An early significant work experience for me happened when I was living in Atlanta with some friends from Hesston College, taking a year off of school after graduating from two years at Hesston before completing my last two years of college. One of my goals for the year was to learn something about construction and home building, which I knew next to nothing about. Atlanta was and I think still is a great place to find work in construction because of all the growth the area has been experiencing. I was able to get a job right away and my entry level position was as a laborer on a site where there were 15-20 new townhomes going up, in various stages of construction. An average day for me in those first couple months involved picking up trash, moving things out of the way for other people to do their jobs, sweeping floors, being a helper for carpenters doing odd jobs on the different houses, and carrying boards, concrete bags, ceramic tile, shingles, paint buckets, from point A to point B. The first few weeks I shot right out of the gate ready to take on any assignment, enjoying the physical labor, and learning from different contractors about the work that they were doing. But it didn’t take real long before the work that I was doing became monotonous and dull. There was the occasional chance to learn something about a new skill, but most of the day was the basic work of cleaning up and carrying.
After getting into the rut of this routine, I realized something that I found troubling about what my mind was doing in order to cope. And this was it: when I was working, I would think about being off of work – relaxing and sleeping, and when I was off of work, relaxing and trying to rest, I would think about work. It occurred to me at that point that there was something not right with this picture. I had a life at work and a life outside of work, but I didn’t feel like I was fully living either one. It’s kind of hard to live fully when one’s mind and body aren’t at the same place at the same time. Mine had developed this odd relationship where as soon as one was in one place, my body at work, my mind would check out, head for home and hang out there until my body came home and then my mind would take the commute to work and punch the time clock until my body came back the next morning. It was a new experience for me, or at least the first time I had been conscious of it being that polarized. And it didn’t feel spiritually or physically healthy. Somewhere in that Atlanta year my 20 year old self discovered that making work healthy and meaningful and life giving and a part of worship and love of God and neighbor is a great challenge. That holding together worship and work is the hardest work of all.
In many ways worship and work live in different worlds. They don’t speak the same language, rarely cross over into each other’s neighborhoods. To worship is to clean one’s heart. To work is to dirty one’s hands. Worship is about stained glass. Work, at least on a construction site, is about stained clothes. It’s the pew and the cubicle. Steeples and staples. Work is about action and doing. Worship is about contemplation and being.
The story of Martha and Mary carries with it this very tension. Even though it’s called the story of Martha and Mary, it is usually read as a story where we need to choose between Martha or Mary. The woman of action or the woman of contemplation. Just like we hold within the same self the need for good work and the need for good worship, Martha and Mary live in the same house, at times caught up in the same polarizations that we get stuck in, feeling as if we have to choose between one or the other. As the story begins, Jesus is on the move, going from village to village, and a woman by the name of Martha welcomes him into her home. Previously Jesus had warned his disciples that there would be villages where they would not be welcomed, where there would be no one who would accept their message and offer them hospitality, so for Martha to be a willing host is a positive signal that she welcomes the mission of Jesus. The tension enters when we are introduced to Martha’s sister, Mary. Martha welcomes Jesus and goes about the many tasks of hosting, while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” Hmmm. I can feel the conflict starting to brew. Martha is not impressed with Mary’s choice of how to spend her time. She comes to Jesus and asks the slightly leading question, “Master, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Just in case Jesus doesn’t get her drift, she adds, “Tell her to help me.”
Greta isn’t here this morning, but has written a poem that goes really well here. It’s called “Dishes,” but could also be called “Ode to Martha.”
Dishes don’t get done.
You clean them up, and they’re there
scattered all over the kitchen.
You work, marry, fight with your spouse,
Make up, have a child, start a business,
lose it, laugh and cry,
You hate the world,
Save the world.
And the dishes are always there, every night,
Dirty, caked, icky,
demanding that you put your hands
in the filth
and keep your feet
on the ground.
