As an Anglican, I’m used to having a yearly schedule for Sunday readings. I was excited and fairly terrified to be given the opportunity to choose the readings today, but I took it as an excuse to sit with a story that has always had a hold on me. I love the Mary and Martha story for reasons I’ve always struggled to put my finger on.
It’s certainly not because I’m a Mary-like contemplative. I worship over at Christ Church in Oliver. The priest there, Sue, is an absolute force of nature. She and I are very, very similar people–we are high energy extroverts who cram our days with as many coffees, committees, events, and service opportunities as humanly possible, even while we both raise three year olds. It’s probably not a coincidence that we also share a tendency to over-commit, get frustrated, and burn out.
A while back, I introduced Sue to the phrase “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. Yeah! She said. Love it! We are giving people, so we need to make sure we’re also feeding ourselves. We have to put our own oxygen masks on first. Awesome! We’ve solved it!
So we went on through our busy weeks, but now I was more intentional about adding even more things into the schedule–hobby time, extra socializing, things to fill my cup. And lo and behold, I ended up just as bedraggled and exhausted as before.
I went to another wise friend and said, what’s wrong? I’m doing self care like I’m supposed to, I’m taking time for all these enjoyable things, but whenever something unexpected gets added to my plate, I panic.
And that’s when I heard my second ‘cup’ metaphor. My friend held up her travel mug. “This container is everything you’re carrying around. And it’s full waaaaaaay up to here. Of course you’re anxious. When something new gets added, there’s no room. It goes PLIP! Straight back out. You need less in your container.”
I’m sure I’m not the only person in the room who struggles with busy-ness and balance.In addition to being an Anglican, I’m also, and perhaps even MORE distressingly, a Millennial. I’m sure many of you saw the articles that circulated a few months back about Millennial burnout–a condition caused by a lack of work-life balance, a constant influx of information, and heightened expectations about productivity and success. I don’t think this problem is limited to my generation, and I’m glad we’re talking about it. But the solutions offered–spa days, mindfulness apps, fancy planner systems–seems to always come with a price tag. To me, they feel more like good advertisements than good advice, and certainly nothing near good news. Too often, we are offered ways to shop our way out of the symptoms instead of a way to address the root issue. How do we approach this as Christians? How do we decide what to fill our cup with?
The Mary and Martha story suggests that we don’t find a solution by doing more things or even necessarily by doing different things, but by grounding ourselves deeply in our relationship with Jesus, and letting God fill our cup.
The Mary and Martha story can be read as a competition between two sisters where one picks the right thing and one does not. Oftentimes, when we hear this story, the whole audience–and especially the women–feel like they have to slot themselves in to either the Mary or the Martha role. The Marys walk away feeling righteous and the Marthas, feeling a bit defensive about how hard they work. Let’s leave that competitive frame to the side. These are two dear friends of Jesus, and he respects them both. We are seeing one snapshot of their journeys with God. Martha must have spent some time learning about what Jesus’ message was if she was such a close friend. And if Martha is expecting Mary to pull some weight, that tells me that the work Martha is doing is something that Mary also did. I’m sure she got up off the floor–at least sometimes!–and put her belief in Jesus in to concrete action. Jesus is calling all of us through this story into a deeper commitment to him, not trying to split us into two sides of an argument.
One of the reasons I’m so sure that we Marthas in the room don’t have to beat ourselves up is that Jesus cares about good food. Jesus cares about being a good host. Look at how much time he spends eating with people! He makes wine for the wedding. He gathers followers around dinner tables. When he appears to his disciples after the resurrection, he uses some of the precious, precious, limited time he has with them to offer them some fish for breakfast. Jesus knows that what Martha does has value. Her work matters.
But Jesus is also crystal clear that what Mary is doing comes first. This passage often gets interpreted as speaking to the need to balance the active and contemplative expressions of our faith. It’s true that we need both, but I think there’s something else going on here. Listen to Jesus’ words. Jesus isn’t talking about balance here. He’s talking about birthright. Mary has chosen the good thing, the better part and it will not be taken away from her. This has echoes of Romans chapter 8 for me: neither death, nor life, norangels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. All of us, whether we identify with Mary or Martha or Thomas or Peter need to ground ourselves in God’s love. Kristin Swanson puts this perfectly in her sermon on this passage: You do not have to choose between Martha and Mary. You only have to choose Jesus.
