Productivity vs. Fruitfulness (Mary and Martha)

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | June 28, 2020

Ecclesiastes 3:1-7;  Luke 10:38-42

How do preachers decide what to preach on?  Often the world gives us our topic, witness Covid 19 and the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath.  Sometimes of course, it’s a special holiday.  Often we follow the three-year schedule of scripture readings called the Revised Common Lectionary.  That’s where I began this week and I saw that this week’s gospel was from Matthew chapter 10 and I was excited, because the story of Mary and Martha is in Matthew 10, …I thought…for a moment.  Then I remembered, no, it’s in Luke chapter 10.  As many of you know, Luke is my favorite book of the Bible, actually favorite book period.

The incident from Jesus’ life in which Jesus and the disciples visit Mary and Martha’s house is very well-known, though not very well-liked.  I decided that this scripture passage was a good word for the times in which we find ourselves.

I am pairing it with familiar words from Ecclesiastes.  Listen for God’s word.  As one of my pastor friends is wont to say, “Pay attention to the scripture reading.  It’s vastly more important than anything I’m going to say about it later.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-7

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

Luke 10:38-42 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[a] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “Jesus is coming.  Look busy!”

Today’s gospel, the story of Mary and Martha is a story about, among other things, being busy.  How many of you identify with Martha?  Even many of us who are retired, even in this quarantine time, are very busy.  How many are more like Mary?  Generally, I’ve found that it’s about four times as many folks identify with Martha over Mary.

A lot of people don’t like this story.  Guess who?  The Marthas of the world. They feel like Jesus is condemning active service, which is the very core of their being.

Let me note that without the Marthas of the world the Church would be in rough shape, perhaps out of existence.  Marthas get things done, make things happen.  We need organizers and doers.  This strong, competent, unselfish woman looks like a Presbyterian to me.  Martha is the embodiment of the saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”  

And Jesus had a great appreciation for folks who threw parties.  

Yet Martha is the one rebuked by Jesus, not Mary.

Good grief.  Martha is busy at the kitchen fire.  She’s making a fabulous meal for at least 13 hungry men.  It’s a little-known fact that Martha’s last name is…Stewart.  Martha is doing all the work.  When she complains, we expect Jesus not only to take her side and ask Mary to help with dinner, but we would like him to say, “In fact, what can I do to help?”

To find the living word for us today it will be helpful, as usual, to see the context, both literarily and historically.

Literarily.  I have reminded us several times that the four gospels are not mere chronological journals of Jesus’ life.  They have been carefully edited to make important points.  In Luke’s gospel—and it’s the only gospel in which we find the Mary/Martha narrative—this story is found right after the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Good Samaritan story begins with the lawyer asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan who does the good work of saving the beaten Jewish man and Jesus concludes with, “Go and do likewise.”

That sounds exactly like works righteousness: we earn our way to heaven.  

Luke inserts the Mary/Martha story right here, no doubt as a corrective.  Biblical scholars declare that this is no accident.

Historically, there are two things to note.  First is the absolutely critical importance of hospitality in that culture.  Carl Schenck (“Many Anxieties—One Need”) notes if you consider what it was like to live in the harsh environment of the Middle East in the ancient world, (you realize that) this law of hospitality developed out of the reality that travelers were always in danger.  Sometimes they were in danger from bandits and brigands, and always in danger from the elements. If you were atraveler, you were engaged in an activity that was treacherous…, the act of taking in a traveler implied a readiness to provide for the traveler’s needs because those were often life or death issues.  So, in the Middle East, in the first century, (if you invited someone into your home you simply provided every possible courtesy. It was not just a matter of courtesy, it was the law of the society.)

Martha was busy doing what was expected, not just out of hospitality in the superficial sense; she was doing what was demanded of her by one of the deepest and most profound and most binding customs of her era. With that in mind then, Mary’s frivolous attitude towards the law of hospitality would have to be seen as almost scandalous.

And there was another scandal as well.  It’s not just that Mary is not helping with dinner, what is it that she is doing that is counter-cultural? She is sitting at the feet of Jesus, acting for all the world like one of his disciples, as she listens to him teach.  “Indeed, in that day and age, there was controversy over whether women should be allowed to study the scriptures at all; and they certainly were forbidden from having public discussions about them with men. One first-century rabbi wrote, “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.”  (David Leininger)  


But here Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching, and is praised by Jesus for it.  Once again, we see Jesus’ radical inclusivity.

But (according to Luke), 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.”  Luke 10: 40-42

“Worried and distracted by many things.”  One definition of a saint is someone who “is not afflicted with hurry, flurry and worry.”  Someone who is centered.  (Now, if you are the primary caregiver of two or three preschoolers you get a pass.  Survival may be all that can be expected.)

