Dear Lord, help us to be both Mary and Martha. Help us to find our balance between doing and listening. Teach us to honor the rhythm of Christian living: to give and to receive, to go and do, to sit and to listen. Show us the path of life that we may know you, love you, serve you and walk in your ways. All these things we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Episcopalians and Anglicans have always identified themselves by the phrase Via Media – people of the middle way. This means we like to think of ourselves as the church that represents the middle path between Roman Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism. We like to claim the best aspects of both brands of Christianity and hold them in tension. We lay claim to the rich traditions and heritage of the ancient church while at the same time we live and teach the lessons of the Reformation. In short, we are a church that likes balance between extremes, a church that thinks the truth most often lies somewhere in the middle.
In the spirit of our Anglican heritage, let’s talk a little today about balance, about finding and maintaining balance in our lives. Let’s think a little about walking the middle way between listening and doing, between prayer and action, between Christian spirituality and Christian service.
In today’s gospel Martha and Mary can be seen as representatives of two ways of being. Both of these women love Jesus deeply. Both of these women are thrilled to have Jesus stay with them in their home. And both of these women respond differently to Jesus’ presence. Martha wins the Good Housekeeping Award. She shows her love by being busy. She wants to be the good hostess, to serve her friend by making sure that he has everything he needs, by making sure that all the tasks necessary to honor him during his visit have been completed. Mary, on the other hand, chooses to show her love by being with Jesus, by sitting at his feet and listening to him. Mary is in fact an early feminist pioneer; she claims the same right as a male disciple at a time when women were not allowed to be formally educated by a Rabbi. For Mary, Jesus’ presence and the joy of being with him outweigh all other concerns. Well, we all know how the story goes – Martha loses her patience with her sister and complains to Jesus about doing all the work. Martha wants her sister’s help and she also wants Jesus to know how hard she has been working. Jesus’ reply seems to scold Martha and praise Mary – “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.” Clearly, Jesus seems to be saying that it is better to sit and learn at the foot of Christ than it is to do for him.
Most people usually identify rather strongly with one or the other of the sisters. Either, you lean toward Mary and you feel vindicated by what Jesus said, or you sympathize whole heartedly with Martha and Jesus’ words sting a bit. But I don’t think our Lord intends for this to be an either or situation. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be a Mary more than we are a Martha. Rather, I think our Lord was trying to point out that we are prone to act, rather than to reflect, that we prefer doing more than listening. As type “A” driven Americans we value the task, the project, almost more than anything else.
This always comes crashing home to me when I go on vacation. For the first four or five days away from my normal routine I have a great feeling of unease. Something is wrong, although I can’t put my finger on it. I feel restless, anxious, even a little depressed. I have been going, going, doing, doing, for so long that when I get on vacation and it all suddenly stops I feel a little like the wino in the drunk tank with the bad case of the DT’s. We get so trapped in a kind of frantic living that is almost hurts to have to slow down.
I think our Lord wants us to find and maintain a balance in our lives between being and doing, between reflection and action. In fact, the gospel lessons for these two Sundays seem to make this point very clearly. While this week Jesus praises Mary for her willingness to stop her frantic activity and listen to God’s word; last week we read the parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus points out that we cannot love God without acting in the world. Our love of God is dependent on our willingness to love our neighbor. And in our Old Testament lesson for today, Abraham and Sarah are blessed because they do exactly what Martha does, because of the hospitality they show God when he visits their tent.
Monastics have always known this truth. St. Benedict, whose rule of life is the blueprint for many monks and nuns, set aside specific times every day for work, prayer and study. He knew that health and wholeness lie in balancing all three. Science and medicine are increasingly aware that health requires a balance between the needs of the body, the needs of the mind and the needs of the soul. Each is connected to the other and when we neglect one we neglect all of them and we damage our health.
Balance. Our Lord wants us to live balanced lives. The problem is that this kind of Via Media is often hard to come by in a world in which what you do is seen as the sum total of who you are. Erich Fromm, the psychologist, put it this way in the book entitled The Revolution of Hope: “Most people are so active that they cannot stand to do nothing; they even transform their so called leisure time into another form of activity. If you are not active making money, you are active driving around, playing golf, or just chatting about nothing. What is really dreaded is the moment in which you have nothing to do.” Virginia Brashier put it this way in a little poem: “This is the age of the half read page, and the quick hash and the mad dash, and the bright night with the nerves tight, the plane hop, and the brief stop, the lamp tan in a short span, the big shot in a good spot, and the brain strain and the heart pain, and the cat naps till the spring snaps – and the fun’s done!”
How many of us are completely out of whack, out of balance, lopsided? We know how to be Martha’s – we know how to work, we even know how to serve. We know how to fill every moment of our day with some activity in the frantic hope that maybe if we just try hard enough we can get it all done. But the work never ends and so we are trapped like a hamster on his wheel running as fast as we can but never actually getting anywhere. Work is good, serving others is even better, but it isn’t enough. We also have to learn and listen, study and reflect, pay attention to God’s word in our lives and pray for ourselves and on behalf of others. Because what we become in this life is just as important as what we do. God wants us to be both Mary and Martha – these two ways of being actually depend on each other. Because love of neighbor without the love of God easily leads to burnout – and the love of God, without love of neighbor becomes just another form of meaningless self-improvement.  Amen. Synthesis, Proper 11, Year C