our culture but also in France, in Turkey, in Syria. There are wars and people are dying. As people who are called to care, to bring about justice, to lift up the oppressed, there is so much that we need to be about. We need to find out what we can do. We need to do it. There is much to be done and much to worry about. And, like Martha, when we are told to just settle down, to sit, to listen, to take time off of worrying, to refrain from running around doing the things that need to be done, we can become even more upset! I mean, if we don’t do what needs to be done now, it isn’t as if those jobs, those things that must be done, will just go away or take care of themselves. In our personal lives, we will have more to do later because we have not done today’s work. In the greater society, what we do not heal today, what we do not change now, what we fail to confront that is unjust and unkind and uncaring – all of that continues another day when we do not attend to it. Doesn’t God call us to do this work? And if we are not busy doing it, then, aren’t we failing in our call to love and serve God and God’s people?
Even for people of faith, we struggle with time dedicated to praying and listening to God. I will admit, that even as a pastor, I fear being “caught” praying when I am supposed to be “working”. There is ingrained in all of us the “protestant work ethic” or that strong feeling that we supposed to be doing rather than being: running around and planning and working all the time?
But the truth of it is different, as it usually is with God, than what we seem to imagine our time and our world to be.
As one popular story has pointed out, if you pick up a glass of water you can feel that it is pretty light. It does not take much to lift it. Almost all of us would have the strength to do so. However, if we are asked to continue to hold up the glass for a period of time, the actual weight becomes unimportant. If I were to hold it up for more than a few minutes, my arm and hand would begin to become tired. If I held it up longer, my arm and hand would start to ache. Eventually, I simply would not be able to do it. The longer I hold something up, the heavier it becomes. If we pick it up and put it down, we can carry around any number of things of this weight for any period of time. But holding something up for a long time will wear us out quickly and completely.
Our lives are the same way. When we are “upset and worried about many things,” we are, in essence, holding the glass of our worries and concerns up for extended periods of time. The result of doing this? We will be less and less effective and eventually we will be unable to continue. Putting it down, turning it over to God, taking a step back is crucial for us to be effective in our work. More than that, when we take time out to re-center on God, we regain a vision for the purpose of what we are doing, for the priorities in our work, for the deeper meaning behind it all.
I don’t know about you, but there are days when the weight of the world is simply too much. It can make the simple task of starting the days’ work hard. In those moments, everything distracts me from what I really need to be doing. But it is most especially in those times that I have found that if I meditate, pray, take time to talk and listen to God, that I can become refocused, and much more able to do what needs to be done. Martin Luther said it this way: “I have so much to do that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer.”
We don’t really have time NOT to be in our relationship with God. We don’t have time to NOT work on that. We don’t have time to avoid being present with God if we want our lives to be meaningful and effective. It is that grounding in our faith that gives us the strength and focus and energy and purpose behind what we do. Without that grounding, we are rats in a maze, running and busy but without doing what will bring us and others into true life, true living, true meaning. We may think that Sunday morning provides us with enough of that, but it doesn’t. This is something we need to do every day, and when opportunities arise, that is when it is most important to take a breath and be present with what God is showing us.
I read a sermon in Mitch Albom’s book, Have a little Faith (Hyperion, New York, 2009. p59) in which a little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class. She came into the kitchen where her mom was making dinner. “Mom, guess what?!” she said as she danced around waving the picture. Her mother continued her work and said “What?”
“Guess what?” The girl asked again, waving her drawing.
“What?” the mom said again, tending to the dishes.
“Mom, you’re not listening.”
“Yes, I am sweetheart!”
“Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.”
I love that story because it points out to us that half attention is not attention. Martha may have thought that being present in the house with Jesus while she tended to the business of service was enough. But Mary knew differently.
As I said above, it is not just our lives that keep us busy. Our faith calls us to tasks as well – caring for the sick, visiting the lonely, feeding the hungry, lifting up those who are suffering. In the face of the hatred and anger and fear we see in the world right now, there is more to do than we can imagine, and we are called to bring the Good News of life and justice and to raise up those who are oppressed. We have much to do, and not acting justly is not an option. From the Talmud – “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it.”
But none of that can be done, none of it, without grounding in why we are doing it, what it is about, how and why God calls us to do what we are about. When we look at Jesus’ life, it was a back and forth story. He would go into the world and teach and heal. Then he would retreat to pray. Then he would go back into the world to teach and heal. The gospels show us this pattern again and again. That prayer time, that time away, was essential for Jesus. How much more so for us. We need that to ground us. That retreat time centers us. That time with God renews us so that we can do the work we are called to do.
The title of my sermon was balancing priorities. But perhaps a better title would be “becoming aware of priorities”. The priority, in order for everything else we do to have meaning, is to stay grounded in our relationship to the Divine. We are worried and upset over many things. But now is the time to ground in God so that we can more clearly see what we need to do in the world and in our living. Amen.