“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village,
where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and
listened to what he was saying.
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.’ But the Lord answered her,
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
there is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.'”
We Presbyterians are a “doing” people. That “doing” is framed by the Protestant work ethic embedded into our denominational DNA. Associated with John Calvin and the Puritans, this Protestant work ethic emphasizes hard work, discipline and being thrifty as a way to live because of one’s faith. Many would say that this way of life impacted the industrial revolution and modern-day capitalism. Historically during the Reformation it was used as a contrast with the Roman Catholic focus on worship attendance, sacraments and confession. The implication being that kind of spirituality could lead to inaction and passivity. Ironically, we need both for a healthy spiritual life and witness in this world.
One could say that as Protestants and Americans, this work ethic has had its own idolatrous temptations. In our effort to “get things done,” to not waste time, to do things “in order” for ourselves and those around us, we could easily miss out on some deeper needs, causing a spiritual void of sorts. We fill that void within with the noise of movement and the checking off of lists. This noise can easily distract us from doing the hard spiritual work required of each of us. For years I wrestled with this struggle from within.
But our Biblical sister Martha might “have me beat.” Martha lives with her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus about 2 miles from Jerusalem in the town of Bethany and they are friends of Jesus. I imagine their home as one of those rare places where Jesus could go without feeling like he had to be on. Some of us have those places – where upon our entrance into that home, our spirits are renewed and refreshed. The people in those places and spaces become critical to our journeys in this life. For more than 40 years, my “people place” is on the Upper West Side in NYC. No matter how I am feeling, how lost, how pained, how exhausted – an embrace from the saints within that home releases the degenerative energy within and encourages me forward. It does not require any words or conversation. I can’t help but smile when I consider Martha and Mary’s home as one of those places for Jesus.
In this familiar story Martha is clearly doing what Martha does – she is making it “all right”’ for her friend – feeding, comfort, warmth, etc… Every time we have a gathering at home, I can relate. But her sister Mary has apparently found another way to receive Jesus in their home. While Martha is doing – Mary is listening. And when Martha complains to her friend Jesus – he does not support her concerns. On the contrary, he lifts up Mary’s model as something important for the long term. Listening is one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can develop. But listening requires us to stop, sit and allow for the silence or voices of others to penetrate the noise in our lives. It requires that we be open to the voices of others. And Jesus reminds us that this kind of engagement can never be taken away from us.
Over the years I have found this to be true – creating the space to allow others to shape my heart has proven invaluable. Creating the space to allow God’s voice to interrupt my schedule has compelled me to grow in ways I might have otherwise never experienced. That is how I found my way to silent retreats at the monastery in Cambridge, MA. It has provided me with the discipline and strength required to embrace both the Martha and Mary within me with joy.
In many ways our churches struggle with this identity – I have seen many churches wrestle with being in that spiritual space, mistaking the spiritual practices of prayer, ceremonial traditions, study of scripture and worship with passivity and inward focus. We forget that the reason we gather regularly is to worship God while renewing our identity so as to go out into the world and lead transformation – working to make right what is broken. Conversely, I have seen churches working to make right what is broken in the world – but forgetting the “why” of what they are doing what they do. We forget that we are not simply the YMCA (which I love). The reason we faithfully work hard at being a voice for change in the world is because that is the inner call of our faith – that is what the gospel requires of us.
My prayers for us as we continue into this fall, is that we will be a people who intentionally strengthen the spiritual disciplines that serve as our foundation as we take that strength and witness into the world. May we embrace the importance and presence of the Martha and Mary within each of us.