So what does choosing Jesus look like? It looks like giving up our own agenda, and giving up our need to control our lives. It looks like conversion and transformation–opening up to being changed by God. Being loved by God is not an activity that we can choose to pick up or put down. It’s part of who we are. God’s love cannot be controlled, and I doubt it ever resembles “balance”. Jesus almost never suggests a moderate approach. He doesn’t tell the rich young man to adjust his monthly budget and find some more room for donations. He tells him to sell ALL he has and give it away to the poor. He doesn’t suggest that the group of men accusing the woman caught in adultery give her a softer sentence instead of a stoning. He issues a devastating moral challenge that calls on everyone present to examine their lives and change their ways. He doesn’t ask us to try and be better. He asks us to “be perfect, as his father in heaven is perfect.”
But the reason that Jesus can hold us to these high standards–these seemingly impossible standards–is because he knows that his requests are backed by an infinite well of love and forgiveness. Jesus asks us to do remarkable things not to impress him, or to prove that we’re worthy to follow him, but because he loves us so much he knows we can do more than we expect.
Jesus’ call, equally to Mary and Martha and to all of us who follow him, is to place our relationship with God at the centre of our lives. One commentator put it this way: “What if Jesus’ comment to Martha was more of a call to reevaluate than a scolding? I believe the story of Mary and Martha is really a plea from the Lord to focus on him. Perhaps we need to give Him some of our undivided attention, even if we have forgotten what undivided attention feels like. If we give him some of our undivided attention, maybe some of his peace will flow to all of our busyness.” [St. Luke’s] What difference does it make if we approach our work, whatever it is, from a place of deep knowledge that we are loved by God?
Over the years I’ve worked at a number of universities both as a teacher and as support staff. There is one student in particular who I will always remember. She deeply impressed me. She was the winner of several leadership and citizenship awards for her work with vulnerable populations. The sheer number of hours she volunteered boggled my mind. On top of all of that, she worked a part time job, and earned straight As. I didn’t know how she did it all, but I admired her work ethic (and quietly felt really bad about my own, in comparison).
Fast forward a few terms, and the same student is in my office in tears. The whole time she had been achieving amazing things, her life had been falling apart. After living with an abusive spouse for the first part of her program, she had finally fled. For months, she had been living out of her car. She didn’t know how she was going to receive the latest scholarship cheque, because she no longer had a mailing address it could be sent to. She was exhausted and physically fragile, and desperately needed a rest. I had thought that because she was busy and productive, she was doing well. But I only saw the surface. She was working so hard because she could not go home. I was devastated. My own fixation on productivity and accomplishment had made me miss seeing a human being in pain. I was blinded to the way that work can function as a coping mechanism and a shield from pain. And I should have known better, because I’ve done the same thing in my own life.
Now, there are worse coping mechanisms than volunteering too much. But when we value busy-ness and productivity as ends in themselves, we sometimes forget that they can be motivated by pain (as in the case of this student) or shame. We start to put pressure on ourselves to maintain our levels of productivity even when they are unsustainable. In the most extreme cases, we make work into an idol, giving work–in whatever form–the role of God in our lives. Counting on our work to give us a sense of value, to make our lives meaningful, to give us the fulfillment that can only come from God.
God started making my own unhealthy relationship to my work clear to me in a moment of prayer. I’m not sure how many of you have had the opportunity to walk a prayer labyrinth. These labyrinths aren’t mazes. There’s no trick or strategy to them. They are just long, winding paths that slowly lead you back and forth in sweeping arcs until you reach the centre of the circle. The idea is to enter with a worry, and leave it in the middle. Or to enter with a question, and hope that God will lead you to an answer.
One time when I was struggling with feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, I walked into a labyrinth holding up my busy schedule to God. I had already decided what answer I was going to come out with–yet another commitment to try and live a more balanced life, a vague sense of guilt that I wasn’t peaceful and mindful enough already, maybe some ideas about how to make better To Do lists or be more efficient with my evenings. And then God surprised me. What I heard when I reached the centre was not “yeah, you’re right, try yoga” it was HECK NO! (the priest at my church gets really nervous when I preach somewhere else because she worries that I’m going to slip up and swear. She’d be very proud that I kept that to “heck”.) Heck. No. Get out there and work. Push yourself. Use your gifts. Do all the amazing things I made you to do. BUT. To do that, you’re going to have to leave some things in this circle. Drop the guilt. Drop the busy-ness. Drop the worry that if you’re not working hard enough, you don’t matter. Get out there and work with joy and with freedom. Because no matter what happens, you are my beloved child.
