Perhaps you’ve experienced, along with me, some embarrassment when you’ve been talking to someone for the first time. What kind of questions do you ask to get the conversation going? After, “How are you?” has elicited the standard, “Fine, thanks.” and an obligatory statement about the weather, or a question about holidays; we often ask, “And what do you do?” Embarrassment increases when we realise that our new acquaintance is struggling with unemployment!
We find it difficult to avoid the issue. We usually categorise people by what they do. She’s an Engineer. He’s a nurse. She runs an investment bank. …. You know the way it is. We live in a society that places great value on what we do. Even if not related to employment, the need to be ‘doing’ hangs in the air, it feeds our guilty consciences, it disturbs our rest-time. It is important to be ‘doing’, to be achieving – if we want to feel valuable, to feel at peace with ourselves, we need to be active.
Is it like this? … I suspect – if your answer is, “No!” – then you’re the exception that proves the rule! It’s so much a part of our make up – we need to be ‘doing’, & we expect others to be ‘doing’, or we begin to question their commitment/motives.
So, how do you feel as you read the story about Martha and Mary? Is it the first time you’ve heard it? Have you heard it before? Often, if we’ve read a story before – we know what is coming up – we know what the right answer to the question is. So, in this case, we know that Martha is going to get a mild rebuke, and Mary, praise. But try setting that aside just for a moment – who do you sympathise with in the story? … Why? …
I sympathise with Martha – the hospitable one – wanting to do her best for her guest. Not enough time to get everything done, getting frustrated with everyone around her. Gradually losing sight of the real reason that she is busy. Until, in the end, she even has a go at her guest! Entertaining can be hard work. The more so, because we want to put on a good show, to do our best.
When Jo and I went to Uganda in 2001, we stayed for a few days with Cranmer and Hope in Kisoro. At that time Cranmer was the Pastor in the Cathedral in Kisoro. Hope, his wife, a teacher in a primary school (with a class of over a hundred children) and, like most women in Uganda, bearing far the greater responsibility for running the home. Cultural pressures meant that while we were staying with them Hope had to prepare big meals – the family’s best had always to be available for guests. Hope was a gracious and wonderful hostess who spent all day working at school, and all her spare time cooking over charcoal and wood fires, or marking homework. We would have been much happier with less food, much less. Hope was rushed off her feet – and we missed out on her company. We were unable to do justice to the meals she prepared – they were too big. She was left feeling exhausted, and, unsurprisingly, a little disgruntled at our lack of appetite. In the years that have followed, this has changed. Hope now, as Bishop’s wife, has a much better understanding of the size of our western stomachs.
‘Doing’ isn’t always best. ‘Being’ is often much more important. … Hope’s company would have meant so much more to us than the wonderful large meals she prepared.
If we’re honest with ourselves we can retreat into ‘doing’, so as to avoid having to ‘be’. Martha did just this! Jesus wanted her company rather than her food! But she busied herself with making dinner. Mary seems to have got it right. ‘Being’ with Jesus was more important, at least at that moment, than ‘doing’ for Jesus.
‘Being with Jesus’ ensures that we keep a right perspective on life. It helps us to realise that God loves us, not for what we ‘do’, but for who we are. ‘Being with Jesus’ is ‘worship’ – giving both to God, & to ourselves, ‘worth’ and ‘honour’ – it’s God’s priority for our lives.
God intends this to be the context in which everything else in our lives happens – not the thing we make room for if we have time, nor something we do when everything else has been completed. There is a serious challenge for all of us here, me and you. Jesus says to Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
So, how come this is true? Why is ‘being’ with Jesus, time spent in worship, so important? The answer is provided, at least in part, by a few of the verses in Colossians which the Anglican lectionary sets to be read with the story of Martha and Mary.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The apostle Paul is saying that when we look at Christ, when we spend time with Christ we see God and ourselves in the right perspective – we see God as he really is! … If time with God is something that we fit round everything else that’s going on, we inevitably come to God preoccupied with our own concerns. And God’s response to those concerns becomes critical for us. Our worship, our understanding of God, becomes dependent on our needs being met. We allow our agendas to determine our picture of God, what God is like for us.
Sometimes I borrow Jo’s Computer Projector. What makes it very useful to me is that when I call up an image on my laptop it is faithfully reproduced on the screen for everyone to see. The image on the screen is a direct replica of the image on the laptop.
We are like Projectors!!
We fill our minds with our own concerns or with our own ideas of God or with our busyness. And in doing so we make God in our own image – we project onto the screen of our lives a God that isn’t really recognisable in the Bible. We so easily see God as the overbearing father, the demanding or authoritarian boss, the over- zealous judge, or the policeman; or alternatively we see him as the gentle giant, the cuddly old grandfather, or the sugar-daddy who lets us do just what we like. We project an image of God based on our experience.
Paul, in Colossians, asks to think differently. ‘Christ’, he says, ‘is the image of the invisible God.’ In Jesus, we see God projected in human form, for ‘God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’. Paul wants us to make the image that we project, that of Jesus. To spend time with Jesus, reading about him in the Bible, worshipping him, so that rather than our own measly images of God we see God as he intends us to – because we see Jesus. ….. What is God like? … Paul’s answer is, ‘Look at Jesus!’
Mary chose ‘being’ with Jesus rather than busying herself with important tasks and duties. Jesus wants us to make being with him our first priority. He doesn’t want us to stop serving, to stop caring, but he does want us to stop flapping, to stop worrying and to centre ourselves on him. Both Paul and Jesus himself want worship to be the key central act of our lives. For in worship we begin to see God as he really is, through the lens or image of Jesus. We see God at work in creation, in covenant, in judgement and in salvation. As we worship we begin to see life and the world from God’s perspective.
Don’t let me stop you ‘doing’. Working for God in the world is vitally important. But please make worship, ‘being’ with Jesus, your highest priority.