(Greta Holt, 2006)
Martha knows all this well. She lives with her feet on the ground. I’m guessing she was the older sister! She knows that the dishes don’t get done. And part of the reason they don’t get done is because those who could be helping aren’t doing what they should be doing to help out.
It’s helpful to remember here that both Mary and Martha would have had fairly strictly defined social roles as women. Theirs was the responsibility of domestic upkeep. The cooking and keeping order in the house. The luxury of study and learning was reserved almost exclusively for men. By mentioning that Mary sat at Jesus feet, Luke is using a common phrase of the day to note that she was taking the position of a student and a disciple. Earlier Luke tells of a demoniac who lived in isolation as an outcast of the local town. Through his encounter with Jesus he experiences healing and the crowds find him “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” A new student of the master – something that the crowds can’t accept because of his outcast role. Jesus is also treating Mary as a student when he enters her house.
There is a line from rabbinic lore that says, “Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst…(but) talk not much with womankind.” (M. ‘Abot 1.4-5, quoted in The New Interpreters Bible Commentary Vol. 9, p. 231) So there’s much more going on here than Mary simply not helping out with the dishes. She’s also stepping outside of a clear social boundary, apparently with Jesus’ full approval.
So the tension in the story isn’t just between the action of Martha and the contemplation of Mary, work and worship, but also about getting stuck in certain roles that limit one’s ability to learn from Jesus. Martha and Mary have welcomed Jesus into their home, but Jesus would like to treat them as more than hosts. He would like to offer his wisdom to them. Even though it is expected that they would do only work, and Martha is distracted to the point of only being in work mode, he would like to open their worlds up to more than work. To work he would like to add the element of listening for the Word of God, worship. One need not choose between being just a person of action or just contemplation.
The place that Luke chooses to locate this story in his gospel gives a sign that this is a false choice. Directly before Jesus meets Martha and Mary he is telling a parable of the ultimate act of service, the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is a doer, willing to do the messy work of giving aid to another person in need. Jesus ends the teaching by saying “Go and do likewise.” Do it, get to work. Directly after the story of Martha and Mary Jesus is praying with his disciples and one of them asks him to teach them how to pray. Jesus replies by teaching them the prayer that the Christian community has continued to pray through the centuries: “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The doing, working of Martha, and the contemplation and listening of Mary are both presented in a positive light before and after we meet them. So the question we could ask isn’t so much “which one is more faithful, Martha or Mary,” but “how can Martha and Mary learn from each other and how can our work and worship come together?”
There is a Buddhist saying that goes like this: “Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water.” Part of what I take from this is that the path of spiritual growth doesn’t always have to be a radical change on the outside, although sometimes it certainly will look that way, but that it always involves a conversion of spirit. We might add to this by saying “before I sat at Jesus’ feet I went to the office and did my work. After I sat at Jesus’ feet I went to the office and did my work.” Or to add another level to it, After I sat at Jesus feet I learned that I could go to the office and do my work and still be sitting at his feet, still learning and worshiping God through my work.”
So the place where all of this gets worked out is back at the construction site in Atlanta. Back to the office. Back to raising the kids. Back to doing the practical and necessary things of life with the hands in the dirty dishwater. As much as we may have a tendency to draw boundaries around our work being over here and our worship being over here, Jesus is in the business of crossing those boundaries and breaking down those barriers. Letting him in the house means that the Word of God is going to show up right in the middle of our work, perhaps when we’re most distracted or most involved in our duties. When he instructed us to pray that “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven” the earth includes the whole earth, which means that the kingdom is pressing in and coming in our places of work, as distant as it may seem.
Is it possible to sit at Jesus’ feet while working? Can Martha learn from Mary and accept that discipleship can happen while on the job? Can Mary come alongside Martha so that learning from Jesus doesn’t always have to involve taking a time out from the necessary tasks of life? To say Yes to any of these questions is to take on difficult work — to bring together our worlds of worship and work and let them live as sisters under the same roof.