If I hadn’t made a bit of room in my cup, a bit of quiet in my day, for God to chip in his two cents, I would have missed out on an important lesson. Some days, I feel like this is the lesson I’m going to keep learning, over and over and over again, for the rest of my life. My value, your value, OUR value is not in what we do, but in who we are. Because I am particularly slow to learn this lesson, the section of Psalm that we heard today is the Bible verse that I need to go back to in prayer more than any other. Unless the Lord builds the house, their labour is in vain who build it. If we’re not pulling in the same direction as God, we’re wasting our muscles. We’re working to build a house on sand. And if the work we are doing is crushing us, if it’s draining us and not feeding us, that’s a pretty good sign that God’s not driving the bus. He gives his beloved rest. As Jesus says, my yoke is easy and my burden is light. God isn’t going to ask us to destroy ourselves through unnecessary labour. He loves us too much for that.
So what are you building? What labour are you taking on these days?
For some of us, the answer is rest and healing. Doing the work of getting out of bed, asking for help, and either improving our health or just staying alive is real and meaningful labour. That’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way.
Others of us are building families and supporting the growth and wellbeing of people we love. Some might be taking small corners of our city, or large sections of our world, and working to make them more just and equitable. Some of us are labouring to make our workplaces more reflective of God’s love and care for every person. Some of us are building networks of friends–in our senior’s homes, in our immigrant communities, in our social circles–who can build each other up in love and give each other practical support. Many of us are doing the work of education, whether that involves teaching or mentoring others, or opening our own hearts and minds to new wisdom.
I know I’m missing several things. If I missed your particular work or ministry, it’s only because I have to fit this all into twenty minutes and not because I don’t think it’s valid and important.
This is the feel good part of the sermon. We all are doing valuable and important things, whether we work 60 hours a week or zero. Whether our work impacts one person or thousands. Whatever form our labour takes. God sees it and God knows its value.
Here’s the part that might not feel as good. What do we need to stop doing?
I don’t watch hockey, so I hope you’ll forgive a basketball story. Champion player and coach Steve Kerr, has a fascinating insight into why it’s so hard for teams to maintain high levels of excellence over multiple seasons. He calls it The Disease of More. You get a great team together. You pull towards one single goal. You win a championship. The next year, everyone comes back and instead of being focused on the goal, they’re focused on getting More. More points, more playing time, more money, more shots. But of course there’s only so many possessions in a ball game, and everyone can’t have more. They lose focus, they start infighting, they lose sight of the goal.
I may not be an NBA champ, but I have suffered from the Disease of More. When I thought I could fix being busy with unpleasant things by adding more pleasant things to the To Do List. When I tried to fix doing too many things by doing more things. When I got so wrapped up in my plans that I forgot that God might have some suggestions.
Doing more feels virtuous. Doing less can feel like giving up. So the hard question is where is our labour in vain? Where are we wasting our breath? Where are we hustling to gain the approval of other people, or a feeling of prestige and importance, or simply going through the motions of what we feel we’re expected to do without asking whether we should do it? Where is our work a coping mechanism for pain or a cover for what we’re running away from?
In a reflection on Mary and Martha, Kathryn Albig phrases it this way: “There is no blessing in running our own lives based on our human understanding of what is important.” We may show up on a Sunday and affirm that God is bigger than us, God is in control, God knows what is good and fruitful and a blessing for us. And we may spend the rest of the week acting like we’re in control, we know what’s best, and if anything good is going to be accomplished in our lives, we’re going to have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do it alone. I’ve heard this described as “functional atheism”. Functioning, acting in the world, without any expectation that God’s presence will make a difference to our lives.
But it will. And it has. We experience God’s love in big ways and small ones. We feel God’s healing and grace. God’s presence is the ultimate safety net that allows to take risks in our lives.
What would we cross off our To Do List if we knew that God was waiting for us to have the time for him to replace it with something amazing?
What would we stop spending your energy on if we knew, in ourheart of hearts, that God’s reaction would be to wrap us up in a hug and say “It’s ok. You can put that down. I love you.”
Fred Rogers–a man I recently heard described as one of the great Christian teachers of the twentieth century–puts it this way: “You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.”
As followers of Jesus, the answer to who we are is beloved children of God. Part of a family. Part of God’s ongoing and beautiful process of creation. Citizens of God’s kingdom. That is who we are. And the more we can believe that deep in our bones, the more freedom we will have to partner with God in his ongoing work here on earth from a place of joy. May God grant us all wisdom to tell the difference between work that is driven by human worries and work that is part of the building of the kingdom. May he fill our cups with living water. May he give us the strength to lay down work that does not lead to life, and the courage to take him up on his offer of healing and rest. Amen.