How do we get everything done?  Hurry, flurry and worry afflicts even retired folks.  I remember a former parishioner who had been retired a couple years but was unbelievably busy.  He told me, “I’m thinking of going back to work, because at least then I got my weekends off.”

“Martha’s distracted by her many tasks.  Her relationships—with Jesus, with her sister—suffer as a result.  This otherwise admirable person appears as a big headache.  All of us suffer when the Marthas of this world are not simply busy, but busy in the wrong way, a way that lacks a center.”  (Charles Hoffacker.)

I’ve mentioned before that the marvelous Christian author Richard Foster has written about the difference between productivity and fruitfulness.  Productivity is crossing things off lists and looking at the near-term bottom line.  Fruitfulness is long-term, doing what God calls us to do today, for results well in the future.

I have already confessed my love affair with crossing things off lists.  I am one of those people who writes down things I’ve already done, so I can cross them off!  Time management experts talk about A, B and C Priorities.  Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Effective People notes the difference between Urgent and Important Tasks.  If we are always dealing with the urgent, we never get to what’s important for the long-term.

As we read in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.”

When our daughter Anji was about five or six I was trying to hurry her to bed, no doubt so I could do my stuff.  Feeling a tad guilty I offered, “How about a quick game of Uno?”  

She replied, “How about a slow game of Sorry?”

One thing is needful.  The thing for Mary and the thing for Martha and the thing for you and me:  to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Our doing the word must proceed out of our first hearing the word.  I’ve preached a couple sermons recently on interpreting scripture and using the scripture as part of our decision-making and in both I said, as we read scripture we do so through the lens of Jesus, which means we need to know the story of Jesus.  Which means we need to know the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—inside and out.  If you don’t, start reading a chapter a day of the gospel of Luke.

To sit at Jesus’ feet.  Do we start our days that way?  Reading the story of Jesus and sitting in silence in the presence of the Risen Christ.

Some days I think I don’t have time.  But time is quite elastic.  When I begin my day with a time of prayer I am focused and calm through the day and I am much more efficient.  

Luther reportedly said, “I pray for an hour each morning.  When I know my day will be really busy and stressful, I pray for two hours.”  Now, I’m not saying you have to pray an hour every morning, but having some time of quiet meditation will make our days go better.

A missionary was on a fast-paced journey to his station, with the assistance of some native baggage carriers. He was surprised one morning when they refused to move on and sat quietly in a circle. When he asked them why, they replied that they needed to let their spirits catch up with their bodies. (Carveth Mitchell)

Ooh, that hits me where I live.  Isn’t that a powerful statement?  We need to let our spirits catch up with our bodies. 

Mary and Martha.  David Leininger tells another story of two sisters.  These two were very close in many ways. They had many of the same interests, many of the same experiences. Both had been raised in the church, and both drifted away a bit as they reached college age. Both married fine men, neither had children. But as the years went along, one came back to church and became very involved. The other just never managed to come back.

The sister who came back to church suddenly and unexpectedly lost her husband. The pastor rushed over to her house, she met him at the door. She was in tears, to be sure, but she said, “This is terrible. But I feel as if I have been preparing for this moment for most of my life.” She was right. She had sat through countless Sundays, heard dozens of sermons that involved dealing with the disasters we all experience from time to time, had a rich prayer life, as if she were in training for just such a moment as this.

Not long after, the husband of the other sister died unexpectedly as well. She had no involvement with the church so that was a resource upon which she would not have thought of calling. She became more and more distressed and depressed, and finally needed to be institutionalized so she could get professional care. Her sister’s comment, after visiting her in the hospital was, “Poor thing. When it came time for her to let down her bucket, deep down, she found out that she had no water in the well.”

Leininger concludes:  I honestly believe that this is what Jesus was referring to when he gently chastised Martha and credited Mary for choosing wisely, for taking Priority A instead of B or C. The truth is there ARE moments in life when we need to “let down our bucket,” to return to the wellsprings of courage and hope. If we have not previously prepared, disaster awaits. What we do here, week in and week out, year in and year out, as we gather for worship and study, is ensure that when the bucket is let down, it will come up with the refreshing we need.

Friends, we must not split Mary and Martha into good and bad, but look for both within ourselves.  This story does not teach us that it is better to sit than to do.  It teaches us to discern the moment.  Right now, what is the one thing needful for me?  Right now, what is needful for us as a congregation?

The Ecclesiastes reading ends with the phrase: “a time to keep silence and a time to speak.”  If ever there were a time to speak in regard to racial justice, it is now.  If ever there were a time to speak in regard to the health of the planet, it is now.

May we be Marthas when God calls us to be Marthas… and may we be Marys, when God calls us to be Marys.  Amen!

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