We seem to live in a world that makes everything a digital choice. Are you someone who works hard or plays hard? Are you a person of science or of faith? Are you a person of ideas or action?
Worse, we are often tempted to apply this same kind of black and white thinking in the situations and with the people we meet. Some of the dichotomies we embrace include good/bad; right/wrong; success/failure; and never/always.
Here’s the good news, as Episcopalians, we do not have to make these choices. We are analog people in a digital world. Instead of being a people of either/or…we get to be people who are both/and. We are the adjustable rheostats in a world of on/off switches.
Being analog people means that we go through the world differently. We get to do the work that we are called to do, to take care of each other and to manage the work of daily life, and we get to encounter God. We don’t have to choose between holy and human.
The Gospel reading this morning is a favorite of mine. I love the family picture… Jesus sitting with the disciples, perhaps talking over the day, and assuredly offering great wisdom about the Kingdom of God. Martha, focused on being a wonderful hostess, making sure that everyone has enough to eat and drink, that her guests have a comfortable place to sit. Then, crossing every boundary of the time, Mary sitting quietly at the feet of her Lord and friend, soaking up the opportunity to be with him. And Martha is grumpy…. feeling overwhelmed and abandoned, enough that she complains…. Why does no body care that I have no help? It’s a typical family gathering in some ways.
Often, though, I think we are tempted to decide whether we are Martha or Mary. I have heard people defend both women vehemently. The Martha supporters champion her unwillingness to abandon the work that needs to be done. They resonate with her feeling that it’s unfair that others are sitting around and talking when there’s so many important tasks to be done. Those in Mary’s corner, meanwhile, point out that Mary gets Jesus’ approbation. She chose spirituality over practicality. She understood how important Jesus’ message was and she wanted nothing more than to hear it.
So let’s take a poll. Raise your hadn’t if you are a “Martha”. Now, who feels like they tend to be more Mary-ish?
Let me confess…I don’t think it’s really a fair questions. As we go through the world, invariably, we are Martha and we are Mary. In the passage, Jesus says “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I think, for me, it may be the most important phrase in the entire paragraph.
This is not a lesson about doing the work that needs to be done or sitting and learning at the feet of our master. It is about having the wisdom to choose which each moment in our day or each period or time in our lives needs from us. This is a passage that talks about paying attention and making good choices about what we do and how we spend our time. This is a passage about finding balance between work and rest, between the practical and the spiritual, and between action and meditation.
Jesus did not say that there is never any place or space for work. The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus preaching, teaching and healing, often for long hours amongst great crowds. And at times, he withdrew to spend time with God. One is not better than the other…and, in fact, one cannot exist without the other.
Our task then is learn to discern when we need to attend to the world or work and when we need to sit at the feet of God and rest. Japanese philosopher Miyamoto Musashi said, “There is timing in everything. Timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice.”
We are not without good models though. This morning, we have Moses. Moses is hard at work, tending the flocks, being Martha. He led his flock beyond the wilderness. That means that we was out with his animals for days and weeks at a time. When he saw the burning bush, though, he didn’t say “I don’t have time for this…I have my sheep and my goats to take care of.” His first words were “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” And so he spent time with God and then he got a big job… One that filled the whole rest of the book of Exodus.
That is the pattern of being called, I think. It’s one that I see often in my own life. I am going along, minding my own business, taking care of the jobs of daily living…. Then something catches my eye. It might be a person who needs help, it might be a book or an article, it might be a friend who needs to talk, or it might be simply the impulse to spend time in prayer or to walk through nature. Sometimes, I manage to look away from the daily grind and turn toward God like Mary did. Those times unfailingly change me… and often ask more of me than I thought I could ever do. Then, I have new work to do—and once again I am leading the life of Martha.
None of us is totally Martha…. none of us is totally Mary. If we are lucky, we get to be Moses—where we recognize the moment that we are invited to sit at the feet of God and choose the better part and then rely on that same God to to give us strength, wisdom, and courage to do the good work we have been invited to do.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas on Sunday, March 24, 2019 at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in San Carlos, CA.