Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 10:38-42.  I was in the hospital recuperating from emergency surgery, so I am grateful to my wife who delivered this sermon for me.

A few years ago there was a story in the Boston Globe, and I’m sure it was covered here in the Journal as well, but it was about a study conducted by a group of researchers from England that found that we are walking on average 10% faster now than we did ten years ago.  I happened to see this particular copy of the Globe because my neighbor got up late that day (some of you will get that on the way home).  What the study also found was that those areas of the world that have the fastest growing economies also have the greatest increases in the speed at which people walk.   So people in cities in China are walking 20 percent faster than ten years ago, and people in Singapore are walking 30 percent faster.  In other words as other areas of the world try to catch up with the west economically they are also trying to catch up with us in the speed at which we lead our lives.

We live in a culture which operates on a 24-7-365 schedule.  It is a world where everything seems to happen as quickly as it possibly can and in which if you slow down for even a second it seems as if you are liable to lose everything.  We live in a time when you can have a conversation with someone half way around the world about a document that you just sent to them a few minutes.  In fact, that same document would take just a couple days to reach London via the post office, and yet we call that snail mail, because it just isn’t fast enough.  Have you ever noticed if someone hasn’t answered an email within ten minutes from the time which we sent it we begin to wonder what’s going on, why are they being so slow?

We are inundated with making everything faster, quicker, more efficient, and more convenient for us.  Our food is now premade and all we have to do is throw it in the microwave, that’s if we didn’t stop and pick up some “fast food”, as some 25% of Americans do every day,  because we were too busy, or too tired, to cook in the first place.  Even here in the land of manana, we look for everything to be open and convenient and for everything to happen instantaneously, and when it doesn’t happen that way we begin to wonder why or complain about it.

We are indeed working faster and harder than ever before and the work never seems to go away. Yet, in a study done by a Senate subcommittee in 1965, they said that because of automization and the rise of computers that by the year 2000 Americans would be working 20 hours a week and would be taking 7 weeks of vacation.  And in 1967, futurist Herman Kahn predicted that the biggest challenge of the future would be figuring out what to do with all our free time.  And that might seem ridiculous now, but what they were looking at was that hours worked in the United States had already decreased by more than 25% since 1900, and so they thought that with increasing technology and increasing automization that that trend would continue.  They never imagined that technology would actually make us work more or that hours worked would start going back up, but it has.

We have become so busy that we have little time for relaxation.  Even when we do take time off we are still often so connected to everything that is going on in the world and at work through the “conveniences” in our lives, cell phones, wireless internet and tablets, being just a few, that we in fact rarely ever escape the hustle and bustle that is our daily existence.  Today the average American is working 1,790 hours a year.  It used to be that of the industrialized nations, only people in Japan worked more than those in the United States.  But we’re now number one in that category.  In fact, Japanese workers work 45 hours less every year, that’s just over one more week’s work for us.  The British work 136 hours less, that’s 4 ½ weeks, and the Germans, not exactly known for sitting around doing nothing, work 393 hours less than we do, that means we work the equivalent of nearly 9 more weeks than the Germans.

In addition, while the rest of the Western world routinely receives between four and eight weeks of vacation a year, in the US the average is 10 days, and we don’t even use all of that, and ¼ of workers receive no paid vacation days, and it’s worse if you work in the lowest income jobs where only 50% of employees receive paid days off.  We seem to be literally working ourselves to death, and it is something that we are not only driven to do but encouraged to do.  In his now classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argues that it is the work ethic which he claims is inherent in Protestantism which has made the West so successful.  This is sort of driven into us from an early age.  But the question we have to ask is twofold.  The first is whether the work is worth it and second whether it’s good for us.

Jesus comes into a town with his followers and they come to the house of Martha who graciously welcomes them into her home.  She then goes about everything that is needed in order to provide a meal for Jesus and the disciples, certainly not an easy task.  Remember she can’t just call the local Chinese restaurant down the street to have something delivered.  And this isn’t just any person who is visiting either; this is a very famous and important rabbi and so it is important to put out the very best, and yet her younger sister is not giving her any help.

Instead, Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to everything he has to say.  I’m sure we can all imagine the indignity of this for Martha.  Why should she be expected to do all this work without Mary’s help?  In addition, Jesus and those present, as well as those originally hearing this story, would know the rabbinic saying: “Let thy house be a meetinghouse for the sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst… [but] talk not much with womankind.”  By sitting at Jesus’ feet Mary is acting like a man and clearly violating the very unambiguous social boundaries of her time.  And in violating these rules, Mary is also neglecting her duty to assist her sister in preparing and serving the meal for her guests. Remember also that Martha is the oldest sister so I’m sure that this is something that Martha feels she has had to put up with for most of her life.  Now is the perfect opportunity to get things set in order.  Martha must be thinking everything is on her side how can she go wrong in getting Jesus’ assistance in getting Mary to help her out.  And so Martha goes to Jesus and says “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”

And yet, even with everything on Martha’s side, Jesus response is not what she expects.  Jesus does not rebuke Mary.  Instead he praises her and rebukes Martha.  Certainly Jesus could have said to Mary, “why don’t you go help your sister and we’ll talk during dinner.”  Jesus might have even said, “why don’t we all help you Martha and then all the work will be done that much quicker.”  But Jesus does neither of these things, instead Jesus says “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.”

