Seeking a balance

July 21, 2019 (The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Amos 8:1–12

Psalm 52

Luke 10:38-42

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

10:38 “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)

Let us pray: Ever-faithful God, you word and your deed are one: reconcile us in your Son with the helpless and the needy, with those we would ignore or oppress, and with those we have called enemies, that we may serve all people as your hands of love, and sit at the feet of those who need our compassionate care. Amen.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He stops for a visit at the home of Mary and Martha. He sits and begins to talk and that is when a disagreement begins.  Some call it a simple sisterly squabble, others call it worker verses lazy argument, others site that it is an age-old spiritual conundrum between being and doing.  This story makes it easy to take sides.  Are you in Martha’s camp or are you in Mary’s? Are you a be’er or a do’er?

I am an oldest child, responsible and focused much like Martha.  I can identify with her worry and her working, her anxiety and distraction, focused on how everything behind the scenes must be taken care of so the main event can take place. I so wanted to be more like Mary, seemingly everything Martha is not.  Wishing I could let go and simply be. Stop with work in order to listen to Jesus. It presents a challenge finding a balance in life and in faith.

Every day there is a list of things that has to be done at the house, at the office, with the family, for yourself. Laundry needs washing and folding, dishes need to be cleaned and put away, meals need to be prepped cooked, served, bills must be paid, the grass has to be cut, the clients need attention, the phone calls to return, the emails to answer, the swim meets to watch, the soccer practices to car pool for, the college essays that have to be started, and the church needs me to find time for a meeting? Yet each day your list and my list get interrupted by life, and add the voices of your spouse, your neighbors, your friends from church, and suddenly the struggle about what has to get done and what is most important is even harder one. How do we find time for faith, for reflection, for prayer, for listening to and for God?

The story of these two sisters, Mary and Martha always gets me in the gut because, either way I feel guilty.  I can never cross off my list everything that needs to be done and yet I can’t slow down enough to be still and let God.  It is a vicious cycle that I bet you struggle with as well.  Maybe that is the point of this story that Jesus is calling us to find him during whatever it is we are doing.  Whether checking off our list or spending time quietly being.

It has been a struggle of the Christian Faith since the beginning of the church, what is more important being (Mary) or doing (Martha)?  What I mean is our faith reflected in action, going out or in being, going in?  Is the Christian Faith defined by thought, prayer and reflection or in mission, outreach and service?  It is a great theological debate, what is more important to God, our faith being or our works doing?  Who is more correct Mary or Martha?

And I, for one, think it is too easy to beat up on Martha and those of us like her.  I think she’s gotten a bad rap.  Too often, we denigrate Martha’s busyness, while romanticizing Mary’s meditative natures. We vilify Martha and turn Mary into a saint. I really don’t think that is what Jesus is doing.

The great preacher Fred Craddock says, “If we treat Martha too harshly, she may stop serving altogether. And if we lift up and praise Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do. There is a time to sit and listen and to reflect.  Knowing which and when is the heart of the struggles of the Christian faith.” 

Another way to look at it is this, when a parent loves a child it is more than just a feeling or a sentiment. Loving a child means teaching her how to tie her shoes and wiping the dried blood away from her hurt knee and going to her in the middle of the night when she has a nightmare and driving her to soccer practice and helping her learn to read.   Or the Sunday school teachers who prepare a lesson, they come early every Sunday morning so that they can set out the supplies the morning’s class.  Busy work?  I sure hope not!   It’s the form that love and faith take. I cannot imagine Jesus saying to Christians who are emptying bed pans in an AIDS clinic or baking corn bread for the soup kitchen, “You people are preoccupied with busy work. Leave the children, the needy, the ill, the lonely behind. Come sit and meditate for a while. Be spiritual but not religious. This is the better part.”

And that, I think, may get us close to the real heart of this Mary and Martha story.  There is nothing wrong in and of itself with Martha’s fixing the food.  This is the way people show love and welcome and hospitality and care.  There is nothing wrong.  In fact, there is something essential, about showing one’s love of God and neighbor by baking the bread and washing the vegetables, by preparing meals for our guests when we host IHN and cleaning out gutters for our neighbors with PWC and playing basketball with kids on Saturday mornings at Saturday Hoops.  Martha, preparing that meal of hospitality, is doing a good thing— a necessary thing— an act of service—but if we try to do this kind of service apart from our faith — it will distract us and finally wear us down. Mary has chosen to listen to the Word. Jesus, the living Word, is present, right in her house, and if she is going to love God and love neighbor, if she is going to show hospitality to the stranger and care for the lost, then everything depends on hearing and trusting God’s Word. 

What did Mary hear at Jesus’ feet?  What is the Word we hear from Jesus? Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… Peace be with you… Do not be afraid… 

What we hear from Jesus is that God is with us in everything we do and while we are still and reflective.  If we are out there in the world working and feeding and serving God is with us and if we are sitting quietly praying, reading reflecting, God is with us.

I think that we can focus on the one thing — Jesus — when we find a balance in our faith after we have been like Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet. And because we have, we are then able to get up like Martha and show our love for God through our actions and we can see Jesus in the face of everyone we meet and serve.

Let us pray: