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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

No Productive Purpose

2016-07-17 Lk 10:38-42 + Psalm 46

No Productive Purpose

It's not the heat; it's the humidity. Actually, it is the heat. And it's the humidity. I take the dog for walks around 9pm. Even then, he just lays down on the grass and refuses to move. I don't appreciate the way he looks at me. As if I'm the one being stubborn. I encourage him with sweet talk. He looks away. I preach to him about the sin of sloth. He yawns. I inform him that as a preacher I have become immune to such behavior. I explain we must be up and on our way, for we have work to do, Fitbit steps to record, perhaps even Pokemon to find. When Our Savior healed the lame, not one of them said, "But, Master, it's too hot to rise up and walk." The Devil gives no water breaks. Sitting still and listening for God's voice in the evening breeze (what breeze there is) serves no productive purpose.  

No productive purpose.

Do you feel guilty when you are serving no productive purpose? Of course you do. That's why you're in church instead of lying in bed, or on the cool grass, or in a hammock, or under an umbrella in front of the ocean. Having church at the Lily Barn, though, is a two-fer. You get attendance points from God, and it sort of feels like vacation. The cell reception is spotty. You might even miss a notification by accident. "Why didn't you return my call?" "Because I was in church, in the mountains, with The Lord." Who's going to argue with that?

Well, apparently, your sister Martha would. Do any of you have a sister, Martha? I'm sorry. Or perhaps a brother, Marty? Maybe she or he goes by another name, an alias, to hide the biblical truth of their annoying nature. Martha-Marty. Maybe yours isn't a sibling, but a friend, a parent, a child who's relentlessly concerned about your shortcomings. We all have one. No matter how hard you work, no matter how well-off you become, Martha-Marty is always going to call and ask how you are (in that tone) and if you've been taking your medicine and if you've lost those pounds yet. A skilled Martha-Marty would find fault in you no matter what. Why, you could even be sitting at the feet of Jesus…. Well, actually, Mary was. Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus himself. And not even that was good enough for her Martha.

Martha. She gets into your head. She lurks there, judging you. If you've got an inner Martha - and you do - you know exactly how Bible-Martha feels. Your inner Martha makes you feel guilty when you aren't as useful as you could be. So you are driven to be worthy. Inner Martha gets angry when she sees other people intentionally being less productive than she. Inner Martha is restless. Inner Martha is suspicious that someone might be working less and getting more than you.

Shhh. You can hear her whispering in your ear. She is smart. She knows what evil lurks in the hearts of sisters. And brothers. And children who can't put down their stupid phones for two minutes to help around the house not that I know anything about that.

And then, there's Mary. Good little Mary. Do you know what? I'll bet Mary heard the clanging pots and pans in the kitchen and just ignored them. I'll bet she didn't even feel the slightest bit guilty. Imagine, leaving her poor sister to do the work of serving 13 men in the heat of the day, toiling over a burning oven, while she just sat. On the cool ground. Not even walking. That slacker Mary didn't only lack initiative; she lacked compassion. She cared not. She neglected her duty to kith and kin. Like so many religious types, her thoughts and prayers and little puppy-dog eyes served no productive purpose.

Not even Jesus would deny that. Jesus, who presumably did not go home hungry that night. Jesus and his stomach benefitted far more from multitasking Martha than from meditative Mary.

And yet.

Let's not pretend we don't know how the story ends. Jesus pronounces benediction over Mary, and scolds Martha. We know he's going to. He does it every time.

'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.'

I have heard so many superficial, modern-day interpretations of these words. "Don't be so busy. Slow down and smell the roses." I am horribly allergic to roses. If I slow down to smell them I become physically ill. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Yes, but it keeps people off Jack's back. At the very least you can honestly say, "It's on my to-do list." The beauty of following Martha is that you earn your resentment fair and square. It's your part, which will not be taken away from you. And so at your funeral they can say, "Yes, he worked hard, but he was always very resentful."

Nobody wants that. To go beyond the superficial, modern-day nagging not to multitask, you have to think about what productive purpose Mary might have served, if any, and the two sisters' purpose beyond serving supper.


I will not waste your time extolling the benefits of taking time off. We all know we need to rest. We all know Jesus often went up to the mountains to get away from the children, I mean, disciples. The Bible says he went to pray. Of course he did.

Our ideas about Mary and her sister are colored by our own experience. Maybe you were one of the students who sat in the front row of every class and like Hermione Granger, always raised your hand and always knew the correct answer. There are names for children like that.

Or maybe Mary truly was allergic to work. After all, she was still living in her sister's home.

But we don't see Mary through the eyes of people who would have read and heard this story back in Jesus's time. Back then, for a woman NOT to be in the kitchen was a sin. A woman's place was in the kitchen, or the birthing suite, hopefully producing boy babies. Furthermore, for a woman to be educated, openly schooled by a rabbi, was very deeply taboo. For a woman to be taught and regarded as a disciple, in this case an apostle, who saw and heard (and helped fund the ministry of) the living Christ, was scandalous. In Jesus's day, Mary would neither have been a suck-up nor lazy. Mary was simply a rebel. Mary was a dangerous, uppity woman. For her to dare sit at the feet of Jesus, equal with his chosen twelve, well. Martha's fussing was not mere sibling rivalry. Martha spoke for all those who wanted Mary to get back where she belonged and to stop this non-violent sit-in against tradition.

One of the things the early church fathers couldn't stand was that Jesus treated women as equal to men. Perhaps Luke, the most progressive of the gospel writers, made sure to include this story as a subtle protest of his own. Mary symbolizes the women whom Jesus himself gave positions of leadership. Luke's "Jesus confirms, in the strongest possible way, that this position of Mary shall not be taken away from her."[1]

So. While Martha toils away in the heat of the kitchen, Mary sits, quite boldly, in the hot seat. Mary's purpose is more than productive. She is a poke in the eye of anyone who sees her as less than what she is, a disciple of Jesus Christ.


If you have been outside this summer, you know that every seat is a hot seat. Politically, socially, physically, this heated season is the summer of discontent. People want you to move, in one way or another. They push and they pull to motivate you to support this cause or that, this side or that, this person or that.

It took so much courage for Mary to sit at the feet of Jesus. We overlook that. It took so much courage for her to ignore the voice of Martha - her family, her tradition. It took guts to turn a deaf ear to the faceless shouting from the other room, calling on God to make her feel guilty for choosing "the better part."

It takes time for us to discern what is "the better part" for ourselves. It takes prayer to discern what is "the better part" for our church. It takes courage to sit still and listen at the feet of Jesus, when so many voices are yanking your leash.

Psalm 46 says, "Be still and know that I am God." We often overlook how much strength that verse requires. We've got more than enough heated talk, more than enough verbal violence. We've got more than enough, "I told you so's" and "Tell her to" do this or do that. We don't need more guilt on our shoulders. We don't need more snark and gossip. We don't need more resentment. We need the strength to sit at the feet of Jesus, to be still and know that we are not God.

To take the heat at his feet. Who's to say this isn't our true, productive purpose? Our "better part" that we mercifully insist will never be taken from us?


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