People who complain about this story usually feel that Martha gets a bum rap, and maybe she does.  After all where would the world be without the Marthas amongst us; those action-oriented, responsible men and women who get the job done?  Where would the church be without all those people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that everything runs smoothly and everything that needs to get done gets done?  What, you might ask, is wrong with being a Martha?  And the simple answer is nothing.  For you see, Jesus does not rebuke Martha for being a responsible, action oriented type of person.  Instead, Martha is rebuked for where this has led her and the impact it is having on her life.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, not exactly a liberal publication, Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter, both of Harvard Business School, report on a study they conducted in a Boston-based company to study work hours and productivity.  They studied two different groups.  “The first worked 50 or more hours a week, didn’t take all of their vacations and were constantly on call. The second group worked a 40- hour week, took all their vacations, and left their Blackberries at the office.  At the end of their study, Perlow and Porter found that those on time-off teams reported higher job satisfaction, greater likelihood that they could imagine a long-term career with the firm and higher satisfaction with work/life balance.  No surprise there.

But the time-off control group also reported increased learning and development and better communication with their teams and, most surprisingly, they actually produced more total output than their workaholic colleagues.” (  Now I know that some of you are saying that’s it’s really easy for me to talk about this since, as a teacher I only work 6.5 hours a day and have summers off.  Of course I like to tease John that he only work three hours on one day of the week. But a very good preacher once said that every sermon he gave was preached for himself, and his congregation just got to hear them too, and that’s certainly true for John, especially on this issue, and scripture obviously has something to say to us about work and about rest.

The story that comes immediately before this Martha and Mary passage is the story of the Good Samaritan, and while these two stories might seem very different, they are actually inherently linked to each other in many ways.  The man who is attacked by the robbers is introduced as “a certain man,” while Martha is similarly introduced as “a certain woman.”  The first man has violence done to him by others, while Martha, as it turns out is doing violence to herself.  Jesus tells her that she has become “worried and distracted by many things.”

In John Wesley’s commentary on this passage he notes that the Greek word which has been translated as distracted means to be drawn in many different ways at the same time.  Martha’s problem is not that she is working, but that she has become so involved in everything that she is going in lots of different directions all at the same time.  It’s almost as if she is being drawn and quartered by her distractions.  Jesus is not rebuking Martha for being responsible and action oriented but for what she is doing to herself, for allowing her work and worries to become so all consuming that she fails to see the other things going on in her life. 
It is almost as if Jesus is saying “Martha, Martha, do not do this violence to yourself… only one thing is necessary.”  It is only when her labors of love become a cry of pain that Jesus questions the necessity of her activities.  When Martha begins to ask “Why am I doing this all by myself?” Jesus joins in the question and asks “why indeed?”

How many of us feel like Martha?  How many of us are encumbered by our tasks, our responsibilities, our duties?  How many of us feel pulled a thousand different ways to do a thousand different things?  How many of us have come here so tired or distracted that we didn’t really pay attention to our family or friends?  Mary, Jesus and Martha all had many things going on in their lives, but only one of them chooses to have these things become more important than living itself.  Only one chooses the things over the need for only “one thing.”  Only one chooses to become so distracted and worried that she was doing violence to herself and seeking to get others pulled into the trap along with her.

We live in a culture which stresses the urgency of the now, and we all get sucked into it.    The sense of urgency in modern life, of being pulled in a thousand different directions all at once, and the pervasive and invasive pressures that come with this type of living have become the norm.  Even though numerous studies have shown that talking on the phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated, people continue to put their own lives and the lives of others on the line by talking on the phone while driving.  What phone call could possibly worth losing your life over?

And yet the other day I had a woman who was talking on a cell phone and not paying any attention to the road try to pull over on top of me.  I had to swerve out of the way so quickly that the hamburger I was eating went everywhere; I had lettuce and bun flying all over the car.  Of course that wasn’t even the worst of it, my drink also spilled all over the book I was reading.

“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.”  With the schedules we tend to keep there is always the danger of getting so caught up in the busyness of life that we end up missing the essence of life.  We become so preoccupied with the keeping of time that we lose entirely the fullness of time.  We lose and forget the little things in life, the things that really matter, because we become so engrossed in everything else.  We have become so encumbered that we often miss not only the forest for the trees but we miss the trees for all the leaves.

I know how easy it is to be so busy and so tired that when you get home that you don’t really want to have to deal with what’s going on around the house.  I know what it’s like to have your spouse talking to you, but instead of listening you are thinking about so many other things that you actually don’t hear a word they are saying.  But I also know that at the end of our lives, not one of us will say I wish I had worked more.  Not one of us will say I wish I hadn’t spent so much time with my family.  Not one of us will say if only I could have had a better house, a better car or a better job I would have been a better parent, spouse, partner, friend or Christian.

We live in the illusion that the tyranny of the urgent is what is most important, and we have forgotten to look for the one thing.  If you believe that you cannot escape your work, for whatever reason, seriously ask yourself who is the master and who is the servant?  Do you own your business and career or does it own you?  We are given two reasons in scripture why we are to practice the Sabbath.  Let’s start with the second reason given is because the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt.  They had no control over their lives, and so as a reminder of that time, God commands them to take a Sabbath day, a time to refrain from work, a time in which to remember that we are not the creator, that our work is not who we are.  The first reason given why we are to practice the Sabbath is as a reminder that during the creation, that God rested on the seventh day, and if God could take time off from work certainly we too can take time off.

And there is a very specific reason why we call time off, time for play, recreation, because when we do that we literally re-create, it allows us the time to regenerate and renew ourselves, our lives and our relationships.  But one of the biggest problems is that taking Sabbath leads to creating rules, rules and more rules about what we are to do or not do.  But what Jesus reminds us is that we were not created for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was created for us as a time to remember who and what is truly important and to be re created.

Martha is not rebuked for being responsible and hard working, she is rebuked because she has become so distracted that she has forgotten and missed what is truly important.  The only truly urgent thing in this life is our relationship with our families, our relationship with each other and our relationship with God.  If all of those relationships are in order then nothing else will really matter.  So do not be worried and distracted by many things for there is truly only need of one thing. Choose the better part, and it will not be taken away from you.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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